Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Technique - How to Soak Stamps

One popular past-time for the stamp collector is soaking stamps off of envelopes. This makes your stamps take up less area, and is the only way to put stamps in most stamp albums. While you can purchase stamps that have already been removed from paper, the most economical way to collect stamps is to soak them off of your own mail. This entry gives advice on how to soak stamps so that you can add them to your collection.


  1. Make sure that the stamps should be soaked. There are some stamps that must not be soaked. Read my two previous entries entitled When Not to Soak - Part 1 and Part 2, to refresh your memory on the types of stamps that should not be soaked.

  2. Trim loose paper. There is no use soaking entire envelopes as that only serves to take up space in the soaking bowl, and has the potential to dirty the water with ink smudges or grime from the envelope. Instead, trim around the stamp so about one-eighth of an inch (0.3 cm) surrounds the stamp. This gives you enough extra paper to safely handle the stamp, yet it doesn't take up a lot of extra space.

  3. Segregate the stamps by envelope color. Be aware that envelope dyes, particularly red, will wash out while soaking, contaminating nearby stamps. Soak stamps on colored envelopes by themselves, in very small batches, to prevent the dyes from washing out and tinting all of your stamps.

  4. Prepare a bowl of water. Most people will want to use a clean bowl to soak their stamps. I prefer a glass bowl, typically called a casserole dish, which is about 2 inches (5 cm) deep. I put about 1 inch (2.5 cm) of lukewarm water in the bowl. Some people suggest only cold water, but I have found good results in mildly warm water, as this helps to soften the glues, especially on self-adhesive stamps. Some also suggest adding on drop of liquid soap so as to lower the surface tension of the water and helping to clean the stamp. I've found this to be a matter of personal preference, although if you do so, you will want to rinse the soaked stamps before drying them, so as to remove any chemical residues.

  5. Work in small batches. I find that working in small batches, keeps me focused on the task at hand, plus allows me to change the water before it gets too dirty. The water will deteriorate after a batch of stamps have been soaked, so you will often want to replace the water. Having to do so while the bowl is half-filled with stamps, just leads to a mess.

  6. Place the stamps in the water. Some will suggest that you gently put the stamps on top of the water, so that only the backing paper gets wet. This suggestion will work well, but I've found that, with care, you can immerse the stamps below the surface of the water. The only precaution is that when the stamp is immersed, it becomes more delicate to handle, as the wet paper fibers in the stamp can be easily damaged. Other than damaging a few stamps (usually due to rushing the process), I've found that fully immersing the stamp speeds up the process slightly, and tends to wash any surface dirt off of the stamp.

  7. Take your time. There is no way to hurry the time needed to soak stamps. The water has to penetrate the stamp and/or the envelope so that the glue can be softened. Pulling on a stamp prematurely, or trying to do too much in a short time, only leads to frustration and damage to stamps.

  8. Remove the soaked stamps from the water. Once the water has done its magic, the stamp will begin to float off of the paper. You can help it along with a gentle pull with your stamp tongs, but if you are unsuccessful, let it soak longer. The stamp will usually float free by itself, although some self-adhesive stamps are very difficult to soak and may have to be collected on paper.

  9. Dry the stamp. When pulling the stamp out of the soaking bowl, gently shake the stamp, or drag it across the lip of the bowl, so that excess water is removed. Some stamp collectors will then put their stamps on newsprint to dry the excess water. I usually put mine in a special stamp-drying book that has a special material to keep the stamp from sticking. After the stamps start to dry, you can place a book or heavy object on the stamps to press them flat.

  10. Let them dry completely. Do not rush the drying process ... let them dry naturally. If you pull the stamp out and it begins to curl, it is because it was not completely dry. Give the stamps adequate time to dry.



Soaking stamps is fun, even for advanced collectors. It offers some down-time when we can recharge our batteries. Even older, long-time collectors enjoy soaking stamps every once in a while.


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3 comments:

Joshua McGee said...

Soaking is fun, for almost every philatelist I have ever met!

