I want to add some props to my game, I'm thinking of ancient scrolls or maps. What methods can I do to artificially age the paper in order to make it look older?

A simple google search gives several responses to this question. The common responses all seem to contain:

  • crumple the paper
  • soak it in tea
  • tear the edges

However, having tried those methods (including Scott's answer) I've found that I end up with results that look and smell as though they've had tea spilled on them.

I am looking for answers that would give more realistic results.

  • Please do not answer in comments, @Superbest, others. These will be deleted, please move useful info to an actual answer below. – mxyzplk Sep 16 '14 at 23:10

10 Answers 10

up vote 133 down vote accepted

I spent several years making document props for my D&D group on the cheap, and here's my learning: Browning paper gives the least effect for the most effort when ageing a document.

Don’t think “age,” think “history of abuse.”

Ageing a document is about mimicking the history of that piece of paper. Before you start ageing it, you need to have at least a general notion of what history you want to imply.

Start with the kind of paper. Cheap printer paper is modern and almost impossible to make look more than a few decades old, so it’s a poor choice for truly ancient documents—or even documents which you want to feel new, but in a historical or quasi-historical setting. On the other hand... it’s cheap and ubiquitous, which is often more important for the average GM on a budget.

But there’s a bigger problem with cheap printer paper: it doesn’t take liquids well. See if you can get your hands on cheap watercolour paper, or blank newsprint (ask your local newspaper if they have endrolls they can’t use; you can sometimes get those for free and one’ll keep you in prop paper for months or years).

Whatever paper you’ve got, now you have to figure out its history and replicate that. Was it mailed? Did it get dropped in the mud? Has it set on a shelf for a hundred years? Trial and error is your friend here, as different papers will respond to treatments uniquely, but here are some things you can do to your document:

  • Write it up: The first thing which usually happens to a document is that it gets written, so get that out of the way first! Don’t mechanically print the text with a “handwriting” font if you can help it; write it yourself. (You can use a handwriting font as a guide for adopting a different penmanship style, but do the actual writing by hand.) Experiment with writing implements based on the other abuses you’ll subject the document to (some ink will become illegible if you wet the document, others won’t). If more than one person wrote the thing, be sure to change up your style.
  • Make mistakes: Misspell a word and cross it out—or not. Jam in an extra word you “forgot” to write the first time through. Add a postscript or addendum.
  • Put it on a desk: That means it gets a little dogeared, maybe a coffee cup ring stain or a spill from a tipped-over inkwell. Scribble a grocery list or an unrelated reminder on the back, or just a doodle. For a sense of history and longevity, use different handwriting and different implements to show that it's passed through many hands.
  • Mail it: Fold it up, stick it in an envelope, put it on a comfy soft chair, and sit on it. Wiggle your butt vigorously if the mail was delivered by horse.
  • Put it in your pocket: Smash that thing down into your jeans pocket and leave it there for a few hours while you're going about your day wearing the pants. Remember to take it out before laundry day.
  • Drop it in the mud: No, really. Just find a puddle and drop the document in the mud. Maybe even while it’s still in the envelope! Or just get it wet and let it dry out, for a nice crinkle.
  • Rough it up: If your paper's tough enough to stand it, apply a wire brush to the document. This roughens the grain, which is especially useful to make modern papers look less modern. You may also consider using a ruler to fold and tear off the edges of the paper for a tattered/handmade look.
  • Put years on its life: A few days or a week on the dashboard of a hot car can do amazing things to newsprint. If you're in a hurry, or it's winter, or you want more control, bake it in the oven. (Be careful: papers burn at various temperatures, some surprisingly low, and you should always keep an eye on this sort of project.)
  • Tear it a bit: If, at any point, you notice a little bit of stress along the folds and creases that you'd like to hurry along, go ahead. Also consider trapping a corner of the thing under a heavy object--like a table leg--and then pulling the paper out from underneath quickly. It'll crease and/or tear interestingly, but this runs the risk of ripping into the important text. If that happens, see below:
  • Rip it up: Is it bad news, or something a person might disagree with or try to conceal? Rip the whole thing up! Not too much, of course, but three to five chunks are fun for the party to find one at a time and piece together. Or present it to them already pieced back together. Depending on the era it might be taped together, or glued onto a backing of another piece of paper (I once stapled a ripped-up document back together; Frankenletter was very popular with my group).
  • File it or forget it in a book: Leave the poor crumpled-up thing underneath a pile of textbooks or a big dictionary for a night or two; it'll flatten out without losing the history of abuse its creases imply.
  • Bury it: This is a bit risky, and depends a lot on the kind of loam available to you.
  • Rescue it from a fire: Also risky, careful application of a flame to the edges of document is a common but slightly cheesy way to give it some character. (Again, be careful when using heat!)

