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Soaking stamps is something almost every stamp collector has to do every once and awhile. Sometimes it’s simply to remove a pile of old (and tatty) hinges on the back of stamp, most often it’s to remove backing paper. There is of course a right way and there is a wrong way of going about this…
Step 1: Choose what you soak
The first step any stamp soaker should do is to take a careful look of the items to be soaked. At this stage, it is also wise to limit the number of stamps to soak. For example I normally soak batches of 40-60 stamps at a time. This may sound small number, but even this takes approx. 30 minutes of time from start to finish.
If there is anything worth saving as on piece, set them a side. Some examples of such items include nice looking special cancellations, rare material and usually hologram (and other special paper) stamps.
In similar fashion, set aside any stamps with bright colored paper on back or with colored (purple) cancellations. Especially red, purple, orange and green colored paper is known to bleed easily; hence the name fugitive colors. These colors stain stamp paper very easily.
If there are any “non-soakable stamps”, place them aside as well… For a worldwide collector this is something were level of personal knowledge and experience plays a major role.
Some well known non-soakable stamps are issues of Taiwan, Red China, India and sometimes Pakistan from WWII to the mid 1960’s. With these countries it was more or less normal to issue stamps without glue and use local post offices “glue pot” (usually with water-resistant glue) to affix stamps on cover. Sadly there is not much you can do with many of these stamps besides saving them on piece.
Another wave of non-soakable stamps are the self-adhesive stamps. Most of the self-adhesives are soakable, but they require special attention. Sadly there are also cases where all hope is lost; like the very early self-adhesives from the 1960’s, French Marianne stamps from early 1990’s, Italian Priority stamps in early 2000 and many UK and US self-adhesive issues after year 2007 which should be kept on piece.
Step 2: Mix water and kiloware
Place the stamps you want to soak at the bottom of a plastic tray or bowl. Make sure that your tray is large enough to house both water and stamps. For example I use a 30 x 20 x 15cm transparent plastic tray.
After this, pour gently a healthy dose of lukewarm / warm water until all stamps float freely… The hotter water you use, the faster stamps peel off from the paper. The downside is that the warmer the water, the greater is the risk of fugitive colors.
Personally, I use somewhat hot tap water, but I do this knowingly with my own risk.
Step 3: Wait
Let the stamps float until the glue dissolves and the stamps slide easily off the paper. Be patient, and let the water do its work!
If you use water of your body temperature (lukewarm water), soaking for about 15 minutes is usually sufficient. If you use hot water, then results start emerging after few minutes.
In general, it is a good idea to mix the stamps carefully by hand every couple of minutes while on the water. This way water gets to all possible places.
Step 4: Start working
Use tweezers to pick up all the stamps that are already floating off paper, and move them one by one to another soaking tray filled with clean cold water. This step removes the final traces of glue from the stamp as well as enhances the colors of stamps.
It is very likely that some stamps will need your help to get removed from their backing. Pick up these stamps by hand one at a time, and very gently try to peel them off the backing paper. Start from the corner and lift (or fold) the corner gently; if it doesn’t peel cleanly then put the stamp back to the water to soak some more… After you have successfully peeled the stamp off the paper, rinse the back of the stamp gently with your fingertips to make sure all the glue is off. Finally move the stamp to another soaking tray filled with clean cold water.
Please note, that the stamp paper is very weak at this phase. Even the slightest use of force can cause severe damages to the stamp.
Step 5: Drying the stamps
My method for drying stamps has three stages. On the first step I pick up individual stamps from the cold water and place them face down separately (so that no stamps are on top of each other) on a newspaper. Then I usually put another newspaper (or fold the original) on top for a while. Finally, I move the stamps one by one from the wet newspaper to dry newspaper for 10 minutes.
Why so many steps? One of the reasons is ink used in newspapers… Though I try make sure the newspapers I use do not stain when wet, there might be exceptions to the rule. The less time stamps spent on completely wet newspaper, the less possibility of “ink damages”.
The second reason is glue… If the soaking or rinsing is not 100% success, then the stamp might still have traces of their original glue. This can cause undesired side-effects such as stamps stuck on newspaper.
The third reason is much faster drying time than with traditional methods… I normally let the stamps dry on their own for 10-15 minutes. They may curl a little or look wrinkled, but don’t worry about that.
Step 6: Flattening the stamps
When stamps are dry enough (i.e. they don’t feel at all moist or wet), pick them up with your tongs and put them inside a phone book, stamp stockbook or some other very heavy book to flatten. Place the book on solid surface and place some additional weight on top.
After 12-24 hours the stamps should be nice and flat, and ready to be stored for collection.