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The stable isotopes of water (hydrogen and oxygen isotopes) are of utmost interest in ecology and the geosciences. In many cases water has to be extracted directly from a matrix such as soil or plant tissue before isotopes can be analyzed by mass spectrometry. Currently, the most widely used technique for water is cryogenic vacuum extraction. We present a simple and inexpensive modification of this method and document tests conducted with soils of various grain size and tree core replicates taken on four occasions during 2010. The accuracies for sandy soils are between 0.4‰ and 3‰ over a range of 21‰ and 165‰ for δ18O and δ2H, respectively. Spiking tests with water of known isotope composition were conducted with soil and tree core samples; they indicate reliable precision after an extraction time of 15 min for sandy soils. For clayey soils and tree cores, the deviations were up to 0.63‰ and 4.7‰ for δ18O and δ2H, respectively. This indicates either that the extraction time should be extended or that mechanisms different from Rayleigh fractionation play a role. The modified protocol allows a fast and reliable extraction of large numbers of water samples from soil and plant material in preparation for stable isotope analyses. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.