Notice that I've suggested nothing to artificially brown the document for the sake of browning it. It's honestly rarely worth the time. Old is just--old, while a torn, dog-eared, folded, mud-stained document is a lot more exciting than a brown one because it implies history and character.

If you do want to brown the paper, and sun/baking newsprint doesn't work, experiment with applying an ink bath (sepia ink is a good bet, but again--experiment!) as part of the sunning/baking procedure. Foodstuffs like tea and coffee can, with the right touch, look good, but getting the smell out is another story. Inks are generally a superior choice.

Just always remember that you're not making a paper look old: you're giving the paper a story to tell.

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    +1 for "Wiggle your butt vigorously if the mail was delivered by horse." +1 also for the rest of the post especially "giving the paper a story to tell". Although I don't think much paper will survive the Odyseey you'll put it through if it goes through all those steps lol (i know that's not what's being suggested but it was a fun thought - it'd be a paper with a novel to tell - a single piece of paper worth approx. 175k words, what a timesaver :P). – mechalynx Sep 15 '14 at 13:05
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    +1 for putting it in the oven. I've done this before, and assuming the temperature is low enough to avoid fire it can produce pretty good results. (Despite what Ray Bradbury has taught us, the autoignition point of paper can vary pretty widely. Wikipedia lists the low end at 424F.) – Brian S Sep 15 '14 at 14:26
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    +1 for watercolor paper. That stuff is a LOT tougher than your ordinary printer paper, and can generally take a lot more abuse while remaining readable. It does ignite at a slightly lower temperature though (because of the loose fibers)... – Paul Z Sep 15 '14 at 15:44

Just Age

A paper document, as it ages, has 4 effects of note that are standard:

  1. it has acid degradation
  2. it has in ink migration or ink/toner de-fixation
  3. it suffers in oxidation of ink
  4. it becomes brittle

Parchment, being a subset of leather, has similar issues, but in different order:

  1. Ink migration
  2. Ink oxidation
  3. brittleness
  4. browning

Vellum can be either a type of paper (modern vellum), plastic, or leather.

These are in fairly standard order; high quality low-acid rag bond swaps acid degradation and ink migration in sequence. And these are just the acts of age alone, not abuse.

Acid degradation is a yellowing, browning, or reddening of the paper. Quite literally, the paper changes color due to the acids in the paper and the environment altering the chemical nature of the fibers. This can be mimicked with dying in watercolors really low quality papers, by baking in a particular mix of chemical vapors, or by soaking in acids, especially tannic acid. Note that low acid papers next to high acid ones suffer acid migration - as the acidic paper suffers acid migration, it also releases acids into the neighboring paper, which begins to suffer acid degradation as well. A single sheet of low quality paper in a box of archival bond can cause acid damage up to several millimeters per decade away.

Ink migration is when a saturation ink (most writing inks, many printing inks) expands through the paper over time. This happens faster with water soluble inks in humid climates, including most hand-written documents. At low levels, it is almost imperceptible; I've handled 110 year old hand written documents on quality bond that had no perceptible ink migration, and 10 year old ones exposed to humidity that the ink formed a shadow line half a millimeter from the original written line.

