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On Digitally Restoring Vintage Maps

Restoring the vintage transit maps that I’m now selling in my store is a laborious, time-intensive task, but I think that it’s definitely worth it in the end. The major task is getting rid of blemishes: age spots, ink smears, tears, creases, dirt, dust, and even hair or other fibres that are between the print and the scanning surface.

Obviously, Photoshop’s Clone Stamp, Spot Healing and Patch tools are the main weapons of choice here, but they need to be used intelligently and appropriately. I find that harder brush edges actually work better than soft edges, which tend to make an unpleasant 50/50 border where the original background fades into and merges with the new texture above. The Patch tool works well in discoloured open areas, but is lousy when the patch abuts an area of contrasting colour. The Spot Healing tool is great for removing dust spots with one click, but isn’t so good in areas with a lot of texture. So I definitely find myself flicking between  the three tools a lot as I work.

To make sure that I clean the whole map properly, I use a grid in Photoshop to divide the map up into even squares (a 2-inch grid works nicely for me), and then work through each and every square one after the other, like I was on an archaeological dig. I think it’s the best way to ensure consistency, otherwise I’d just flick through the map at random to fix the “big” problems, missing some of the more detailed work.

Once this is done — and depending on the map, it can take quite a while! — the rest is pretty simple. Some colour balance/white point adjustment to counter the yellowing of the paper while still retaining the “vintage” feel to the map, a general brightening of the image to get a better print, and some moderate high pass sharpening to finish off. The results speak for themselves, as seen in these before and after images of two of the completed maps (use the scrubber to compare).

The 1880 Washington DC Streetcars map is the oldest in the collection, and had a lot of problems relating to its age. I definitely spent a long time cleaning all the dust, ink and scuffs off this map!


This 1902 map of Chicago was in pretty fair condition apart from the fact that it was in two separate pieces. I carefully realigned the two pieces, then painstakingly clone stamped away the remaining crease and fold marks. Definitely worth it!


This gorgeous 1895 map of the Long Island Rail Road was, to put it bluntly, absolutely filthy. Huge streaks of dirt and discolouration covered much of the map and required dedication and patience to remove. Additionally, the original map was in two separate pieces which needed to be rejoined.


A lot of clean up for dust, age spots, fold lines and errant ink was required for the full restoration of this awesome 1931 map of Berlin and its railways, as seen in this before-and-after view of a section of the map just south of Spandau.


This wonderful 1928 pictorial map of railways in Germany had a lot of yellowing from age that required extensive colour correction, as well as the usual spot and crease/tear removal.


  1. Piotr Dubiel

    This is a nice entry. I’ve done some restoration jobs for record sleeves from original artwork and paintings, and it’s cool to see the process documented; it’s pretty much the same stuff I went through.

    I’d document the process myself, but in a fit of idiocy I managed to drag a 1.5 gb source file into the trash, not notice, and emptied the trash before backing it up.

    Anyways, nice work!

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