Archival Methods and Another Look at the Small Press/Fine Press Issue

Posted on by Jordan Hurder

A few months ago, I posted in the forum about the materials Chance Press uses, noting that we use a lot of a particular type of tape, and that if there were ever a problem with that tape, all of our books would fall apart. Now, this tape wasn’t some cut-rate crap that we were using to cut corners – the manufacturer guaranteed that it was acid-free and “archival,” and would remain transparent for a very long time. Add to that fact that it is incredibly strong and bonds like crazy, and it didn’t really bother us to pay the fairly steep price of $20 per roll. Some of our books – like Carol Es’s book that I have just about finished – use over $100 worth of tape throughout the entire edition.

Well, last night I was looking at the display copy of Carol’s book, and I noticed that there was some very worrying yellowing starting to appear along the edge of a couple tipped-in pieces. I peeled them off, and I found that the tape had completely turned yellow in a matter of around 6 months. Not only was this tape decidedly NOT archival, it was also very aggressively acidic. I emailed our supplier (who gets bulk rolls directly from the manufacturer, an operation called Provo Craft), and let her know what was going on, and she nonchalantly told me that the manufacturer had stopped claiming that it was acid free due to a specification change a while back, and that she would change the website to take that feature off the page selling the tape. I let her know that it was a pretty big deal to me and that this little spec change that no one had thought to let anyone know about had ruined thousands of dollars worth of merchandise and months of my labor, but she didn’t really seem all that fazed. Feel free to email Provo Craft and let them know that they are evil baby snatching fornicators if you wish – I hate them about as much as I hate the Westboro Baptist Church these days. This very thing – a manufacturer changing a superior product into a shit-erior product without telling anyone only to save a few cents – had been voiced to me, and I guess I just hoped that it wouldn’t actually happen. But there you go.

Where this really hits us hard is with Scribbles in a Sandstorm, a book in which we’ve invested close to $1000 (if not more) and countless hours of our time. I have been working on this book since April of last year (while fitting in some other projects here and there), and in a recent surge over the last month, I had almost finished all the copies in the edition. And now this. The main problem is that this book uses the offending tape everywhere – in the binding, to adhere the cover print, the title page, and the colophon, and to tip in all the other material. First order of business is to take care of people who bought the book – and we will do that, either by reworking the actual sold copies or by making a brand new copy.

I don’t think that I will have to redo any of the binding, since this tape is only used to reinforce the hemmed edges of the bookcloth (the center is adhered using another adhesive), and so there is no part of the book that exerts any force on the tape (something that could cause the tape to de-bond if it dries out and becomes brittle). Nor do I have much concern that it ever will become brittle – it may have turned yellow, but even the pieces I pulled off are very tacky. Still, all bets are off with this stuff, and if the tape were used anywhere that might fall apart, I would redo the bindings. But, since I really can’t see that happening, I’m not too worried about it. Additionally, the tape is sandwiched between acid-free bookboard and a hemmed layer of paper-backed bookcloth – meaning that the chemical in the tape would have to penetrate two layers of cloth and two layers of paper before they reached the surface of the book, where they would be visible. Again, this is very unlikely.

Anywhere the tape touches paper, however, needs to be reworked. This is out of what could be termed “an abundance of caution” – I have only seen the yellowing so far in two places – on the colophon page of the display copy and on the colophon page of a one-off book we did back in September (the Porcellino/Van Sciver Z-binding). Both of these instances involve the same type of paper – Canson Infinity Rag Photographique, which is known for its exceptionally smooth surface. In working with this paper, I have noticed that the coating is very delicate and prone to staining from just about anything – even a light pencil mark is very difficult to erase without creating a smudge. And in all the copies of Carol’s book, it is only one colophon page that is turning yellow. Still, in seeing what has happened to the tape over this short period of time, I am not confident that the problem is limited to these few instances. In the best case scenario, the yellowed tape will not affect places where it is used to adhere thick watercolor or printmaking paper to boards (such as on the covers of the hardcover CPR books we released last spring), or dark-colored Fabriano paper (such as in the Larding hardcovers). In the worst case, those too will become stained over time, and we’ll have a number of books to rework. (As an aside, I should note that we stand behind all the books we’ve made, and if a book you bought from us suffers a defect relating to a non-archival material, we will fix it.)

The day this went down, I was a mess – a tightly wound ball of rage who could only think of how horribly wrong everything had gone – and considered shutting down Chance Press forever. But, once my temper tantrum subsided, I got to work researching how to fix this problem… and if there is a silver lining to the whole thing it’s that we were forced to take a critical look at our practices and firm up our stance on the whole notion of “archival” as it relates to our books.

