By Al Harris
Time to soak? Grab a bottle of 150-proof Everclear or an 80-proof Absolut.
Don't drink it! Use it as a solvent to dissolve the !#@%*& self-adhesive
glue from the backside of contemporary U.S. stamps.
If you can brave the flashpoint and other dangers, with Everclear you
can soak the glue off a single on-paper Forever self-adhesive in less
than a minute. In less time than you can conventionally soak a tray or
even a bathtub full of ordinary foreign stamps coated with commonplace
glue, you can fill several blotter/drying books with no loss of color or
damage to the stamp or paper (see comment below). In my opinion, it even
bleaches the paper somewhat without degrading the ink!
Absolut is tamer; the risks are less, but the soaking time is greater.
Both do the job about equally well.
I've recently run experiments based on my more than 35 years of
experience in developing film and paper in a darkroom plus many years as
director of publicity and publications at Jacksonville (Alabama) State
University. I'm now retired and have loads of time on my hands to soak
stamps. I've found the following process works quickly and efficiently;
soaking is no longer a chore.
Many noxious solvents, including turpentine, have been recommended as a
remedy for the USPS "goof-up" –- i.e., glue that has no water-soluble
layer and resists being soaked off envelope paper with lukewarm water.
I claim no originality for this fix. I'm no expert, and probably many
others have discovered the same thing by accident (spill a little here,
spill a little there and finally there's bound to be a soggy US stamp
stuck somewhere on your shot glass).
In my musings, I envisioned a darkroom approach.
I figured I could soak the stamps in straight lukewarm 80-proof Absolut
vodka with a drop or two of Dawn dishwashing detergent as a wetting
agent to help the stamp turn loose from the glue faster. As a photographer
would do, I "agitated" or gently rocked my "dissolving tray" to help
the alcohol erode the glue much better. The Dawn and alcohol work remarkably well
After a few minutes, I gently begin rubbing the glue side with my
fingers and placed the glue-free stamps on a paper towel. Lo and behold,
the congealed glue rolls off the stamps easily like a mass
of depleted rubber cement. It looks like KY Jelly straight from the tube.
Then, as another experiment, I switched to Everclear, a 100 percent full
grain alcohol which is widely available and cheap. It carries numerous
warnings on the label. Take them seriously! Use good ventilation and turn off
off gas flames. The results were astounding! The Everclear cut the soaking
time in half.
I soaked from a standard paper envelope a US self-adhesive in far less
than a minute. The envelope paper would have dissolved, I think, had I not
removed it quickly.
I experimented with Q-tips on large batches of
stamps (all US commems). Finally, using my fingers to massage
the glue was much faster.
I had to attend to the work continuously or the stamps would over-soak
in the Everclear. Finally, I cut the Everclear with a little distilled
water and the time became manageable but still fast. Experiment to see what's
right for you.
The already-exposed glue on a Forever stamp acted rather
like a snail dissolving in salt. By stripping a whole sheet of Forevers,
I found the glue could finally be removed entirely with finger- or
thumb-rubs long before the paper got too soggy.
The plan worked like a gem –- and history overruns with real-life
examples of solutions that arrive to us in dream packages. After several "trials," I
tweaked the process and tested several alternate theories.
1. Not just ANY alcohol will do. Don't use rubbing alcohol. Avoid
bourbon and corn mash whisky as they usually include caramel coloring
and other ingredients which can stain the stamps, leaving a prematurely
"old" looking soakers. The cheapest high-octane clear alcohol works as
well as the most expensive, which you'd be better off sipping while you
soak your stamps. Remember: use the cheapest and highest-proof clear
alcohol for stamps; use the tamest, best-tasting alcohol for drinking.
After glue-removal, you can even soak some of your stamps in coffee --
instant or ground bean, it matters not. This is how we used to do "sepia
toned" prints in the darkroom before the costly (and foul-smelling)
commercial sepia solution came along. Patt saves my culled (torn or
damaged) stamps for decoupage, and so before I'm finished and while the stamps
are wet, I give them a long soak in coffee as she loves the warm, brown hues. I
rinse, then dried them in a separate blotter book to avoid staining my good
2. You can buy everything you need, excluding the alcohol, for about
$5 USD at a thrift store. You need only two trays: one for
soaking and a slightly larger plastic tray or small tub for rinsing
(agitate it by hand during rinsing unless you splurge on a professional
model, or increase your son's allowance for providing agitating services).
Not knowing the long-term effects of alcohol on
stamp paper and ink, even when hinged to acid-free album pages that
remain closed so to avoid sunlight, I rinse my stamps about five minutes
or longer in cold tap water, then begin removing them in small batches to
the blotter paper. This gives me "insurance:" time to pluck and blot a
number of stamps that I can easily handle; otherwise, I'd find myself with a
mound of stamps that would be drying and sticking together before I could place
them into my drying press.