Note that many modern stamps, including European "Frama" labels and self-adhesive stamps produced by US firm Ashton-Potter are entirely unsoakable in water -- the gum simply isn't water-soluble. Advanced collectors can use other solvents (used for purposes from lighting fires to treating dry-cleaned clothes), but many of these are highly toxic, expensive, teratogenic, and abusable as inhalants. In the former case of Frama labels, you hurt doubly: the gum is not water-soluble, but the printer-applied ink is! Great way to get a blank stamp still attached to a piece of paper.

Red envelopes are the worst. My suggestion? Anything common, simply throw away. Anything uncommon, like a Priority Mail stamp? Trim around the paper, leaving the 1/8th of an inch, and mount on piece in your album. Many stamps -- especially Christmas stamps, with which red envelopes are most likely to be used -- look lovely framed in red. If you must soak it, soak it alone. A muffin tin works great for soaking eight "problem" stamps at once.

Listen to the author about full immersion. It may be just me, but I do not have the patience for the floating-off trick. You might need to float off with stamps on chalky paper or with fugitive inks, but new collectors are unlikely to have those to begin with. When in doubt, ask an expert before you soak.

Peeling a half-detached stamp can cause more damage than trying to slide it across the piece. Develop a feel for this; if the stamp feels like it will tear or crumple, there's nothing keeping you from sorting it overnight. Some dealers fill bathtubs and pour in sacks of stamps. Those that float free, great! Those that don't? Not worth the trouble! If you're just starting out and you have under a hundred stamps to soak, ignore this and take care with them. It's good practice, and you'll learn in the process.

Newspaper can be a bad choice, because newspaper is highly acidic (which can leach onto the drying stamp, and cause premature discoloration), and because newsprint is sometimes water-soluble, which can stain the back. Soak in one bowl; use a second bowl to rinse and, if dealing with a self-adhesive, carefully try to roll it (like a spitball) off the reverse of the stamp. Then, transfer face down on a double layer of paper towels. If care is taken, the same paper towels can last you a year. Use the same towels over and over! When they are almost dry, then transfer them to a drying book. Drying books, which can cost good money, have a non-stick surface on one side of every leaf "sandwich" and a blotter side on the other. They are not intended for mostly wet stamps. They will warp the blotter pages -- even the manufacturers warn of this, but they claim the warping has "no effect" on the efficacy of the stamps. Nonsense! Wrinkled and warped blotting paper leads to wrinkled and warped stamps! And the books, even in dry climates, are super-prone to mold. So move the stamps over to the drying book when the top and bottom of the stamp are still touching the paper towels, and the center has begun to pull away. You will protect your investment in drying books.

By the way, with no monetary stake in this, "Desert Magic" is by far the best drying book on the market. Splurge for the full size, and refer your mom to this page when you use up all her counter space with sheet after sheet of paper towels that she paid "good money for"!

Tony Servies said...

Great comments!

I second the note about "Desert Magic" drying books. I have not found anything else better.

They are subject to slight molding and mildewing if the stamps are very wet and they are left a long time. I have found, anecdotally, that it seems to be related to the length of time that the stamps stay in the book. If you take them out within a day or two, the problem doesn't seem to be bad. I think that the task of taking them out, by its very nature, opens the book up, letting the last vestiges of water vapor evaporate and not be "trapped" in the blotting paper.

Joshua McGee said...

I meant, of course, "nothing to keep you from soaking overnight"!

I haven't tried it, but maybe Mr. Servies's advice can be followed by hanging the Desert Magic book between two tables, with weights on the covers, to allow the pages to fan out.

I will stick with my claim that the books are best used to get the very last bit of moisture out of almost dry stamps. That way, you can use your un-warped Desert Magic books as a "stamp press" as well, a more advanced user's tool! Have a warped stamp? Soak it, put it face-down on paper towels, let it mostly dry (until it just starts to curl away from the paper), then put it in your Desert Magic. Put some weights on it. Old encyclopedias are the best, in my opinion, because they are big enough to give your whole book even pressure. Go to almost any yard sale, and you can pick up an out-of-date set of very heavy encyclopedias for about $5. It's probably cheaper than buying cinder blocks!