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Handbook of Stamp Collecting Basics: Part 1

Presented by
The International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors

Written by
Al and Mildred Feinberg of Bensalem, PA
Edited by Tom Fortunato

From a series of articles about the many aspects of stamp collecting
appearing in the ISWSC's bimonthly newsletter, The Circuit, 1994-1996

    Starting Out in the Hobby
  1. Wife Catches Collecting Fever

  2. Stamp Production
  3. Printing Differences

  4. Determining Paper Types

  5. Colors and Shades

  6. Perforations

  7. Stamps and Albums
  8. Buying Stamps

  9. Stamp Buying Tips

  10. Stamp Pricing

  11. The Hinging Craze

  12. Choosing the Album
Click [HERE] to go to Part 2.

1. Wife Catches Collecting Fever

Today, I am a retired housewife and I would like to share my interest in stamps with other collectors' wives. I started collecting when I was 13 years old. I sent away to Pensupreme Ice Cream, which advertised a starter album and stamps. The only payment needed was in popsicle wrappers. I couldn't wait to get it. Finally it arrived and I had so much fun trying to figure out where the stamps went in the album. Unfortunately when I tried to get more money to buy additional cheap stamps, my father discouraged me. Since we were poor, he said it was a waste of money. One dollar would have bought a package of several thousand stamps, but since we were on a tight budget, I soon lost interest.

When I married at age 26, I discovered my husband Al was a stamp collector, too. In my spare time, I started to look through his stamps. It brought old memories and rekindled my interest. It didn't take long to find my old Pensupreme Album and try to fill spaces with his doubles. That really got me started. When my husband went to the stamp store, I of course tagged along. While he was talking to the dealer, I was busy going through the penny box. I had so much fun that he had to drag me away when it was time to go home.

Eventually we started to buy worldwide mixtures. He would help me identify stamps I couldn't figure out. Every four years we cataloged his entire collection. Through this process I learned to identify colors, shades, perforations and watermarks. I asked questions whenever I didn't understand something in the catalogues. I'm now familiar with tagging and don't have much trouble identifying different types of paper and printing. Some stamps are really a challenge and you get the greatest feeling of satisfaction once you identify the stamp correctly. I especially enjoy the challenge of identifying stamps others can't!

Besides Scott's, we now have quite a few foreign specialized catalogues. To help us read the foreign catalogues, we purchased books to translate different languages to English. It's not as difficult as you might imagine. By learning a few key words you can usually figure out others.

I'm writing this in the hopes of getting more spouses involved and interested in the hobby. You'll find the hobby very rewarding. Learn about and enjoy geography. It will make you better appreciate current events and gain an historical perspective on today's world. Our grandchildren now come to us to help them with their homework. Without the knowledge I learned from philately (the study of postage stamps in all its forms), helping them would be very difficult.

My only regret is that somehow I should have stayed with my hobby when I was younger. But as you can see, it's never too late to go back and pick up where you left off.

When I first started helping my husband with his collection, I sorted stamps by countries, not knowing enough about perforations and watermarks. I had difficulty identifying the correct catalogue number, so I took the easy way out. I left them all for Al to figure out. At first, Al would check the stamps over carefully and number them accordingly, but then one day he insisted it was time for me to do it myself.

He began by explaining what the notches meant on the perforation gauge. For instance, perf.12 means that you had 12 perforations to a line two centimeters long. (Actually, this form of measurement was devised by a Frenchman around 1860.) Since I understood what the numbers represented, I started using the perforation gauge by myself.

Watermarking was a little more of a challenge. A watermark is a security design impressed onto blank paper when it's manufactured. Al showed me several ways to detect watermarks on a stamp. Designs can sometimes be seen by holding a stamp up to a light. Paper is thinner where the watermark is, making the design more translucent.

Another method of checking out a watermark is by laying stamps on a black surface (small trays are sold for this) and pouring a tiny bit of watermark fluid on them. The design will appear darker than the rest of the stamp. Unlike water, this chemical fluid will evaporate and is safe to use on mint stamps without washing the gum away. You must be sure not to use this fluid on photoengraved stamps (see the next article). Never use watermark detector fluid in a room that is not well ventilated. Breathing it in can be very dangerous to your health. Some watermarks can't be easily identified by either of these methods.

