How many times have you heard this advice when wondering how to clean your cel: “Just wipe it with a little alcohol on a cotton ball”? Sounds okay, right? After all, what harm can a simple cotton ball and a few drops of alcohol do?


The first thing you need to know is “cotton” balls aren’t always made from cotton. They are often created using rayon, nylon or a combination of synthetic or cotton-like fibers. Synthetic fibers act as tiny little sandpaper grains or razors on a delicate cel and can actually cut tiny grooves into the surface, thus scoring it. If you aren’t looking for them, you might not even see the scratches, but they are there. Even real cotton, used the wrong way, can do the same thing or worse. After a little shrinkage over time the damaged cel weakens dramatically and usually splits along one of the many “scratch” or fissure lines made by the “cotton” ball.


Now, let’s consider the “alcohol”. Most alcohol found in the home is labeled Rubbing Alcohol and is intended to be used on skin. Most often it is comprised of 70% isopropyl alcohol and 30% water. Sometimes ethanol is added as well.

Both isopropyl alcohol and ethanol leave a residue on the cel surface. That’s not good, but it gets worse. Alcohols are natural water absorbers and natural wetting solutions. So, while the alcohol will wet the cel, dissolving solvent-soluble inks or paints, the water in them will dissolve water-soluble inks or paints, and the ethanol, if present, can attack the cel itself. Additionally, natural emollients on or in the cel are removed in the process, leaving the cel vulnerable to oxidation and airborne acids. In short, the present and future value of the artwork can easily be irreparably compromised.


The only issue being addressed above is “alcohol on a cotton ball.” Cels differ markedly throughout animaton history, depending on their manufacturer, age, treatment over time, and many other factors. The composition of a given cel has not even been taken into consideration in the above discussion; it can’t be without examination. Without knowing what is being treated, the potential to do more harm than good is high.


We get calls regularly asking for our recommendations on how best to manage a specific aspect of cel cleaning. The variables are many and each conditional issue affects the next. After well over 30 years we have come to the conclusion there is only so much we can do over the phone. Not only are we working blind, unable to see the cel, but we have no control over how our advice might be applied—or misapplied. Our best recommendation is to let us see and evaluate the artwork and care for it professionally in the lab, if need be. It makes sense, and it’s the safest and most responsible way to treat your artwork.

Having said this, there are some important things you CAN do on your own. They may not sound like much, but may make all the difference in the health and longevitiy of your art:

  • Handle cels or paper art as little as possible and only by the edges with clean and dry hands.
  • Keep all art lying flat until framed properly.
  • You may use a soft, dry cotton cloth, like an old T-shirt, to gently wipe away finger smudges. Wrap the cloth around your index finger and wipe in a gentle circular motion and not ever over the inking or line work.
  • No canned air . . . EVER . . . no matter what you think.
  • Don’t wait till you get to the OMG moment. If you see something unusual or that doesn’t look right on your artwork, call as soon as possible. We will do our best to help you and your artwork, but if you wait the problem won’t heal. And, if you wait too long even we can’t fix it.



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