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The State of Acid Free Papercrafting

When I was first introduced to modern scrapbooking, it was through Creative Memories. Through attending a few of their parties, I certainly learned a lot about the importance of good materials and why using their quality albums was far better than sticking my photos onto printer paper with rubber cement and using a ball point pen for journaling.

The years rolled by and new products went onto the market. I found myself being less concerned by, but still aware of, the various archival terms and what they meant. A few weeks ago I got to thinking about acid free scrapbooking products. Today I’m sharing my thoughts, findings, some general information and food for thought on the subject.

What does “acid free” mean? And what is “lignin”?

Paper is made from wood, which is acidic. Lignin is a chemical within the paper that causes yellowing and general yuckiness. There are processes which can make the paper ‘acid free’, and that process involves neutralizing or eliminating lignin. Therefore, the two go together. (For more on the topic, I really like THIS ARTICLE that explains what acid free paper really means, and why it’s important.)

Are my scrapbook supplies acid free?

I have long assumed that any scrapbook paper is acid free – but I could be wrong, and so I am checking paper before I buy it now. When I looked through my papers and stickers, I noticed that a lot of them did not specify acid/lignin free. I wondered if this meant some companies just aren’t putting that notation of acid free anymore, or if companies had lowered quality standards and I never noticed?

To find out, I contacted five of my favorite manufacturers: Tim Holtz, Studio Calico, American Crafts, Sassafras, and Pink Paislee and asked them. “Are your stickers and papers acid free?” I was happy to hear from all of them that indeed they are using acid/lignin free product for their stickers and papers despite not always labeling their products as acid free. This does not mean that all paper and stickers from any scrapbook manufacturer are made with acid free materials, but it is an indicator that companies may not think it is important to label their products as acid free even if they are. I recommend checking product labels, and looking up information on company websites if it’s not listed.

After my paper and sticker quest, I started looking at adhesives. A number of gluesticks and liquid adhesives are “non-toxic” but say nothing of archival qualities or being acid free. All the brands of tape runners or dry adhesives that I looked at did say both archival and acid free. It’s a good reminder to check that product packaging and know what you’re paying for.

So if it’s in a scrapbook store, is it safe?

Recently I encountered some concerned students in a class I taught when I told them the liquid medium they were using was not acid free. They had assumed because it was marketed to scrapbookers that it must be acid free. This is absolutely not true! First of all, there is no law stating that to sell a scrapbook supply it must be archivally safe. Secondly, many materials such as metals, inks, and fabrics aren’t paper based, so the term “acid free” really doesn’t apply to them.

The same goes for paints, inks, artist mediums, beads, and so much more. “Acid free” is not a term that is applicable to those products in determining their archival safety. So what is it – and is it safe? I think it depends on the material and what your expectations are. Some things simply aren’t meant to last for 100 years. Will it degrade over time? Most things will – it’s a matter of how much and if that is of concern for you.

So does acid free really matter?

I believe the answer is yes and no. You see, the acid free paper and stickers sold at my local craft store are packaged in plastic, transported in cardboard, handled by store employees and customers, and comes in contact with all kinds of things. In other words, I’m not expecting that the materials I use are perfectly acid free. Likewise, the surface that I work on, my own hands, and so many other environmental factors make what I’m doing imperfect from an archival perspective. Even so, the projects that I make with quality acid-free papers and adhesives, and archival printed photos and pens visibly hold up better even after a few years than those I did with products that aren’t. If I am working on a card or gift tag, or a home decor project that I only want to last for a year or two it doesn’t matter at all – but for something I hope will last for a decade or longer, then I am more mindful of my material selection. Ultimately, how much archival products matter is a personal choice that every crafter must make.

How archival are my scrapbooks then?

I do believe that using quality product will help the life of your projects and that they last longer themselves. Just looking at my own albums from the last 25 years I can clearly see differences. As a scrapbooker, I’m concerned with archival qualities of my photos themselves. I don’t skimp on photo paper, and mostly I have them printed by professional lab on archival paper which I know is better than my personal home set-up.  In fact I have had several layouts that I made five years ago with home-printed photos that are so faded the photos are now barely visible – they have totally faded out. It’s a good reminder that there are a lot of factors that determine how long your scrapbook pages will last.

If ultimate archival quality is truly your goal, I’d suggest working with museum quality archival materials (including paper, adhesive, gloves, washing hands with special cleanser, cleaning work surfaces, etc) and doing a lot of research on the best of everything – from photo processing to the pens and papers you use.

If you want  to make sure your projects are long lasting, but don’t want to stress about it – then just take care to use good materials. Do your research on photo processing and printing. Don’t skimp on good paper. Use quality adhesives and mediums that are acid free, an archival quality pen, and have fun.

Don’t care how long the project lasts? Then use whatever you like, no worries.

Bottom Line?

Personally I will be paying more attention to the papers that I buy, as well as continuing to evaluate materials used in pre-made embellishments and determining if I feel they’ll last or fall apart quickly. As scrapbooking has more cross-over with other crafting types, and as we see more art journal style and old fashioned scrapbooks (ephemera + photos + journaling) emerge, it is more important than ever for scrapbookers concerned with archival and acid free quality products to pay attention and be informed consumers. There are no wrong choices, and no right way to do things. It’s up to each of us to decide what our priorities are, and to shop accordingly.

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9 Responses to The State of Acid Free Papercrafting

  1. Renee J. June 24, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    May, thank you for a wonderful article! I really appreciate your insight towards this topic.

    For me working with acid free/lignin free products is important. Having said that, I remember purchasing an acid free testing pen several years ago. For the fun of it, I tested some scrapbooking paper to be see if it was acid free or not. To my surprise, products that were marked as acid free, were not. I had planned on using some of the products in my children’s albums….one of the companies was not well-known.

