Posted: Oct 26/10

Canadian Stamp News
Dec 9, 2008


Unpredictable World
by Peter Butler, FRPSC for The Canadian Stamp News.

Grassroots Philately
Canadian Stamp News, December 9, 2008 issue

The unpredictable world of chemicals and stamps

Now there’s a headline that will catch your interest immediately! I have been promising for some time now that I would follow up the first column that I wrote earlier about the solvent Bestine and its use in “soaking” self-adhesive stamps from paper. This column will be an up-date on what others have experienced using Bestine as well as mentioning other strategies to remove such undesirable substances as ballpoint and scotch tape from stamps.

Before delving into the chemicals aspect, I want to make clear the intent of my suggestions for “saving” stamps. I, probably like you, am not thrilled with the notion of using chemicals around stamps. We have grown up in the hobby hearing about the dangers of subjecting stamps to any substance such as using bleach to freshen stamps in the soaking water, using watermark detector fluid or using a special liquid to add to warm water to make soaking stamps easier. There used to be justification for that. Fugitive inks could bleed and colours could change, not to mention the fragility of classic stamps, the fear of plastic mounts destroying one’s stamps and substances migrating to covers from plastic sleeves. We are suspicious of anything that might harm our treasures.

I’m not talking about those stamps or those practices. I am talking about the disappointment we experience when beautiful stamps coveted by us for our albums, are damaged by others who don’t understand. I’m talking about blocks of four, eight dollar stamps on a parcel, to someone who is going to send them back to you, are destroyed. The suggestions I am going to make may not always work to our expectations. There may be scars left in the stamps after ballpoint has been removed and there may be a thin spot after removing scotch tape.

My idea is to try to rectify the damaged condition of a stamp so it’s presentable, so it doesn’t have to be thrown out. It could be a filler for your album or a keeper. It could be stamps that collectors in other countries would be delighted to have since it might be unlikely they would ever get such an item so reasonably. Of course, the inevitable may happen. Despite our efforts, the stamp cannot be saved. In these situations I say, nothing ventured, nothing gained and if you don’t give it a try you definitely will have to throw the stamp(s) out.

Let’s begin with a quick review of the use of Bestine. The best place to find it is in an art supply store. It’s a fast evaporating solvent so use small amounts at a time and keep the cap on the can. An eye-dropper is best to drip the solvent on the paper behind the stamp. Do a few stamps at a time because it dries quickly. Within several seconds, you can peel off the stamp. If the stamp doesn’t come off easily, add another drop. After removal from the paper, the stamp should be put face down on paper to dry out. You will notice that the stamp appears greasy. Don’t worry, that will disappear. When the stamps appear dry, check them for any glue remaining on the back. My good friend from Pennsylvania, Dick Osman, tells me that sometimes he adds another drop directly on the back of the stamp to remove the remaining glue that’s still on the stamp. Any stickiness that still remains is easily removed with a very small pinch of talc. You really don’t have to press the stamps as you do when soaking them. They do dry flat and that’s the beauty of this process.

Ted Watson wrote me to say, “Bestine definitely does loosen up the glue so the stamp can be removed. The one problem that I find is that there is glue remaining on the stamp. I sprinkle a small amount of baby powder on the glue and it does away with the sticky problem.” As I mentioned above, Dick holds off on the talc until he has used an extra drop of the solvent directly on the back of the stamp. The glue will come off and you probably won’t need talc. The best advice is to keep experimenting until you get a process that works for you. Don’t forget, some stamps are tougher than others to remove. Just keep experimenting and if you loose a few stamps in the process, so be it. Try again.

A colleague told me he has removed all of the self-adhesive stamps which he mounted in his albums with the backing paper still attached (a “cut square”) because he couldn’t soak the stamps off in the traditional way, and used Bestine on them. All the stamps are back in the album, “on their own!”

Ted Watson also passed on this advice. He says it doesn’t work well on cardboard and soaking the cardboard in Bestine doesn’t work either. I’ll leave that challenge to you to try and solve!

