Caring for Games

Caring for Games – Cleaning and Repairing Your games – from Bruce Whitehill

Bruce Whitehill

The Big Game Hunter

Bruce Whitehill hat uns seinen sehr interessanten Artikel überlassen, zum Thema:  Pflege von Spielen – Reinigen und Reparieren –


Der Text liegt bisher nur im Original (in englisch) vor.
Wir arbeiten an einer deutschen Übersetzung
und Anpassung an europäische Verhältnisse.


Caring for Games – Cleaning and Repairing Your Games by Bruce Whitehill

Though there are games made of metal, wood, and other hard materials, most games are made with paper. The best way to handle, clean and repair paper is the way archivists and other professionals do. Special materials, including acid-free glue and paper, and advice on how to use them, can be obtained from most large art supply stores. If you are working with something particularly old and fragile, such as a cloth or paper gameboard from the mid 1800s or earlier—a period when games were hand-colored—you should consider seeking professional help if you are looking to clean, repair, or frame an item.

However, most collectors are interested in doing their own cleaning and minor repair work, especially on less valuable pieces. For these people, this writing offers suggestions for taking care of games using basic materials. Art and archivists‘ supply catalogs offer acid free papers and glues that will not become brittle after they harden.

Dirty games – The Spot Check Before Buying

One of the best bargains a collector can find is a dirty game. Dealers often are afraid to try to remove dirt and grime from a paper box or gameboard for fear of taking some of the paper or color off along with the dirt.

Not all soiling comes off, however. Stains, including simple water stains (which turn white paper a light brown), may be impossible to get out, as are ink marks and coal dust. A good on-the-spot test is to wet your finger and rub it gently on an inconspicuous part of the box cover of a game you’re considering buying—if you wind up with a clean spot on the box and a dirty finger, there is a good chance the game will clean up well.

Cleaning paper games

Many collectors have their own miracle cure for removing dirt from a game box or board. Sometimes the simplest remedy is the best: mild soap and a little water. Most games after 1860 were made with coated stock—paper with a protective finish on it. This kind of paper can be cleaned. Coated stock is shiny and reflects light, whereas the paper used for the earliest games, such as those that were hand-colored, is dull and non-reflective; hand-colored items must be cleaned with extreme care.

Always test a very small area first. Put a small amount of non-abrasive liquid soap (non-detergent hand soap or dishwashing liquid) on a damp sponge. Gently rub the sponge on the paper; it is best to begin near an edge and to use a circular motion. If the edges are worn, be careful not to get too much moisture on any exposed cardboard. Keep rinsing and re-soaping the sponge, and wipe the cleaned area with a well-rinsed and wrung-out damp sponge. If the box or gameboard is very dirty, you may have to clean the game a few times, making certain you don’t allow the surface to become too wet and you let it dry completely between cleanings. Always check to see if the paper is being rubbed off or is buckling, and if it is, stop cleaning. If you use a yellow or white sponge, you can check the sponge to see if any color is coming off the paper.

Sometimes, removing a little of the paper may be necessary. If you can’t clean something like ink markings, you may be able to rub them out. A soft eraser (rubber), preferably an art eraser as opposed to a pencil eraser, or a gum that can be kneaded, can take some of the coloring out of an ink line, though the indentation in the paper will remain. Just remember that an eraser is acting as an abrasive and is removing paper, so work carefully.

Other products that collectors have used successfully in cleaning paper games are Murphy’s oil soap and Meltonian clear shoe cream, although their long-term effects are unknown.

Cleaning wood or metal games

Bare wood can be cleaned a lot more vigorously than paper. Use soap and water or the same furniture cleaner and polish that you would use on regular wood furniture.

If the game is one with drawings on the wood, you need to be as careful as you would with paper. Using liquid soap and water, test a very tiny area first to see if the color comes off or fades; use a white sponge or cloth to see if it is picking up any of the color from the wood. Try to clean along the grain of the wood rather than across it, cleaning with short strokes. A light coat of Simonize wax put on gently and rubbed off quickly should remove dirt and dust.

Lithographed metal games pose a similar problem to painted wood: you want to clean the design, not rub it off. Do not use any abrasive cleaner or household cleaner you are unsure of; Mr. Clean™, for example, will take the paint right off. Blue Magic™ may work on lithographed metal if you buff it off immediately after putting it on. Once again, try a small test area first; watch out for flakes of metal, and remember that any powder or polish that gets caught in a groove or crease and is not buffed out is liable to turn white. The best metal cleaner is the right combination of wax, oil and polish, without any grit, which will bring out the color. One toy restorer recommends Meguiars Mirror Glaze #7, which can be purchased in an automotive store. Toy collectors and those who restore tin toys are a good source for information on cleaning lithographed (printed) metal.

Repairing paper games

It is easy to make basic repairs to cardboard game boxes and gameboards. The most common damage is split corners (two box sides are no longer attached at the corner) and detached aprons—the four “aprons” make up the sides of the box. Like dirty games, a „flat“ game—one with all the aprons torn off—can be purchased for a fraction of its normal value and then rebuilt into a sturdy box cover. Tape and stickers can sometimes be removed without leaving a trace.