We have two other tools that we use for the tough watermarks. The first is a Sinoscope, made by the Safe Corporation, which is rather easy to use. The second is a Morley-Bright Roll-A-Tector, made in England, which again is fairly easy to use. The advantage of these two products is that you don't need to wet your stamps in any way to use them.

As for stamps, I especially enjoy the stamps from Great Britain and her colonies. Not only are they the most beautiful to me, but they present a challenge to properly identify them. Now that I've learned the "tools of the trade" and their proper use, I actually enjoy trying to catalog these stamps and can finally fully appreciate them.

2. Printing Differences

Stamp collectors need to distinguish the different printing methods used to produce stamps. The words typography, lithography, engraved and photolithography meant nothing to me at first. Considering I was new at this, I was prepared for a long drawn out technical explanation of each, but to my surprise it was rather simple. In less than an hour I was identifying the major types of printing. Some were a little more difficult than others and I still make mistakes, but I'm getting better all the time.

Here's a quick primer:

Engraved is perhaps the easiest to identify. The ink lies on top of the paper, by sliding your finger lightly across the stamp, you can feel the ridges of the ink. Ridges can clearly be seen using a 10 power magnifying glass. The ink is so high on some stamps that you can easily feel it with your fingernail.

Typography is just the opposite of engraving. The ink is pressed into the paper, similar to a typewriter. With a 10 power magnifying glass you can see that the paper rises above the ink. The color seems below the surface of the paper.

Photo-lithography is more difficult to determine. The simplest way to describe it is to first look for the darkest part of the stamp. You'll find the color is made up of tiny dots instead of being solid. It's not hard to see the little dots using a magnifying glass.

Lithography is perhaps the toughest. These stamps usually are of the poorest printing quality. They often lack fine detail, being made up of lines of various lengths and thickness.

There are many other ways stamps are printed, but I think for the novice collector, the above four printing methods cover the greatest number of stamps.

Now I have a lot of fun identifying the printing method of stamps. I hope you newer collectors find the above information helpful.

3. Determining Paper Types

Trying to distinguish the different papers used in printing stamps can be a little tricky. Holding stamps up to the light and examining them from their white back is usually sufficient.

Woven paper is the easiest to confirm. It appears to be rows of little dots. Most stamps are on wove paper.

Laid paper can be identified by either horizontal or vertical narrow line as you look through the stamp.

Granite paper is rather unique. It looks like wove paper but has blue and red silk fibers throughout.

Perlure paper is very thin, not much thicker than an onion skin. It is usually hard and brittle.

Quadrille paper is similar to laid paper having horizontal & vertical lines, looking like little squares. A good example is from France, Scott #103.

Chalky paper, used especially on British stamps, is easy to identify, too. Chalk-surfaced stamps when rubbed with silver will leave a black mark on them. Be careful when testing these and just touch a small corner or part of the stamp. Watermarks are sometimes obscured by this kind of paper.

Other types of paper seldom used that you will come in contact with include: native paper, used in early Asian stamps; manila paper, used mostly in envelopes; and India paper, introduced in China, mostly for die proofs and specialty applications.

There are others, but for now, this will get you started. Additional information about paper types can usually be found in most catalog introductions.

4. Colors And Shades

As a long time stamp collector, I still have difficulty identifying colors and particularly shades. I can just imagine how beginners feel when they try to identify a specific shade. The best way, of course, is to have the stamps expertized, but that can cost a lot of money, especially if you have lots of stamps with different shades.

I find a "Stanley Gibbons" color gauge very useful but still not exact. Stanley Gibbons is the major catalog producer for Great Britain and the British Commonwealth- Scott's counterpart. This gauge works somewhat well if used only in conjunction with their catalog color listing. You see, a particular shade in their catalog, brick red for example, might be described as dark brown-red in Scott's. So there is no uniformity among the major catalogs about to color.

