Posted: Oct 26/10

Canadian Stamp News
Jan 5, 2010

Chemical removal of stamps
by Peter Butler, FRPSC for The Canadian Stamp News.

Grassroots Philately
Canadian Stamp News, January 5, 2010 issue

Chemical removal of stamps safer and easier

Over the past several months, my columns on removing self-adhesive stamps from envelopes have proved to be very popular. At least those are the columns that have generated the most feedback of any other series I have written in Grassroots in Philately. The feedback from emails, phone calls and one-on-one discussions at several stamp club meetings and local and regional shows that I have attended have all been positive and appreciative about my instructions on removing the self-adhesives with Bestine or certain air fresheners rather than water.

I can’t take the space to review those columns, there were four of them, but I would like to share some new information with readers which will confirm all I have said in the past and provide assurances to those who have been reticent to use chemicals when “soaking” stamps.

The impetus for addressing this issue once again, stems from one more article in the philatelic press which irked me because it would seem the research that is required to address the concerns of some collectors who state they will not use chemicals to soak stamps was not done… or wasn’t shared with readers. The column in question was published in the October 2009 issue of Scott Stamp Monthly, written by Editor, Donna Houseman. titled, “If you can’t soak them, leave them intact.”

“ What is the answer for collectors of postally used modern stamps? We’ve struggled with this problem for more than a year now, and we confess that we’ve found no acceptable method to remove recently issued U.S. stamps from their covers. We strongly advise collectors not to resort to chemicals. … The only reasonable way is to find a new way to collect modern U.S. stamps.”

After reading that confession, I would ask of Ms Houseman the following questions: What research did she, in fact, carry out? What chemicals did she investigate and what were the results of her findings? What organizations or other writers in the field, did she confer with to obtain other points of view? It would seem prudent at some point in her article, to ask her readers if they had found any success in dealing with the challenge, using chemicals.

A Letter to the Editor, in the American Philatelist (July 2008 ) written by William P. Winter, remains one of the best and most instructive messages about dealing with chemicals, that I have read. To be honest, all I have seen in the philatelic press (U.K. USA, Canada) addressing the chemical issue has been much of the same negative and alarmist point of view present in the Houseman commentary. It seems to me that incorrect information and scare tactics do not serve the philatelic community well. Everyone knows why postal authorities have developed these self-adhesive glues. It is to prevent the removal of uncancelled stamps from envelopes so they cannot be reused because the practice creates a huge financial burden on postal authorities. Reasonable people understand the issue and support the postal authorities in their efforts to prevent theft.

As collectors though, we have a responsibility to support these postal authorities while taking every opportunity to seek ways to continue to carefully remove stamps from envelopes for our collections and for trading purposes. This removal needs to be safe, relatively speaking, to render the stamps undamaged for our hobby. So let’s stop pushing the panic buttons, raising bogus issues about the danger of chemical to stamps, writing headlines that scare off the experimentation and research. Rather we should start sharing ideas and suggestions that encouraging collectors to experiment to find out what is possible and what they might want to use.

The letter in the American Philatelist did just that. If you haven’t read it, track it down and read it and try his suggestions. That’s what I did 18 months ago and it lead to a few ideas to try. I then share the results with others. That work is not complete. I suppose it will never be. Here are a few thoughts that were not included in previous writings and a few pieces of research that I have investigated and would like you to think about.

There aren’t many philatelists that haven’t heard about or used a little black tray and a bottle of a serious chemical to check the watermarks on stamps. Likely the chemical was, in the early days any way, carbon tetrachloride and following its removal from the market, benzine. Those were dangerous, toxic and flammable substances. We were told to not breathe the fumes, not to smoke while using them and not to use them around children.

Remember also, that the stamps we most often checked for watermarks were from the late 19th and early 20th century. These stamps were very fragile compared to today’s “tough” stamps that have varnishes or plastics on the design surface and are printed on much heavier paper. We were careful and we were respectful of the process because we were mindful of the danger. We did it because it worked and we were successful in identifying the stamps correctly, using chemicals.

