Thursday 12 May 2016

Techniques for Ageing Paper

... or how to make my treasure map look old

As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, I've been working on some pirate related projects recently, and have had to produce a number of documents that had to appear appropriately aged. As a result I've been investigating how to make paper look and feel old. This entry is going to cover the techniques and processes you can use for convincing effect.


Whilst the temptation is to dive straight in, the first step should always be research. Just because you've watched the Goonies once a week since you were six doesn't mean you know what an old map actually looks like ;)

As luck would have it I happen to have some old books which exhibit some of the more common traits of ageing paper.

These were left to me by my grandparents

Yellowing / Browning

This is usually caused by deterioration of lignin in the paper and absorption of atmospheric pollutants, a process accelerated by exposure to air and sunlight... which basically means the edges of pages are always more stained and fragile than the centre.

You can see how the yellowing is darker around the edges of the paper
This mottled appearance is common in old paper... and middle aged artists

Water damage

Old paper often has water damage, either subtly from moisture in the air or a more dramatic soaking.

Not just a water stain but also some nice foxing.  
Bashcorpo on DeviantArt has some nice reference of grungy paper


The red-brown spots you sometimes see on old documents are called foxing and are caused by a slow, relatively passive mould.

I've left this at a high resolution so you can get a really good look 


This spotting can be almost any colour and is more common in documents that have stored in damp conditions.

This was the only mildly mouldy area in my books...
... so I went online and found a more extreme example. This pic by Pandoracat on DeviantArt

Handling marks

Over a lifetime of being handled paper can pick up all kinds of marks and staining. From the grease in people’s finger tips, to random pencil marks or scuffs.

A lifetime of scuffs and handling by unwashed hands

Physical damage

From gentle wear to creasing, tearing, crinkling, or even in extreme cases burning or heavy mould damage. It's rare that an old document survives without some wear and tear. As with most of the weathering detailed here, this occurs predominantly around the corners and edges of the paper.


Now for the interesting bit: how to recreate the effects listed above.

NB - Some of the techniques listed here include the use of heat and chemicals, please do be careful and take appropriate precautions when working with dangerous materials.

Yellowing / Browning

There are a huge number of methods for recreating this effect. I've gathered together a list of the more common techniques here. For reference, the comparison shots all have an untreated sheet of paper to the left hand side.

A comparison of the techniques I tested

1) Tea / Coffee
I always shunned this technique this as being too “basic”, but the truth is that it works really (really) well. You soak your paper in tea or coffee and let it air dry for an even finish. Alternatively, use a spray bottle to lightly coat a dry sheet of paper to colour it whilst minimising warping. Other liquids you could use include (but are not limited to): Soy, dilute paint, wood stain... basically any brown liquid.

The results after one round of coffee staining. I hung the paper as it dried so it ended up flat. 

2) Baking
This can be done either with a heat gun or in an oven. I'd recommend putting it on a sheet of oven safe greaseproof paper otherwise you'll get burnt spots where your paper makes contact with the metal tray or rack. A heat gun would allow you to vary the appearance and visually assess the results as you work, the oven gives a more even finish. Either way, be careful as this has the potential to go up in flames.

This sample was grilled at about 200 degrees Celsius for ten minutes or so. 

3) Lemon juice
Lightly spray lemon juice on your paper then place it between two more clean sheets. Use an iron to brown it. I've read that you can also leave juice-soaked paper in a sunny spot or under a UV lamp to speed the break down of the lignin and age the paper, however after a couple of days sat in front of a sunny window the test sheet I had prepared was still white as ever.

This was browned with an iron. As you can see the results look a little uneven.  

4) Vinegar & wire-wool
This takes a little preparation. Take a jar, pour in some vinegar, then add some steel wool. Wait until the wool has dissolved (a few days), then spread this solution on the paper. I usually have a jar of this stuff sat around anyway as it's great for ageing wood.

Note: don’t screw the lid on the jar tightly, I'm told the chemical reaction releases gas and you don’t want a jar full of vinegar exploding on your desk. 

This dries very quickly so it's hard not to leave water marks. 

5) Baking with milk
As a child this was the technique I always used on treasure maps. It gives some wonderful variation in colour and has the added effect of making the paper feel more like parchment.

Obviously we start by soaking the paper in milk. I need to warn you that if the milk pools anywhere you will get a darker area. This can look pretty cool however if you let the paper rest on a wire rack at any point you will end up with ugly stripes. For an even finish you're going to want to dry the paper a bit before it goes in the oven. This is best done by hanging the paper up to avoid the pooling problem I mentioned before.

