On a Fox(ing) Hunt


Among the more time-consuming (and eye-straining) tasks in preparing Peter Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion” for publication has been digitally removing the “foxing” from the 175-year-old pages. It’s a balance of taking out the staining while simultaneously rendering the text legible in black and white, with enough contrast to “pop” off the page but not so much that the fox ghosts show through.

Foxing (apparently so-called after the red/brown foxy color of some of the stains*) is a common problem in vintage books, and there is no one explanation for its cause. The American Institute of Conservation’s (AIC) site says there are “currently three major explanations” with a fourth one proposed: “a) fungal activity b) metal-induced degradation, and c) multiple causes.” The proposed cause – which must mean it’s not yet accepted – is “general discoloration of paper caused by the interaction of moisture and cellulose.” (There is – and I find this fascinating – a Classification of Foxing, including “Bullseye” (small, round spots with a dark center surrounded by concentric rings) and “Snowflake” (which is mostly what I’m dealing with – “spots with scalloped edges and/or irregular shapes which can measure inches across”).

There are numerous treatments to arrest and reverse the process on the paper, but I’m going the electronic route; like all good things, it takes some work. Every page presents a different stain pattern, distribution and color, and thus I’m attacking them one by one rather than writing an “action” (basically a script that applies the same steps to every file in a folder). I tried that early on, but applying the same criteria to every page simply resulted in different problems that then had to be separately addressed.

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 10.08.54 AM

Raw scan

And of course, I want to maintain as much detail as possible on the gorgeous engravings – so I can’t remove too much gray, or else they won’t be nice and crisp.

I’m about done with the page cleanup, and will soon be setting up a template to get started on the layout – but it will look a bit like this, though with more subtle transition from the placed images to the page:

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 10.25.13 AM

* The AIC site mentions the term was first used in 1848 and refers specifically to Reynard the Fox – which would make sense; he’s a troublemaker!

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
This entry was posted in Books/Editing/Writing, Rude Mechanicals Press and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to On a Fox(ing) Hunt

  1. tombuhl says:

    I appreciate your care and the background information on foxing. I use a few Actions for sizing and converting to gray scale for large batches, but just can’t bring myself to let one Action fit all needs even when many are similarly treated…but only after the eyeball test.

  2. John Cashman says:

    I’m sure you’ve been told this before, but you clean up nice.

  3. J.C. says:

    I was curious about “foxing” and you’ve er uh, cleared that up for me. LOL

  4. Jillian Ramsay Stern says:

    Your work, in this particular endeavor, is a precise and laudable demonstration of the spirit and methodology of craftsmanship. Brava!

  5. SSteve says:

    I laughed when I saw that one of the causes is “multiple causes.” That’s like your third wish being for a hundred wishes.

  6. neitsdelf says:

    I guess I reckoned you would be doing a careful scanning and resetting of the text, leaving only the plates for cleanup. Reckon I guessed wrong.



    A-hunting we will go,
    A-hunting we will go
    We’ll catch a fox and put him in a box
    And never let him go

    So, if I can’t have 3/4 leather, can I least have a slipcase?

  7. PETER says:

    In the final product, will you keep the original margins? I think the negative space, giving the content room to breathe, is just as important as the other details you mentioned.

    • fitz says:

      Not sure yet on margin size, but there will be breathing room for sure. I don’t like skimpy margins! But I might make the text a bit larger — it’s awfully tiny in the original.

  8. hgordon4 says:

    Reynard le renard. Cute.

  9. Dennis says:

    Sounds like you’re mostly done, but have you tried Photoshop’s channel calculations? It’s one of those arcane functions that can be a big time saver for subtle things like this. Tricky to figure out, but may be worthwhile if you find yourself doing it again. I’d give one a shot if you would share a file.

  10. Dane says:

    Did you try alternate light sources maybe even IR? I know it is used in all sorts of forensics and art investigations.

    • fitz says:

      I did not – I had to scan the pages on a flatbed scanner, so that wasn’t an option (as far as I know!). But if I run into more foxing, I’ll keep that in mind!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s