Ink or Toner Defixation: certain forms of printing involve depositing inks upon the surface, bonded to the surface of the paper. Intaglio printing, lithographic printing, wax-spray ink-jet, plastic or wax ribbon typewriters, thermal transfer printers, carbon paper, and laser printing all work this way, each using different means to affix their ink. if the paper is in the right temperature and humidity conditions, the ink (or laser printer toner) can lose its bond to the paper, literally falling off. This is mostly going to apply to items of the 19th and 20th centuries, but intaglio printing has been in use since the 1430s, and lithography is older still. some forms use wax-based inks, which can readily detach. Individual letters, parts of letters, and sometimes whole words may simply be missing from documents suffering defixation. Note that wax-carbon copies usually drive wax deep enough not to have this happen, but on high-clay papers (which tend to be glossy), it can and does.

Oxidation of inks can change their colors. The vibrant reds and greens often become browns; the blacks can become brown, red, or even blue or green, depending upon the chemicals used to make the color. This is a particularly slow process, but accelerates in high acid papers. Iron based black inks usually turn red-brown.

When coupled with acid degradation, old paper and old iron ink results in red-brown fuzzy letters on pinkish brown paper. Certain documents, in under 100 years, can become completely indecipherable to the human eye.

Finally, as paper ages, it often dries out and suffers chemical changes. As it does so, it becomes less flexible. Eventually, it becomes inflexible enough to be described as brittle.

All of these effects can be replicated visually with acidic solutions in an oven. Tea is popular, because it generates a relatively even acid damage in short order, migrates water-soluble inks, and brittles paper in a matter of a few hours.

Distress

Distress is the term for things that happen other than the chemical changes of age.

Most paper or parchment documents of great age have edge wear. Mimicking this with a single sheet isn't all that easy, but stacks aren't terribly hard. Clamp a bundle between two boards, right near an edge, and sand lightly. This softens the edge. A much read document will have this happen far faster than one referenced only rarely. If you're doing oil damage, alternate sandings and oil. Ideally, you want a slightly frayed edge.

Cracking. Once the substance begins to become brittle, routine page turning can result in surface cracks. Emulating this requires careful cuts with razors. This can be triggered by baking and flexing, as well.

Moisture stains. Until relatively recently (17th C), most documents were read aloud. This results in spittle spray, and small directional dots which are more acidic. This is easily replicated. Take a sip of coffee, dark tea (herbal works fine), or soda, then speak loudly with the paper about 6 inches from your chin, at about a 30° angle from flat. If at all possible, emulate the techniques of firebrand preachers, charismatic dictators, or angry politicians, to get that spray. A more cautious approach uses the same substances, and a stiff paintbrush. For best results, use multiple concentrations, then while wet, bake at 300° for a bit, in order to get the proper pucker. For a multi-page document, at least some pages should be pressed together to transfer to the backs.

Smoke and fire damage. Generally, most medieval documents will have some smoke damage, due to fire-based light sources. A great many survived fires. This is easily done using a barbecue grill. Set the document in a pan, which itself is on a second pan, and set it to smoking. For good directions on how to set up a grill to smoke, or an oven, for that matter, any cooking show by Steven Raichlen will have good directions. To actually show burn damage, carefully, in an area away from flammables, light the edges and put them out. In either case, keep a CO2 fire extinguisher to hand and a steel bucket; it won't damage the paper much, but will put out the fire; drop the document in the bucket and fill with CO2.

Finger smearing. Fingers have oils, and premodern readers often used a finger to follow the texts. Further, edges often accumulated finger oils. Further still, many books were read by people shortly after eating greasy foods. Get oil on one's fingers, and rub the edges. Oil them, and run them along the text like an elementary student. Thump at important points. Extra oil at paragraph starts is a good trick, too, as not everyone followed the text; some just kept track of which paragraph they were on. Be careful not to use too much. Oil oxidizes to dark smudges; baking can increase the apparent age.

Spills and rings. Modern and near-modern documents tend to have spills and rings as a form of distress. Take a beverage container, and dip it in a fluid of choice, then set on the paper. Nothing makes a better coffee-ring than a genuine coffee ring. A fresh wet one promptly baked at about 110°C will nicely pucker.

Tears and Rips. These are easily overdone. Most historic tears and rips are in books, not loose documents, and tend to be towards the spine. Some loose documents were cut, ripped, or cracked loose from a book; these will show spine side damage, often including binding holes ripped through. Staples through cardstock, then pulling loose, can emulate this beautifully.