You must also consider that most older stamps fade and some colors actually change over the years due to the color fastness of the ink used. Violets and purples turn grayer in time. Some colors just oxidize and look totally different from what they are supposed to be. Yellows and oranges turn to shades of brown, for example. Stamps on display in a case or frame, or even left out in direct sunlight will also change colors given enough time.

Another difficulty is with stamps classified as two hyphenated colors. Red-orange refers to a stamp mostly orange with some red added to it. The second color is the primary or dominant color. You may also find the listing as reddish-orange, meaning the same thing as red-orange. Use these colors only as guides.

Try comparing the stamp in question with another stamp from the same country. The reasoning here is that each country often uses the same printers during the same time period, which use the same inks. So comparing stamps from the same country is sometimes helpful.

Some shades are nearly impossible to identify, such as light blue, baby blue, powder blue, and so on.

Here's an interesting project to visually understand what's happening with colors and shades. Try sorting common definitive duplicates from a variety of countries by color. Look them up in any catalog you have, as it doesn't matter which one you use. You'll soon discover that there will be a shade range even for the exact same specific color listing!

As you can see, determining colors and shades is not for the faint of heart. Even experts can sometimes disagree. The bottom line is do the best you can and ask your other philatelic friends or possibly a dealer to give you a hand.

5. Perforations

I've been getting requests from several ISWSC club members to go into more detail about perforations. I hope this explanation will satisfy most requests.

The first stamps appearing in the early 1840's were imperforate- without holes- needing to be cut to separate them from the sheet. Soon after perforations appeared. Cutting out tiny holes became the most common way of separating stamps.

Gauges soon became available for collectors to measure these holes in a more accurate manner, created by a Frenchman in the 1860's. The number of holes every 2 centimeters corresponds to its perforation. Perf 12, for example, means that the stamp has 12 holes every 2 centimeters in both the horizontal and vertical direction. A perf value of 12x13 refers to the perforation being 12 horizontally and 13 vertically.

Early imperforate stamps must be checked carefully to be sure they are not a later perforated variety with the perfs cut off. This "technique" is used to fool a collector into thinking he has the more valuable imperforate variety. When buying expensive imperforates it probably would be wise to have them expertized.

Another form of perforation is called rouletting. This is done by cutting partially through the paper but not punching any of it out. To explain how it's done simply imagine a pizza cutter. The cutter actually scores the crust, making it easier to separate each piece. Different forms of rouletting exist. Most have French names. Examples include; "perce en lignes," meaning cut in lines; "perce en arc" and "perce en scie," meaning pierced in an arc or saw tooth; and "perce serpentin," or cut in tiny, wavy lines.

Sometimes it's hard to tell a rouletted, perforated stamp from a regularly imperforate one. It's best to have such stamps in pairs that have not yet been separated. They will look like imperforates, but the scoring will be clearly visible.

For examples of the above mentioned types, refer to the following: "perce en lignes"- Mexico Scott #500, "perce en points"- Mexico, Scott #242-56; "perce en arc" and "en scie"- Hanover, Scott #25-29;- "perce en serpentin"- Brunswick(Germany), Scott #13-18.

Other types exist if you want to explore any worldwide catalog. So take a good look at your stamps and remember how important perforations are!

6. Buying Stamps

Now for a discussion about buying stamps. I'm sure everyone has their own favorite dealer, but I'd like to tell you about some of the ways that I buy stamps that work well for me.

To get started in worldwide collecting, the best thing for beginners to do is to buy the largest worldwide assortment of stamps they can afford. You'll gain a lot of enjoyment and knowledge sorting the countries. By the time you get through several thousand stamps in this type of "kiloware," you'll find it will become easier to identify countries.

The next step would be to buy stamp packets of a particular country. For instance, you may want to purchase a pack of 500 stamps from Germany or 1000 from Hungary, etc. These will really help to fill in the country chosen. Consider filling other spaces by visiting dealers or sending them your want lists. Another good way to fill holes is through approvals; stamps sent to you through the mail to look over. You buy what you need and return the rest. You'll be surprised how fast your empty spaces vanish.

