Refresher Course

Here's how to hinge, mount and handle stamps to avoid damaging them

Not long ago I watched a very experienced collector ruin a nice stamp through careless handling.

Figure 1. A stamp properly hinged to an album page. Hinges got their name because they allow a collector to flip a stamp up on its hinge so its back can be examined. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. Stamp mounts should be affixed only at the bottom or the top, as shown here. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 3. Never handle stamps with your hands. To avoid damage, always use stamp tongs, including when mounting stamps. Click on image to enlarge.

Stamps are paper, and it doesn't take much to damage them, so let's review the proper way to care for the stamps in your collection.

That collector who ruined the stamp was hinging stamps into an album when he realized that one of the stamps he had just hinged was mounted in the wrong space. He immediately pulled the stamp up from the space.

The hinge was stuck firmly to the page, and part of the back of the stamp was stuck firmly to the hinge. The result was that the stamp lost most of its value because it now has a big thin.

Even though today's hinges are generally not peelable, ruining that stamp was completely avoidable.

Never try to pull a stamp from an album or a hinge from a stamp while the hinge is still wet.

If the stamp is used, the hinge will float free after a quick soak in water and the stamp won't be damaged.

If the stamp is unused with original gum, allow it to dry completely before attempting removal. After it has dried, try to pull the hinge from the back of the stamp.

If it does not pull easily and cleanly away from the stamp, don't force it. You can use an artist's paintbrush to apply a little water to the hinge remnant and remove it when the gum on the hinge softens.

Another method to remove stuck hinges from unused stamps is to use a sweat box.

You can buy a sweat box, but you can also make one yourself using items you already have in the house.

All you need is a small plastic food container with a lid. Make sure it is absolutely clean and free of grease.

Place a damp sponge in the bottom of the container and the stamps you want to remove hinges from on top of the sponge. Put the lid on the container and wait patiently.

After several hours or more, the gum on the hinge should have softened enough for you to be able to peel it off by using stamp tongs to get a grip on one corner of the hinge remnant.

Allow the stamp to dry in a drying book or a stamp press, or press it between blotting papers weighted down with a heavy book. When the stamp is dry you can put it away in a stock book or hinge it again for an album.

Using hinges is an inexpensive way to mount a lot of stamps in an album, especially used stamps that have no gum to be affected.

In mounting stamps with hinges, good hinging technique will help to avoid stuck down stamps.

Hinges are called hinges because they allow a collector to flip the stamps up on the hinge and examine the back. A hinge also allows air to circulate around a stamp.

Stamps that have not been hinged properly or those that have been subjected to high humidity or moisture will stick flat on the album pages.

Today most hinges come prefolded with a short side and a long side.

To apply a hinge, lightly moisten the short side and apply it as close as possible to the top of the stamp but below the perforations.

Next, lightly moisten the lower part of the longer side, as close to the bottom of the hinge as possible. Affix the hinged stamp to the album page.

After affixing the stamp to the page, use your stamp tongs to slightly lift the stamp away from the page and hold it like that for a few seconds to allow any extra moisture to dry.

This final step prevents excess moisture from sticking the stamp down flat and assures that the hinge will work as a hinge.

A stamp properly hinged to an album page is shown in Figure 1.

Stamp mounts are a popular way to secure stamps in an album. Mounts are a must for mounting mint stamps on an album page because they do not disturb the stamp gum.

Mounts may be purchased cut to size or in strips that you need to cut to the appropriate size.

Some stamp mounts have one sealed side and three open sides. Others are sealed top and bottom with a split in the back that allows the stamp to be easily inserted.

Stamp mounts are available with clear backs or with black backs. Black mounts provide a nice frame for stamps.

When using mounts, be certain to use the correct size. When in doubt, move up a size. A stamp should not be so tightly placed into a mount that the perforations are jammed against the sealed edges.

When cutting mounts from a strip, measure and cut them to size before putting the stamps into them. Using a specially design mount cutter, a paper cutter or scissors is your choice to make.

Regardless of what you are using to cut the mount to size, cutting a mount with stamp inside it is inviting trouble. One slip and you can cut the stamp.

When affixing stamp mounts to an album page, moisten the mount very lightly at the top of the mount only. Using a mount to protect the stamp's gum won't do much good if you slobber all over the back of the mount and the moisture slips through the slit in the back to damage the gum.

Also, do not moisten the mount at both the top and the bottom. Doing so would make it virtually impossible to remove the stamp without damaging either the stamp or the mount.

Figure 2 shows an album page with the mounts mounted only by their tops.

Handling stamps with your bare hands is never a good idea, and yet many collectors do this even though they know better.

Your hands contain natural oils that help keep your skin soft and pliable. These oils are transferred to the stamp paper when you handle stamps with your hands. If you try to pick up a stamp with your fingers, you can also bend or crease the stamp or bend the perforations.

Use stamp tongs to pick up stamps. It might seem cumbersome at first, but in no time at all you will get the knack of using this important tool.

Figure 3 pictures how to pick up a stamp with a pair of tongs.

Tongs come in different lengths and with pointed, rounded or spade-shaped tips. Try them all to find the one that is most comfortable for you to use.

Do not use ordinary eyebrow tweezers as stamp tongs. They have gripper ridges that will damage stamps.

The worst thing you can do to your collection is to put it in a damp basement or in a stuffy attic without climate control.

The moisture in a basement will encourage mold growth and insect infestation. Attics are just as bad. They are too hot and dry in the summertime and too cold and wet in the winter. Dryness can be just as damaging to stamps as moisture. In very dry conditions, stamps can become brittle.

Stamps, for the most part, are paper. Paper and people like the same sort of climate. Optimal levels are about 65 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent relative humidity. That is colder than I like in either summer or winter, but 70 degrees suits my stamps and me just fine.

The sticky stuff on the back of a stamp is called "gum."

Many collectors will pay extra money — sometimes considerably more money — for mint stamps with pristine gum.

Unused stamps from the classic period are also worth more with part original gum than the same stamps with no gum.

If you are paying more for stamps with original gum, it is important to protect your investment.

This means abiding by climate control guidelines, using stamp mounts, keeping your fingers off the stamps, and maintaining relatively sterile conditions in the areas where you work on your stamps.

Food, drink and tobacco in any form do not mix with stamps.

A drop of coffee or condensation from a glass of your favorite beverage can ruin a stamp.

I knew a collector who had a wonderful collection of Great Britain on which he had spent a great deal of money. But his habit of smoking cigars while he worked on his collection meant that the whole thing reeked of stale cigar smoke, thereby considerably decreasing its value.

For older unused stamps, you must sometimes consider the kind of damage that gum can do over time. Gum is not always stable. It can warp, crack, shrink and discolor.

Removing the gum from an unused stamp sounds counter intuitive, especially given the difference in value for unused stamps with original gum.

If, however, you have a valuable stamp that is developing these sorts of gum problems, consider whether it is more important to conserve the appearance of the front of the stamp or to conserve the gum. If you decide it is the appearance of the front, remove the gum or have a paper conservator remove it.

A stamp with cracked gum will eventually break along the cracks. The original gum won't be of much use or value at that point.

Proper care of your stamps will retain their value, keep them safe for future collectors and provide you greater enjoyment.

For more information on stamp paper conservation, check out the web site of the American Philatelic Society's committee for the preservation and care of philatelic materials at http://stamps.org/CARE/Pcpm.htm.