How do I restore old, faded documents?
Q. Dear Donia,
I just discovered this site and was excited to read your response to Sally on framing her great-great-grandfather's Civil War discharge paper since I also have this same document from my great-grandfather! I also have a photograph of him, and several documents granting his widow a pension from the government. The ink on these documents is very faded, of course, and hard to read. Is there any way to restore the ink to make the documents more readable? Thank you for your help, Mary
A. Dear Mary,
What a great collection of papers to have from your great-grandfather! Since they are Civil War era, I am assuming the ink used was a homemade iron gall ink as this was the most prevalent ink of the era that is subject to fading. Unfortunately, there is no way to restore the ink on the original documents. However, there are methods to restore legibility through creating a facsimile.
There are two ways that you can do this. One is to get a photograph taken with UV light. Iron gall ink fluoresces deep black under UV light. You may need to find a professional photographer to do this as they will have the set up to do this at a high quality. The second way is to scan the documents and manipulate in a program such as Photoshop. Again, depending upon how proficient you are with photo-manipulation software, it may help to have a professional do this for you. The route you take will depend on just how faded the ink is. If you can still read it, then scanning will probably work best. If the ink is faded to the point where you can barely read it, then getting a good digital photograph under UV light would be preferable. You could check with the conservation department at the UCLA Library for photographers in the area who would be able to help you.
Good luck with your project and I hope you can get the documents scanned and cleaned up—I am sure others in the family would love to have copies.