Where can I buy a plexiglass sheet for photographing archival documents?
February 13, 2017 3:51 PM   Subscribe

I recently spent a week at the National Archives photographing thousands of pages of documents. They had these nice plexiglass sheets with rounded corners that you could place over the documents to flatten them. Is this a known thing, and can I buy one of these for myself?

I've tried many different ways of googling this, to no avail. I haven't seen any references anywhere to people using acrylic sheets to flatten documents, even though they were available at the National Archives and people were using them for that purpose.

I have found many sites that sell acrylic sheets, but there are many options and I don't know what I should be getting for my purposes. The sheets at the archives seemed like a specific kind specially made for documents -- it's not insignificant that they had rounded corners, because when you're dealing with a 150 year old document, you don't want to be the person responsible for tearing it with a sharp corner.

Archivists or people with significant experience in archival research: does this sound familiar? What exactly am I looking for here? Was I (and several other people) just using them wrong, and they're actually there for some other purpose? Was I making myself look dumb in front of the archivists?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you located? In my neck of the woods, I would ask the knowledgable people at TAP Plastics for their input and to custom-make the exact thing I wanted. If they're not local to you then perhaps there is a similar custom acrylic fabricator around your area, or you could order from TAP over the phone/online.
posted by brainmouse at 3:59 PM on February 13, 2017 [10 favorites]

If you are in or near New England, SmallCorp in Greenfield MA can fabricate practically anything out of acrylic. They do beautiful work.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 4:04 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Any acrylic fabricator can cut a rectangle with rounded edges for you in about 60 seconds. Google for one near you and pop in.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:19 PM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

Yep, plastics store.
posted by so fucking future at 4:20 PM on February 13, 2017

Buy a sheet of acrylic from the local hardware store (maybe $5-10), and just spend a few minutes with some 220 grit sandpaper to round the corners and edges.

It seems like many archivists have to make what they use. It wouldn't surprise me if no one sold this kind of thing.
posted by gregr at 4:22 PM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd just buy something that already exists, like this clear cutting board.
posted by phunniemee at 4:40 PM on February 13, 2017

TAP Plastics made me a custom plexiglass tray I'm very happy with, so I second them. They seem to serve a lot of art students, so maybe there's an art supply store near you that would do this kind of thing?
posted by vickyverky at 4:44 PM on February 13, 2017

Yeah, we make our own in-house with 1/16" or 1/8" plexi. I ask them to cut it a bit larger than ledger sized paper, so about 12x18. You were definitely using it correctly.
posted by CheeseLouise at 4:49 PM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

I do this exact thing in my daily work (photograph archival documents), but I have moved on from shooting under plexi to shooting under plate glass. I have found Plexi scratches very easily, and it holds static, which can make handling thin documents or anything with a friable surface really hair-raising. I frequently photograph old archival architectural drawings which often have color additions and other things which static raises havoc with.

Anyway I use plate glass table-tops (I ordered from Dulles glass & Mirror - they ship), which you can order in any size, and I specifically use "low-iron" glass which is nearly colorless, and I have the factory bevel/round the corners for me. The largest size I can comfortably work with is about 30x40" of 1/4" glass, which is really really heavy but when used on top of a large sheet of 1/2" foamcore with a little cut out to lift the glass it works quite well. I have several smaller pieces - 12x19" and 22x32", which are delightful to work with.

memail me with more questions if you like, I can tell you about the joys of color correcting through the glass and other good stuff.
posted by gyusan at 4:49 PM on February 13, 2017 [16 favorites]

I've used the glass from a thrift store picture frame with the edges covered in masking tape.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 5:54 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

The 3-D Store for the Rhode Island School of Design does special cuts in materials from steel to wood to plexiglass. Do you have a similar school in your area that might do the same?

Or a picture-framing shop, or even the framing counter at a place like Michael's Crafts stores?
posted by wenestvedt at 5:59 PM on February 13, 2017

If you want to use real glass, you should be able to get it from a local glass shop without having to ship. I recently bought a big thick piece of Starphire (low iron) glass in a weird completely custom shape, and it was a snap for them.
posted by primethyme at 6:25 PM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Glass can be shaped with sandpaper just like acrylic can be so don't be put off by sharp corners on commercial glass. I've rounded plenty of glass shelves for refrigerators using a belt sander. Use a medium grit belt like 150-220 and spray the belt regularly with a mist of water from a spray bottle. Just keep the belt damp to act as a lubricant and to keep the dust down. Use a respirator outside. I clamp the sander upside down on my workmate.