3. For heaven's sakes, DON'T DISCARD THE USED ALCOHOL – AND DON'T DRINK
IT EITHER!!! AND KEEP IT AWAY FROM CHILDREN (teach them soaking
techniques with lukewarm water and foreign stamps). By the time you've
soaked a large batch of stamps, the alcohol is laden with dissolved
glue. Only someone who got an A in chemistry might know what it really
contains, and it certainly can't be good for you. Keep it out of reach
of children. A brown plastic darkroom bottle is handy for storing old
alcohol. Cheesecloth or nylon hose and funnel work well for removing
solid matter and other particulates from the used "soup." Simply pour
the leavings into the jug then rinse out the cheesecloth or nylon. Keep
a tight lid on the bottle of used alcohol. With luck, your used alcohol
may last six months or much longer depending on your level of stamp
activity – never mind that it turns a bit gelatinous. In this regard,
you can see how an approximate $17 investment (in my state) in a tray
full of Everclear (190-proof, 750 ml to the bottle) can cost less than
pennies per use, especially if you cut it with distilled water. (Only
college students and fools actually drink this stuff straight; if you
drink it at all, heavens to Betsy, just let the vapors pass over your
favorite glass of juice).
4. As opposed to darkroom work, light is not a problem, you can work
anytime; simply line your 8x10 or larger plastic trays
in the bathtub or kitchen sink area under good light so you can see (as
well as feel) when the glue is gone. Each globule you leave behind may
represent a sticking point, so be thorough. Check with spouse ahead of
time to ensure you're not about to hold up someone's bath time or other
5. A wetting agent of some type is needed. You can spend $15 or more
for one of the commercial wetting agents, like Photo Flow solution, or you
can spend fraction of pennies with a drop or two of Dawn dishwashing
detergent. Wetting agents help penetrate the paper without harming the stamp.
6. After the job is done, blot and enter the stamps in your drying press.
You'll find that the next day, if you've followed these points to the
letter, the dried stamps will shake free and cascade from the press as easily
as if you'd soaked them in water. If not, you've missed a step or misunderstood a
point. In my experience, the No. 1 cause for sticky stamps in the
drying press is that you've gotten in a hurry and not rinsed long
enough to remove all the glue. And, remember, the longer you re-use the alcohol
solution, the more dissolved glue accumulates in it. Don't be a miser: start over with
a fresh bottle occasionally!
6. Other caveats to remember: Only time will tell how long the stamps
can last before reacting to the alcohol process. I believe the stamps will last
indefinitely. Fifty to a hundreds years from now, you want your heir to
be proud of the bright, like-new condition in which he finds his
stamps in the albums you've bequeathed. You can test this process by speeding up the
"aging" factor. Simply leave a dry, test set of stamps, hinged to acid-free paper,
outdoors under blazing sun for a number of days (take indoors if rain is
predicted, of course). After a month or six months of this (it's your
call, but the longer the better), and if there are no discernable age
spots or discolorations, I'd call it a success. Because I'm retired and
liable to keel over dead long before sufficient, exhaustive testing is
done to prove just how long they'll hold up, I've neglected this step. Younger
bodies coupled to more scientific brains than mine are required for this. But, if you can repeat the
experiment I've outlined here and get the same results as I've reported,
then we're on the right track.
I hope this article helps boost, renew and reinvigorate U.S. stamp
collectors' interest in U.S. stamps once again. Don't let the necessarily
cost-conscious USPS folks spoil your hobby. To hear many collectors tell it, they were on
the brink of dumping or giving away their entire US albums and collecting WW only,
and many others said they were ending their US collecting with the
advent of the self-adhesive glue in 1974. If anyone still feels that
way, send them to me at the address below.
"My" system, now yours as my gift of gratitude to the many who have
helped me, has some negative points: for example, EVERY US stamp coated with
self-adhesive glue automatically becomes a soaker, so you'd better find
a way to enjoy soaking. On the other hand, I enjoy quiet time in a
darkroom or other "soaking space" listening to soft music and watching
the soaking tub fill with my little gems.
If you have questions, call or e-mail me for a problem-solving
discussion at 256-435-4001. (I cannot accept collect calls -- I live on
a frugal disability budget). As I mentioned, I'm retired and have plenty
of time to experiment -- if the solution to your problem is not
obvious and is of sufficient interest to others, I will work on it.
process helpful and feel charitable toward a disabled collector (me),
send me a few of your good-condition used or duplicate commems, either
U.S. or WW variety, on paper or off, at P. O. Box 265, Jacksonville, Alabama
By the way, I specialize in birds, insects, snakes, U.S. and WW
scenics. : )