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Make: Projects – Pages of a forbidden tome
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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.

28 thoughts on “Make: Projects – Pages of a forbidden tome

  1. It might be a nice technique to apply on checks that one does not want to pay (along one of the short edges, not near the account or routing numbers), the idea being that the creditor had to pry it out of one’s hands at the point of death. Or if one actually were to pay off a mortgage, this would give one a way to keep the document to display instead of turning it all to ash.

  2. I tried most of these techniques back in high school when working on a report, and they work well – but for real aging effects that don’t look like tea and coffee stains, try beating an egg and running the paper through the egg wash. Then, bake it at 350 (below the paper burning temp of 451!) until it turns brown (about 30 min). This browning is clumpy, irregular, and has some of the look of “organic build up” from moss deposits.

    When I did it with inkjet-covered paper, it worked well – I don’t know what effect the heat would have on laser-printed paper.

  3. This isn’t a criticism, this looks like a useful technique, but the burned around the edges look always seems a bit clichéd to me. Great if that’s the look you are going for of course. I wonder how it would happen in real life though? Next time I have a fire I might have to try that and see how real papers come out. I would think with bound pages you might get the edges on three sides singed but not where they are bound so perhaps that side would look best with torn edges, as if someone rescued the book then tore out the remaining pages to keep them?

    That said pages like these would look great if you were to arrange and frame them under glass. Would make a nice gift for people into such things.

    1. The idea of charred edges on old paper evolved from something else. It came from the way that old paper will yellow on the edges more than in the center, when stored in a stack of pages. This is because the edges are exposed to more air, while the rest of the page is protected by the paper above and below it.

      I imagine that someone once hit upon the idea of browning the edges with heat. And then that somehow morphed into actually burning the edges.

      It’s totally fake, but has become accepted as the way to give the impression of ‘old paper’.

  4. I instinctively don’t like referencing it to the Necronomicon because it’s not. You’ve written its title as if he wrote but he didn’t even try to – it’s a plot device in his short stories. It’s too scary for Lovecraft to write. Basically nothing that you can draw and soak in tea will actually drive people mad if they read it. It’s one of these things that are best left in your head.

    Generic arcane old book #5, or even better, some other title is entirely fine but Necronomicon is just cashing in on a brand.

    1. Stephen – chill. Seriously, you seem to be taking this a bit too seriously. It’s not a matter of “cashing in.” It seems to me that it’s a tutorial for people who want to do something similar.

  5. When I was a kid in the 70’s, at the school fair they used to sell “OLD” versions of the Declaration of Independence: They’d take copies of the DOP (which were already on thick yellowed paper) and the PTA moms would burn the edges like the example here – WITH THEIR CIGARETTES!

    Wow, that was a long time ago!

  6. Call me crazy, but you could just use a lighter, or even a match, to burn the edges. Not precise I know, but a lot simpler than making chemical solutions and breathing in ammonia fumes.

    1. Geez, don’t you think I tried that first? It does not work nearly so well, being, firstly, much more difficult to control, as you point out. And it smells much, much worse on account of the, like, actual smoke it generates. There is no perceptible smell of ammonia using the chemical technique; you get more ammonia vapor when you use Windex. Nor is there any smoke. Plus it’s really cool to watch.

  7. I did something like this in the 7th grade. I wrote a report, ironed the paper until it was yellowish brown and a bit brittle, and then tore the edges and burnt them with a match. Much easier and safer than using chemicals, especially for a kid.

    1. That depends on the chemicals involved. That match has got chemicals in it too, you know, like potassium chlorate and red phosphorus (in the striking strip, anyway) and the phosphorus pentoxide that results from their reaction. I don’t claim to know which is truly safer, but I naturally tend to resist the idea that you can lump all pure substances under “chemicals” and assume that they’re somehow equally unsafe/bad. For instance, if you were to look up the MSDS or NFPA fire diamond for ammonium chloride and then compare it to those of potassium chlorate, red phosphorus, and phosphorus pentoxide, you might start to look at that match a bit differently. Then there’s the “open flame” issue…

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and makezine.com. My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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