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    RINKER ON COLLECTIBLES — Column #674 Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 1999 

    Dealing with Water Damage with Special Emphasis on Flood Damage – Part III

    This column is the third of a four-part series on dealing with water damage with special emphasis on flood damage. Part I presented information about Heritage Preservation (www.heritagepreservation.org), “The Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel,” planning ahead, and weathering the immediate emergency. Part II focused on the actions required to clean up a site and the initial steps in recovering water-damaged property. This column deals specifically with water damage recovery techniques relating to paper, everything from books to family photographs. 

    Basic Steps That Apply To All Materials 

    When objects have been heavily water-damaged, there are a few basic steps that apply to all objects whether books, ceramics, glass, furniture, paper, etc. 

    Establish a work area. Ideally, it will be on site. If not, you will have to move objects to it. The site needs plenty of workspace, an adequate water supply, and an indoor drying area that can be humidity controlled. You may have to build the latter. 

    While an object is still wet, rinse it with clear water. A very fine, low-volume hose spray is ideal. Use soft brushes or damp cloths to clean off silt and debris. Be gentle. Avoid grinding the dirt and silt into the object. Dirt and silt is an abrasive. Over energetic cleaning will scratch an object. Dry the object with a clean, soft cloth or paper towel. 

    Do not, repeat, not dry objects in sunlight or other high temperature environments. Drying an object too quickly can cause it to buckle, split, or warp. Air dry objects indoors where you have some control over the temperature and humidity. 

    If you transported the objects from the site to the work area in plastic bags, remove them from the bags as quickly as possible. In fact, do not seal them at all. Keep the bags open to allow air to circulate. These steps are designed to prevent mold from forming. 

    The development of mold and mildew are major concerns. Use these steps to delay or hopefully to prevent their occurrence: (1) after determining which tact is needed, increase airflow using fans, open windows, air conditioners, or dehumidifiers and (2) provide moderate exposure to light (which kills some mildew) by opening window shades or leaving lights on. 


    Wet paper tears easily. If possible use a plastic or other form of rust proof screen to support paper during the removal and recovery process. Carefully rinse the paper item to remove as much dirt and silt as possible. Be extremely careful with folded paper. It may make more sense to dry the object first before trying to unfold it. 

    If space permits, dry each sheet individually. If space is limited, dry documents in one-quarter inch or less piles, placing absorbent material between the sheets. Remove and replace when the sheets become wet. 

    If the number of documents is large, place a piece of wax or freezer paper between each document, create stacks (ranging between one and three inches), and wrap in freezer paper. Place these stacks supported in an upright position in a plastic or wire container in preparation for freezing. Never pack a container more than ninety percent full. Allow room for expansion due to freezing. 

    Freezing stabilizes paper objects for months. It stops dye transfer, ink running, mold growth, and swelling. A sub-zero commercial freezer is the best choice. A home freezer is an adequate second choice. For extremely large paper collections, consider a refrigerated truck. 


    Focus your efforts on your most important books. Assign the lowest priority to books that can be easily replaced or have little meaning to you.

    Water-damaged books can be very heavy and fragile. Use both hands when picking up one. Transport books to the recovery site in a plastic crate (milk crates are great) or wire basket. Do not use a paper container, e.g., cardboard box.

    Keep books closed until you are ready to work on them. The goal is to create a slow drying process that allows recovery. Temperature and relative humidity are critical. Work on books only in areas that are dry, cool and comfortable (warm or hot is very bad), and have plenty of air circulation. Never attempt to dry books in an oven or microwave or with a hair dryer or iron. 

    Dry large volumes flat, smaller volumes upright. Begin by placing sheets of absorbent material (blotters, plain newsprint, paper towels, etc.) between the pages. If the page count is high, you have to do this part of the drying process in several steps. Beware of adding too many sheets and destroying a book’s binding. Change the absorbent material as it becomes wet. 

    When wet has been reduced to damp, stand the book upright on its driest edge and fan the pages. If you have fans, make certain the book’s spine or binding, not the open pages, is facing the breeze. When the book is dry but still cool to the touch, lay it flat and put a small weight on it. Check it twice a day for mold growth. Remove any mold you find immediately. 

    Books printed on coated paper, e.g., most coffee table and illustrated volumes, need to be treated differently. The coated, smooth, shiny paper will stick together when wet. In order to avoid this, insert a piece of wax paper instead of absorbent paper between each page in the drying process. 

    Freeze any books that you cannot air dry within the first two days of your recovery operation. Wrap the books in wax paper and pack them spine down in a sturdy plastic or wire container. Defrost and work on the books as time permits. 


    Chances are you will not have the time or energy to save every photograph. You have tough decisions to make. Once you make them, do not look back. Remember, saving some photographs is far better than losing them all. 

    Damaged photographs for which there are no negatives have the highest priority. If photographs stick together or become moldy, they are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to save. Immediately remove those photographs you wish to save from albums and frames. 

    As with water-damaged books, photographs become fragile when wet. Handle them carefully. Immediately rinse with clean water. Cut wax paper and place it between the photographs. Place the photographs in small stacks, eight to ten per stack, into a Zip-Lock type plastic bag and put them in a freezer to be worked on later. This step allows you to deal with other immediate preservation concerns. When the initial crisis is over, the photographs can be defrosted, separated, and air-dried. Never freeze glass plate negatives. 

    If you have the space and time, you can avoid the freezing process. Dry the photographs face up on a large table, non-rust window screen, or large piece of plastic laid on the ground and covered with absorbent paper if available. Do not dry them in direct sunlight. The photographs will curl as they dry. You can contact a photograph expert later about flattening them. 

    Follow the same steps for negatives. 

    Part IV, the final installment in this series, completes the steps necessary to recover water-damaged objects by concentrating on ceramics, furniture, glass, metal, and textiles.
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