Al Franklin wrote to tell me that he couldn’t find Bestine but found another product called Elmer’s Sticky Out, next to the rubber cement section and was advertised to thin out rubber cement, “as well as other uses.” Franklin said it seemed to work well at cleaning the glue off the stamps, leaving no residue and it didn’t discolour the stamps. He is very happy with the results.

A few other collectors have told me they use, Goo Gone, a cleaning solvent and it works reasonably well but Bestine is better. Here’s a great story from Dick Osman. When he went to find Bestine, the sales clerk at Home Depot asked him, “What does it do?” After Dick explained the action of the solvent, the clerk said, “Oh, we use Pure Citrus for that job. It takes off sticky labels real good. Try a can.” Osman followed his advice, took home a can and tried it out. Dick was very pleased with it and continues using it today after several months of use. It states on the container that it’s a 100% natural non-aerosol air freshener. Unfortunately, it is not available in Canada but there are a lot of citrus air fresheners on the shelves of many Canadian stores. Citrus Magic is one I’ve noted. I’m going to try one.

Osman has decided to set aside all the stamps he has removed using these solvents, in stock sheets and will wait six months to make sure there is no long term damage. “So far, so good!” he states, “Pure Citrus works really well.” I do have a consideration to add to Dick’s comments. As a spray, one can’t help but use a little too much on a tiny stamp. It doesn’t take long to fill the room with a citrus odour. I’m hoping Dick and his stamp chores will not be banished to the garage!

Scotch tape is a nasty material to remove from stamps and the success rate is a lot lower than the process above. One key factor for success is the length of time a stamp has been taped to paper or cardboard. If the time has been considerable and it has turned brittle or brown as in older envelopes, it will be very difficult to remove. It’s usually the stamps that are partially taped to a parcel that I like to try and save and for this I use benzene.

If I can cut around the stamp, I use a watermark detector tray but any small container can be used. Place the stamp in the bottom and pour benzene over the stamp. Swish the stamp around in the fluid and leave it sit for ten to fifteen minutes and watch for the tape to begin lifting from the stamp. If you think it could be lifted off completely, give it a gentle try. Usually it will lift slightly but will not come away entirely. Lift the stamp out of the benzene, lightly shake it and try to raise the tape with your tweezers. If the tape doesn’t come off easily, put it back in the fluid. The secret is patience… don’t hurry, peel slowly. Remember, the benzene has to soak between the tape and the stamp. Sometimes, when the stamp is clear of the tape, you will note that the stamp is sticky where the tape was. In the past, I have let the stamp dry and hope the stickiness dries up. Now I let it dry and use a Q-tip dipped in Bestine to remove the remaining glue. It’s a good idea to rinse the stamp in warm water following a successful removal of tape and it’s a good idea to watch for fading of the stamp colours. This becomes a highly unlikely point though, given today’s printing techniques and inks.

Traditionally, Benzine has been used to detect watermarks on stamps but its new use is as described above, to remove scotch tape. It is highly inflammable, however, and many collectors use carbon tetrachloride as a substitute for watermark detection because it is non-inflammable. It can also be used to clean soiled stamps. Neither fluid can be used on stamps that are printed by photogravure because the inks will bleed.

Ballpoint pen is the last challenge in this column. If the scribble across the stamps is light, there is a good possibility that the ink can be removed. The more the pressure is used scribbling though, the harder it will be to remove the ink. That’s because the more pressure, the deeper the gouge or indentation there will be in the stamp. That will be difficult to remove as will be the ink in the trough. Methylated spirits (methyl alcohol) can be used as a possible solvent to remove ballpoint ink. Again, a Q-tip is the best tool for the job. Hair spray is another substance to try, although like Pure Citrus, it is difficult to use given it is a spray.

Remember that all of the substances mentioned above are toxic, some are inflammable. All must be handled carefully and should not be used with young collectors unless there is close supervision. I wish you good luck in your efforts to restore, to some degree, the damaged stamps that you encounter. I know that you will find success in dealing with the self-adhesives that to this point have made for frustrating times. Remember to experiment with duplicates or badly damaged stamps initially. Practice patience and depend on good luck! Chemicals and philately aren’t that scary together are they?


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