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Respecting the Cards

“What are people’s opinions on trimming Tarot decks? I’ve done it to my main one and I think it looks pretty good.”

Someone asked this question in one of the Tarot forums I browse regularly. My stomach turned when I read it. I asked him to clarify, “Why trim? To remove the border?” He said, “Yes, they had a white border before.”

Ok. So I know that I preach that Tarot cards are literally images printed onto thick card stock. However… the idea of taking a blade to my cards or ANY cards, for that matter, is upsetting. (*This is not to say that I’m opposed to altered decks. But there is more to an “altered deck” than simply cutting off part of your card.)

My first reaction as a card designer… “Oh NO! Those borders are there for a reason!” For most contemporary decks, the artists are the ones making the call to include a border on their cards or not. Think of it like the difference between tacking your photo straight to the wall or framing it nicely under glass with a mat. The white (or whatever color) border is there as a way to present the main image. If you’re unconvinced… take a doodle you’ve done and frame it like you would a treasured work of art. I guarantee, your doodle will suddenly take on a little more importance.

White borders on playing cards also help protect the image. Unlike most art on paper, we actually touch cards. We handle them a lot! Those borders help extend the life of the main image. It protects them from the wear-and-tear of our hands and shuffling. When you shuffle cards (even gently) it stresses the ends of the card stock. Think of a paperback book after it has been taken on and off the shelf for several years… the corners and edges fluff up a little bit, get nicked, and gather dirt.  Very often the borders are white because the core of the card stock itself is white, which means it will show less wear if there isn’t a contrast right next to the edge. Distance between the edge of the card and the pigments of your main image is a good thing for your cards.

When I mentioned this question of “To cut or not to cut?” to a fellow Tarot reader, she looked horrified and also said she felt sick to her stomach. She said, “That’s violent. ‘I don’t like the way my pinky finger looks… let’s hack it off!'” She felt that it’s disrespecting the deck. I completely agree.

While Tarot cards are a tool… they are a tool for a job that I take seriously. When I read cards for someone, I’m helping them do self-awareness work. As part of that job I create sacred space for myself and my clients. I carry my work deck with me at all times; here’s how I create that sacred space no matter where I am:

  • I leave the box at home, but I wrap the deck in a large silk scarf buffering its edges and corners. Then I tuck it into a double-lined velvet pouch which adds an additional layer of padding. This does two things. First, it protects my cards as best as possible while keeping them usable and portable. A small steel box would get really annoying to carry everywhere really fast. Second, the silk and velvet make it feel nice. I’ve spent a little extra on these accessories for my tools because I feel they are important and I love my job. So while bubblewrap and a sandwich bag might be equally effective at protecting my cards… how seriously could you take me if I presented my work this way?

  • I wash my hands before working with my cards. Obviously this helps extend the life of the cards by keeping them as free from dirt and oils as possible. Hand washing is also a very common aspect of many rituals. It helps establish a mindset that this is something I want to treat kindly; that I want to pay attention to.
  • I lay a cloth under them before I spread them on a table. This keeps them clean. It also sets a space where the cards can be considered together. So while I’m often giving readings on cluttered tables out in public, I’ve still designated a space for the reading simply by laying a cloth down. Like the framing and matting analogy I mentioned earlier.

  • The decks that get used most I clean with a special fanning-powder mixture I’ve made. (That’s my concoction there in the glass container on the bottom shelf of the cabinet.) I use the powder to help clear dirt from the surfaces and maintain the smooth finish. I did my research and found the safest powder to use for the cards themselves and infused it with various scents. This helps my hardest used decks feel clean. And having clean tools in a sacred space is important to keeping that space sacred. Dirt is truly just a distraction when we want to be focused.

  • My decks are stored in a specific cabinet. When I’m not actively using them they go straight back to their cabinet. My decks don’t get lost or accidentally damaged this way. I also keep those little silica gel packets in there with them to help control the moisture.

When we treat the objects we use in meditative practice with a certain reverence and care, it helps us treat what we are doing (important self-awareness work) with reverence and care.

As a reader, your cards are your connection to your client. And you should respect your clients. If you read for yourself… your cards are a vehicle for a conversation with yourself. YOU should be respected!

So if you feel that you just absolutely can’t live with the border on your deck and you STILL want to cut it off… (sigh) do so carefully and make sure that you treat your cards with care and respect in every other possible way.

5 thoughts on “Respecting the Cards

  1. […] … it had borders. (There’s a reason cards have had borders for HUNDREDS of years… actually several reasons. I’ve talked about this before.) […]

  2. You’re right about borders protecting the main image. My 30 year old favourite deck was fine as regards its images, but the edges were mashed open and splitting. I cut off the borders and it was like having a new deck ( almost ). I could now shuffle and use the cards again. I also sprayed them lightly with Mr. Sheen furniture polish, then buffed them with a soft cloth, making them clean and slippery again. However, 3 years later they still smell rather awful to me , so I don’t recommend that second procedure. Maybe sometimes it’s trim , chuck or archive.

    1. Yeah, I would avoid the furniture polish. So far the fanning powder is the best option I’ve found to maintain surface finish. I’m going to keep researching and talking to paper and print preservationists to see what other options there may be.

  3. I cut off the borders on my first – and one of my favorite – decks and I don’t feel that I was “Disrespecting” the deck. Actually, to me I was doing a service to the art (that was trapped in these unnecessary, and horrendously ugly, white borders) and also making the deck that much more meaningful and personal to me after spending so much time and care on it. I have since purchased other tarot decks and I am always SO dismayed when I purchase a vintage deck and it has white borders on the backs of the cards when the classic versions did not. I recently had this experience with the Aquarian Tarot deck and it spurred me to go on eBay and buy a vintage version instead. The borders are a huge annoyance not only with diminishing the impact of the card’s art, but also when you are reading them. When I spread out my cards I like to feel pulled into the mesmerizing/beautiful backs of the cards without being taken out of it by white borders that make them lay more like poker cards than spiritual aids, and make me feel like I am playing some dumb game, and then also effecting which cards I chose based on how much of the actual border is or is not showing…

    1. Interesting. As an artist and designer I feel strongly about presenting the cards as the artist intended. Which varies from artist to artist and deck to deck. I have a copy of Lady Frieda’s Thoth that has AWFUL borders not designed by her, so yes, I understand your feelings too.

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