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Book Cosmetology
Part II: Mr. Clean's Magic Eraser

by Craig Stark

#43, 16 May 2005

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.

Second, a discovery. In one of my other lifetimes (when I built custom furniture), I spent years learning how to put a good finish on my stuff; and I was forever looking for products and techniques to make things go more quickly. I tried everything I could think of from hand rubbed oil finishes to sophisticated spraying techniques, expensive rubbing compounds and so on. One especially useful product I came across was a thin, circular foam sponge impregnated with ultra-fine grit that attached to the base of a random orbit sander. The principle was the same as the Magic Eraser. I simply sprinkled some water on the sponge, and within minutes I had a velvety smooth, polished surface.

Using water on varnished or urethane-coated surfaces is fine, but on paper or cloth too many things can go wrong too fast because water soaks into the fibers, expands them, and exposes them outright to the abrasive. The trick, it seemed, would be to find a non-water-based lubricant to marry to the Magic Eraser. Well, another product I often used with great success in finishing (and refinishing) was a paste wax mixed with fine grit called Behlen's Deluxing Compound. It's applied with a cloth, rubbed in, and a very high sheen can result with little effort. Obviously, grit-impregnated paste wax won't work on books, but thinking about it soon produced an aha! moment: Deluxing Compound bore a striking resemblance to a product I'd been using on books for years - Clean Cover Gel.

Clean Cover Gel, manufactured by the Starkey Chemical Process Co., is a petroleum-based, book-friendly product that contains absolutely no water. I use it often to clean just about any kind of book cover, even non-coated surfaces like paper. One problem with it is that there are instances when it just doesn't get the job done. It's best at removing dirt, not as effective at removing stains or other markings. Introduce it to the Magic Eraser, however, and better things begin to happen.

Substituting Clean Cover Gel for water with the Magic Eraser accomplishes several things. First, CCG doesn't raise surface grain; instead, it introduces a lubricating barrier that adds a level of protection. This is especially important when working on non-coated surfaces. Second, it gives you considerably more control because it's slippery. The Magic Eraser glides. Used with water, on the other hand, it tends to dig in, and things often happen much too fast. Finally, CCG protects the Magic Eraser itself from rapid breakdown, and it lasts considerably longer.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The CCG/ME approach works best - and I'm strongly tempted to say only - on surface problems. For example, crayon or pencil markings are, in most cases, readily removed because they don't penetrate much; ink markings are not. Similarly, foxing can be removed if it's more or less a surface defect; if it's more advanced, forget it unless, in the case of text block edges, you can afford to be more aggressive in rubbing.

I can't emphasize enough that succeeding with this technique requires practice and, when used on books of value, extreme care. Even when used with CCG, Magic Eraser will sometimes reduce the sheen of polished surfaces, so this will need to be weighed against cosmetic issues - i.e., is the surface appearance bad enough to justify a partial loss of sheen, should it occur? Also, if you haven't already done so, look at this article for a discussion of book cleaning principles as well as some important cautionary notes about the potential damage CCG can, on occasion, cause.

Clean Cover Gel may be purchased here.

Questions or comments?
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