This article concerns the removal of old stamp hinges from mint and used stamps that you acquire, particularly the dangers associated with doing so and some techniques for determining whether or not it is possible to safely remove a hinge and then for ensuring their safe removal. This article generally refers to mint stamps, as most used stamps can simply be soaked in water to remove the hinge remnant. However there are some notable exceptions. For example, many high value stamps of the British Commonwealth are printed in doubly fugitive inks and will fade with exposure to water. Other issues, such as the Queen Wilhelmina issues of the Dutch East Indies are printed in watercolour and will completely disappear when soaked. So in those cases, the comments here are completely relevant.
Collectors tend not to like hinge remainders on stamps, one reason being that they feel they do not know what lies underneath the hinge. There is some concern that unscrupulous dealers have attempted to use hinges to conceal tears and thin spots on stamps. While this is sometimes the case, it is more often the case that a collector attempting to remove a hinge damages an otherwise sound stamp as in the picture below:
This is a 1 cent orange from the 1897 Jubilee Issue. As you can see, the hinge has come clean off and has taken the gum and a layer of the paper with it, thinning the stamp. In this particular case, I caused this thin after following a time tested technique for the safe removal of hinges. The reason why the stamp still thinned is that the paper on this issue is very soft, with a lot of loose fibres that bonded to the hinge. There was literally no way to remove it without soaking the stamp that would not result in damage.
The illustrations below show two more instances where hinge removal would damage the stamps if carried out completely:
In the above instance, removal was attempted, but abandoned after removing just a portion of the bottom hinge, as the removal was already causing a thin.
In this instance, you can see the pale green hinge at the top. That is known in the hobby as a Dennison peelable hinge. That can be removed without too much trouble. However, The two hinges underneath it and to the left of it are not peelable and will be very difficult if not impossible to remove without a great deal of patience as we will see.
Types of Hinges
It helps to have some understanding and awareness of the types of hinges and material that have been used to hinge stamps over the past 150 years. Having this understanding will help you identify, whether it is even wise to attempt removal and if so, which technique and tools will be needed to do the job without damaging the stamp.
1. Peelable Glassine Hinges
These hinges like the light green hinge in the scan above were usually made by a company called Dennison, though there were a few other makers. Usually they have a greenish tinge, are about 1/2 inch wide and 3/4 inch long. The flap that attaches to the stamp is usually quite narrow being about 5 mm deep. Occasionally they are found uncoloured, being the usual yellowish or greyish white colour of glassine paper.
The major characteristic of these hinges is that they peel off very easily once they are completely dry. You can take them off easily from even the most delicate of papers without a problem. You simply hold the stamp down with a pair of tongs (not sharp ones!) and peel the hinge off (if it is intact). If all you have is the flap left, as in the scan above, then you can hold the stamp down with a clean finger, and gently rub the hinge with the dull spade tips of your tongs. For this I prefer rounded tongs, just to reduce any danger of accidentally piercing the stamps. This action will cause the hinge to separate at the corners and in the middle and then you should be able to lift it off with your tongs.There should be no issues whatsoever with these types of hinges.
Every other type of hinge that I am about to show you is NOT peelable.
2. Rounded Standard Size Old Glassine Hinges
These are the most common types of old hinges. Determining their age is difficult because they were in use for a very long time. Generally speaking the only way to remove these is by rubbing and peeling, or with a scalpel as discussed below. As long as the stamps are printed on a fairly hard, stout paper with a good finish, then it should be possible to remove most of these without thinning the stamp. In the above examples, I judged the risk of removal to be too high given the softness of the paper on which the stamps were printed. So I left them as is.
3. Small Rounded Glassine Hinges
These are much less commonly encountered than the hinges above, but I find they can be much tougher to remove. Again, the rubbing and peeling technique or scalpel technique is really the only way to go with these.
4. Large Oblong Glassine Hinges
These are very seldom seen, but when they are, they are really nasty. As you can see, they were very large hinges, as the flap of this hinge covers almost half the stamp. Rubbing and peeling probably won't work because you will damage the paper through the excessive rubbing long before you are able to remove the hinge. Part of the reason for this is that they tend to bond completely to the paper they are attached to. A scalpel may work, but will require a great deal of patience. It may be best to leave these ones. In the above instances these stamps are printed on a soft horizontal wove paper and I could tell that there was no way to remove these without ruining two perfectly sound stamps.
5. Small Oblong Glassine Hinges
Like their larger cousin, these are difficult to remove as well. However, both rubbing and peeling and scalpel techniques will usually enable you to remove them.
6. Octagonal Paper Hinges
These are some of the oldest, nastiest hinges around. You can see one in the centre of the above scan, that has since been covered by a glassine hinge. My advice with these is don't even attempt to remove them unless you have a lot of patience and skill with a scalpel. Rubbing and peeling will not work at all guaranteed, as these hinges were made from regular paper and not glassine and therefore bonded completely with the paper they were attached to.
7. Home Made Hinges from Pieces of Stamp Selvage
On the above Canadian stamp, someone has used a piece of selvage from an early German stamp issue as a hinge. There is no way to safely remove this except with a scalpel.
