Vintage computer games and vintage toys display better in their original boxes. But frequently those boxes are in less than ideal condition, especially if you got it at a good price. A pristine box can be worth more than the contents. I recently lucked into a couple of vintage Commodore game cartridge boxes. Their best days were behind them, but I was able to make them presentable again. Here’s my approach to game box repair.
I fixed up quite a few battered books in my day to make them more suitable for resale. The tricks I learned fixing books helped me with fixing game boxes and toy boxes as well.
Removing old tape
The first order of business is usually removing old tape. Frequently when boxes start falling apart, people tape them back together, and that’s not an ideal repair. Tape tends to go yellow on you and eventually make it look worse.
You can remove tape with either lighter fluid or Bestine Solvent, typically sold as a rubber cement thinner. I like Bestine better, but lighter fluid is much more readily available. Soak a cotton swab or cotton ball in the solvent, then apply it to the edges of the tape. The solvent will wick under the edges of the tape and dissolve the adhesive. Apply it a couple of times and you’ll see the tape start to lift. Gently lift the tape, ideally from one of the ends. Try to stay perpendicular. As you lift the tape, apply some more solvent underneath. The idea is to work slowly, adding a bit more solvent to gain a bit more ground, until you can remove all the tape. If it’s especially stubborn, you can heat it up with a hair dryer. The combination of heat and solvent will cause the old adhesive to let go with minimal damage to the paper beneath.
Once you remove the tape, some residue may remain. You can wipe that off with more solvent. It may take a few applications, but you’ll probably be surprised with the results. I’ve made tape disappear without a trace.
I’ve often removed stickers and price tags the same way. But you’ll want to consider whether to remove the stickers. I’ll remove price tags from thrift stores and the like, but if a package still has its original price tag on it, I like to keep it. It’s part of the piece’s provenance. I also think knowing where the stuff came from makes it easier to find more of it. One of my best hauls of vintage Commodore equipment and software came at roughly the midpoint between the former location of a Kmart store and a parochial grade school that used Commodore computers in the 1980s. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I often find things within 2-3 miles of the stores that sold them.
Some price tags, especially the ones from the 1990s and onward, contain a metal security tag in them. These are especially difficult to remove, by design. Sometimes you can’t remove them without damaging the box, which is yet another reason I tend to leave them.
But at any rate, when you want to remove a sticker, use the same technique as you use for tape. Sticker adhesive is often stronger than tape adhesive, so you’ll likely have to use a combination of heat and solvent. Once you get a corner to lift, keep applying adhesive and heat, concentrating on the edge that you’ve managed to lift. Patience is key.
Game box general cleanup
Frequently game boxes aren’t just tattered, they’re also dirty. Lighter fluid or Bestine is usually pretty good at lifting dirt without damaging the ink beneath it. Test in an inconspicuous area, like a box flap, first. If it doesn’t damage the ink, continue on the surface of the box. You’ll remove a lot of dirt and brighten the box in the process.
Flattening game boxes
If the box has creases or warps, use a trick my grandmother taught me. Iron it. Lay it on an ironing board, protecting the printed surface with a piece of parchment paper. You can get parchment at grocery stores in the same section with the aluminum foil and plastic wrap. Use the wool setting with moisture, as the moisture helps to re-form the paper and flatten it back.
If you need to flatten a one-piece box, folding it flat can be helpful. Sometimes this requires disassembly. It’s much easier to work deep creases out of the box if you can disassemble it completely flat.
When I don’t want to fold a box flat, I’ll cut a block of wood to fit snugly inside while I iron it. Having a flat surface inside helps to flatten out creases and warps in thin cardstock. Don’t use foam to hold the box in shape when ironing, because the foam will melt and may stick to the inside of the box. You don’t want that gooey mess.
I’ve seen a lot of advice for mending tears, but I’ve never seen anyone mention my favorite secret weapon for tears: bookbinder’s glue. Bookbinder’s glue is great because it soaks into the fibers but doesn’t cause the paper to warp. And it’s pH neutral, so it won’t degrade the paper over time. I work a small amount into the edge, then line the pieces up as best I can, and work the two pieces back together. Using a small paintbrush helps. While you’ll almost never get it absolutely perfect, it’s amazing how good you can usually make it look. And the repair is very strong.