Obviously is buying custom glass your glazier will do this for you.

Much more expensive but a somewhat safer would be to order a tempered piece of glass to your specs. It has the advantages of not only being tougher and harder to break than regular glass it also (spectacularly) breaks up into little tiny pieces instead of wrist slitting shards if it does break. Something I'd consider if I had employees or students handling the glass.
posted by Mitheral at 7:00 PM on February 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Most window glass stores can also do the acrylic cutting since they sometimes make plexiglass windows.
posted by irisclara at 7:20 PM on February 13, 2017

Could you ask a contact at the National Archives where they get theirs?
posted by snowmentality at 7:55 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

To build on my comment of yesterday, of course guysan is correct about the problems with plain old plexiglass and I should have been more specific. There are coated acrylic sheets that have anti-scratch and anti-static treatments that are archivally sound and widely used in museums, archives, and libraries, even in contact with friable surfaces. One is made by the company Tru-Vue, which is widely carried by framers, so you might try calling a framing company in your area. I prefer acrylic to glass for several reasons, but it's definitely just a personal preference.
posted by CheeseLouise at 2:46 PM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you for the feedback! It's all very helpful!

I can briefly add that I need this primarily for documents with stiff, heavy creases that create highlights and shadows that obscure the text on the page. It was a huge headache to try to prevent that when I was last at NARA, and some documents were so stiff that I'd have to weigh down the acrylic sheet with a bunch of lead weights just to get it to lay flat (and the acrylic sheet was often being used by another patron, which is why I want my own). So if it makes a difference, I'm not as concerned about getting publication-quality photographs as I am about just being sure things are readable when it comes time to transcribe them. Glass sounds great because of the weight, but it may not matter too much, and it might be easier to get a cheaper acrylic sheet approved for my budget.

There is a follow-up issue that I forgot to mention in the original question: how should I transport this? It sounds like people might be working in lab settings where they don't have to deal with moving this stuff around. Since I'm not going to just tuck a 12"x18" sheet of glass or acrylic under my arm and hop on public transit, how do you move this stuff from place to place without beating it up? This includes flights to possibly a couple different archives around the country.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:08 PM on February 14, 2017

Acrylic is pretty resistant to impact damages. I'd probably just sew up a sleeve out of microfiber lens cleaning cloth (something like this or this) to protect it from scratches. And then tuck the sleeve into an artist portfolio to protect against pointy objects.
posted by Mitheral at 7:33 PM on February 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

At the risk of this being a terrible idea, would to 9"x12" pieces work, and you'd end up with one seam? May not be tenable but if it's that or nothing, then maybe that?
posted by brainmouse at 8:34 PM on February 14, 2017

How should I transport this? In a neoprene laptop sleeve.
posted by Scram at 5:25 PM on February 17, 2017

Since I'm not going to just tuck a 12"x18" sheet of glass or acrylic under my arm and hop on public transit, how do you move this stuff from place to place without beating it up?

Why not? Anyone who sews can make you a sleeve out of a protective fabric. Neoprene if you want, sure, but quilting would work fine too.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:33 AM on February 18, 2017

Hi, I just wanted to follow up with what I ended up getting, in case anyone sees this later on!

I finally got my budget approved, and I bought a sheet of 12"x18" acrylic (from TAP Plastics, because I could get it in the store). It has rounded corners, smoothed edges, and abrasion-resistant coating on both sides. Mine is 1/4" thick, but that's personal preference more than anything else (I just like how solid it feels). I went with acrylic over glass because it cost a fraction of what an equivalent sheet of tempered glass would have cost ($40 vs something like $220). It's slightly bowed, but it still works just fine.

The case is a little bit of a headache -- I'm currently using a flannel pillowcase inside a plastic art portfolio, but that was sort of a last-minute solution. When I have time, I'll make a less cumbersome case solution for myself.

Anyway, thanks so much for all the advice!
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:03 AM on June 9, 2017

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