Watermark identifying fluid is still available from philatelic supply stores but instead of the chemicals mentioned above, a substance known as heptane is now used. Has anyone raised the issue that watermark fluid should not be used because it’s a chemical? Of course not. It’s safe, but it is still a chemical that must be handled with care. It just so happens that heptane is the main ingredient in Bestine, the product I have been writing about for over two years now. Bestine is a chemical, or should I say a solvent at this point, that has been used in the commercial art and photography business for many years. Its main usage is to dissolve or change the consistency of adhesives so materials can be separated. One needs to be careful using it but used properly, it is an effective solvent on adhesives, especially ones that are not water-soluble.

Using Bestine is very simple. You apply it to the backside of the envelope paper, (the inside side!) not the stamp, using the tiniest amount from an eyedropper. You then peel the stamp from the front-side of the paper. All the glue remains on the stamp but it is no longer attached to the envelope. After it dries, the solvent evaporates very quickly, the stamp is dry but a little sticky on the gum side. A gentle rub of the smallest amount of talcum powder or corn starch (inert substances to be sure!) solves that problem and the stamp is ready to put in your album - no remaining odour and no stickiness - ready to accept a hinge.

If you are still not convinced, think about this option. At the beginning of the column I suggested using Bestine or certain air fresheners. Not any air freshener. It has to be non-aerosol which means that no fluorocarbons are used as a propellant; only compressed air and it must be 100 per cent citrus-based. If you choose to try an air freshener, use it the same way as Bestine only spray it on rather than using an eyedropper.

Ray Kairns, a colleague of mine at the West Toronto Stamp Club and who was a chemist before retiring, did some investigation for me and found that the “chemical” used in the air fresheners described above, uses a substance called, d-limonene. This “cleaner from nature” is a major component of the oil pressed out of citrus rind after the juicing process. The peel is subjected to a steam extractor, and then condensed, leaving oil on the surface. The substance is called technical-grade d-limonene.

This substance can replace a wide variety of products, including mineral spirits methyl and ethyl alcohol, acetone and, of course, fluorinated and chlorinated solvents. It works well as a cleaner and adhesive remover and “is a very safe versatile chemical which can be used in a wide variety of applications.” according to the Welcome to Florida Chemical Company Inc.

One of the solvents I have used for many years to remove the sticky substance left when removing store-applied labels from everything from books and CDs to all kinds of packages covered in cellophane, is called CitraSolv. Why have I never thought of this liquid to remove self-adhesive stamps from envelopes? After receiving the information from my colleague, I tried it. It also works, obviously because it is made from the same basic solvent, d-limonene. Can you get any safer than lemons, oranges and talc?

Finally, I would like to share one more piece of experimentation to prove the point. In a box of U.S. stamps that required removing from paper, I found two sets of the 44¢ lighthouse stamps from 2008. For one set I soaked the stamps using warm water. The other set I used a spray air freshener. If you have tried to remove self-adhesive stamps using water, you will relate to my frustrations. I rolled a ball of softened adhesive across the stamp, gathering small lumps of adhesive on my finger. Unavoidable was the removal of the thinnest layer of paper because of the rubbing associated with the adhesive. The result was thin spots on the stamps. Try as I might I still could not remove all of the adhesive especially along the die-cuts. When dried, the stamps still partially stuck together.

On the other hand, the stamps to which, I applied air freshener peeled off the paper easily. After they dried, I gently rubbed talc on the backs and put them in a stock sheet. While it is difficult to see in the illustration close-by, the top set are the water soaked stamps with their thin spots, black smudges, spots of dark glue balls and brown spots near the die-cuts. The stamps are useless to any collector. The set below have been perfectly removed from paper. The stamps are clean with no thin spots or paper disturbance. There are excellent copies to add to my album.

So you don’t need to cut squares from an envelope around a stamp to add to your album. You can remove stamps easily from paper using a safe solvent. Incidentally, it takes far less time to use an air freshener that to soak, dry and press your stamps. The only downside is that family members may complain about the house smelling like a lemon from the “air freshener” drifting upstairs! Then save “soaking” ‘til summer!

Enjoy your stamps, especially the ones removed from paper using safe solvents, and don’t keep it to yourself… share your successes with your colleagues.


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