Washing and drying stamps - some tips

Disclaimer. The method(s) described below are the ones used by Apex Philatelics Ltd. Anyone following these methods does so entirely at his or her risk. If this condition is unacceptable, then do not follow these methods.

Washing stamps off paper

(some tips)

Becoming something of a lost art, the emphasis has probably switched from washing "kiloware" on-paper mixtures to getting used sets from First Day Covers. The trick is not just in separating the stamps from the backing paper, but in preventing them from sticking back together again afterwards and doing so in a time-efficient way.

You may ask yourself, "why bother?" One answer is that modern FDC are so common that they can be hard to sell, save at very low prices, whilst used sets are somewhat harder to find and are much m ore in demand.


The choice as to whether to take stamps off paper or not is a personal one. As a broad guide, the older the stamps are, the less judicious it is to soak them: they may simply be worth more on paper or you may devalue them by damaging them in the process. Modern FDC ("Official" or privately produced, signed or unsigned, with or without coins) are rarely worth any more than the stamps/coins in them and in better than 99 cases out of 100, the stamps on them may be washed off without financial detriment.


You will need:

· Container(s) to soak the stamps

· Container(s) to rinse the stamps

· Water

· Blotting paper or newspaper to dry the stamps on


· It is much easier to sort stamps out before they have been washed. It is recommended to pre-sort [into whatever categories you choose] before washing.

· Paper will absorb water and expand to several times the volume and weight. Excess paper should be trimmed off before immersion into water. FDC's, wherever possible, should be cut round the stamps, leaving approximately half an inch all round. If it is impractical to cut the top and side edge of the envelope, it does not matter [whether you cut leaving a single sheet or a double sheet behind the stamps].


1) Washing

Select a suitable quantity to wash. Avoid the temptation to process too many stamps at once. 100 – 500 at a time is quite enough. Work at table-top height (the kitchen sink is fine) – bending over [the bath for example] will slow you down and cause back-ache.

If you have already pre-sorted in one way or another, use separate containers (such as 1 litre ice cream tubs) for each category.

Cover the stamps with water and leave to soak.

Hot water will penetrate paper fibres more quickly than cold water, but may bleach the colours of the stamp, or cause the ink to run (not [usually] a problem with stamps produced in the past 50 years, but care should be taken nonetheless, especially with reds and greens which seem to be the most susceptible). Warm water, about 50C/120F

Is a reasonable compromise.

When the gum has absorbed sufficient water, it will become tacky and the stamp can be peeled from the backing paper. The time this takes will vary considerably from issue to issue, from very few minutes to an hour or so; in all cases, the longer the stamp is immersed, the easier it will separate. However, do not leave to soak for too long, and in no case for more than 24 hours or the paper may begin to dissolve.

2/3rds fill another container with warm water. (This will be used to rinse the washed-off stamps before drying).

Slide the stamp off the backing paper and LEAVE IN THE WATER. This helps residual gum to dissolve. When you have removed sufficient – say 20 items – scoop them out of the water and place them into the second container. Continue doing this until you have finished, or until you have a convenient point to stop.

Drain the water out of the second container (which will now actually be a water+gum solution) and refill with fresh warm water. Repeat this process until you feel all, or as much as possible of the residual gum has gone. Gum is designed to stick and even small amounts will still do so. (Many modern gums leave a whiteish, opaque solution – keep rinsing these until the water is clear).

2) Drying

Washed and rinsed stamps should now be placed onto paper to dry. Blotting paper is the best, though expensive. In most cases, common-or-garden newsprint is fine (and is what we use without exception). Use a greater thickness at the bottom of the pile to absorb the moisture.

Some gums dissolve and rinse away almost 100% (GB dextrin gum for example). Stamps with such gums can be stacked one on top of the other in great piles. They will come apart totally once dry.

In all other cases (and in every case where you have doubt), place the stamps one at a time onto the paper. Cover with a double thickness of newsprint and repeat until all the stamps have been lain out.

Leave to dry for a couple of hours. The stamps will not be totally dry by then, but the newsprint will have absorbed better than 90% of the moisture. Do not allow them to dry out totally; they will probably stick firmly to the paper and you may have to start all over again.

At this point the stamps should be taken out of the newsprint and placed on fresh, dry sheets. If merely damp (rather than wet, when they may stick together again) it is safe to overlap stamps one on the other. Throw the old newsprint away

Leave stamps to dry in the open air. (If they look as though they will curl up, place a dry sheet of newsprint over the top. Doing so does not prevent them totally from curling, but the simple weight of the paper should limit the amount of curling.)

3) Pressing

When completely dry, place stamps in large glassine bag (or similar) and press overnight between two books. Catalogues are fine for this purpose.

The stamps can then be collated back into sets, or stored as you choose.


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