National Stamp Collecting Month: Starting a Collection – Finding Stamps & Soaking Them

South Korea - Michel #3016 (2014)
South Korea – Michel #3016 (2014)

October is National Stamp Collecting Month in the United States and the Philippines and I’ve just been informed that it’s the same in Australia and Canada as well. Do other nations have similar month-long celebrations of our hobby and, if so, which months? Thailand, where I have lived for nearly 14 years, promotes stamp collecting throughout the year but especially on the anniversary of the first Siamese postage stamps and Thailand Post Day, both in August, and on World Post Day which occurred yesterday (until 2013, the Kingdom marked the full International Letter Writing Week). There is usually at least one large stamp exhibition per year in Bangkok (normally in early August) and a large FIPA-sponsored international show every five years (running November 28 through December 3 in 2018).

Much like the United States Postal Service does during National Stamp Collecting Month,  Thailand Post tries its best to promote stamp collecting amongst young children. The hobby does seem popular in some areas. I’ve seen large groups of schoolkids on field trips when visiting the philatelic museums in Bangkok and Phuket (there are a total of 12 scattered throughout Thailand); when I visited the old General Post Office building in Bangkok last year, I was surprised to see that it was a popular spot for university students posing for graduation photos beneath the huge bas-reliefs of early stamps of Siam. When I worked for a large international school in Phuket, I occasionally used stamps in order to teach topics such as geography and history and even hosted a Friday afternoons stamp club one term. Now that I work primarily in government schools, it is difficult to do anything with real stamps due to the size of the classrooms (often 50-60 students in each) and also because of the lack of air-conditioning (stamps and ceiling fans DO NOT MIX!).

Whenever I mention to Thai children (and adults) that I collect stamps, the usual first question is “How to start?” They already know that they can buy some new issues at the post office — increasingly, the regular post offices outside of Bangkok only have the latest definitive stamps in stock. If one is in luck, there is a philatelic window or room within the same post office or a philatelic museum with a sales counter nearby. I am lucky in that Phuket has a philatelic museum just a 10-minute walk from my home and this is where I purchased all of my Thai new issues for the first ten years or so that I lived here. Over the past several years, however, they have not been supplied with as many stamps from Bangkok — some issues are simply unobtainable except through mail order and some are sent in very limited supply and sell out before I have a chance to visit! There are very few stamp dealers remaining in Thailand; most of the physical shops are in Bangkok and those doing mail order charge exorbitant prices far beyond catalogue value. It does make it a bit difficult to start a collection in Thailand.

The easiest (and least expensive) way to start a stamp collection is to save the mail that arrives in your own home. Ask your friends, family members, co-workers, teachers, etc. to save their mail for you, too.
The easiest (and least expensive) way to start a stamp collection is to save the mail that arrives in your own home. Ask your friends, family members, co-workers, teachers, etc. to save their mail for you, too.

However, the easiest method is the same in any country. One can start a collection simply by saving the stamps from envelopes, packages, and postcards that come to your house. At first, it may seem like there are more postage meters and other non-stamp indicia than actual stamps but you will find some if you keep looking. You can also ask family members and friends to save stamps for you. Save the entire envelope or carefully cut the paper around the stamp off the envelope (you can soak it off later, more on that in a bit). Here in Thailand, I always tell the kids they should ask some of the foreign teachers in their schools to save stamps for them that they receive from back home. I’ve found that Chinese teachers are especially good sources for stamps as the hobby is hugely popular in China.

For a better variety of stamps, you could find a pen pal from a different country. Not only will they put stamps on their letters to you, but you can offer to trade new or used stamps from your country for a similar number of stamps from their country. It is possible to find pen pal and stamp trading groups on Facebook and other types of social media. Postcrossing and similar groups are also excellent sources of stamps (and postcards!). You can also purchase large amounts of mixed stamps still on the paper through online sources such as eBay, etc. This is called kiloware.

Local and youth stamp clubs are also excellent sources, not only for obtaining stamps (trading with other members) but for information and assistance. While it can be difficult to find a club nearby, often a philatelic clerk at a post office will be aware of one or more in the area. Local clubs are great for a social aspect of stamp collecting (as are attending local, regional, national or international stamp shows). Joining a larger stamp organization can also be a great source for obtaining stamps. The American Philatelic Society, for example, has its Online StampStore and Sales by Mail, both excellent sources in which APS members sell their own stamps to other members.

While there are less and less brick-and-mortar stamp dealers, there are quite a few selling stamps online. Many long-time stamp dealers have extensive and informative websites and/or blogs and others sell through online marketplaces such as eBay, Delcampe, Colnet, Stampworld, and others. You can search by individual stamps, countries, or topics but my favorite searches for starting a new country (and obtaining a variety of stamps in large amounts) include the terms lotmixture or kiloware with the name of the country or simply “worldwide”. If you desire, you can even purchase an entire album already filled with stamps in a large range of prices. This is a good way to start a collection, but (as always) take into consideration shipping costs.

Thai kids learning about stamps during a fieldtrip to Sam Sen Nai Philatelic Museum in Bangkok. Photo taken in August 2013.
Thai kids learning about stamps during a fieldtrip to Sam Sen Nai Philatelic Museum in Bangkok. Photo taken in August 2013.