Crumpling. This is actually rather rare for historic documents other than identity papers. Documents were, until the 19th century, fairly few, and usually kept in good order. It can, however, mimic the natural cracking patterns of old parchment.

Folding and corner wear. Carried documents were often folded. So, fold it, then sand the edges lightly with fine grit sandpaper; hit the corners harder. Oil the edges as well. When unfolded, the characteristic fold-damage will show through. While folded, flex it as well. Steam it a bit, and flex it.

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    Great answer, also shows that you indeed handle old paper. Kudos to you! – K.L. Sep 18 '14 at 12:27
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    During 1996-1998, I was an Archives Aide for the National Archives and Records Administration. On an average week, I handled 30 cubic feet of old paper. Oldest documents I handled were 1870's... court records, at that. All from Alaska. – aramis Sep 24 '14 at 9:53
  • @aramis I wish that comment ^^ could find its way into the post--I think that particular bit of expertise is worth stating prominently. – nitsua60 Sep 13 '17 at 3:10

Crumple it, cover it with tea and then put it in the oven

http://www.wikihow.com/Age-Paper-Using-Tea

Aged paper has 3 main characteristics, depending on how long it has been aged.

1) Creased/crumpled/torn.

2) Yellowed.

3) Old style writing.

The first can most quickly be met by scrunching it up, or more realistically by carrying it around for a while in a bag.

To get the edges looking a bit rougher, my suggestion would be to place a book or ruler on the edge of page, such that about a cm of paper is showing, and then rip that cm of paper off. Do this for all sides. You will have a smaller and rougher piece of paper (avoids the question of why elves and dwaveres are writing on A4)

The above should get your paper looking like a modern piece of paper that has aged some weeks/months.

But ancient paper was not processed in giant chemical factories. It would not have been such a brilliant white the day it was made, and if it is aged years, it will not be now.

Staining the paper is the way we make it look years older. The method I have used to do this involves tea, but someone did mention coffee as an option. As I am British, I am going to assume that tea is superior and go with that. to get a realistic effect, we want a combination of the page being somewhat yellow everywhere, but the effect should not be completely even or it look unnatural. The fact that our paper is already creased will help to make it not look too even.

We use a sponge to paint the tea on to get all of the paper coated, and use the teabag itself as a paintbrush to make some areas more stained than others (this, along with the taste, is why tea is superior to coffee) We then soak the paper in tea in an oven tray, making sure that both sides get covered.

Then, we put out tray in the oven, on the lowest temperature possible, and I wouldn't advise fan forced. I believe the main purpose of this is to 'set' the paper, much as we use a kiln for pottery. Although it also has the added effect of making your paper curl up at the edges.

I'm not going to provide you with times/temperatures/exact quantities because I honestly can't remember those specific details. The link provided, or there will doubtless be others on Google, will be your best option for that.

A note on point 3) When using this, many people write in 'ye olde Englishe' in an archaic font. This may or may not be appropriate depending on the story you are trying to tell. But remember who was writing the document. Generally, we associate the olden times with a higher level of formality. Although that may be because we only bothered preserving formal documents and the shopping lists have all been thrown away.

Hope that helps.

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    The results are astonishing. Can I suggest you expand your answer to detail a little more the method? An answer should stand by itself, although provided links can expand on the subject. – Flamma Sep 15 '14 at 10:15
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    While it is definitely an interesting and useful method, I wouldn't call it "astonishing". Didn't try it myself, but the picture shown in that site is a bit disappointing. Maybe I was disappointed only because I assumed it was "astonishing", though. – o0'. Sep 15 '14 at 10:29
  • Perhaps this would be better suited as a starting point for the most popular answer above. – FreeAsInBeer Sep 15 '14 at 13:07
  • You should expand on this answer in case the link goes dead. – Jason_c_o Sep 16 '14 at 21:35
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    Also note that if you choose to write in 'ye olde english', please realize that the 'y' is actually a thorn 'þ', and is pronounced 'th'. They only used a 'y' because the french typefaces originally used didn't have a thorn character available. It was still written as a thorn though. – AJMansfield Sep 19 '14 at 12:07

I can't hope to match BESW's amazing answer, but I have tested these methods over the years, and they work pretty well. The most important part is to determine how you want to age the paper. What was its history? Was it sheltered, or weathered? Is it ancient, or just beat-up? Is it on expensive paper, or a scrap of who-knows-what?

