How to Flatten Old, Rolled-up Photos

Dear Donia,
How do I flatten old, rolled-up photos?

drying stack


Q. Dear Donia,

I have old, rolled-up photos that were taken by one of those old cameras that rolled the film past the lens while rotating, so that with a long line or large group of people the first person on the left could duck behind the rest and reappear as the last person on the right.These pictures date from about 1915, are brittle, and seven to ten inches tall and probably two to three feet in length. Thanks, Theodore

A. Dear Theodore,

You can flatten old rolled-up photos but you must do it very carefully otherwise you can induce cracking in the image layer or make an impression in the image layer when you flatten it.

The safest way to add moisture to a photograph is to leave it for several hours in a tightly closed space with a source of humidity. There are several ways to make a humidification chamber but the ones described below are inexpensive and the components are easy to find.  

NOTE: exposing photographs to high humidity for prolonged periods is usually not recommended because of the potential for mold growth.  However, a few hours in the humidification chamber will do no harm if the artifact is allowed to dry soon after it has been unrolled.  

Necessary Supplies

  • A large, long, shallow bin with a tight-fitting lid (for example, an under-the-bed storage bin)
  • An old towel
  • Nylon window screening
  • Spun polyester (Holytex or Reemay) 

If the rolled objects are too long to fit the largest bin available, a tall chamber can be made by using two large plastic garbage cans of the same size.  


Begin the humidification process early in the day. It may take several hours, and objects should never be left in the chamber overnight.  

Using a plastic bin:

  • Line the bottom of the bin with the towel and pour in enough water to wet the towel.  Any excess water should be removed. If blotting paper is not available, get a small white towel wet, wring it out, and fold it to fit into the bottom of the bin.
  • Place 4-5 layers of nylon window screening on top of the damp towel.
  • Place a piece of spun polyester on top of the screening.
  • Place the rolled or folded items on top of the polyester.
  • Fasten the lid.
  • Wait. Check the items after 2-3 hours. If they are not completely relaxed, replace lid, wait another hour, and check again. Repeat until the items have relaxed. 

Do not leave objects in a humidity chamber for more than eight hours as this can lead to mold growth.  If they are still stiff and resistant, do not unroll or unfold. Allow them to dry completely in their rolled state, then wrap and store them until a conservator can flatten them.  


Necessary Supplies

  • Sheets of clean blotting paper larger than the unrolled items
  • Spun polyesterbe sure to get a product called Holytex as it is a very smooth surface and is less likely to leave an impression on the image surface.
  • Stiff, smooth material like Plexiglas or masonite the same size or larger than the blotters
  • Weights 


Remove the relaxed objects from the humidification chamber one at a time, replacing the lid each time. Place the item on a piece of dry blotting paper lined with a piece of spun polyester and unroll it. Handle items carefully: damp paper can be fragile, especially if it is already torn. Build your drying stack as pictured in the image above.


As each artifact is unrolled, it should be placed in a flattening/drying package according to the image above. If using wood products for the top board, it must be flat and smooth, without any warping. Weight with bricks, cement blocks, or other heavy objects placed evenly across the board. Leave the object weighted until it is dry.   

Good luck with your project.