Smoke damage can be one of the most frustrating pitfalls a business owner or homeowner can face. Damage can be done by either the smoke’s gases or soot, and different types of damage require different cleaning and restoration techniques. Smoke damage is especially difficult to deal with when it has occurred to books, photos, or important paper documents. Before deciding on a restoration technique, however, it is important to determine the type and extent of damage that has occurred.
There are three main types of smoke, each presenting home and business owners with different obstacles. Wet smoke is a low-heat, smoldering type of smoke that leads to sticky residues and has the potential to warp books and documents. Dry smoke, associated with high temperature, fast-burning fires, is especially hard on older, more fragile books. Fuel oil soot, the last type of common smoke damage, occurs when furnaces and other heat sources give off gritty puffs of soot and can act as an abrasive on books and documents. Each type of smoke follows basic behavioral traits – smoke tends to move to the top floor of buildings, is attracted to cool areas, and easily moves through plumbing and ventilation systems. Knowing the areas of your home or business that are most vulnerable to smoke, and keeping valuable documents away from those areas, is a good way to help prevent smoke damage.
Smoke damages books and documents by staining exposed surfaces mainly covers and paper edges. The extent of damage smoke can do depends on the quality, age, and condition of the documents affected, as well as how they’re stored. Because most people keep books on shelves, damage occurs most to outer bindings and the top edges of the paper. Properly stacked books and documents will actually protect each other from intense smoke and soot damage.
The quality of the cover, binding, and paper of the damaged books will greatly affect the extent of damage they will incur. Book covers that are treated with a resin-based paste will hold up better against smoke damage than cheap cardboard or paper covers. Quality paper is usually high in cotton fiber and wood pulp cellulose content and low in acidity. Older paper products, ones dated between the 1800s to the mid-1900s, usually contain a higher acid content and are generally more susceptible to smoke damage.
Now that you know a bit more about smoke damage and how it can specifically harm your personal or business-related books and documents, let’s take a look at the different restoration and cleaning techniques you can take of yourself and the jobs you should definitely leave to a professional.
The first thing to remember, regardless of the extent of damage your books or documents have incurred, use extreme care when handling them. Books may not visibly seem to have experienced much damage, but smoke, especially dry smoke, can ruin book bindings and make pages very brittle. Handling smoke-damaged documents roughly can harm them just as much as the smoke itself. Never handle damaged books by their pages – otherwise, increased “fingerprint” damage can occur.
If you think the smoke damage is something you can handle yourself – and you should be one-hundred percent sure before you begin – you can clean most covers and paper edges with a dry sponge. This removes residue and prevents soot and ash from continuing to stain your books over time. Another do-it-yourself cleaning technique for smoke-damaged books is to use a mild detergent to clean covers and other hard, non-porous parts of the books. Make sure the towel or sponge is not wet, as excess moisture can warp your documents and lead to mold damage.
If your books, photos, or documents have experienced moderate to heavy smoke damage, you should seek out a professional book and document restoration specialist. Restoration companies have a number of state-of-the-art cleaning techniques they can employ to recover your damaged books. Many companies have sanding techniques to remove stubborn soot stains on page edges. Deodorizing is another common professional restoration technique. Some companies use ozone gas chambers to remove stains and safely deodorize documents. Because ozone gas is a dry deodorizing technique there is little chance of books warping, bending, or cracking. It does take a bit of time, however – usually 24 to 48 hours – but is the safest and most effective deodorizing technique.
Whatever your restoration method, whether do-it-yourself or professional services, make sure the humidity in the restoration or cleaning area is kept low. Moisture in the air can collect on book pages and covers and cause further damage.
Smoke damage can be devastating to business owners, book collectors, or anyone with important personal books or documents. However, with a little strategic storage, proper handling techniques, and the most state-of-the-art restoration methods, smoke-damaged books can often be returned to near their original conditions.