    Having said all of that, I am wondering do I try and treat the paper with the spray that will neutralize it or use it for something that won’t matter. At the moment, I can’t think of what won’t matter when it comes to scrapbooking….I treat handmade cards the same way I do scrapbook pages.

    Please forgive this long response, May. I appreciate any insight that you might have.

    With thanks,

    Renee J.

  2. May June 24, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    When I worked at a scrapbook store many years ago we did not sell the acid free pens as they are not perfect- or at least that is what I was told. Perhaps they have improved. If you are that worried about that piece of paper that didn’t test acid free I’d throw it away. Keeping the acidic paper in with your acid free stuff is no good.

    Spraying? I can not say if it actually does anything or is one of those products made to make people feel better but does very little. I tend to scan ephemera and Newspaper bits I want to include but want to last and print on acid free paper.

    I hope this helps!!

    May

  3. Nina June 24, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    Thank you for your insight. I don’t stress about it, I buy quality products from photo development to the actually paper. I don’t think it is possible to be 100% acid free and if I stress about that I would not enjoy my hobby.

  4. Judy Webb June 24, 2011 at 6:32 pm #

    So thankful for your comments. I have followed the path you have and expect by albums and photographs to last for at least a century. So important to me. I hope your comments get lots of press for so many are now using items that will not be around very long.

  5. Gab June 25, 2011 at 6:59 am #

    Great article, thanks May. I must admit I am must less worried about things being acid free now than when I first started scrapbooking

  6. Dottie James June 25, 2011 at 11:24 am #

    The root of the issue is the labeling. “Acid Free” and “Archival” are so imprecise as to be meaningless. There is no standard requirement in the industry that items so labeled meet specific, objective criteria. If you look at museum-quality or art-quality papers, the labeling is “PH Neutral and Buffered.” That means that it starts out neutral and has some alkaline reserve to counteract the acids inevitably encountered in our environment. Or on our fingetips.

    True archival standards would also include that anything you do to the item, such as the adhesive you use to stick the photo to the page, be easily reversible. Hardly anything we use is that and I have never seen that issue even addressed by the scrapbooking industry or community.

    Another aspect to archival standards is storage. The paper might have begun life fairly acid free but we stored it in an unsafe drawer for 3 years before using it. The ink from a pen we think is safe can, over time, migrate to areas we don’t want it and to areas that stain the photo. That cute lumpy embellishment can create creases in the photos on adjacent pages.

    Each of us has to decide how important this is to us and how long we want our creations to last. I am more careful with a one-of-a-kind heritage photo than with a digital print with a well-backed-up file. At the end of the day, anything we do is probably better than the old magnetic sticky page albums.

    The industry won’t respond with more accurate labeling and information until we demand that they do by not purchasing items that aren’t accurately identified. Some years ago, Creating Keepsakes attempted to define an industry standard with voluntary compliance. May, can you find out what happened to the CK-OK labeling?

    • Loydene June 26, 2011 at 11:38 am #

      I agree with everything you state up to the sentence about CK attempting to define an industry standard. I always understood the “CK-OK” label to be a “purchased” commodity. I don’t think that CK ever undertook independent testing to insure the exact nature of the archival claim of the product “nominated” before the designation was applied.

  7. Gene Ann June 28, 2011 at 1:53 am #

    To me it is important to use acid-free, lignin-free, and buffered materials in my albums because I spend a lot of time on them. And, my wedding photos were damaged by the professional photographers’ album! All of Creative Memories’ coversets, pages, page protectors, paper, embellishments, stickers, pens, Storybooks, and plastic storage products meet ISO Standard 18902 for photo products. The paper-based products are not only acid-free (ph>7) and lignin-free but also buffered. Unless you use paper that has all three properties, the ph will be affected by anything with which it has contact. The buffering agent will neutralize the acid of contacted items. You get what you pay for!

    I will guarantee you that those businesses that don’t market their products as acid- and lignin-free know that they have to test and be able to prove that their products are as advertised. They may assume that their supplier is giving them a safe product, but having worked in quality control in another paper-based industry, my experience was cost and profit trump quality when no one is testing to keep them honest.

    I use a ph pen to test donated paper for a class that I teach at a non-profit. I can tell you that it does work. Unfortunately, all the paper that I’ve ever tested from one particular company that prints “acid-free” on the tag of their paper fails the test. It goes in a separate box for card-making.

    This is what the ISO International organization says:
    ISO 18902:2007 specifies the principal physical and chemical requirements for filing enclosures, containers, albums and frames, particularly designed for storing wet or dry processed films, plates and papers. It covers requirements for paper and board, plastic, metal, adhesives (except spray adhesives), writing, labelling and printing materials. It is applicable to photographs made with hardcopy materials. Included are photographs made with traditional chromogenic (“silver-halide”) and silver dye bleach photographic materials, dye- and pigment-based inkjet, dye diffusion thermal transfer (“dye sublimation”), liquid- and dry-toner electrophotography, and other analogue and digital print processes.

    ISO 18902:2007 applies to storage copies and does not include work copies. It applies to visual records for extended-term preservation and to visual records for preservation for moderate periods of time. The requirements are limited to the characteristics that may affect the enclosed item chemically or physically when it is stored under recommended conditions.

  8. Lindsey Cornett July 15, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    Hi May! I definitely think less about acid-free than I did when I first started scrapbooking. I’m going to be paying more attention now.

    Here’s what I was thinking about as I read the comments…what about page protectors? I was looking at the American Crafts web site briefly, and it says that their albums are archival, but it doesn’t say that about their page protectors. (At least that I could see.) Now I’m a bit worried that the page protectors I’ve been using might not be archival. (I don’t even know the brand for some of them!)

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