Refresher Course

Confessions of a happy hinger: how to use stamp hinges to mount stamps

By Janet Klug

It was easier to be a stamp collector 25 years ago. If you needed hinges to affix stamps into an album, you just went to your local F.W. Woolworth variety store and bought a pack of 1,000 peelable hinges, which would set you back only 25¢.

Figure 1. The back of a used stamp with a stamp hinge correctly affixed near the top. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. A thin is clearly visible on the back of this stamp. This type of damage is caused by improper hinge removal. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 3. A stamp in a stamp mount with black background. Click on image to enlarge.

Woolworth's disappeared from the scene at almost the same time as peelable hinges did, making me wonder if stamp conspiracy theorists have ever related the two events.

Sure, stamp hinges still exist, but at the risk of sounding like an old-timer, they just don't make 'em like they used to in the good old days.

I have heard several plausible reasons why hinge quality has declined.

Some say that inferior grades of glassine (from which hinges are manufactured) could be the culprit. Others say that the gum used on hinges has been reformulated. I also heard that the old gum was carcinogenic, and thus its use was banned.

I do not know if any of these statements is true. The bottom line is that the hinges we have today are not as good as the hinges that were available 25 years ago. I live in hope that someday someone again will develop a truly peelable hinge, but that has yet to happen.

Nevertheless, most stamp collectors still use hinges for mounting at least part of their collections. I use hinges on used stamps that I mount on preprinted stamp album pages. I also use hinges on unused stamps that have already been hinged and on unused stamps without gum.

If I feel it is important to preserve mint gum, I almost always put the stamp in a stock book or use stamp mounts instead of disturbing the gum with a hinge. Once you have done that, it can't be undone.

Even though stamp hinges are not what they used to be, using them still has many advantages. Hinging is still the fastest, most economical way to mount stamps in an album. Stamp hinges allow better air circulation around stamps, allowing them to breathe better than stamp mounts do. Hinges do not add much bulk to an album or cause album bulge as most mounts do.

With care, hinges can be safely removed from stamps and album pages without damage to either the album or the stamp. It is just not as simple as it used to be in the peelable hinge era.

Nearly all of today's stamp hinges measure approximately ½ inch by 7/8 inch and have moisture-activated gum on one side. Most stamp hinges are prefolded so that approximately one-third of the hinge is folded over, gum side out. The short third is the part of the hinge that is affixed to the back of the stamp, while the longer two thirds of the hinge is used to affix the stamp to the album page.

The process of affixing a hinge to a stamp and then the stamp to the album page is simple, but beginners might have some difficulty acquiring the knack, especially while using stamp tongs.

The side of the stamp with the printed design is the face. The side to which the adhesive was applied is the back of the stamp. Some stamps also have printing on the back, such as biographical notes or technical information. But it should be obvious in most cases which side is the face and which side is the back of a stamp.

Here is how to apply a hinge. Grasp the stamp with the tongs and observe which side of the stamp is the top, oriented by the design on the face. Place the stamp face down, but remember which side of the stamp is the top. The hinge goes near the top of the back side of the stamp.

Lightly moisten the short flap of the stamp hinge and affix it to the back of the stamp just below the perforations at the top, but not extending into the perforations. If the stamp is not perforated, affix the hinge just below the cut edge, so that the hinge does not extend beyond the top of the stamp.

The fold on the hinge should be at the top, and the longer part of the hinge should point downward.

The back of a used stamp with a stamp hinge correctly attached is shown in Figure 1.

Use tongs to pick up the stamp that now has a hinge affixed to it. Lightly moisten the bottom half of the hinge that was not affixed to the stamp.

Use tongs to carefully place the stamp on the album page. Once the stamp is in place, use tongs to lift gently the bottom of the stamp up and away from the album page. The stamp should easily flip, as though it were swinging on a hinge (which, of course, is exactly what it is doing).

By lifting the stamp away from the page after mounting it, you are giving the moisture you applied to the hinge a few extra seconds to dry and thereby are reducing the possibility of having the back of the stamp become stuck to the album page.

What happens if you inadvertently put the stamp in the wrong spot on the page or the wrong page?

