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They could be from The Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or simply Poe’s “quaint and curious volume,” but everybody needs at least a few tattered leaves of ancient mind-blasting arcanum lying around to impress guests. Especially around Halloween.

This tutorial presents an easy method for producing weathered “antiqued” paper with burned edges. The trick of soaking white paper in coffee or tea to give it an old, yellowed look is very familiar, but the process for selectively burning the edges of the paper is something I discovered on my own. A simple and safe chemical treatment is used to selectively char the page, only where it has been applied, upon mild heat treatment.
Tools:

  • Computer with laser printer
  • Heat gun
  • Paintbrush or makeup brush
  • Container for NH4Cl solution
  • Cookie sheet or tray for soaking
  • Vessel for brewing coffee

Materials:

  • Laser printer paper
  • Ammonium chloride, also called “sal ammoniac” (Please buy it here.)
  • 6 oz coffee grounds
  • Water

Step 1: Create and print out your art

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The artwork I used is from an imagining of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon by French artist Philippe Druillet that appeared in the October 1979 issue of Heavy Metal magazine, a copy of which I own. If you can’t get your hands on the same magazine, there are other good sources for faux-arcana graphics. Dover has a clip-art collection called Magic and Mystical Symbols that’s chock full of them, and The Howard Phillips Lovecraft Historical Society has some Necronomicon pages for sale as well as some great online resources for making prop documents, including a package of free fonts. If you’re really into it, Propnomicon is an entire blog dedicated to reproduction artifacts from the Cthulhu mythos.

I printed my pages out in a regular laser printer on regular laser printer paper, and they worked great. Don’t use an inkjet printer because inkjet inks are generally water-soluble and will probably not hold up to the application of water during the subsequent weathering steps.


Step 2: Soak the pages

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I made strong coffee using about 6 oz of ground beans in 2 cups of water, which I let stand overnight. I poured off the coffee into a shallow baking sheet and then soaked my four laser-printed pages in it one at a time, for five minutes each.

After soaking, each page was removed from the coffee bath and, without giving too much time for the coffee to drip off, couched between two layers of paper towels under a piece of cardboard weighted with a stack of books. The pages were allowed to dry in this manner for 2 hours before proceeding.


Step 3: Apply the burn treatment

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The pages do not have to be bone-dry to go on. Using a brush, as shown, a saturated solution of ammonium chloride was applied to the edges of each page where the burn effect was desired. I had no problem directing the solution just where I needed it, but you may wish to add a drop or two of food coloring to make it easy to see where the treatment has been applied and where it has not. Any coloration thus imparted to the paper should burn away in the next step.


Step 4: Heat

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You don’t have to let the solution dry before proceeding. Working over a heat-stable surface and with good ventilation, heat the edges of the page with a heat gun on the high setting. This will drive off any remaining moisture quite rapidly, and you may want to weight the page down in the middle to keep it from blowing around in the air blast. Depending on the strength of your heat gun, it may take a minute or so before you begin to see an effect, but when you do it will be obvious. The paper will char rapidly just in those areas where the ammonium chloride has been applied. See below for an explanation of this effect.


Step 5: Remove burned areas

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The charred areas of the page will be dry and crumbly and should flake off with mild pressure from the fingers. Work your way around the page, making sure at least to remove all the straight-cut edges of the original sheet, and also to leave some burned bits behind to make it clear that your forbidden tome was rescued at the last moment from the cleansing flames of the Inquisition’s pyres.


Notes and ideas

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The charring solution works because of the tendency of ammonium chloride to decompose, when heated, to give ammonia gas and hydrochloric acid, per the following equation:

NH4Cl >>> NH3(g) + HCl

The ammonia gas evaporates into the atmosphere, leaving behind strong hydrochloric acid, which is what actually chars the page. This sounds nastier than it is, in practice. Prudence dictates erring on the side of caution and always working with strong ventilation, but, frankly, I did this in my closed kitchen with the air conditioner on and didn’t notice much more than a slight burning smell.

An easy way to prepare a saturated solution of ammonium chloride (or any salt, really), is to dump a bunch of it into a jar and add water, but not enough to dissolve it all. So you end up with a layer of solid at the bottom of the jar, all the time. The liquid layer on top will always be saturated with the salt no matter what the ambient temperature may be.

I’m totally thrilled with my results, but if I were to do it again, I might try a slightly heavier laser printer paper, perhaps some of that resumé-grade stuff, just to see if it ended up feeling more like antique parchment at the end of the process.