At this stage of collecting, consider yourself an "intermediate" or "advanced" collector. You're now ready to accumulate better sets of stamps. Be prepared that prices start to grow from here on! Relying exclusively on dealers could prove to be very expensive. You do have other options.

Mail bids/mail sales are similar to public auctions except that you can't attend in person. When you bid in mail sales, I find you can often win the bid for mint or used stamps for above 50% of the current Scott's catalog value. If they are damaged- heavy hinged or short perfs, thin spots, etc., I bid less than 50%, dropping 5% for every flaw mentioned in the description. For mint never hinged (MNH) stamps, in most cases expect to bid 60-80% or even above the 100% mark. Since you're not competing against "floor bidders," winning bids are accepted at the discretion of the mail bid organizer. He may accept the highest bid or reject the offer if he feels the price is too low. Be aware that unpublished "reserve" prices may be on any lot, below which no one will purchase the item.

In public auctions, you either mail in a bid or you (or your representative) bid live against "floor bidders." Some of these sales offer much higher priced, and respectively, more scarce and higher quality material. When mailing in a bid at a public auction, bid the highest price you are willing to pay for the lot. Remember, you get just one chance with a mailed in bid. Any floor bidder might out bid you.

7. Stamp Buying Tips

I'm going to let you in on one of my best secrets. If you are fortunate enough to live in or close to a large city, watch your newspaper for information regarding very old public buildings that are going to be demolished.

I make it a point to be there and offer to buy the contents of the box in the "corner stone." When these buildings were built, owners often put an accumulation of collectibles representative of the time of construction in a box placed in the corner stone. It was placed in one of the blocks near the main entrance. I've found some beautiful Columbians and other stamps, by themselves and on letters along with plenty of good postal stationary out of these boxes. The "price" typically is a donation of a few dollars paid to one of the laborers doing the demolition work. The contents of the box means nothing to them. Now that my secret is out I guess I'll have to compete with others to get these boxes.

Getting back to buying stamps, I find that many dealer prices for short sets are very reasonable. "Short sets" are stamp sets missing a few denominations from being complete, often the higher values. I only buy them if one or two of the high denominations are missing, which typically are the most expensive individual stamps. Then I watch for a mail bid sale and bid on the high values to complete the set. I often win such bids because the only people bidding on them are collectors like me trying to complete a set. I realize buying this way takes longer to complete sets, but who's in a hurry? There are so many stamps that I need that there is always something I can bid on.

Here's another inexpensive tip. Try asking a local company to clip the stamps off of incoming mail for you, or at least save their entire envelopes for you to clip at home. You may be lucky and find a great source of all the current stamps you need nearby.

I correspond quite a bit with collectors in other countries that are usually anxious to trade for current US stamps. It's also a good way to make new friends in foreign countries.

8. Stamp Pricing

As a long time worldwide stamp collector, I'd like to give you a few thoughts about the controversy and complaints about Scott catalog pricing.

How many members of your local stamp club participate in the "big league" stamp auctions? I'll bet there are relatively few, if any. Most of us buy stamps to fill spaces and try to buy from a dealer we trust. Most of us have a fixed budget and we try to get the most for our money, primarily inexpensive stamps and sets. Then why complain about how Scott prices stamps? Those with unlimited budgets rarely have a reason to complain, yet seem to be the most vocal in their opposition. Remember, dealers sell stamps to make a profit and must remain competitive to stay in business. If they were to fold, then where would we turn?

What difference does it make to any of us if Scott has a minimum value of 15 cents for any stamp? If the complainers had to sort these stamps, they probably would soon find out that they are losing money at the 15 cent minimum price. I don't think any of us is so nieve that we expect to get anything near catalogue value for our stamps when we sell them. We are hobbyists, buying these stamps for our own pleasure. So-called investors almost ruined our hobby not too many years ago. It seems to me that since Scott's lowered their values to reflect retail value some of these investors are trying to get back into business again. Perhaps they need the market to fall like it did several years ago.

