Cleaning Slides With Alcohol

by JL Beeken on 6-23-2007

A small aside … a story about cleaning slides with alcohol.

A few years ago I acquired my mother’s slide collection. About 1,200, ranging from the 1950’s to the early 70’s.

Although they had been kept in what was state-of-the-art slide boxes at the time, every single one of them looked like it had been through an asphalt storm. Dust gets pulled in by static attraction and clings to slides like cement. Cement. Due to the spray pattern this is not something that can be cleaned up by your favorite photo editor. Not unless you’re 10 and planning on living to be 1,000. Even then, it would be 990 years of penance and the results would not be worth it.

Down at the local camera shop they told me 99% isopropyl alcohol would clean them. 70% has too much water and destroys the emulsion. No problem. Down to the drugstore for the alcohol and a few pairs of white cotton gloves.

Simple instructions. Dip gloved-finger in alcohol, rub slide gently on both sides, set to dry. It didn’t work. Any bits of gunk that came off immediately re-distributed and re-attached themselves around the slide. The cardboard frames were “hairy” and the hairs got added to the mix.

No problem. Down to the hardware store to check out prices on air compressors. Quick calculation: how many and which hours of the day can I run an air compressor without the neighbors calling the police?

Obviously, I needed to clean the slides all the way to the edges. And the cardboard edges themselves were a problem. Not a problem. The old frames would need to come off. After cleaning, each slide would have to be re-framed.

Still undaunted. Back to the local camera shop to buy a box of plastic slide-frames. 1,200 frames were the price of a new camera. No problem. 500 of the slides were of rocks, sand or water. (What was my mother thinking?) Tossed those out. Only 700 left.

I needed a larger working area. I cleared off my computer desk, set up a tray of alcohol, 6 magnets with paper clips attached to one side of the desk for drying the slides, pulled on my gloves and I was off to the races.

Easy. Note any slide info in notebook, rip off old frame. Holding on with tweezers, swish slide back and forth through tray of alcohol while rubbing both sides to get the gunk off, slip paper-clip-attached-to-magnet through hole in slide, hang to dry. Only 699 to go. Clean and re-frame six at a time, notate with info from notebook, and repeat. No sweat.

A day later I had 30 slides done and had stupefied 100% of my remaining brain cells with the alcohol fumes. Maybe I should set up a table under an open window? No, dust will blow in on the clean slides. Not that much dust really. It’s the middle of winter. Quickly: how long can I sit in front of an open window in January? In Canada.

This was about the time the idea of “fume hood” occurred to me. Who’s got a fume hood? (and an air compressor?) Of course, the local camera shop.

Back where I started. I returned and made a deal to have them cleaned by someone there. In the end it all worked out. After the cleaning, I brought the slides home and scanned them all. There were still hairs around the edges, the odd bit of asphalt left, but with the help of Adobe Photoshop Elements I cropped the edges and cleaned up the remaining black spots.

99% alcohol can be used on some photographs. The ones with the shiny surfaces but maybe not all of those. Proceed with extreme caution. And good ventilation.

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