Common sense and good tools keep stamps clean and undamaged

Sep 23, 2013, 8 AM

It doesn't take much to change a beautiful and perhaps valuable stamp into a ratty scrap of paper.

By their nature, stamps are fragile items. A little bit of negligence can cause a lot of heartache — but that is something you can control and avoid.

Put new material away in a safe place as soon as you bring it home or it arrives from an auction or dealer. Leaving stamps to sit out is an invitation for loss or damage.

Loose stamps, even those in a glassine envelope, can curl if the humidity is high.

Stamps left lying on a desktop can get lost in the shuffle of bills and advertising mail and end up in the trash can or recycling bin. The same goes for covers, which are even more likely to be scooped up with other paper items that will be discarded.

Handle your stamps with care. Always use stamp tongs to pick them up. 

Figure 1 shows the use of tongs to pick up a stamp from Johore (Malaya). 

Many collectors use their bare hands when mounting stamps or placing them in stock books. Even clean hands will leave traces of skin oil on stamps. Over time, these traces of oil and dirt will accelerate discoloration in stamps and other paper items.

Paper is an organic material and readily absorbs moisture and oil, and neither substance is desirable to preserve stamps you want to keep looking nice in your collection.

The same caution applies to keeping food, drink and cigarette or other smoke from your stamp collection.

An amazing amount of irreparable damage can occur instantly with a single cup of coffee spilled across an open stamp album.

Use caution when placing stamps in albums, and even more caution when removing stamps from albums.

If you use hinges to mount stamps in albums, moisten the short end of the hinge and place it near the top of the back of the stamp. Then moisten the bottom third of the long end of the hinge and place the stamp in position on the album page. 

Figure 2 shows a stamp being hinged for mounting on an album page.

After affixing the hinged stamp to the page, use tongs to slightly lift the stamp from the page and hold it there for a few seconds so that the moisture on the hinge can dry. This step accomplishes two things: It allows you to verify that the stamp is mounted correctly so that it moves properly on the hinge, and it helps to prevent any excess moisture on the hinge from oozing onto the stamp and making it stick to the album page. 

If you have placed a stamp in the wrong space on an album page, never try to immediately remove it. Wait several minutes and then lift the hinged stamp carefully from the page using tongs.

If the hinge does not peel easily away from the stamp, do not force the issue. If you do, you will create a thin on the back of the stamp — and that means you have damaged the stamp. Any value it may have had will be severely reduced.

Instead, use a clean artist's paintbrush to paint a little clear water on the hinge. Give it a minute to soak in and then see if the hinge will peel.

If it is still being stubborn, make a sweatbox using a clean sponge and a clean plastic container with a lid. Put a quarter-inch of clean water in the container and put the sponge in the water (it should not be submerged), then put the stamp face down on the sponge. Place the lid on the container and wait for an hour or two for the humidity in the box to do its work. When you take the stamp out of the container, the hinge should come away easily. You can treat several stamps at once this way, depending upon the size of the container you use.

If you see a stamp on an envelope that you want in your collection, never try to peel it away from the envelope. You will end up with a stamp that is torn, thinned, bent and useless.

Cut the stamp off the cover, leaving an inch or two of paper all around it. If the stamp has water-activated gum, then just soak it in clean water until the stamp releases from the paper, and let the stamp dry on blotting paper or a thin cotton towel.

A stamp that has curled using this process can be flattened by being pressed between two sheets of clean blotting paper with a heavy book placed on top.

Keep in mind, however, that many stamps issued today are self-adhesive and do not soak free of envelope paper when soaked in water. One way to save such stamps is to carefully trim the stamp from the envelope and leave it on the paper with a small neat margin of envelope paper on all four sides.

A stock book is a nice safe place to hold duplicate stamps, entire collections or stamps that are awaiting mounting in an album. Stock books have strips of paper, glassine or a chemically safe archival plastic attached to the pages to allow stamps to be inserted and then held in place by the strip.

Figure 3 shows a stock book with stamps from Sweden held in place by plastic strips.

A stock book allows stamps to be removed at will with no worries about hinges or mounts, but there is still a potential threat to stamps if care is not taken when inserting stamps. The trick is to use one hand to gently tilt the holding strip a fraction of an inch away from the backing page, while the other hand, holding the stamp with tongs, slides the stamp into place. Release the strip and it will return to its original position, holding the stamp on the stock page. Any other method of getting stamps into stock books frequently results in bent corners which, of course, mean a damaged stamp.

Stamps are fragile. Treat them gently and you will preserve their attractiveness and enjoy them more. 

Remember that condition is, if not everything, extremely important in stamp collecting, and stamps that are maintained carefully will be more likely to hold their value when it comes time for you or your heirs to sell the collection.