  1. If the paper is a page ripped from an ancient tome, you'll want it yellow with age, but crisp and smooth, possibly with water damage around the edges, and a torn edge along the binding. For this, dip or mist (not soak!) the page in watered-down tea or coffee, blot it dry, then use a clothes iron to press and dry the page. The more liquid you use, the more 'stained' it will look. To get a water-damaged look, stand the paper in the tea/coffe until it soaks up the page, then iron again. If it's too wrinkly when you're done, place it between the pages of a heavy book for a few days. Don't forget to add a number to the page!
  2. If instead, the paper was lifted from a bandit's bag, it will be beat up, torn, and otherwise mauled and maimed. This works best with thicker paper, like from a paper bag. Crumple the paper up, and roll it through all manner of junk - mud, grass, mineral oil, grease. Feel free to rub some bacon on it. Rip the edges, and use grape juice or cranberry juice to add various stains, including some grubby fingerprints. Let it dry, then dip it in water, lay the paper as flat as you can on a cookie sheet, and put it in the oven for about 5 minutes at 200 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius). Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn (though a little burning adds character, right?). Finally, fold it haphazardly a few times, and wrap a piece of twine or string around it.
  3. Maybe it was passed down through a family for generations? This would be something kept carefully, so wouldn't be very yellowed, though it would be very dry and fragile. Dip the paper in plain water, and bake it the oven at 200 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius) for 5-10 minutes, until it is dry. The longer you bake it, the more fragile it will be; you may want to experiment to get it just right. Alternately, if you have an electric burner, turn the burner on low and lay the paper on that. Quickly rub a spoon over the paper until it begins to brown, then remove it from the heat. Fold the page into thirds and press it smooth, and finally, dribble a little wax from a lit candle over the edge to seal it.
  4. Maybe the paper wasn't treated well at all; perhaps it was found in a dungeon somewhere. For this, gather some realistic materials: dirt, grass, hamburger meat, grape juice, rocks, whatever suits your fancy. The wet bits (juice, meat, etc.) should be smeared on the paper before hand; otherwise, just toss everything (rocks, grass, and don't forget the paper) into a sock or cloth bag. Pour a little water onto the sock, enough to get it wet, and throw it into a clothes tumble dryer on high heat. Check it every 10 minutes or so until it looks well-worn. Note that this method can be very... loud.
  5. Alternately, perhaps you don't want paper at all; a cloth map is almost as easy to make as a paper one, but looks and feels much different. Start with a cheap tea towel; make a mixture of dark tea or coffee and some starch, and soak the towel in it, then wring it out and dry it. Draw your map or message on it with black felt tip pen, and make sure to leave plenty of ink stains. Use grape juice, orange juice, cranberry juice, or lemon juice to add stains and marks. Cut the edges of the cloth off, and fray them a little by hand. Using a candle, burn a corner or two (make sure to dip the corner in water to put it out!), and dribble some wax on it.
  6. Finally, if you're in a hurry, you could cheat. There are countless printable templates for parchment, animal hide, and so on. Instead of starting with a plain piece of paper, print off a full-page parchment; you can still use other methods, but you start with a decent aging built-in.

As a final note, I've had a lot more success with instant coffee or tea than using brewed varieties; the cheap instant tea may taste terrible, but it's great for adding a weathered or aged look to paper and cloth. If your paper is too dark, try watering your tea down a bit; if the effect is too even, try dripping some tea directly onto the paper before baking. I suggest starting with testing several sheets of otherwise blank paper, with varying abouts of liquid and baking times, just so you can get a good feel of what method does what.

