Saturday, April 2, 2022

Sunlight vs Cards (research on fading)

The dormant Pack War blog by Corky used to do a neat series of "things done to cards (so you don't have to)" or something like that where he'd bury a card in the ground for a year to see what happens to it.. stuff like that.

Along those lines, I wanted to do some first-hand experiments taking a look at the effects of sunlight on trading cards.

Back on 2/28/2021, I placed a duplicate of Tony Gwynn's 1989 Upper Deck in a window that gets a lot of direct sunlight, curious to see how faded it'd get after a year. I took a photo a year later on 2/28/22:

Would you look at that? Old Mr. Sun seems to have bleached away most the magenta and yellow ink, leaving the card black & blue. I think it's pretty cool, and filed away the unofficial blue parallel in my Gwynn PC.


Not too long after putting the 89UD card on the windowsill, I got creative with another "card in the sun" idea. This time I blocked part of the card to try to limit the sun-bleaching to a certain area. I wanted to make a 1990 Donruss card look like there was a "vision beam" from Tony's eyes. I'm sure there are more interesting things that could be done with this concept (like, stencil out a Padres logo over the card or something?), but hey, it's just a rough test.

Oof. I should have anticipated that baking painters tape for several months in the sun would have an adverse effect on it. Ended up with too much paper loss to consider the experiment a success, but at least now I know not to use tape with things like this in the future. (And yep, I've already got a couple new Gwynn dupes messing around on the windowsill, so check back in a year or so to see how they turn out.) 

The "vision beam" came out alright, though it looks more like it's coming from Tony's earflap than his eyes. ("Hearing beam"? Was the secret to Tony's success that he used sonar to echolocate the ball? lol)


Finally, I've been intrigued by how the ink on Topps Retired autographs seems to vary with cards on the secondary market. This auto-per-pack product had 3 releases, 2003-2005, and has been a collecting focus of mine for years, as regular readers know. I've busted my share of this product over the years and every "pack fresh" Retried auto I've ever seen features a signature in bright blue Sharpie, though I've seen several on the secondary market that have duller blue ink, often close to black, and sometimes even ostensibly "black ink" autos that have faded significantly. Funny thing is I don't recall ever seeing any faded blue autos (or bold black ink autos), so this effect is most likely due to sun exposure.

Experiment begun 2/1/22 - no difference in ink

I chose 2003 Bill "Moose" Skowron as my guinea pig because it seems to be the cheapest and easiest to find of the Retired autos. Plus I happen to have 2 good copies of it, so one can be kept in the dark as the control. Scientific! It's my hypothesis that the bright blue ink will eventually become darker, likely appearing to eventually "change" to black ink as it fades. The above photo shows identical ink appearance on the 2 autos as of the evening of February 1st, 2022. The encased card is the control and the loose card was put in the window moments after this shot was taken.

[... time passes ...]

Yep, after just one month (--at that, February, a short, cloudy month--), the ink has definitely darkened somewhat.

[...More time passes as this post sits in my "drafts"...]

Wow, not even to the 2-month point yet, but the ink has deteriorated a lot since the previous check-in. Now the ink does in fact look closer to black sharpie than blue, and the last name especially has begun fading away. A rise of sunny springtime days likely contributed to the accelerated impact.

Since the card is toast already, I suppose I'll leave it out indefinitely in the interest of curiosity. By the end of the year, I'd expect the signature to be barely visible and we'll eventually see the rest of the card start to fade. However, all Topps Retired autos are on Chrome stock, and-- scribbled Sharpie ink aside-- Chrome cards seem to be more resistant to the elements than standard paper cards. Keep in mind that when Moose jotted down that particular "on card" signature two decades ago, it wasn't a cardboard surface he was pressing that felt-tip onto, but rather (I'm paraphrasing here, but it's something like) a thin sheet of plastic covering layered ink printed in reverse affixed to a foil layer backing, and some cardboard mixed in and on the back. So I won't expect it to look as "bad" as the earlier '89 Upper Deck Gwynn ended up after a year, but I guess we'll see. (Funny to note that Chrome card technology was pitched to Upper Deck first, but I guess the money wasn't right for them and they passed, but Topps signed on instead and ended up getting revenge for the whole 1989 "premium card" disruption once Finest refractors began heating up the pages of Beckett.)

Wrapping up here, a takeaway from this post is to be careful when displaying cards. Ha, "no duh", but the sun can potentially do a number on them before too long. Even in a place that gets much less sun than a windowsill can still do damage over time. For me, with any cards I'd be concerned about replacing ($$$/low print run/etc), I try not to display for long. Maybe put a nice card on the display shelf for a couple weeks, focus a satisfied glance on it occasionally during its "time in the sun" (if you'll excuse the phrase), and then file it away in the dark for storage after a bit. And just like rotate cards out like that. One idea I've thought of but haven't really gotten around to is to take a photo with some of my best cards laid out, then use the photo as my desktop background pic or something... then you get to admire the cards frequently while the actual cards are safely stored away. Another strategy is to cover up cards on display during the time you're not actively appreciating them, like drape a little cloth over a card when you're not actually hanging out in that area. Humblebrag, but I like to put a pack of sticky notes or something over my Roberto Clemente autograph when heading out at the end of the day when I've got it displayed at my desk at work. It's not in a spot that gets much sun, but still.. don't want that baby fading! (though in that instance, it's a pencil autograph, and the effects of sunlight on pencil seems like a whole 'nother experiment.) 

Thanks for reading... Hope this post was informative and entertaining so those 3 baseball cards weren't "destroyed" in vain! :)


  1. Very cool and neat to see the effects over time. Thanks for destroying your cards so the rest of us don't have to destroy ours. Actually, I think the 1990 Donruss idea was great - and yes, a team stencil overtop of a card like that could be super cool if there was a good way to keep the stencil in place all year long (without using tape).

  2. Whoa. Crazy what a month of sunlight will do to one of those autographs. Can't wait to see more of your sun faded custom creations in the future.

  3. I love your new blue Gwynn parallel!

  4. I like the science behind why things turn blue in the sun (blue light is higher energy than red or yellow so blue pigments, by reflecting blue light, don't break down as fast). The fact Chrome cards don't fade as quickly is the most interesting thing to me here and I can't help but wonder if it's related to being printed on the back of the plastic so the light has to penetrate another payer in order to hit the pigment.

  5. I recently took down a display with some of my favorite vintage cards in it because it was getting a bit of sun exposure. Nothing got too badly damaged, but it was noticeable on a couple cards.

  6. That's one of the reasons I'm in a decades long project of scanning my entire collection. So I can look at them any time without physically having to move bunches of boxes, risking sun damage or more likely for me drop damage.

    Your vision beam probably would have worked better in a top loader or penny sleeve, but I'm not sure how the sun would interact with them.

  7. I hope you end the Skowron experiment before the signature is completely gone.

    Al the street vendor I bought cards from would display about 50 cards on his table in toploaders. When the sun was out he would put cardboard over them to prevent fading.

  8. I like the drape idea, one might say the card gets a curtain call.

  9. Shawn's experiments were fun. It's nice to see someone picking up where he left off.

  10. It pains me to see the Moose signature fade away though!

  11. My ocd is dying looking at these