Techniques to Removal of Hinges Safely
There are two techniques that I have used to safely remove hinge remnants from stamps:
1. Rubbing and Peeling
Place the stamp face down on a firm but soft surface where it will not slide, like the back of a stock card and hold it down close to the hinge remnant with either your index or middle finger. Holding your tongs in your right hand (use wide rounded tips for this), in the closed position, place the wide tip on the hinge remnant and press firmly down. Then keeping the pressure on, begin moving the tongs in a circular motion. Move in very small, controlled and tight circles. If your movements are uncontrolled or too wide, you will suddenly crease or tear the stamp. After a about 30 seconds or a minute you should see the parts of the hinge remnant begin to loosen. Then you can get your tongs underneath it or otherwise begin breaking it off. Once a portion has completely loosened, simply peel it off. Watch very carefully to ensure that the hinge has completely detached before removing it, as you can still thin the stamp at this point.
You will often see that what appears at first to be a single hinge is in fact, several layers of hinge. Generally 1 or two layers can be removed very safely using this technique, but once you get more than two layers what often happens is that the bottom layers won't come off safely using this technique because the hinge has fully bonded with the stamp paper. If you do not see the hinge remnant begin to flake, lift or peel after 2 or three minutes of rubbing, then this technique is not likely to work and you should stop. Excessive rubbing and pressure will damage the stamp.
2. Scraping with a Scalpel
You need a razor sharp scalpel for this technique. I like scalpels because of the rounded edges on the blades, which reduce the risk of accidentally piercing the stamp. You place the stamp face down on a non slip soft surface as above and placing the sharp edge of the scalpel on the highest point on the hinge remnant, begin very gently moving it back and forth to shave down the hinge remnant. Do not, whatever you do, start at the lowest point (i.e. at the corners of the hinge), otherwise you are liable to slice right through the stamp.
This technique takes an incredible amount of patience - sometimes 2 hours on a single stamp. Often it does not result in the complete removal, but merely improving the appearance to the point where it is worth doing.
How to Tell Which Hinges Can Be Safely Removed
There are several factors to consider in deciding whether or not to remove a hinge remnant from a stamp:
1. What type of paper is the stamp printed on?
Good quality, stout wove papers that have some plate glazing or surfacing are the best for hinge removal. Plate glazing is a process where the paper is passed through rollers that effectively polish the print surface. The result is that the paper is very compact and firm with no loose fibres. This type of paper stands up very well to hinge removal. The best example of this type of paper is that used by De La Rue, Waterlow, Harrison, Perkins Bacon, and Bradbury Wilkinson on British Commonwealth Stamps.
Soft papers that contain loose fibres, regardless of how thick the paper may seem to be are not good candidates for safe hinge removal:
Most Canadian stamps prior to the late 1940's are poor candidates for hinge removal. Newfoundland is an exception because the stamps were mostly printed by Waterlow, Perkins Bacon and De La Rue. The dry printings of the Admirals from 1924 through to the 1934 Loyalists issue are a safer bet. The paper used during this period is much more resilient to hinge removal. Between 1935 and 1948 some of the papers used are harder and firmer and hinges can be removed with no problem, but there is a soft vertical wove paper used for these issues that thins quite easily unless you are very careful when removing the hinges.
Early Australian stamps are much the same as Canada, with many papers being soft. Generally once you pass the third watermark of the Kangaroos it becomes safer to remove hinges. But great care must be taken on those early stamps.
Most US stamps are fine, except the soft papers of the Banknote period, where great care must be taken in removing hinges.
2. How many layers of hinge are there?
Generally if there is one or two layers of old glassine hinge, then you have a reasonably good chance of being able to remove all the remnants without damaging the stamp, subject to my comment on paper above. But once you get to three or more layers, your chances of being able to remove them all get slimmer and slimmer.
3. Where on the stamp are the hinge remnants located?
It is safest if the remnant is firmly in the middle of the stamp. If it is touching the perforations or covering them, it is probably best not to attempt to remove it because your odds of losing the perforations or thinning them is very high. If you can tell that it is not bonded to the perforations and just extends over them then you might be able to try removing it starting from the middle of the stamp. Occasionally a remnant like that will loosen to the point where it just peels off and even though it looks like it was on the perforations, it comes away without affecting them. The key is that if you get to the perforations and there is any resistance at all then the removal attempt must be curtailed.
4. Is the stamp completely sound before removal?
As I said before, sometimes hinges were used to hide thin spots or tears, so it may be a good idea to immerse the stamp in watermark fluid to see if there are any hidden faults under the hinge remnant that will be made worse with removal. Thin spots will continue to show up as dark patches and creases or tears as dark lines.
If the stamp is damaged underneath the hinge, leave it alone and just disclose the fault to the buyer.
5. What type of hinges are involved?
Paper hinges and selvage or other home-made hinges should only be removed by someone with experience using a scalpel who has successfully tried it on other stamps. You have to be prepared to spend hours on a stamp. If you rush, you will damage the stamp guaranteed.
If they are small to medium sized glassines, they should come off with rubbing and peeling. You shouldn't need to use a scalpel with them unless there are many layers. If they are larger glassines and have fully bonded with the stamp paper, then they should only be removed by someone experienced in using the scalpel technique.
Good luck with your stamps, and please be careful! A sound stamp with a hinge in my opinion is better than a damaged stamp without one.