Spend a relaxing afternoon soaking stamps

May 14, 2001, 1 PM

By Charles Snee

What is your earliest recollection as a stamp collector? If you're like me, it probably relates to the time-honored tradition of soaking used stamps from envelope paper. No doubt soaking stamps was one of the first techniques that most of us practiced in the beginning days of our collecting pursuits.

Happily, you don't need much to soak stamps. Figure 1 shows the basics: a bowl of warm tap water, some old newsprint (your local paper is a good source), tongs and, of course, a pile of stamps clipped from envelopes and assorted package wrappers.And why not? Soaking stamps is loads of fun and, at least for me, a tremendous way to unwind after a hectic work day. So, let's review here the basics of soaking stamps, looking at one of various ways it can be done.

Set up shop away from drafts and any direct heat source, such as the sun. Give yourself room to spread out. I use my dining-room table. Most of the stamps I used for this column are recent United States stamps, both lick-and-stick and self-adhesive. A few Swiss water-activated definitive (regular-issue) stamps are included.

Figure 1, right, shows a few sheets of wax paper and some thin cardboard cut from a department store gift box. These come into play near the end of the drying process, after the stamps have been soaked from their clippings.

Place the stamps into the bowl face up so that water completely covers them. It's best to soak a small number of stamps at a time. This allows the water to get at the stamps and begin liberating them more quickly. Once water begins to penetrate the stamps and the clipping paper, you'll see that some clippings will float, while others sink to the bottom. This can be seen in Figure 2.

Some stamps having water-activated gum will start to separate from their clippings first, within a minute or so. Look for a stamp corner to start curling away from the paper. Some stamps will soak free almost immediately — in less than a minute. This happened with several stamps from the batch illustrated here. Others require more time. Patience is the key. You need to allow sufficient time for the water to penetrate the clipping paper completely.

A word of caution: Some recent U.S. and foreign self-stick stamps do not respond well to a standard water soak. Even after a soak of several hours, these stamps sometimes stubbornly refuse to let go. A couple of examples include the United States 33¢ Coral Pink Rose stamp (with "2000" year date) from double-sided panes of 20 and the 33¢ Adoption stamp.

But don't despair. The majority of U.S. self-stick stamps are good soakers. A water-soluble layer sandwiched between the stamp paper and the adhesive layer lets the stamp float free, leaving the adhesive layer on the clipping. This adhesive layer is easy to see when the stamp is free and the clipping is still wet. Still stuck to the paper, it looks like a gooey ghost image of the stamp.

Those soaked stamps have been sitting in the bowl shown in Figure 2 for about five minutes. A few have floated free and are resting on the bottom. As you fish them out of the bowl, gently rub the back of the stamp between thumb and forefinger. This helps dislodge any remaining adhesive residue. You'll know you got it all off when the back no longer feels slick. Once the stamp is out of the water, place it against the side of the bowl above the waterline, as pictured in Figure 3. Excess water will run off the stamps back into the bowl.

Some stamps may still cling to their clippings in a few places. Test the progression of the soak by attempting to peel the stamp from the paper. Keep in mind that the thicker the envelope paper, the longer it takes the water to penetrate it and loosen the stamp. Go slowly and don't bend the stamp paper too much. Remember, a stamp can tear much more easily when wet.

If resistance is met, put the stamp back in the water for a couple more minutes. By this time, the water may have gotten cloudy from adhesive residue, cancellation ink and ink from paper clippings. If you have lots of stamps to soak, change the water frequently.

Also, be especially careful when soaking stamps from brightly colored paper. The ink may bleed onto the stamp and permanently discolor it. Cancel ink also might do this. If you notice any ink bleed, move the suspect clipping to a separate soaking bowl.

Once most of the water has run off the stamps, rinse them. Drain them again on the edge of the bowl, then transfer them to a piece of newsprint by slowly sliding the stamps toward the rim of the soaking bowl. Go slowly, as adhesion between the bowl and the still-wet stamps can cause tearing. Place the stamps face down initially and allow more water to evaporate.

Use tongs to turn the stamps over so the newsprint will absorb any excess water from the back, as shown in Figure 4. The stamps need only stay on the newspaper for a few minutes or so, long enough for the standing water to be absorbed but not long enough for the stamps to dry completely. If they did dry there they would end up with annoying curls and ripples.

To solve this problem we need to construct a simple drying apparatus. Here's where the cardboard and wax paper come into play. Take one piece of cardboard and place a sheet of wax paper on top. Then use tongs to place the slightly damp stamps on the wax paper, leaving sufficient room between each stamp, as illustrated in Figure 5. Then place another sheet of wax paper on top of the stamps, followed by another piece of cardboard.

The wax paper is effective for two reasons — it draws out the remaining water and the wax prevents the stamps from adhering to the paper. The cardboard provides support and an additional water absorbent barrier. This cardboard-wax paper composite is then slipped between the covers of a large book, as shown in Figure 6. A few more books should be piled on top. The added weight helps the stamps dry flat. Usually several hours are all that is needed to complete the drying process and ensure that the stamps are flat.

All that remains is to remove the stamps from the drying book and store them. Figure 7 pictures a few of the stamps we started with being safely placed in an album stock page. This simple, step-by-step review of how to soak and dry a batch of stamps is a recipe for relaxation. I know you'll have as much fun doing it as I did.