Microfluidic systems can deliver portable point-of-care diagnostics without the need for external equipment or specialist operators, by integrating all reagents and manipulations required for a particular assay in one device1. A key approach is to deposit picogram quantities of dried reagents in microchannels with micrometre precision using specialized inkjet plotters2–5. This means that reagents can be stored for long periods of time and reconstituted spontaneously when adding a liquid sample. But it is challenging to carry out complex operations using multiple reagents, because shear flow enhances their dispersion and they tend to accumulate at moving liquid fronts, resulting in poor spatiotemporal control over the concentration profile of the reconstituted reagents6. One solution is to limit the rate of release of reagents into the liquid7–10. However, this requires the fine-tuning of different reagents, conditions and targeted operations, and cannot readily produce the complex, time-dependent multireagent concentration pulses required for sophisticated on-chip assays. Here we report and characterize a capillary flow phenomenon that we term self-coalescence, which is seen when a confined liquid with a stretched air–liquid interface is forced to ‘zip’ back onto itself in a microfluidic channel, thereby allowing reagent reconstitution with minimal dispersion. We provide a comprehensive framework that captures the physical underpinning of this effect. We also fabricate scalable, compact and passive microfluidic structures—‘self-coalescence modules’, or SCMs—that exploit and control this phenomenon in order to dissolve dried reagent deposits in aqueous solutions with precise spatiotemporal control. We show that SCMs can reconstitute multiple reagents so that they either undergo local reactions or are sequentially delivered in a flow of liquid. SCMs are easily fabricated in different materials, readily configured to enable different reagent manipulations, and readily combined with other microfluidic technologies, so should prove useful for assays, diagnostics, high-throughput screening and other technologies requiring efficient preparation and manipulation of small volumes of complex solutions.