Repairing aprons

The most common problems with regard to the condition of games are torn and missing or split aprons, and worn edges (the area where the aprons meet the box lid or box bottom).

To strengthen an apron, set the cover on a flat surface with the aprons pointing up. Using either a household glue such as Elmer’s or Weldbond, or an archivists‘ glue which will not become brittle, reinforce weak or thin aprons by running a thin line of glue along the inside edges. If the corner is split, put some glue on the end of each apron, then hold the two aprons together with a paper clip, keeping the longer end of the clip on the outside of the box (this may take some patience at first). Push the two aprons firmly together, then add a little more glue to both the inside and the top tip of the corner. Don’t worry too much about getting glue on the paper clip; when the clip is removed carefully, it will snap off, leaving the glue and litho paper (hopefully) still adhering to the box. Wait until the glue dries completely (24 hours is a safe bet) before removing the paper clip. Do only one corner at a time (or two corners diagonally opposite) and wait for the glue to dry completely before working on the other corners.

If you are replacing an apron, set the apron so it is perpendicular to the box top or bottom and place a block or book along the outside of the apron to keep the apron upright. The apron should stand without support on the inside, especially if the ends rest against the ends of the other aprons; otherwise use any small but heavy item as support on the inside but leave yourself room to glue along the edge. Run a thin line of glue along the inside of the edge as explained above. You can also glue the corners at this time, or, if there is some bending in the aprons, wait until they are firmly attached and the glue is dry before connecting the corners.

If you are repairing a flat game (all aprons are detached) or one in which the ends of the aprons are bent or warped, you would do best to purchase a corner vice. In fact, I recommend a corner vice for even the simpler repairs, though this unique tool is often difficult to find. The corner vice grabs one apron and can then be moved to attach to the adjacent apron, fixing both in place. This enables you to secure two aprons in a steady, upright position after gluing them together at the ends. When the glue is dry, attach these two aprons to the box cover. Then glue the other two aprons together and attach them to the cover.

An apron that is torn in the middle can be held with a paper clip or, better yet, a „tweezers clamp“; this „reverse tweezers“ is an oversized tweezers-like device whose arms are crossed over so that the tweezers is clamped shut when at rest and opens when the arms are squeezed. They can be purchased in a hardware store, rather than a pharmacy.

A few hints: glue the inside edges and let dry before gluing the corners; use as little glue as possible (it will dry better). To protect the flat surface on which you are working, place aluminum foil or wax paper on the table or desk; do not use regular paper.

If you are missing an apron, you can make a copy of one of the aprons on a color photocopy machine, and rebuild the box by cutting a piece of cardboard the size of the apron, then gluing the copy paper to it. Serious collectors buy and keep game boxes and boards of no value simply to use the materials in the repair of other games. Also, where the box cover and the gameboard have the same illustration, you can use a color copy of one to replace a section that may be missing from the other. Any game offered for sale which has been repaired, especially if parts of the box are not original, should be so noted in the description.

After you have replaced an apron and the glue has dried, or if the edges of the box are worn, turn the box over so that the aprons are facing down and place the box on a block or book. Place a thin line of glue along the edges and corners. The glue may be white when wet but should dry colorless. This will reinforce the aprons.

Flattening warped boxes

It is difficult to repair split or detached aprons when the box is warped. To solve a warping problem, you need something very flat and very heavy, such as an unabridged dictionary or the equivalent. The trick is to wet the entire inside of the box (except if the gameboard is printed on the box bottom). Do this with a wet (not just damp) sponge or a plant mister, or you can even pour a little water—not too much—right into the box and move it around to cover the entire inside. Pour out any excess water, place the cover on a flat surface, and place any flat, heavy object inside the box—preferably one that is nearly the same size as the cover.

If you have a warped box bottom board (the gameboard is on the inside of the bottom of the box), turn the bottom upside down on a block or book, wet the cardboard (the underside of the box) and place a flat, heavy weight on top of it as explained above.

In severe cases, when it is impossible to flatten out the box, you may first need to split the corners of the aprons, flatten everything as per the instructions above, and then re-glue the aprons.

If your gameboard is warped, be careful using water, since you do not want water to seep under the lithographed paper. The best thing is to place the board (in an open position if it is a folded board) under a large, heavy object—such as a mattress—and leave it there for a few days.

Sewing (a stitch in time)

In the 19th century, games were often cherished possessions, as can be seen by the care taken in repairing some of them. Prior to the 1870s and before household tape was readily available, games were stitched or sewn. They were repaired with „button“ thread or embroidery thread (regular thread is too thin and was not used, though sometimes material like old fishing line was employed). In keeping with this practice, some collectors prefer to sew an apron on an early game rather than glue it. Using a needle and a piece of yarn, commence sewing, moving from box to apron to box in an even, spiral fashion.