It helps to clamp the repair together for at least 30 minutes until the glue sets up. I like to take two thin, flat pieces of wood wrapped in wax paper or parchment paper, and clamp the mended cardboard between it with clothespins. The glue won’t stick to wax or parchment paper.
When the box has come unglued, I use the same glue to glue the edges back together. I often need to clamp it, especially if the paper is coated. But the resulting joint is stronger than the original, in most cases.
When game box repair requires reinforcement
Sometimes you can’t glue a tear back together. It’s surprising how often I can, but when I can’t, I reinforce the tear or flap from the inside. Be sure to use an acid free paper. You can get self adhesive gummed paper tape, but the problem with it is it may not necessarily be acid-free. You want to use acid-free supplies in your repairs so the box doesn’t deteriorate any faster than it would on its own. The box probably isn’t printed on acid free paper, but you don’t want to introduce additional acid to make it degrade faster.
Get a piece of acid free paper from a scrapbooking or office supply store. Cut a piece to fit behind the area that needs repair, and crease the paper ahead of time if it’s going behind a corner or a flap. Then apply a bit of your PVA or Uhu Stick to it. Between the paper backing and any glue you put into the tear itself, you’ll get a strong repair that’s more durable than the original.
Regluing large game box surfaces
If you need to reglue along the full length or width of the box, it’s best to use something other than PVA glue to prevent warping. Over large surfaces, even premium PVA adhesive can cause the paper to warp. Spray adhesive is one favored choice, but the problem with spray adhesive is you only get one chance to line it up.
I went to journalism school at the cusp of the transition from paper to digital. That means I learned Quark and Adobe products and I learned old-school pasteup. Our secret weapon was very specific: the Uhu glue stic. While the Uhu Stic is permanent, it’s not an instant bond. So if you don’t line it up quite right, you can unstick it and try again. You may have to add a bit more glue, but at least you get more than one chance to line it up. Then, after you apply it, flatten it down, and you’ll get a permanent bond that’s probably stronger than the original.
Reinforcing game boxes
Often vintage game boxes were flimsy and don’t stand all that well on their own, now that they’re decades old. I like to reinforce them with foam. You can get thin foam core board at craft stores, or thicker pieces of rigid foam insulation board at big-box home improvement stores. Here’s how to break foam board down in the parking lot if it won’t fit in your vehicle.
Cut pieces to fit snugly inside and fill whatever gaps in the packaging that the contents can’t fill on their own. Sometimes you get lucky and some standard thickness of foam board fit tightly, or you can get a good fit by mixing and matching a couple of different off-the-shelf thicknesses.
If you can’t build up a good fit inside, sometimes it doesn’t matter. I’ve sometimes been able to adequately reinforce a box with a piece of foam that fits the width and length tightly. But if you need more strength, you can build up an inner box out of pieces of foam board. It doesn’t need to be a full six-sided box. Cut pieces to fit inside tightly, shortening up two of the sides to leave enough space to account for the thickness of the material. Glue the pieces of foam board together into a box shape and let it dry for several hours, or better yet, overnight. Once it’s dry, place the inner box within the original box. It will stand very well on its own, as long as the inner box is good and square and fits well.
Game box repair: In conclusion
Game boxes are almost always more interesting to look at than loose disks or cartridges, because of the box art. The less ratty and more square the box looks, the better it displays. The box doesn’t have to be perfect. While boxes frequently were discarded, some people did keep their software in the box and place it on a shelf like books. Inevitably, when people unboxed the software to use it, the box took some wear. Poor storage after the machine and software fell into disuse made it worse, but you can reverse some of the wear, at least.
The two boxes I repaired when writing this tutorial both date to 1983. They lived hard lives, then spent decades in suboptimal storage. But a bit of re-gluing and ironing out the creases squared the boxes back up to the point where they can stand on their own and look more interesting than a bare cartridge. Commodore’s software wasn’t terrible for its time, but today it’s more interesting as a collectible than to use. Having presentable boxes to put it in makes it display much better, which in turn makes it more collectible.