Stifle the urge to immediately pull the stamp from the wrong place. Pulling a stamp with a wet hinge off an album page will almost certainly damage the stamp, the page or both.

Allow the hinge to dry completely before removing it. This might take as long as 30 minutes.

When you are quite certain the stamp and hinge have dried thoroughly, grasp the stamp with tongs and give it a gentle tug. If the stamp does not come easily away from the album page, stop. Giving a harder pull will damage the stamp and probably the album page. Most damaged stamps described as "thinned" received this form of damage because of improper removal from a stamp album or sloppy hinging techniques.

The back of a stamp showing thin damage caused by the improper removal of a hinge is shown in Figure 2.

If you find you have a stamp that needs to be removed from an album and is not budging, there are methods that can be employed to keep the stamp and page that it is on in decent collectible condition.

One method is to use a small, clean artist's brush to moisten the hinge that is stuck to the album page with a small drop or two of clean water. Allow the water to be absorbed through the back of the hinge for a few seconds, then try lifting a corner of the hinge with your tongs. You can also use this method to remove the hinge from the back of the stamp.

Once removed, the hinge will leave a mark on the gum of unused stamps. Allow the album page from which the stamp has been removed to dry thoroughly before you close it and put it away. This will eliminate the pages sticking together from any residual hinge gum.

Another method is used by some museums to remove hinges. This requires the use of methyl cellulose, which is available from archival supply dealers. The methyl cellulose is mixed with warm water to form a gel. The gel is applied to the stuck hinge using an artist's paintbrush. Allow the gel to absorb for about 30 seconds and then peel the hinge away from the stamp.

A sweat box can also be used to remove hinges from the backs of stamps, but this is not practical for removing hinges from album pages.

Sweat boxes are available commercially, but you can make one yourself using a new, clean sponge and a new, clean plastic storage container with a tight-fitting lid.

Cut the sponge to fit into the container. Put a few tablespoons of water in the bottom of the container and place the sponge on the water. Put the stamp on top of the sponge and put the lid on. The humidity will do the work of softening the gum on the hinge.

After 24 hours, remove the stamp from the sweat box. Use your tongs to peel away the hinge. If it still does not come up easily, put the stamp back into the sweat box for another 24 hours and try again.

Of course, you can eliminate the worries of hinging altogether by using stamp mounts.

Mounts come in strips that you cut to size, or you can order them already cut to fit the stamps you wish to mount. There are several brands of mounts. Some have a sealed edge only at the bottom; others have sealed edges at both top and bottom with a slit in the middle through which you insert the stamp.

They can be purchased with black backgrounds or clear backgrounds.

The black backgrounds make the colors of the stamps pop, but they also accentuate pulled perforations and bad centering.

Figure 3 shows an Angolan stamp in a black mount that has been cut to size.

If black mounts are not cut to size very carefully, they will not look as nice in the album. You can try cutting them with scissors, if you have a very steady hand and a clear eye, but hobby supply dealers also stock stamp mount guillotines, similar to small paper cutters, that can be used to cut mounts to size with near-perfect straight edges.

Mounts protect stamps very well and eliminate the worry of thins or damage from stuck hinges, but mounts also have some disadvantages.

They are more expensive than hinges, and one size does not fit all stamps. Those who use mounts need a vast variety of sizes to accommodate all the different permutations of stamps.

Mounts add significant bulk to a stamp album, and once in an album they are exceedingly difficult to remove without tearing the album page and rendering it useless.

Of course, as long as a mount is the right size, there is no need to remove it. If you acquire a better example of a stamp and want to swap it out in your collection, you simply remove the old stamp from the mount and place the better example in its place.

A third and even more expensive option is to buy hingless album pages. Hingeless album pages come with stamp mounts affixed to the pages.

In addition to expense, another drawback of hingeless pages is that the stamp you want to mount must exactly fit the mount already affixed to the page. This excludes mounting stamps with attached selvage or in pairs.

Hinges or mounts? Only you can decide how you want to care for your collection.

No matter what method you like, if you use reasonable care and be a good curator, your collection will give you and others pleasure for decades to come.