By Michael Baadke
Stamp collecting is one of the few hobbies that you can enter without any cost.
All you need is a pair of scissors, a cup of water and yesterday's mail.
Many collectors remove postally used stamps from envelopes by soaking them in water. Once free from the envelope paper, the stamps can be dried, flattened and added to a collection.
Stamp soaking is an activity practiced by stamp collectors everywhere. The steps for successful stamp soaking are fairly simple, and the end result is often a terrific collection of postally used stamps.
Collectors soak stamps in water because almost any other method of removing the stamp from paper is likely to damage the stamp.
If a collector pulls up on a stamp corner to peel it off an envelope, for instance, it is almost certain that a layer of paper from the stamp will tear free and remain stuck to the envelope.
The resulting stamp is damaged with what collectors call a "thin": any area where a layer of stamp paper is missing.
The stamp will probably be creased or even torn as well.
The condition of your postage stamps is always very important. Some collectors do not save damaged stamps at all, while others may use them to fill an empty space on an album page until an undamaged example can be found.
Many collectors soak stamps from the daily mail, while others buy on-paper mixtures of stamps to sort through and soak.
Collectors can find offers of stamp mixtures for sale among the many classified ads in the back pages of Linn's Stamp News.
Here are some step-by-step instructions for stamp soaking that should help you build your collection in no time.
1. Inspect your covers. Covers are the envelopes, postcards and parcel wrappings that make up the mail. Collectors get many of their stamps from covers, but there are times when cutting off the stamp is a bad idea.
Covers that show special mail services have been used, such as registered mail or certified mail, should be saved intact. Chances are that such a cover will be more valuable to a collector or stamp dealer than the stamps alone.
Similar markings, such as return-to-sender, postage due and so on, are also likely to be of interest to a specialist collector.
If you're not sure if a cover should be cut, set it aside until you can find out more information, or check with a knowledgeable collector or a stamp dealer.
2. Cut the stamps off the envelopes. Once you've decided the covers you have don't need to be saved intact, you can begin to cut the stamps off, as shown in Figure 1.
Always be very careful not to cut any part of the actual stamp. Trim around the stamp leaving at least one-quarter inch of paper on all sides for safety's sake.
If a stamp is cut, it's considered damaged. If the damaged stamp is common, choose another example of the same issue for your collection.
Don't cut printed stamps from stamped envelopes or postal cards. These are the stamps that are printed directly on the stationery, not applied by the mailer.
Such stamps don't soak off. Postal stationery items should be saved intact, though some collectors save the printed stamps from envelopes as cut corners, often cut to 2-inches by 4-inches in size.
Instead of cutting or discarding such items, consider starting your own postal stationery collection or trade the items with a friend.
3. Sort your clipped stamps. If you have a large number of stamps, it may help to sort them before soaking and soak only as many as you can handle to start.
Stamps can be sorted by country or geographic region, by issue dates (older vs. newer stamps), by topic, or by some other designation you choose.
Sorting before soaking saves time sorting the stamps afterward.
Also look out for colored envelope paper at this point.
The dye used to color envelope paper often is not colorfast, which means it may begin to seep out into water and stain your stamps.
Even manila envelope paper can be a hazard. Red or green paper used for holiday greeting-card envelopes, such as the example shown in Figure 2, is particularly dangerous.
Stamps on manila paper can be soaked together, but they should be removed from the bath immediately after they float free of the paper and be placed into clean water.
Stamps on darker colored paper should be soaked separately, perhaps in running water, or not at all. It's usually better to find another example of the same stamp on white paper.
Some collectors suggest that adding a little salt to a cold-water soak reduces the dangers of colored paper. Try this method first with stamps that you won't mind risking, and see if it works for you.
4. Soak your stamps. Find two sturdy, clean containers: one to soak your stamps and one to rinse your stamps.
You can soak stamps in something as small as a cereal bowl or you can go for a larger container. The on-paper stamps will float near the surface of the water, so you want enough area at surface level to keep an eye on your stamps as you tend to them.
Fill both containers using water that is room temperature or a little warmer. Place the stamps you want to soak face up in one container, as shown in Figure 3.
Dunk the stamps under water using your fingers or stamp tongs to get them wet on the face. Some collectors soak stamps face down, but by soaking the stamps face up it is easier to see when the stamp has floated free of the envelope paper.
Some stamps will come free within just a few moments. Others may require a soak of a half-hour or more before they float away from the paper.
Wet stamps are even more fragile than dry stamps, so patience is an important virtue at this stage of the game. Pulling a stubborn wet stamp away from the envelope paper will probably damage the stamp. Let the tough stamps soak a little longer, and they should eventually fall away from the paper.
5. Rinse. When a stamp comes free of the paper, use tongs to pick up the stamp and place it into the clean water rinse container. Discard the leftover envelope paper.
Some collectors prefer to use broad-tipped stamp tongs to handle wet stamps, as shown in Figure 4. Tongs with pointed tips may pierce the wet stamp paper.
Other collectors prefer to use their fingers to handle wet stamps. In either case, take care not to bend perforation tips or stamp corners or otherwise damage the stamp.
A 10-minute soak in the clean-water rinse will help remove any remaining adhesive residue from the stamps.
6. Dry. After they are rinsed, the stamps can be transferred to a towel or clean absorbent paper to air-dry for 10 to 15 minutes, as shown in Figure 5.
This reduces some of the moisture on the surface of the stamp, but the stamp should still be damp.
7. Flatten. Collectors prefer nice flat stamps to add to their collections. There are dozens of different ways that collectors choose to flatten their soaked stamps.
One of the easiest methods involves the use of a stamp drying book, as shown in Figure 6. These books have alternating glossy and absorbent pages.
Beginning at the back of the book, stamps are placed face up on the clean glossy page. That way, the stamp can be removed from the page later even if a little adhesive remains on the back of the stamp.
When the glossy page is covered with stamps, the absorbent page ahead of it is turned to cover the stamps.
The next glossy page is then turned so more stamps can be placed on it and the process is repeated.
Once all the stamps are in the drying book, a heavy weight (a thick book) is placed upon the closed drying book for several hours.
Collectors may also press stamps flat by sandwiching them between thin cardboard and wax paper, and then weighting them with a heavy object.
Some collectors place stamps within the pages of a telephone book.
You may try one of these methods or even find your own way to get nice flat stamps to show off in your collection.