I am forever amazed at how little attention most magicians pay to the way in which they prepare their cards for use. Pianists are very particular about the tuning and regulation of their instrument; violinists carefully tune the violin and resin the bow; drummers tune and tighten the drum heads, nail their bass drums to the floor, adjust pedal tension and make sure that the kit doesn't ring. Magicians, regardless of conditions, whip out a deck and expect it to perform. They complain bitterly when the deck "acts funny." Cards may only be paper but they are sensitive to how they are treated. As many will know, most playing cards are composed of three layers. The two layers on which the front and back are printed are made of what is called coated stock. (Some are glazed and some are plastic coated.) The center layer is a papier-mache-like bonding layer that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. All mass-produced cards are printed in large sheets or on rolls, then die cut on a huge press or with a rotating wheel. The result is that the edges of the cards include an exposed edge of the center bonding layer, which is a virtual sponge. Increasingly over the years, U.S. Playing Card Company, the world's largest manufacturer of cards, has tried to use their dies for more decks before replacing them, as a means of cutting production costs. The result is that many decks are shipped with edges that are ragged from being cut by worn dies or blades. U.S. Playing Card decks have gotten worse and worse, but other companies also have unsealed edges on their cards. For most purposes this process is fine, and decks perform as intended. There is little point in complaining to U.S. Playing Card or others because magicians constitute far too small a part of the market for us to matter. We are left to find our own solutions.
I have experimented with any number of approaches over the years in an effort to find the best way to break in a deck. I want it to handle well for as many things as possible, and I want it to last as long as it reasonably can. Thus far, the best approach is as follows: Obtain a mens all-cotton handkerchief. (I'm not sure why, but blends of cotton and other materials don't work as well.) Wash it and allow it to dry fully, then soak it in Downy-brand fabric softener. (Some other softeners work, but it's hit and miss.) Lay out the handkerchief to dry at normal room temperature in an area that is dust-free but has good ventilation. It may take a while (as much as a day) for the cloth to dry. Don't try to hurry the process and don't put it in a dryer.
Store the prepared handkerchief in a cool, dry, dust-free environment—a plastic bag works well. When you're ready to break in some cards, it should be a fairly dry day and the room should not be too warm. Open a number of decks at one time and give each a gentle perfect Faro, with the deck held by each end and side (that's four Faros in all), then carefully square the cards. Take the handkerchief and rub the side of each deck vigorously in full strokes, on all sides, running from end to end (it's like a squaring action). Eventually the sides of the deck will feel smooth. This will take varying amounts of work, depending on the degree of roughness that existed before you started. You will need to change spots on the handkerchief from time to time as you rub. When you have done all the decks, put them back into their cases and store them for three days. (In a pinch, one day will do). I usually do a dozen decks at a time. The preparation on the handkerchief will be used up by then and it will need to be washed and retreated.
The process I've described works for a number of reasons. The handkerchief acts as a gentle abrasive to smooth the edges of the cards, the Downy (an aqueous dispersion of non-ionic sterates in a colloidal suspension) acts as a sealant and moisture repellant. It also tends to act like an extremely light coating of fanning powder, applied only to the edges but without the caking tendency of the powder. A deck once treated this way can last for months, provided it isn't used in a dirty or moist environment; and it will continue to function well, provided it is not used for more than about an hour at a time. If you do use a deck for more than an hour, it will take longer before you can use it again. A general rule is: one day of rest for every hour or portion thereof of use.
I am not suggesting that all your decks necessarily be treated like this. It is, after all, a bit of work. I am suggesting that the decks you use for performance be so treated. You'll be surprised at the difference it makes. A good deck will feel like putty in your hands; it will seem that every move you do is finer, neater and more reliable. It isn't a cure for a lack of practice, but it is a major help at the time when you need it most—during performance.
I should add that these treated decks should not be used for practice or general use, though you may wish to use one during rehearsal, and you should use one during full-dress rehearsal. For general use, day to day, and practice, try to use decks in every possible condition. It's the only way to develop a good sense of which techniques can be done reliably with decks in various states of wear. It is actually harder to compensate for a slippery deck than for a sticky one. Experience with decks in different conditions is an excellent teacher.
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