Book Cosmetology

by Craig Stark

#43,16 May 2005

Part II: Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser

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It isn't often I tramp to Wal-Mart for book cleaning products, but when I do - more to the point, when it's to buy a product that actually works, it's time to do an article.

Some of you may already be using Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser for house cleaning and, for that matter, books. It's hardly a secret. In fact, in a matter of months it's become one of Proctor & Gamble's best sellers and something of a cult phenomenon. There's forum chatter about Magic Eraser everywhere, book forums included, with new uses popping up at every turn. Apparently some booksellers are using it to clean coated dust jackets.

When I first heard about it, I mistakenly assumed that this was a chemical-based product. Not. It's essentially a foam sponge that behaves like ultra-fine sandpaper. No yellow liquid in sight. Magic Eraser is composed of something called melamine, a material long used as a coating on fiberboard or particle-board core sheet products, which in turn are used in the manufacture of low-end furniture, shelving, etc. If you've ever handled a broken piece of melamine shelving, you may well have cut yourself on an edge. It's as hard and sharp as glass. Manufacture this in the form of foam, and you can imagine how effective it is for abrading surfaces. Because it's also supple, especially when moistened, it has a "magic" ability to work into the tiny cavities that hold dirt on many surfaces. Hence the name.

Some of you may already be cringing. Sanding books, I agree, sounds dangerously aggressive, and it's true that Magic Eraser is fully capable of ruining the finish on any dust jacket or book surface - in fact, the directions on the package warn that it's "not recommended for use on surfaces that are polished/glossy, or on brushed, satin, dark, or faux finishes." I recently spent several hours experimenting on some of my favorite microwave cookbooks sent in to BookThink by fans across the fruited plain, and I regret to report that I damaged many of them, coated surfaces or not.

What makes Magic Eraser magic, therefore, can also be its undoing. No question it removes dirt and many superficial stains from just about any surface, even cloth-covered boards, but in only a few instances did it accomplish this for me without visibly damaging the surface itself. Non-coated surfaces get torn up almost immediately. Coated surfaces sometimes survive with sheen and colors intact, sometimes not, depending (I assume) on the product used to coat them with, and dark or vivid colors are unquestionably the most vulnerable to fading. There's a fine line between being gentle enough to do minimal, virtually invisible harm and being aggressive enough to clean effectively. Generally, I found myself crossing this line too often, even on plasticized dust jackets, to consider routinely using this method as per the instructions.

However, there was one exception to this, and, even better, I happened upon a method - actually, a substitute for water - that overcomes many of the problems I experienced with the treasured cookbooks.

First, the exception - cleaning text block edges. Here, Magic Eraser did an admirable job removing most or all foxing, staining and soiling, and, as long as I took care to tightly clamp the text block with my fingers and not over-moisten the sponge, there was no visible damage. Too much moisture and/or not enough clamping pressure, and the edges would often dry wavy and less crisp unless I physically clamped the text block with blocks of wood and c-clamps during the drying process. In the book shown below (because of its value) I stopped short of attempting to remove all the foxing, but even so, results were fairly dramatic.

If there's a downside, it's that aggressive rubbing breaks down the sponges very quickly. At something approaching a buck a sponge, this can get somewhat pricey.

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