How Do You Make Paper Look Old?

A crinkled, aged piece of paper with indecipherable words.

There are many reasons why people want to take a brand new sheet of paper and turn it into something that appears to have withstood the test of time. 

Perhaps you’re creating props for a theatrical production or medieval fair. 

Maybe you want to create a special wall hanging with one of your favorite poems, or it may be that your kids are going through another pirate phase. 

Regardless of the reason, sometimes new paper will just not do.

How do you make paper look old? To make paper appear old, either spray or soak the paper in coffee, tea, balsamic vinegar, or milk, and allow it to dry. Other options include ironing paper moistened with lemon juice, applying an antique glaze, using a flame, or burying the paper in dirt.

Whatever your reason for wanting to age paper, you want the results to look authentic, not shabby.

Any of the following will produce paper that truly looks old, and the best thing is that you can have fun while doing it.

How to Age Paper

Try your hand at each of the following methods to discover which one produces your desired effect.

Most only take a few minutes, and because paper is so inexpensive, it’s not a huge deal if a few sheets don’t come out quite right.

Method #1 – Coffee or Tea

Using coffee or tea is the most well-known method for producing an aged effect on paper for good reason; it works.

Coffee will produce darker results than tea will, but a lot will depend on the strength of your brew. 

If you desire a subtle effect, dilute the coffee or tea with water before applying. If you prefer a darker effect, use strong coffee or allow the tea to steep as long as possible.

Usually, about ¼ cup of liquid is plenty.

How to:

Crumple the paper into a tight ball and smooth it out again – not all the way though, you want those wrinkles.

Place the paper onto a rimmed baking sheet that’s slightly larger than the paper.

Carefully pour the hot beverage over the paper and use a sponge or small paint brush to evenly distribute the liquid over the entire surface of the paper.

After soaking the paper for a minute or two, use either an old towel or a handful of paper towels to soak up any remaining liquid. 

Now is the ideal time to distress the edges a bit if desired. A fork or even your fingernail will produce small tears typical of old paper.

Slide the baking sheet into a warm oven (about 200°F) to dry for about five minutes. Watch it carefully, and remove as soon as you see the corners beginning to curl.

Alternatively, you could allow the paper to air dry on an old, clean towel or use a hair dryer to speed up the process.

Some people prefer to only spritz the paper with liquid instead of immersing it fully. While that will indeed change the paper, the effects are not as dramatic.

Optional: After the paper is wet, sprinkle some coffee grounds, instant coffee crystals,or dried tea leaves onto the paper. This will provide sporadic, dark spots as the paper dries.

Alternative Liquids

Many people are not aware that balsamic vinegar can be used in place of coffee or tea to produce a dark coloration. 

You’ll want to be very careful not to let it soak too long though, as the acid will cause the paper to fall apart if left on for more than three or four minutes.

Believe it or not, milk can also be used with this method to create surprisingly realistic results.

Method #2 – Lemon Juice

Although lemon juice can be used in place of coffee or tea, heat must be applied for a substantial color change to occur.

You can oven dry a paper soaked in lemon juice, but for a more profound effect that gives you more control, you’ll want to use an iron.

Wet the paper with lemon juice thoroughly, and carefully pick it up to allow any excess to drip off.

Place the damp paper in between two fresh sheets of paper, and iron using a low setting until the paper is dry and the desired color change has been achieved.

Method #3 – Antique Glaze

This is actually one of my favorite methods because of the lack of mess.

All you need to do is brush on a bit of antiquing glaze (I used Fiebing’s Antique Finish) with a brush, wipe off any excess, and allow it to dry. 

Multiple coats can be added to further darken the paper if desired, but for a subtle aged effect, one coat is usually sufficient.

Wood stain can also be used in this manner.

Method #4 – Burn

Although this method is typically used to add scorched effects to the edges or isolated spots on the paper, you can use a flame to distress an entire sheet, if you’re very careful.

A candle or lighter work equally well here.

Obviously, you risk having the whole sheet go up in flames, so the trick is to avoid having the flame linger in one place for too long.

Keep the paper in a slow, constant motion as you hold it about an inch above the fire.

Should the paper actually catch fire, blow it out or drop into a sink full of water.

Method #5 – Bury

This method does admittedly take the longest amount of time, and results can vary tremendously based on your soil type and weather conditions. 

However, if you’re in no hurry and just enjoy trying out different methods, give it a shot!

Begin by digging a small hole just large enough to completely encase the paper.

Lightly moisten the paper with water, and rub some of the dirt onto the paper. Crumple the paper as much or as little as you like. 

There’s no need to smooth it back out; leave it as is, and drop the crumpled ball into the hole. 

Fill the hole with dirt, mark the spot with a Popsicle stick or something similar, and walk away. The longer you leave it in the ground, the darker and more aged looking it will be.

Check it after a few days to see if it has achieved the effect you were aiming for. If it still looks too fresh, rebury it and leave it for a few more days. 

Experiment By Combining Several Techniques

There’s no need to limit yourself to only one method. In fact, you’ll often find that a combination of techniques is the only way to get the look you were striving for. 

For instance, dyeing the paper is effective for changing the color and texture of the paper, but if you wanted a slightly burned effect, you’d have to use the burning method once the paper has dried.

Tips

  • If the edges of your aged paper have curled, sandwich the paper between two fresh sheets of paper, and iron to flatten.
  • If your paper didn’t come out quite as dark as you’d hoped, you can repeat the process again (and again if you like) once the paper has completely dried. Each successive dyeing cycle will produce a darker result. 
  • When using a hair dryer, flip the paper over every minute or so to help prevent curling.
  • Try sprinkling salt on the wet paper to produce varying color tones.
  • For authentic, worn edges, don’t use scissors to cut your paper to size. Instead, crease the paper where you’d like the edge to be, line up a ruler on the crease, and carefully tear the paper by pulling up and towards you. Repeat for each edge.
  • Most of the time, you’ll want to write on the paper after it’s been aged and dried.
  • Using a cotton ball, apply red wine vinegar to your finished paper to add some additional stains.

Shortcut

Start with plain craft paper (this one is my favorite). Crumple it up, smooth it out, and iron on a low setting.

Roll it into a tube, and use a lighter to lightly burn both ends. No need for dyeing!