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Book Repair for BookThinkers

How to Remove (or Disguise) Roach Excrement Stains

by Gail Altman

#64, 13 March 2006

One day a woman came by my book repair workshop with a box of books that had once belonged to her father. They had been stored in her garage for several years but despite this had been kept dry and had been carefully boxed. Imagine, then, her horror when she retrieved them and discovered that quite a few of our Florida nemeses - namely, the palmetto bug (aka "the cockroach") - had done unspeakable things to the edges of the text blocks. Anyone who has ever seen the nasty leavings of this pesky, pervasive insect will understand the problem without a visual reminder. All others - though perhaps not the faint of heart - may want to take a look at a picture of her books.

If she hadn't realized the gravity of the problem up until now, she surely did after seeing the look of disgust on my face. Was there any way to clean them? Could anything at all be done? I told her I would try, and she left me the box. I promptly took it outside and dropped it a few times to dislodge any stowaways that might have remained. Thankfully, after using the poor books as a communal toilet, the critters had moved on.

Before discussing how I dealt with the Case of the Pooped Pages, I should admit that the first thing I did was put on a pair of thin latex gloves I keep around for particularly messy projects. If ever there was one of those, this was it.

I'd been experimenting with marks in and on books for a while, even picking up a few relatively worthless volumes at garage sales to practice with. Some of the techniques I've come up with may seem unorthodox - to the purist, perhaps even wrong - but faced with books that would otherwise end up in the trash can, anything that might improve their appearance seemed to be a better alternative.

Strangely enough, the books weren't chewed at all and, except for the text block stains, were in good condition. Also, the text block edges were various shades of white, which is important. How to deal with heavy-duty staining on marbled, gilt or colored edges isn't something I've managed to figure out quite yet.

The first step is to remove as much of the leavings as possible. (If you're dealing with other sorts of stains such as marker, ink, or rubber stampings, you can skip this step.) To do this, remove the dust jacket and pull the covers away from the text block so that you can grasp the latter with your hand and hold it tightly closed. Using fine sandpaper, wipe the edge of the text block several times. I find it best to go in one direction rather than using a "sawing" motion. Also, what seems to work best is a sandpaper sponge. It usually has two grades of sandpaper, one on each side, you don't have to apply much pressure to get them to work, and they're easy to hold. There are also sanding blocks that work well and, really, even sandpaper alone will do.

At this point the staining should be lighter but, unfortunately, still very much there. I want to interject here something that just doesn't work. One of my experiments in removing stains from books involved a product called "Amodex," listed in several archival catalogs and touted as the ultimate in ink and stain remover. Although it was said to work on books, I tried it on a remainder mark, a former owner's ink signature, a library stamp and, of course, roach leavings, with no success. It didn't harm the books, but the marks remained virtually untouched, and who knows. It may work well on fabric stains. At $16 for a 4 oz bottle, it was a costly experiment.

I've discovered two ways to deal with the remaining stains - bleach them out or paint over them.

In a previous article I noted the damaging effects of bleach on paper, but again, we're dealing with books hovering over a trash can, so if it comes down to saving them using drastic measures or tossing them, I'm inclined to go with the former. On the plus side, bleach removes the stains admirably. In some cases, the results won't be perfect, but in most cases the end will justify these drastic means. Here are a few tips:

1. Make sure you keep the covers of the books away from the pages you are bleaching. Otherwise, you'll remove the color from the covers along with the stains.

2. Keep a cloth dampened with plain water handy. You'll want to wipe off the bleach immediately once the stains are gone to minimize damage to the paper.

3. Use very little bleach and water or you'll end up warping the pages. A narrow sponge brush comes in handy because you can wring it out after dipping it in bleach and insure that you're using a light touch.

4. Clamping the text block will minimize the amount of bleach that seeps down onto the pages.

After the stains are gone and you've wiped the area with water, you can place the book under a weight until it dries completely. This will prevent warping in the text block. I should note here that bleach has very little effect on those annoying remainder marks - or any other mark made by a permanent marker. (I once attended a library sale where they had written prices on the flyleafs of all the books with a Sharpie!)

My other unorthodox treatment for removing these stains also works fairly well on a variety of inks and other marks. This is something we women have been using for centuries - a little "makeup." In this case it's in the form of water-based acrylic paint. Acrylics and other watercolors can do wonders touching up small imperfections. The trick is to match shades and use a light touch.

Ask most people what color a book's pages are, and they'll probably answer white or off-white. But there are actually more shades of white than most people imagine - everything from ivory to eggshell. I've found that most books seem to fall into two categories: a yellowish antique white or buttermilk and a grayish-white linen. Most craft stores have numerous shades of white acrylic paints, usually under a dollar a bottle, so it's inexpensive to stock a wide range of shades. Also, it only takes a few drops to deal with a spotted text block, so a bottle goes a long way. I do not advise mixing colors to acquire a particular shade because chances are you won't mix enough, and then you will face the problem of not being able to whip up a second batch in the same color.

Wet paint is often a different shade than it is when it dries, so I've found it helpful to create a palette of swatches in order to find the proper shade quickly. On a small piece of cardboard, simply dab a little paint from each bottle and let dry. Write the name of the color next to the swatch for future reference. If you place the dab close to the edge, it'll be easy to hold it against the page you're attempting to match and find the "white" that comes closest.

Before applying the paint, either pull the covers away from the text block just as you would in using bleach or protect them with wax paper.

Again, clamp the text block firmly or make sure you can hold it tightly. Using a flat bristle brush or a narrow sponge brush, stroke a very light coat of paint onto the text block. It's best to coat the entire edge because if you attempt to just cover up the spots, they will show. When finished, remove the clamps and fan the pages several times, then let dry. Repeat the process for the other edges. It may be necessary to leaf through the book to separate some of the pages, but this should not be difficult if you made sure the text block was tightly clamped, and you used a thin coat.

Admittedly, you wouldn't want to resort to these drastic methods unless the book seems to be a hopeless case. Nevertheless, the results can save the terminally stained. The curious can take a look at the unretouched "after" pictures. The book on top was the recipient of the bleach treatment; the other two were dealt with cosmetically using acrylics.

I might also note that the books' owner was delighted with the results. Hopefully, she now keeps them safely on a bookshelf so that they won't be visited again by unwanted nocturnal pests looking for a restroom.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: When accomplishing the repairs discussed in this or any article on books intended for resale, BookThink advises full disclosure in your descriptions.]

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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