Using and removing stickers, tape and glue

One of the most annoying things a collector comes across is a price sticker on the box cover. Never try to pull off a sticker without using rubber cement thinner. (In an office supply store you should be able to find Carter’s Rubber Cement Thinner in 4 fl. oz. bottles.) Put the cement thinner in a clean, miniature oil can or use an eye dropper. Saturate a corner of the sticker, then try gently peeling back the corner. Keep putting the cement thinner on as you slowly peel off the sticker. Try not to lift up on the sticker but to fold it over so the non-sticky side is against the box; press down as you slide the sticker along on the box. If the paper begins to lift off with the sticker, try the same procedure at a different point on the sticker.

Use this technique also for removing tape used to keep the aprons attached to the box cover; you can then re-attach the aprons using glue. If there is clear tape on the box cover, it may be better to leave the tape on than risk losing some of the paper underneath.

The box bottom can be reinforced with tape, since this part of the game is not seen. But tape becomes brittle, turns yellow, and loses its sticking power, so we recommend using glue.

Never use tape on the outside of the box cover or on the gameboard. Never.

Coloring in and replacing lithography

Generally speaking, you should do no more to a game than cleaning it and taking steps to keep the game from further deterioration. You should not adulterate a game by coloring it. However, many collectors feel appearance is more important than „historical originality.“ If a swath has left a white patch on a uniformly colored background, some collectors will color the swath the same hue as the background. Similarly, coloring in the edges of a game box also may make the game look less worn, and it will certainly make the game photograph better. A better alternative, however, is to touch up the photograph, not the game. Over time, any color applied to a game box or board will fade differently from the colors of the original lithography.

If there is a large piece of lithography missing from a gameboard or box, and the board and box have the same illustration, you can use the new color photocopying technology to help you restore the damaged area. Make a copy of the good illustration, cut out the piece or section that matches what is missing from the damaged litho, and glue it in place in the same way you would fit a puzzle piece into the middle of a nearly completed picture.

Do not alter the original state of a game by coloring in or replacing any missing litho if you intend to sell the game. If you are selling a game that has been colored in, touched up, or repaired in any way, you should state this in your written or verbal description of the game. When you’re buying a game, be sure to look for areas that may not be original.

Controlling insect damage and mildew

You will not see the tiny insects that eat your games but you might see the effects: paper edges that look as though they have been chewed instead of cut, or little specs on the board or box where the lithography is missing. If there is any sign of insect damage, clean the game thoroughly and air it out. You may want to spray the game or the area in which it is stored. Repair of the damaged areas is difficult if not impossible, since the paper has been literally eaten away.

Mildew damage is much more common, and more devastating. There may not be much problem if you live in Arizona, but if your games are in an unfinished basement in New Jersey in the summer, you are sure to be in trouble. Mildew grows on the outside of a box, or inside, especially along the edges or in the corners. The first sign of mildew is a slight bluish soiling that may look like little more than dirt or a stain. It feels almost velvety to the touch. And it smells! It does not wipe off easily like dust with a dry cloth, and it does not smear like soil when wiped with a sponge.

Mildew is a fungus that eats away at paper and spreads easily. Be very careful if you buy a game that is mildewed; it may not clean well or you may lose some of the lithography in the cleaning process. Keep infected games away from other games until you are sure the mildew is gone, as it can spread from one game to another. Most important, keep all games away from dampness so you can prevent mildew in the first place.

If you suspect mildew, clean the game thoroughly, wipe it dry, and then air it out. If you discover too late that a game is covered with mildew, you will need to clean the game with a bathroom mildew remover. Wear gloves and work in a well-ventilated room; spray the box directly (whether it is coated stock on the outside or plain cardboard inside) and wipe clean with a damp sponge. Test a small area first. Let the game air dry.

I suggest putting a sheet of used fabric softener (such as Bounce™) in a game box to help prevent mildew. It has not yet been determined if this does in fact work, but at least it gives a fresh smell to a game when kept inside the box. The other thing you can use are cloves, in a bag or even loose.


The life of your games can be increased by the careful cleaning, repairing, and handling of them, as well as the proper display and storage of games (covered in Part Two of this series). Taking care of your games will insure that they are kept in tact for future generations of collectors.

©2006, Bruce Whitehill (The Big Game Hunter)

This article is one in a two-part series on Caring for Games. The second article is “Games: Handling, Display and Storage.” Editors may wish to combine the two articles into one.

Note: American style punctuation has been used (even though it’s so peculiar), in which commas and periods are placed inside quotation marks. European editors may choose to use European punctuation.

Note: The products mentioned in this article, as shown below, are readily available in the U.S. but might not be available elsewhere. Editors thinking about publication in Europe may wish to delete these references, or change the products mentioned:

Murphy’s oil soap
Meltonian clear shoe cream
Simonize wax
Mr. Clean™
Blue Magic™
Meguiars Mirror Glaze # 7
Carter’s Rubber Cement Thinner
Elmer’s or Weldbond

Similar alteration may be warranted to change the sentence:

“There may not be much problem if you live in Arizona, but if your games are in an unfinished basement in New Jersey in the summer, you are sure to be in trouble.” The Arizona reference implies a dry (low humidity) area and the New Jersey reference signifies a very humid area.

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