The paper doesn't need to be bone dry, just enough that it's not puddling milk when you set it on a greaseproof sheet for the next step... which is cooking it in the oven. The length of time will vary depending on a number of factors so I can't offer much guidance other than to suggest you try it on a scrap sheet first. I put mine under the grill for five minutes, and am sure to watch it like a hawk as it tends to brown gently for the first few minutes then go black very rapidly.

This was wet with milk when it went into the oven. Drying the paper first gives more even results.  

6) Fuller's Earth
I read somewhere that paper can be discoloured with Fuller's Earth... and although it can the results aren't stunning. It does give the paper a nice gritty feel, like it's been sat in an abandoned building for a few years but it has minimal effect on the colour.

7) Ammonia
Successful document forgers have sometimes used ammonia to age paper. I have not used this technique myself but am including it for reference:

Suspend the document in the top of a large container (nothing made out of styrofoam), with a tub of ammonia in the bottom. Try to make sure the container is air tight as you don’t want ammonia fumes drifting round your house / workshop. Allow the chemical fumes to age the paper. If you have already put a design on the paper, the ammonia fumes will also help age the ink.

Notes on drying soaked paper
The flattest results come from hanging the sheet up to dry, however any water marks or foxing may run down the sheet leaving a streak and colour will gather along the bottom edge. You may also have a problem where your hanging clips leave a mark at the top. For this reason if you're hanging the paper it is best to work on a sheet that is larger than required and then trim any edges where pigment has pooled.  
Drying coffee stained paper. 
I have attempted leaving the paper flat either on a sheet of polythene or a drying rack however you end up with marks wherever the paper was in contact with something. The polythene left random marking that was actually quite interesting to look at, the rack left visible striping on the paper.  
Accelerated drying, using an oven or hair dryer results in paper that curls and ripples. Provided it is done evenly however it can help the colour remain consistent across the sheet without water marks. 
Iron flat
If your paper does ripple it can be flattened using an iron. Place the aged sheet between two clean sheets of paper and iron without steam. Be careful though, if your outer sheets are not flat they will transfer their creases to the inner sheet, at which point you'll have to re-soak your paper and dry it again to flatten it. 

Water damage

Sometimes this happens by happy accident in the previous stage, but if not this is best recreated with the use of wet staining techniques. Sponge layers of colour or use clean water to move existing pigment around the page. Accelerating the drying by placing the document in an oven at a low heat will enhance the patterns created but increase the amount of warp in the paper. Interesting effects can be had by sprinkling a little salt on the wet paper to vary the tone.

Water introduced to the edge of a coffee stained sheet. 

Salt sprinkled on a sheet as it dries creates a dappled effect. 


1) Coffee granules
I've been experimenting with this quite a bit. I've achieved the best results by re-soaking the paper in water, sprinkling some coffee granules in the appropriate areas, leaving them for a few minutes, then gently rinsing them off under a tap. The rinsing can lift some of the foxing back out of the paper so this has to be done carefully. Finer foxing can be achieved by crushing the granules into a powder.

Don't leave the granules on too long or they will turn into a syrupy blob that is difficult to remove.

The finer foxing on the left was from crushed granules.
The extreme spotty foxing on the right is from granules left on a little too long

2) Dry paint
Powder paint or crushed chalk pastel can be used to create fine patterns of foxing. Don’t wet the paper, simply sprinkle some of the dry powder in the appropriate area, blot with a tissue then tilt the paper and tap away the excess (don’t wipe). Work slowly and sparingly to build up a blotchy, mottled effect. Remember, foxing is only ever red-brown in colour.

3) Paint
A simple option would be to dip a stiff brush in some dilute burnt sienna paint and run your finger through the bristles to flick fine spots of colour across the paper.

This paper has been sponged with water colour and spattered with paint


If paper is stored in a damp environment it can become a great place for mould to grow. The effects of mould can be quite subtle, similar to foxing, or they can be quite dramatic and destructive. The best way to recreate the effects of mould are to use the dry paint technique above for mild infections, and the sponge and paint effects from water staining for more virulent cases.

Handling marks 

Use a tissue or soft brush to apply crushed pastel or powder pigment to areas that might have been frequently handled. You can rub this in with your finger tips but try not to leave obvious fingerprints.

Physical damage

I prefer to perform this stage whilst my paper is wet, creating much finer and more permanent effects than if the paper were dry. You could rub a hole in the paper with your fingertip when it is wet, simulating the damage caused by mould, or create some softly worn and tattered edges. You can even worry the edges with a blunt tool or your finger nail. Old paper rarely had the clean cut edges we associate with modern papers, an easy way of simulating the rough cut edges is to trim the paper to size by tearing along a ruler.

If the paper is dry, sandpaper can be used to scuff the surface and remove some of the ink. It can also be used to sand creases, breaking down the surface of the paper making the folds look worn and increasing absorbency if you apply another layer of staining.