Let's leave stamp collecting as a hobby. As a stamp collector for many years, I can honestly say I have learned more geography and history than I ever learned in school from my stamps. When I went to school both these subjects were boring, but since collecting stamps, I find both subjects fascinating.

I find the Scott's catalog full of valuable information besides pricing. It teaches us to sort our stamps in an intelligent way. It gives us a way of identifying our stamps. We buy and trade stamps based on their Scott number. Can you imagine how dull it would be collecting stamps without the use of a Scott catalog?

My advice to all collectors is to enjoy the hobby for what it was meant to be. Stay within your budget when buying stamps, purchase from a reliable source, and learn to use the Scott's catalogs for their valuable information and don't worry how much you're going to get when you sell your collection. The education you will have received from this hobby by then is well worth whatever money you spent on it.

9. The Hinging Craze

To hinge or not to hinge: that is the question. Many years ago when I started to collect stamps at age 10, I bought packets of stamps at the Five and Dime store. For a quarter you bought a whole envelope full of worldwide stamps. Stamps were off paper, some were mint, most used.

I never thought about "never hinged stamps," as I hinged everything. It didn't make much difference to me because I knew I didn't have anything of value. I collected stamps for perhaps a couple years and then put them away because of other interests. When I was about 16, I found my old stamp album and again caught the collecting bug. That was during the years of the great depression and I had very little money to spend on stamps. I used to buy approvals from dealers like Harris and a few others that were popular at that time.

Up until then I never read any stamp newspapers, attended stamp meetings, or ever heard of the "never hinged" craze. That changed when I was about 25 years old. I soon discovered that never hinged stamps (those in pristine, post office fresh condition) cost almost twice as much as hinged, but it never mattered to me. If I had a choice, I would always buy used or mint hinged, preferring used stamps, trying to avoid canceled to order stamps.

Since I collected worldwide stamps up to 1960 (and still do), if I acquired any stamps that managed not to be hinged over a period of about 30-40 years then I used a Showgard mount. This is a brand name, and several other companies make them. These are best described as clear plastic foil with a black or clear backing. They're split in the back half-way with glue on the reverse allowing you to put the stamps in and attach the mount to an album page.

I'd suggest that you use these mounts for never-hinged stamps with a value of a dollar or more. This protects the stamp and its value as a never-hinged item. They're rather expensive, so consider using them only for your never-hinged stamps. Hinging them instead is still OK, but when it comes time to sell a collection or trade material, values will be lower, especially for more valuable items. Remember, the choice is yours!

10. Choose The Album Best for You

In a recent issue of the ISWSC's newsletter, "The Circuit," Douglas Casey raised an interesting question. He was concerned that most commercial stamp albums were printed on both sides of the pages. Since other collectors may be faced with the same situation, I decided to write about ways to cope and give alternatives as well.

Worldwide albums, for the most part, are printed on both sides. As you fill stamps in, remember that stamps may interlock and touch those on the opposite page, tear at the perfs or cause the paper of the stamps to fold. To prevent this, consider buying glassine interleaf sheets, available from most major loose-leaf album companies. They look something like wax paper and are semi-transparent. If you've experienced interlocking problems, this is your best solution.

What I did may be a little costly, but I intended to stay with the hobby for many years. I purchased the "pages only" for the entire world that go with the Scott's Specialty Series albums, costing well over $1,000. These pages are printed on one side only. I sorted out the pages alphabetically and then purchased #4 sized Scott Specialty Binders that are for loose leaf pages, each holding 400 pages. I decided to only install pages that I had stamps for. That way my albums don't have a lot of blank pages. As I purchase stamps I add the appropriate pages. This works out very well, as I now have about 20 albums, but this plan may not be to your liking.

An alternative is to simply buy binders and blank pages to fill them. That way you can make up your own pages to suit yourself. This would be a lot less costly and you'd have fun designing customized pages. A cheaper alternative would be to buy three ring binders and again make up your own pages. If by chance you have a computer, you can buy software that will allow you to design pages that could look even better than preprinted ones. One downfall to this method is that you may need to continually remount material as you go along.

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