The idea of what constitutes “archival” is debatable in the first place. Many people simply use it as a stand-in for “acid-free,” since anything with an overly acidic ph generally tends to degrade more quickly than one that is ph-neutral. But acid-free doesn’t tell the whole story, since there are plenty of other variables that can cause paper, cloth, board, thread, and adhesive to degrade over time. If handled with cotton gloves and stored in a light-proof box made from acid-free board in a humidity-controlled environment, a standard piece of Japanese paper (like Mulberry) will last an incredibly long time. If handled regularly by normal people and left exposed on a shelf, it won’t. So is the paper archival? It is acid-free and made by hand from very durable plant fibers, but how long it lasts depends more on how it is stored than on the paper itself. Concerning storage, most products sold as “archival” are either acid free, or ideally they will pass the ANSI test for “photoactivity” (IT9.16). This means that the materials in question have been subjected to an accelerated aging process and then applied to substances like silver (which is present in photographic prints) to see if the tested material will cause a chemical change. To pass the test, the material has to produce no chemical change to the substances on which it is tested, meaning that in real world conditions, the material can be applied to a photographic print for hundreds of years without distorting it in any way. The PAT (“photo-activity test”) is a good benchmark to test the long-term stability of a product, but it only tests one small sliver of that product’s reactivity. For instance, an adhesive tape such as 3M’s Preservation tape (which is used by professional framers) has passed the PAT, but no data is available on things like how long it remains adhesive, what affect it has on the inkjet coatings of digital art papers, and how many years it takes before the adhesive goes cloudy or yellow. Because it has passed the PAT, one can assume that it is sufficiently stable to last a very long time, but how long remains to be seen except by conservators hundreds of years from now (as long as the world hasn’t been destroyed by nuclear or environmental catastrophe by that point, rendering the entire notion of “archival” moot).

It just so happens that Justine’s childhood best friend is a professional conservator who now tends to historical archives in various locations around Europe; that is to say, she is a good resource for these types of questions. When I emailed her for help with this issue, she gave me a bunch of good ideas for salvaging and reworking the Carol books where we had used the offending tape – the strategy is to lightly heat the adhesive and then to use a long, flat knife or spatula to carefully separate the layers of paper and then to remove the adhesive residue with an eraser. There are harsher chemicals available for this (things that have long organic chemistry-sounding names that end in –ylene), but these will probably react negatively with the prints that are on the other side of the paper, so some gentle hours spent dragging an eraser over the adhesive residue should do the trick. As far as what to use instead of the tape, that’s where things get tricky.

Tammi (that’s the conservator) admitted that she was definitely the wrong person to ask about what types of tape are safe, since conservators stay away from pressure-sensitive adhesives altogether. (For reference, a pressure-sensitive adhesive is any adhesive that bonds without the aid of moisture or heat.) Again, the problem is that even tapes that do advertise as acid-free may contain all types of other non-acidic chemicals that are very harmful over the long-term to paper, and even the very best of them (such as 3M Preservation tape) have not been in use long enough to assess their long-term implications. Another problem with pressure-sensitive adhesive, at least from a conservator’s perspective, is that they are not “reversible” – meaning that they don’t become unstuck easily, if at all (usually the aforementioned harsh chemicals are required). Reversibility is the other side of the “archival” coin, and one that I am much less concerned with as a book maker. I want the books we make never to come apart, but I wouldn’t feel the same way if I were relining 500-year old canvases or repairing very old documents. So, suffice it to say that Tammi was not very sympathetic about the acid-free dupe, since in her opinion, our books were in trouble from day one the minute we chose to use any type of pressure-sensitive adhesive.

Instead, Tammi recommended the bookbinding staple of wheat paste, or failing that, PVA glue (which is very good – although how good is dependent on the particular formulation – but not reversible). My problem with wet adhesives is that I have a very difficult time using them in a way that doesn’t cause the paper to warp or buckle. This can be a consequence of the amount of glue used, or it can be caused by too much water in the formulation, or not enough weight applied during drying. I made the decision before starting on Carol’s book not to use any wet adhesives for that very reason (the binding is such that any warping of the paper or boards could cause the book not to “work” (meaning, the spine wouldn’t be able to be attached). Additionally, using a wet adhesive and then following the correct protocol for drying (hold in place with pressure, then place between layers of non-adherent synthetic paper and absorbent paper outside the synthetic, all under weight for at least several hours) would have caused each book to take an unrealistically long time.
This brings me to another issue that needs to be taken into account: how much our books cost. If I knew that we could sell Carol’s books for the $500 or so (if not more) that you see fine press books like this command, then I would feel more comfortable taking 2-3 years to produce the entire edition. Unfortunately, we are not a fine press, and we also want to have a steady stream of releases rather than one very significant release every few years. And so, we reach a point where we need to adopt certain less-than-archival methods to build our books that enable us to cut down on steps like weighting and drying wheat paste or PVA glue.