Burnt edges are something of a cliche in pirate maps these days, but if you're going to do it, try controlling the result by moistening the paper first (it can help prevent the whole thing going up in smoke). To singe the edges, pass the paper slowly through the flame, every time it catches light quickly pat the paper on a flat, non-flamable surface to extinguish it. The blackened edges comes from soot deposited by the flame rather than burning. You can control this by passing the paper through the flame without letting it catch, however it can be a bit hit and miss. For full control, consider adding the blackened edges with paint or pigment later. Oh, and I would recommend working by the sink with a bowl of water nearby so you can quickly bring things under control if they start getting away from you...

Protecting the paper

This is a little outside the scope of this blog but if you are creating a document that is going to be handled you may want to protect its appearance. I've come across a few options:

At the lower end of the scale, fixative can help stop pencil or pastel marks from smudging but depending on how much handling your document will endure in its life this won't protect it much. A step up from this might be a matte clear coat that would help make the finish a little more robust, but would also affect the feel of the paper (which may or may not be desirable).

It's possible to make a document water resistant by using shoe waterproofing products, such as mink oil. This is shiny when applied to the paper but dries back to matte over a couple of days.


I put this together to compare various techniques people had recommended to me. Everyone seems to have their own favourite formulae for making paper look old but in the end it comes down to personal preference. I've certainly become a convert to the use of hot drinks in the ageing of paper, I just have to work out a way of disguising the coffee bean aroma... ;)


  1. I would like to say what I used. Coffee grounds. I have bags full of wet coffee grounds (used to fertilize my back yard). I had a 15' scroll I printed on brown shipping paper. The printed image has all the markings of an aged scroll but the backside was plain. Needed to antique the look. Outside in my dessert yard, I laid out my paper upside down. Splashed small shovels full of grounds on the paper to lay anyway it landed. Sprayed water across all of it. Put some grounds under the objects used to hold the paper down so not to have plain spots. (PS: I did this on a windy day). Let it sit for about 5 minutes. Then picked it up, shook off the grounds and hung the sheet across a clothes line carefully so not to tear the paper while it is still wet. (Or I could have laid it back on the ground in the sun). To get a more crinkle to the paper, I spayed it with water again while hanging (I did have a little bit of bleach in the water from another project. Don't think that added anything to my project but it was handy at the time). The paper started to curl as it dried. Then I took an old rag and wiped off any excess grounds still sticking to the paper. Some stain from the grounds soaked through which helped make it more authentic... And there you have it....My own replica of an antique scroll carefully rolled up and tied with a cord.... Looks like real deal....

  2. I wanted to make a journal of my own travels and adventures, but in the style of Indiana Jones grail diary. I don't have any new tips, but I feel like weighing in with my experience.

    I wanted to try the method of using ammonia to ageing the pages. I followed the guidelines exactly how it's described. I had the book attached by string to the lid of an airtight container with the book open and the pages spread. I used almost an entire bottle of household ammonia, but after 2 days, there was no difference in the colour of the pages. I then resealed the container and waited for a whole week, but still there was no difference. I've now had my book in the container for a total of two weeks, but the pages are as bright and white as ever. The only result is that the leather binding has gotten lots of really dark and ugly blotches all over and the book reeks of ammonia. I have no idea how to fix it, but I'm trying. In short, the ammonia did nothing for the pages, but instead ruined the binding.

    From my experience, I have to warn about using this method. I now believe that using ammonia to age paper must be a myth, that I have busted. Don't do this to your book, find another method.

    1. Thank you for adding to the discussion! I have never attempted ammonia ageing myself so it's fascinating to hear from someone who has. I'm sorry that it wasn't successful and that it destroyed your binding. Can you describe what kind of paper you used?

  3. Well, I managed to get most of the leather binding back to normal. I covered it with cornstarch to soak up as much of the moisture from the ammonia as I could, then I used a combination of low heat and paper towels while letting the book rest under pressure for days. Now only a few dark spots remains. The paper that is used in the book is 150gsm cartridge paper. Now, after the failure with the ammonia, I've also tried to use coffee to make the paper look old and that worked out so much better.

  4. I read the posts on the Ammonia nightmare. Glad to hear it's mostly cleaned up. I was going to mention the coffee grounds that I used for plain brown packing paper. Just wasn't sure if for a book it was the right way to go. My antique scroll looks, and smells old. All from the wet coffee grounds....
    Glad all is moving forward for your project....

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  7. Hi, I think coffee isn´t the right color. I like to use black tea and an old electric iron for aging paper. Put a strong tea in a spray bottle and the paper on an old towel. Spray it with the tea and iron it dry immediately with the hot iron (no steam). A really nice effect, that you can build up layer by layer.