Robert Murray Stamp Shop, Edinburgh
Established 1977
Retail shop, auctioneers, mail order

Stamps for Dummies
Advice on . . .

Almost every collector has at some time had to remove the backing paper from stamps. This is most often the paper from the original envelope, although it might also be to remove large old hinges or other adhesions. There is a right way and there is a wrong way of going about this, and here I give instructions on this, as well as looking at other possible problems.

disclaimer  |  soaking  |  removing paperdrying  |  hints  |  postcards  |  thick paper  |  stubborn items  |  steaming stamps | coloured paper  |  glue  |  postmarks  |  gum remains  |  self-adhesives  |  fugitive inks  |  accessories  |  disclaimer (again)

STEP 1. SOAKING. This should really be called "floating", as it is better to float the stamps than to soak them. Take a shallow dish, and fill it fairly well (say about 20mm deep) with ordinary cold tap water. Do not use warm or hot water, and do not add anything to the water.
Trim off any excess paper round the stamp (leave a margin of about 5mm-10mm), but be careful not to trim any of the perforations. The stamp should then be put in to float on the surface of the water, face up, so that the backing paper gets wet, but the surface of the stamp stays dry. In this way you reduce the risk of the colours running, or of the face of the stamp becoming wrinkled.

STEP 2. REMOVING THE PAPER. Some stamps will be ready within a very few minutes of being put into the water, others can take over an hour !  This is something which can be learned from experience, although as a general rule stamps on thin or soft backing paper will normally be ready more quickly than those on thick, heavy, or glossy paper, or on card.
When you think the stamp is ready (this is a good reason for leaving a reasonable border of paper round the stamp; when the border looks well-soaked, the stamp is probably ready; if the wetness of the border is patchy, it is probably best left a little longer), carefully lift the stamp out of the water (plastic tweezers [tongs] are good for this, as they don't rust !), and hold it face down on a flat surface. Then peel the paper off the back of the stamp - not the stamp off the paper, so that the stamp says flat. The paper should lift off quite easily. If it does not, then put the stamp back onto the surface of the water for another few minutes and try again.

STEP 3. DRYING. Once the above stage is completed, all you have to do is to get the stamp dry. If there is any loose water on the back of the stamp, let this drip off, then place the stamp face down on clean white blotting paper, or white kitchen roll. The absorbent paper must be white, otherwise there is a risk of colour seeping from it onto the stamp. Do not put the wet stamps anywhere that is warmer than normal room temperature. People who put their stamps above heaters or radiators, or in the oven (!), tend to end up with little curled pieces of paper.

If you follow the above instructions, you should be able to float your stamps as quickly as is possible while minimising the risks of any damage.


A. Many modern picture postcards have a thin plastic film on the face, through which the water will not soak. This film should be peeled off before floating. You may also have to use hint B for some of these.

B. Stamps on very thick paper, or on card, can prove difficult, as they take so long for the water to soak through as far as the gum. If possible, try to reduce the thickness of the paper by peeling.

C. Stubborn items, i.e. ones which have been floating for ages, with no sign of any success, are usually best completely immersed in the water. Sometimes you might even need to use warm water to soften the gum. Immersion or warm water both increase the risk of damage.

D. DO NOT "STEAM" stamps off. Many people quote this as the normal way of removing backing paper. Steaming stamps is a very bad way of doing it !  There is a very high risk of damage, it cannot be done for large quantities, it steams up the house, the stamps can become curled, and there is a risk of scalding your fingers.
I therefore do not recommend it !

E. Coloured Paper. Many modern envelopes (especially with greetings cards) are made of coloured paper, usually yellow, pink or red. I find that the dyes in these are often very fugitive, and can stain the stamp if the normal method of floating is followed. I would normally try to remove as much of the backing paper as possible, without damaging the back of the stamp, and then give the stamp a quick soak, completely immersing it in the water. As soon as the paper will come off, take it off and check the stamp. If there are any slight coloured stains, put it back in water (fresh clean water) until the stains disappear.
Never allow stamps on coloured paper to share the water with others.
Commercial advertising envelopes, although perhaps coloured, tend to be printed with much more secure inks, and do not usually give problems. (However, this is usually the mail that does not bear stamps anyway.)
If something on coloured paper is important, try the following; put some clean slightly warm water into a white container, immerse an offcut of the coloured backing paper in the water, and observe it. If the water stays clear and clean, you are fairly safe, of it discolours, you will have to be much more careful. At worst, I have been know to peel as much of the paper of as possible, then to scrape the remaining envelope paper with a round bladed scalpel, until all that is left on the stamp is the gum and some odd fibres of coloured paper. Then a quick float on cold water, taking the stamp out from time to time to remove the fibres as they loosen.

F. Some stamps, especially from some Eastern countries, have been issued without gum on them, so they are stuck to letters with almost any kind of glue. If these do not float off, the safest thing to do is just to leave the backing paper on.

G. Postmarks. Sometimes I am asked if it is better to leave a stamp on its paper if it has an interesting postmark. This is always a difficult question to answer. You do not want to make your collection untidy by having lots of odd shapes and sizes of bits of envelopes in it, but you do not want to waste something that might be of interest. If you are a fairly inexperienced collector, you are probably safest to leave pieces or envelopes complete until either you gain more knowledge or can ask advice. Remember that you can always float the stamp off at a later date, but you can't put it back together again.

H. Gum can sometimes be left on the back of the stamp after it has been floated and dried. If this is unsightly, try floating it again for a short while.

I. Self-Adhesive Stamps. These are becoming more and more common. The majority cannot be floated off the paper, and are best to be neatly trimmed and kept that way. (However, some of the gum might be liable to deteriorate over the years, possibly causing stains.) Some, for example some of the earlier UK definitive self-adhesive issues, have a water-soluble layer, and are easy to float. The best tools here are {i} trial and error, and {ii} experience.
Many people find that using fluids such as lighter fuel will allow the removal of self-adhesives, but be aware of the problems with this; [a] all the dangers involved in handling chemicals (especially highly flammable), [b] what you get is normally a stamp with a sticky back, which is not in a suitable state to go into a collection, [c] the possibility that the chemical properties of the fluid may damage the stamp, or mounts, or pages. Be careful !

J. Many early stamps were deliberately printed with a fugitive ink, so that the colours would run if anyone tried to remove the postmark and use the stamp again. Good examples are the British green and purple colours of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You should be very careful with these, as the slightest dampness can often reduce the attractiveness, and the value, of these stamps.

J. Accessories. You can buy liquids (UHU Stamp Remover, Stamplift, or similar) which can be painted onto the reverse of the backing paper. They normally work quite well, are faster than using water, and are useful when one only has one or two stamps to do. It is of course more expensive than water !  There are also special books available for holding stamps while they are drying -  a useful way of saving space. These accessories should be available from good stamp shops, or by mail order. In difficulty, please click here for a source.

Although the information and advice contained in this article is based on many years' experience as a professional philatelist and collector, no liability can be accepted for any loss or damage, however caused.
  Copyright Robert Murray, 2004-2015.
Robert Murray Stamp Shop
5 & 6 Inverleith Gardens
Scotland EH3 5PU
Tel. 0131 552 1220 or  0131 478 7021
Email; [email protected]
Our Shop
is open four days each week, and customers are always, of course, welcome.
We carry very wide stocks of the whole world - much, much more than is listed on our website.
Full shop information at this link.