Washing Ink Off Of Old Paper

One of the facts of pandemic life is that we stay home a lot more. That has allowed me to catch up on a bunch of old TV shows. On a couple of crime shows, I’ve heard what I think to be a myth. The scenario is always something like this:

A very expensive map / document / letter that has passed a carbon 14 test shows up at auction. There’s some sort of conflcit, and somebody gets stabbed, or tossed off a balcony or some other terrible turn of events.

While investigating the whole mess, the map / document / letter turns out to be a well-done fake…. and somebody asks “but it passed the carbon 14 test. How can that be?” Then the detective in charge always says “Forgers take paper out of old books, and wash off the ink. Then use the paper to produce these sort of fakes”.

Now…. I’ve been printing since the early 1970’s, conserving old books, and all sorts of related activties…..and I don’t know of any chemical that will wash off 200+ year old ink without destroying or at least bleaching the paper so badly that it would be useless.

So…. just out of curiosity, are the writers of these shows simply full of malarkey? OR is there some magic solvent the will do what the detective says?

Inquiring minds want to know.

aka Winking Cat

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Don’t know about removing old ink but someone who claimed to make some forgeries told me he removed blank pages from old library books. Often there are blank pages at the end of books due to page count being lower than the pages in a signature.

The only way I think this would work (outside of blank end papers) would be to take pages of the book, re-pulp it and put it through a Fourdrinier process. The ink would come off in the slurry for the most part. You could also bleach it if you wanted to. After the paper has been properly calendared, dried and cut, you could print anything on it you wanted to, in theory. You’d also have to use ink with completely inorganic compounds as base material and especially for pigments.

The paper is still as old as it ever was, so it SHOULD pass a radiocarbon dating test. Inorganic pigments that contain no carbon would not affect the test at all and the carrier for the ink… petroleum products likely… would read hundreds of thousands of years, if they bothered to test the ink itself.

Now, you still have to have paper that exactly matches the original document. So if you are forging a bond issued by Czar Nicholas, good luck finding the right paper stock.

I did see a similar plot in which a bond was forged using end papers in a book. I believe it was White Collar. If memory serves, the document was copied from an original, then the forgery made, then the original (the only existing original) was replaced with a forgery. The rest of the forgeries exactly matched the “original”, as the original was itself a forgery printed in the same press run. I think it was some sort of bearer bond, if memory serves, but I may be mixing two episodes. White Collar was a great show.

I frequently encountered people who were curious about my ability to maybe print twenty-dollar bills with my Craftsmen Superior. My standard reply: “Well, sure, I guess I could do it, but there are a few problems. Letterpress and intaglio/gravure are not quite the same, so I’d need to sell my press and buy a new one. Then you have to have a specific grade of paper that has red and blue silk threads in it. You can’t just buy it off the shelf. Now you need the right ink. Maybe you could match it OK. All in all, it would probably cost more to print a good quality counterfeit bill than it would be worth… (and that was before the security strips had to be contended with) but I’m not willing to risk my freedom just to see if I could do it.”

Most of ones who asked me about that were not serious, but a few actually were. In my previous employment, I dealt with criminals on a daily basis… mostly stupid criminals.

From the comments posted here, and a couple of e-mails I’ve received, I think it’s clear that either the TV writers are just making stuff up, OR the process is secret….. known only to a few forgers who, like magicians, never reveal their techniques.

That being said, I think Daleraby’s idea of re-pulping / reforming old paper is pretty clever, and would certainly mantain the carbon 14 integrity. It does have a flaw, however: mass spectroscopy. The water you use to reform the paper would leave traces of the water’s chemicals like chlorine, floride, and so forth. OR traces of cesium. Then again, maybe you could use distilled water.

So…. I think the TV myth of “washing the ink off” a printed page is busted. However, the idea of repulping makes me wonder about how trustworthy the carbon 14 test actually is.


aka Winking Cat Press