When you have a healthy accumulation of stamps on paper cut from the corner of the envelopes, it is time to remove that paper. You need to soak your stamps in order to do this. All you really need is a container to hold the water while the stamps soak, paper towels to dry the stamps on, and a few heavy books to weigh the drying stamps down and prevent curling.

The traditional method works on U.S. stamps from before 2004, and most stamps from other countries. Put the paper-backed stamps in a bowl of lukewarm water, with the stamp face up. Use enough room for each one to float to the surface. After 15–20 minutes, once the stamps have begun to separate from the paper, use your stamp tongs (a special pair of tweezers with rounded tips used to pick up stamps) to remove the stamps from the water to a dry paper towel. If there is any paper remaining, you may need to gently scrape the paper off or let the stamp soak longer. Do not attempt to peel off the stamp. You should then rinse the back of the stamp in fresh water to remove the last of the gummy residue.

Place the stamps face down on a dry paper towel and let them dry completely (overnight is good). To prevent the stamps from curling, you can place them between plain paper and sandwich them in between heavy books.

Stamps on brightly colored paper or with purple ink marks should be soaked in separate bowls, since the ink on the paper might bleed and dye the stamps.

 Not all stamps soak well. Self-adhesive stamps, including all U.S. stamps since 2004, cannot be removed from paper using the traditional warm water method. Online stamp forums are full of different techniques. Some work of the methods work well on stamps of a particular country while not at all on other stamps. The routine mentioned most often is to find a non-aerosol, 100% natural, citrus-based air freshener, such as Pure Citrus or ZEP. Spray a small amount onto the paper attached to stamps, so the paper is soaked and translucent. Turn the stamp face up, roll the paper corner slightly, and slowly peel off the stamp. To remove the sticky back, dip your finger in talcum powder and wipe the back of stamp lightly.

The short video tutorial of soaking stamps above was made by Graham, host of the excellent and entertaining Exploring Stamps channel on YouTube. It’s a fun way to learn about stamp collecting, both for beginners and life-long philatelists with each episode “just right” in length. He also has a tutorial on separating paper from self-adhesive stamps.

One can find a huge amount of resources online for how to collect stamps. A page called Learn About Stamps does a great job at organizing some of the best links. It’s sponsored by the United States Postal Service, the American Stamp Dealers Association and others.

Sweden - Scott #1588 (1986)
Sweden – Scott #1588 (1986)

This morning, as I began thinking about what to write about for today’s article, the first thing to come to mind was one on soaking stamps. Although I have a number of stamps showing various aspects of the hobby handling stamps with tongs, looking at them with a magnifying glass and placing them into an album, I have only one stamp portraying the soaking process and I’ve already used it for a previous ASAD article! Are there any others out there (and, for that matter, have there been any stamps issued that show perforation gauges or watermark trays?). In that article, I mentioned that soaking was my “second least favorite” aspect of the hobby (I don’t recall what I felt was my first least favorite when I wrote that) but didn’t describe the process at all. I did describe the stamp — Scott #1588 — and the others in the Swedish set and the U.S. joint issue, as well as illustrating two examples of “edits” I’d made to use for A Stamp A Day (which I still haven’t gotten around to using as the logo).

For the record, I don’t really mind soaking stamps but my apartment in Thailand lacks air-conditioning. in order to have loose stamps out, I need to turn off the various ceiling fans and floor fans so as not to blow the stamps all over the place. Most times of the year, this quickly heats up the room to the point where sweat begins dripping off my nose — another thing that is bad for stamps. Lately, I’ve taken newly-arrived stamp orders to my office at work (which is air-conditioned to Arctic temperature levels) where I scan them and place them onto stockbook pages in relative comfort. Perhaps, I’ll soak my next batch of stamps at work as well.

South Korea - Scott #3014-3017 (2014) individual first day covers [NIMC2018]; image sourced from active eBay auction.
South Korea – Scott #3014-3017 (2014) individual first day covers [NIMC2018]; image sourced from active eBay auction.
South Korea - Michel #3014-3017 (2014) first day cover of the full set, sent by registered mail to Armenia [NIMC2018]; sourced from active eBay auction
South Korea – Michel #3014-3017 (2014) first day cover of the full set, sent by registered mail to Armenia [NIMC2018]; sourced from active eBay auction

At any rate, I today’s featured stamp was issued by South Korea on August 8, 2014, part of a set of four to mark that year’s Stamp Week (Michel #3014-3017). As with all of the annual releases for this event, the stamp designs were the result of a nationwide contest amongst schoolkids. The design on Michel #3016 is called “Creation of New History” and the 540-won stamp depicts several children sorting through stamps (to swap in my mind) and creating a “stamp man” figure in the process. The other designs feature “a letter containing the thoughts of a bird” and “growing up with stamps”, both on 300-won denominations, with an additional 540-won value depicting “train travel”. All four stamps had the designs executed by Kim Changhwan and were printed by Korea Minting and Security Printing Corporation using offset lithography (although the first day covers state the photogravure process), perforated 13¼. A total of 275,000 copies of each stamp was issued in sheets of 16 with 123,000 souvenir sheets also released.

Flag of South Korea
Flag of South Korea
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