Tackling the Old Photo Albums

Chirped by Cass

Since I have some extra “at home” time due to the Coronavirus, I decided to tackle the three plastic totes full of old pictures and photo albums from my parents and grandparents. I have two siblings, so I wanted to divide up the photos between all of us. That meant figuring out what photos I needed scanned, so that we each have copies of these precious family memories. It also meant figuring out how to extract photos from damaging old albums, in order to better preserve them. And that was a project worth chirping about all by itself!


Sorting the Loose Photos

The first things I dealt with were all the loose photos. I sorted through to see what pictures were of my brother, sister, or me, and put them in piles for each of us. There were duplicates of some photos that had two or three of us in the shot, so these pictures got divided up between us as well. If it was a picture that did not have duplicates, I decided which one of us the photo meant the most to. If it was an important photo for the three of us, then it went into a scan pile.

Old Albums

Extracting photos from old albumsThere were a dozen old photo albums that had pictures that needed to be sorted through as well. Some of the old black and white photos were attached with little mounting corners, and seemed relatively well-preserved. Often they had handwritten captions that I didn’t want to disturb. I set those aside. In more recent books, the colors had faded, or developed a pinkish cast. That can be caused by a number of factors, not least of which are acids and other chemicals in the very albums that were meant to protect them. These albums were the type with the clear plastic laying over the “magnetic” sticky pages. Many had no more “stick,” so the photos were just falling out. Those albums were the easy ones to take apart and sort. Other albums had photos that would not budge… that glue had really stuck! So the next step was to research how to safely remove the photos from these pages before they deteriorated further. One of the most helpful articles I found was this one by Kimberly Powell.

Dental Floss?

Extracting photos from old albumsYes… dental floss was one of the suggested tools for extracting old pictures. You have to slide the floss underneath an edge of the photo and then move it back and forth to loosen it from the album page. Unfortunately the dental floss trick did not work well on my stuck photos. I would get it under the edge and work it down the back of the photo part of the way. Then it would rip through the border, or the floss would just not go any further. After tearing a few photos with this method, I moved on to the next suggestion…

Pro Tip #1: Some sites suggested putting Band-Aids on your fingers – and I can see why. Moving that floss back and forth causes it to dig into your flesh. If the dental floss method works for you, then I would definitely bandage your fingers if you are doing a lot of photo removal.


Extracting photos from old albumsOh, the good old blow-dryer… This ended up being my method of choice for the majority of my stuck photos. By applying heat to the top or underside of the album page, most of the pictures peeled right away from the old adhesive. Sometimes glue remained on the back of the photos, but it was easily removed by just rubbing it off with my finger.

Pro Tip #2: Caution – Go slow! If you try peeling the picture away from the page too soon, you will end up ripping it, or some of the back of the photo may stay adhered to the album page. Let the dryer really heat up the picture before you start. Also, if you are using high heat, you may want to wear a protective glove on the hand that is peeling up the pictures.

Un-du Adhesive Removal

Extracting photos from old albumsAfter getting most of the photos up from an album with the blow-dryer, I was left with just a few pictures that still would not come off the pages. So, on to the next method: un-du adhesive remover. The way it works is to squeeze a few drops of the un-du onto the attached scraper tool and use it to lift up the picture. When it peels up a little bit, squeeze a few more drops onto the page and use the tool to lift up a little more. The un-du evaporates after a few minutes and it claims to leave no stains or greasy mess behind. This method was the most time-consuming. You have to be really careful lifting up the pictures – and making sure the un-du is actually undoing the glue adhesive.

Pro Tip #3: Squeezing only a few drops out is almost impossible… I sometimes had a small flood of un-du around the photo. Keep a paper towel on hand to wipe up the excess. Again, go slow!!! Some parts of the photos did not come up and I tore the edge of the picture. Other times the back paper of the photo remained stuck on the album page and only the top portion of the photo came away.

A Few More Suggestions…

Extracting photos from old albumsWhatever technique you’re using, find some kind of flat tool to slide underneath each photo to help lift it up off the page. I used a Cricut spatula tool and the scraper that comes with the un-du more than I used the adhesive removal fluid itself.

The most important advice I can give you, and I can’t emphasize this enough, is to go slow… The more patient you are with the heat, the adhesive removal, or even the dental floss, the better chance you have of removing the photo without damage. And you may even be rewarded with some writing on the back of a picture that tells you who it is, or where and when it was taken. When the old photos have ancestors identified or places and dates, be sure to add that information to any duplicates you make. My father had started a genealogy filing system, and I am adding these special photos to the folders of the family members identified.

Everyone’s old albums and pictures are unique, and have been preserved (or not) in different ways. The method of extraction that worked best for me may not be right for you. I would suggest trying any of these methods on a photo you don’t care that much about, just in case it gets ruined. Experiment to see what gives you the best results. Maybe you have another method I didn’t try? Leave your suggestions in the comment section below. In the meantime, I’m on to my next project: Getting all these loose photos organized and safely stored!

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Extracting photos from old albums

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