  • Unless you get it too close to an open flame, 200 degrees (90 C) shouldn't be anywhere near the ignition point of paper - Ray Bradbury's novel was named Farenheit 451 for a reason. :) – GalacticCowboy Sep 17 '14 at 14:12
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    @GalacticCowboy True, but depending what materials are used (some oils, for example), that temperature could be much lower. And, perhaps more importantly, many ovens do not keep a constant temperature, and measure the temperature very poorly. I tried not to be alarmist, but better safe than sorry! – ArmanX Sep 17 '14 at 21:26

I think the ageing affect can be separated in two parts: colour (i) and aspect (ii).

For colour (i) I remember I used coffee and a sponge, the methodology is roughly described below the original is at this link. It looks amazing, though perhaps it can smell of coffee.

  1. Place 2 tablespoons of instant coffee into a 1/2 cup of boiling water. Stir and let it cool a minute.
  2. Take a large baking sheet and place the piece of paper inside it.
  3. Pour some of the coffee solution over the paper. Use as much of the solution as you feel is necessary.
  4. Use the sponge brush to spread the solution over the entire piece of paper. For a mottled effect, sprinkle instant coffee grains over the paper and wait a few minutes for the grains to dissolve.
  5. Dab up the excess coffee liquid from the piece of paper with the paper towels.

For the aspect (ii), BESW's answer covers most of it in abundant details.

Just to add to this, though sugar paper usually comes already coloured, it is possible to get colours that do help your aims, such as grey and white. The beauty of sugar paper is that if you really work it by crumpling, creasing and re-crumpling, it starts to feel a little like softened leather, though obviously without the thickness and density.

From there you can use various staining methods, such as watercolour paints, tea, soot and water, charcoal and similar.

Laid paper gives a great medium to work with, also, looking similar to fine papyrus. Laid paper usually comes in two colours; white and cream.

Inks, originally, were water based, so using an inkjet printer to get a nice copperplate hand or whatever format you like is a possibility, as you can use water and a brush afterwards to get a slightly blurred or smudged effect.

I would say: experiment with different types of paper and ink and see what you get. Sounds like a great project, though. ;o)

Also, try leaving the paper in direct, strong sunlight - yellows paper brilliantly and will also fade many water based inks quite nicely.

I had very good results by soaking paper in a tannin solution. For one, the paper turns yellow in a very satisfactory way, and the handling of the soaked sheet adds creases that end up a deeper yellow than the rest of the paper, for a rather nice overall effect. Some folding and re-folding once the paper dried adds to the weathering.

I am afraid I don't have pictures or a precise recipee, though, because this was ad-hocery done about thirty years ago using chemicals from my chemistry set. I basically dissolved a spoonful of tannin powder in a glass of water, put the paper in the plugged bathroom sink, poured the solution over the paper and gently rubbed it in, all the time hoping my mom wouldn't bounce me. ;-)


Yes, I know that tannin is basically what makes the tea recipees work. But I didn't use tea, I used tannin, and from the pictures I've seen from the "tea" answers, my result isn't so much "old" but "ancient", with a deep yellow / brown.

For a shugenja (spell caster) in L5R, I had a player do the tea staining in stages by dragging a mostly dry teabag over the paper. The same player for another set put a very thin layer of tea on a cookie sheet. Granted, you can also use food coloring but you have to tinker with the mixture until you get the right antiquing level. In both cases my player carefully took a lighter and singed the edges to varying degrees (but those characters had access to fire-based abilities).

The most recent 'aged paper' attempt was actually the simplest: she bought parchment paper for the game of Victoriana that she ran. The same shop sold sealing wax and seals so it really added some zest. Not only that but she would occasionally dab essential oils or a tiny spritz of perfume/cologne depending on the character who used the paper.

Soak the paper in water and then let it dry on a radiator until it starts to go yellow. Old paper, though, was made from rags and the texture will be different whatever you do.

Depending on the period you are trying to imitate, older inks were made from lamp black (for colour) and gum arabic (for viscosity). These were used with steel nib pens. Even older inks were made from oak-gall and used with goose-quill (i.e. goose feather) pens.

I've always used Parchment Cardstock then burned the edges and roughed it up a bit.

protected by C. Ross Sep 16 '14 at 22:58

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