Tears and Tape - They Don't Go Together

by Laura Stirton Aust, Paper Conservator, ARTcare.

Just as a cut cries for a Band-Aid, so too a torn sheet of paper seems to demand a piece of tape.  But, if the tear is in work of art, DON'T DO IT!   Resist the urge to try and fix it with tape.  The chances for a complete recovery may be compromised by the wrong initial treatment.  However, by avoiding the tape, and mending properly, a tear may become invisible.

Most often tears are the result of careless handling.  Something catches on the paper's edge and fibers get broken.  Maybe the fibers were already damaged so that even with careful handling the sheet gets torn.  Tears are places of weakness in the paper just as clothes tear in worn areas.  Paper is composed of randomly distributed overlapping fibers.  That's all.  There is no glue and no binder holding the microscopic pieces of cellulose (paper fiber) together.  And once fibers break, a tear may easily extend into a sheet of paper, possibly even into the image area.  Thus, it is essential that the sheet be handled with great care and that tears be professionally mended.

Although convenient, tape is not the answer.  Tape does not belong on art, paper records or documents that are to be saved.  Tapes, even the so called archival, acid-free tapes can be more damaging than the tear.  Adhesive from tape may sink into paper fibers and cause severe staining that is difficult or impossible to remove.  Some tapes become brittle and no longer hold a tear together.  Some of the newer acrylic-based adhesive tapes may be more chemically stable but are not easily removed.  Removal of these tapes often causes skinning, or a loss of paper fibers even when done cautiously. 

Another problem with tape is that it is usually stronger than the paper being mended.  This puts the area surrounding the tear at greater risk of being torn.  When I conserve paper that has been repaired with tape, inevitably there are breaks near or next to the taped area. 

Most importantly, when repairing a tear, a conservator will use adhesive which is reversible.  An adhesive which may be removed in the future without harming the paper or media is reversible.  Typically tears are mended using Japanese paper with feathered edges which are invisible from the front and very thin.  A compatible mend will give way before another area tears.  Mending is done in small sections rather than as one long strip.  This reduces the chances of creating distortions and allows the sheet to expand and contract without stressing the mended area.

As with an old rug, mending is acceptable, and even desirable, if done sensitively and with appropriate materials.  Save the tape for wrapping packages and never use it on a torn piece of art.

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