In other words, when deciding what archival methods to use, we need to keep the following things in mind:

  • How much we expect the book to cost
  • How much time we can devote to making it
  • The potential negative effects of using a non-archival product

And, our goal is to come up with the most ideal balance for each project. This doesn’t mean that we want to cut corners wherever possible; it is more like we start by looking at only the most archival adhesives and decide where these A+ products aren’t totally necessary, given the realities of the project. For instance, if I had to do Carol’s book over again, I would still use pressure-sensitive adhesive for the binding, despite Tammi’s warnings. However, I would obviously not use the same tape, or even the Xyron adhesive film that we used. Knowing what I know now, Xyron is probably fine, but possibly not. It is acid free, but I don’t know what else is in it, and I do know that it is made by a big art supply company in China who could change the specifications without notice, leaving us in the same position. Instead, I would use a product called Gudy, which is manufactured in Germany by a company called Neschen whose main business is very high-end adhesive films for framing and other archival applications. Gudy is reversible with certain chemicals and has passed the PAT, which suggests that it is suitable for book arts applications. Is Gudy a true archival product? Probably not, but I have a high level of confidence in it, and my feeling is that it will last for a great many years before falling apart.

I feel the same way about the 3M Preservation tape (“the best of the worst” in Tammi’s words): it is very likely perfectly fine to use in long-term applications, and I don’t have much worry about using it to adhere pastedowns to low-to-medium-priced books. We just finished up a new book by David Donovan, and I used 3M tape on the pastedowns for the special edition, which we are pricing at $12. But what if the pastedown was an original watercolor painting by Dave? Or, in a less hypothetical example, a sketch by Carol that needed to be tipped in? Here, it is much more important to me to use a true archival adhesive. Adhering cloth to board is fairly simple – the cloth just needs to stick to it for a long time. But, as noted earlier, when dealing with paper-on-paper, a lot more can go wrong than the adhesive losing its strength. Even though I would be 99% confident using Gudy or 3M tape, proceeding with these materials on a piece of original artwork or a limited edition print would leave me feeling anxious as to the future of the material.

Because I am still trying wherever possible to avoid wet adhesives, the other option is heat-transfer adhesive or film. An extremely highly-regarded product developed specifically for professional conservators over 40 years ago and researched extensively is known as “Beva” or Beva 371, which is the standard formula. Unfortunately, Beva 371 is toxic enough to melt the skin off your face, and it can only be used in shops where full respirators, chemical-resistant gloves, and industrial eye protection are available. Beva 371 works (as far as I can tell) by suspending adhesive in a goo of toxic chemicals that are, somehow, not toxic to paint, canvas, or paper. When the toxic goo dries, the adhesive is left on the canvas in a totally inert form – only after being heated to a fairly low 150 degrees F does it become tacky and adherent. As it cools, it forms a bond that is very strong, unless it is reheated, at which point it releases (making it highly reversible). Then, by applying a new round of toxic chemicals (which again are safe to use on canvas, paper, and paint), the residue can be removed from the canvas entirely, as if it were never there.

Fortunately for archival adhesive enthusiasts, Beva 371 is also available in a film format, which basically applies all the above steps up until the heating to a piece of mylar film. This works like double-sided tape, although the pain-in-the-ass factor has been augmented. One side of the film is coated with Beva 371 which has been dried and covered with a silicone release paper. (So no toxic vapors or caustic goo, just good old-fashioned archival adhesive.) To use it, you remove the release paper and position the Beva side down on one of the materials you are sticking together. Using a heated spatula, you warm the adhesive to 150 degrees, allowing it to form a bond with the material. After it cools, you remove the mylar film and place the other material over it, heating it again to cause the adhesive to form another bond. When it cools, the two materials will be stuck together. I have some Beva film on order (as well as another product called Beva Gel, which is a much-less-toxic version of Beva that I want to experiment with, although I’m pretty sure it was a waste of money), and I will play around with it – right now it sounds like the best compromise between wanting to use a dry adhesive and using a true archival adhesive to tip the prints into Carol’s book.

Hopefully all of this makes sense and sounds reasonable to our collectors. Our main goal is to make books that we as collectors would want to buy, but we also want to be up front about how the sausage is made, so to speak. Our books won’t last if they sit in direct sunlight for 5 years, if your dog chews them, if you use them to blow your nose, etc. If we use Beva in a book, and you leave that book in your car, it will liquefy in the heat, and it might get ruined (although Beva is so reversible that we could repair it for you, since we’re nice like that). But, we put enough care into the details that they will most likely last a very long time if properly cared for. And obviously, if you’ve purchased a book from us and would like to know about any issues with its construction that could negatively affect its lifespan, let us know, and we’d be happy to go through it with you.