There are plenty of instructions online for soaking stamps — and it doesn’t take a lot of research or any kind of special products to sort them. Some people use newsprint for drying and pressing, others use a range of plenty of other methods. My goal is not to write the “definitive” guide to soaking stamps, but rather the method and products that I’ve found work best for me in hopes that they might help someone else make their soaking experience easier. Some of this is pretty specific and minute, but helpful (to me at least) and not information I’ve seen elsewhere.
If I have a lot of stamps to soak, the first thing I tend to do is to trim the pieces of envelope or paper that they’re on. Be careful, but trim them fairly close to the perfs — this will lessen the amounts of soggy paper you’ll be pulling out of your soaking container, and will also give you time to find things like self-adhesives to set aside. (I have heard that some countries’ self-adhesives will in fact soak off due to a water soluble layer, but I don’t know off hand which ones do…I know for a fact it doesn’t work with US stamps.) This way, you won’t end up figuring out you have a self-adhesive the hard way, trying to pull it off a soggy piece of paper. I’ll let you determine what to do with the self-adhesives…many of us have differing opinions on them ranging from “I’ve found a way to separate them” to “they aren’t worth the time.”
I recently soaked through a giant pile of Machins (which is where the photos in this article will come from) and my hands started to hurt after a while of trimming — especially my thumb where it is used to open the scissors between cuts. I decided to order some spring-loaded scissors. If you’re ever doing some long-endurance scissor work, they will help immensely. I got two pairs, a small pair for precise work, and a larger pair for larger pieces, or things like cutting apart damaged envelopes that I won’t be saving as a cover. They seem to be great scissors overall, and I’ll be using them for general…scissor things…in the future.
I use a generic small plastic bin for soaking. I prefer to use tap water as hot as it will go (but not hot water from a kettle or the stove), and I throw in a handful of stamps. If any stamps are on particularly green or red (or any other very visible color) paper, I’ll leave those out and soak them separately in hopes to avoid the color from the paper bleeding onto the stamps. I then use my tongs to move them around and make sure they are all submerged.
At this point, you can just use your tongs to move them around a bit — you’ll see some stamps just start to float off the paper almost immediately. When I see those, I pull them out and place them on my towel (more on that later). When I see a piece of paper with no stamp on it, I’ll pull that out too — it goes into the trash. When I don’t see any more easily-spotted separate stamps or paper, I move them around a little more with my tongs — sure enough some more will fall off. I generally don’t need to wait for these to soak for long, because even if a piece needs to soak a little bit more than the rest, chances are the time it takes to pull the others out will be sufficient
Optional: The Second Soaking
If the paper is particularly dirty, or the stamps have an excess of gum, you can put them directly into another bowl of clean water — but I find if you do this in small batches and change the water between batches, that is not often necessary. If you get overzealous and put too large of a handful into the bin, that might be a time when you want a second bowl because the water will get cloudy and dirty quickly.
Next to my soaking bin, I have a barber’s towel laid out. It’s a thin, cotton towel, which doesn’t get too soggy and dries quickly. I have a stack of them because I use them for shaving and washing my face, but they are pretty inexpensive so it wouldn’t be terrible to order them just for soaking stamps. I find they work a lot better than paper towels or newspaper — there is no ink to transfer, and if the gum on the edge of a stamp adheres slightly, it is much easier to remove than from another type of paper. I try to lay the stamps out in rows to save space.
I let the stamps partially dry here — but not dry all the way. If you let them dry completely on this towel, it won’t hurt the stamps, but you may have to flatten them later (depending on the stamp and type of paper) because they have the tendency to curl when this happens. You want them to be slightly damp when they go into the drying book. The first time I tried a drying book, I didn’t know this — I put them in soaking wet and it made the blotter paper in the drying book super warped and wavy and very hard to use. More on the drying book in the next step — just know the towel is much easier to use than any kind of paper in my experience, and this part of the process is pretty forgiving…so don’t sweat it.
I’ve tried several drying books from several brands, and I keep coming back to the Desert Magic II by Showgard. It’s pretty inexpensive, and you can get them shipped fairly quickly (in the US at least) from eBay sellers. You can find them many other sites as well, just don’t buy them on Amazon because they’re very overpriced there. (In fact as a general rule, most philatelic stuff is overpriced on Amazon, so that site should be avoided in this regard.) You can usually get them for around $13 each, although at the time of writing they are on sale at Wizard Coin Supply for under $10, which is fantastic.
The books have alternating pages of a thick, absorbent, blotter paper and a waxy non-stick card stock. The stamps go face up on the card stock side, and the blotter paper goes on top of them to wick them dry.
Start taking the face down stamps from your barber’s towel, and transition them to the waxy pages, face up. It is easiest to start at the back of the book instead of the front, because you can turn the next blotter page down on top of the stamps, then the following card stock page to add more stamps without having to try to turn the page of stamps you just filled. When you go through the book backwards you can basically just add layers and layers of stamps without risking disturbing the stamps you’ve already arranged.
So, you’ve just filled the book. If you want, you can just set the book on a shelf or counter somewhere overnight — but you’ll be much happier if you put a large book on top of it. Something like the Stanley Gibbons commonwealth catalog. Or maybe your grandfather’s copy of the 1,000+ plus page handbook of electrical engineering. Or some bibles. Or a piece of wood. Anything that is relatively heavy and reasonably flat. Leave it overnight. This will give your stamps time to dry, and since they’ll be drying while also being pressed flat, your dry stamps the next day will be nice and straight.
But if you don’t do this, either because you forgot to weigh them down, or because you’ve fallen asleep and forgotten to take them off the towel in the first place, don’t fret. Not every stamp will curl, and if they have, you can still use the drying book to flatten them (even if they’re completely dry when going into the drying book).
So you’ve had a good night’s sleep — or maybe you’ve tossed and turned, it’s none of my business — your stamps have dried and you’re ready to lift the weights off and crack open your drying book. It is finally time to see the fruits of your labor. Be careful when moving your drying book, it’s easy for stamps to fall out — but put it on your table and open it up. You can go page by page and remove the stamps into a pile. Sometimes a stamp will stick a little bit to the waxy page — this is because there was a little bit of gum still on the stamp when you placed it — that’s OK. That’s the reason the pages are waxy. Bend the page slightly and the stamp will pop off the page. Sometimes a stamp will be slightly stuck to the blotter side — that’s OK too — bend it gently to free one side of the stamp, and you can easily grab it with your tongs. I have not had a stamp stick firmly to the blotter side, but I suppose there is a first time for everything.
Now you’re done — you should have a nice pile of stamps that are dry, flat, completely free of paper, and ready to be sorted!
That’s my method. There are plenty of other ways to do it. You don’t need to have special towels or drying books, you can use things like newsprint or printer paper, and put the stamps in a large book — these are all perfectly acceptable. But these tools and methods are what, in my experience, moves the process from “adequate” to “efficient.” I have four drying books, and these Machins took up all four of them in two rounds…so this method helped me greatly. I could let some stamps soak while I was moving one towel to a drying book, fill up the towel, put in more stamps to soak, move that batch from the towel to the book, and so on. You can go back and forth between the steps and create somewhat of an assembly line.
If you have a favorite product or method that makes this process especially easy to you, please comment or reach out because I’m always willing to try a new way and I’d love to hear about yours.
Andrew has been collecting since 2020, and created this website in 2022 to document his philatelic experiences.