By Michael Baadke
The United States Postal Service began selling a few of its new commemorative stamps as uncut press sheets in 1994. The program caught the interest of many U.S. collectors, but just as many have asked, "What am I supposed to do with these things?" Uncut press sheets, after all, are large and more than a little unwieldy.
Stamps today are almost always printed as large press sheets in continuous rolls, but most of the time no one sees them that way except for the stamp printer. Before the sheets leave the printing plant, they are cut apart into the smaller formats that are sold at the post office.
The press sheet may contain as many as nine of the 20-stamp panes that are sold over the post office counter, so some press sheets measure nearly two feet square.
When the Postal Service decides to make a stamp available for purchase as an uncut press sheet, the printing contractor usually trims away excess margin paper around the outside of the printed stamps, but leaves the individual panes together, unsevered.
Figure 1 shows the uncut press sheet of the 33¢ Stars and Stripes stamps issued June 14. The local post office sells the Stars and Stripes issue only as panes of 20 stamps, but the press sheet, sold through the USPS mail-order division, contains six 20-stamp panes as one large unit.
The Postal Service often sends the press sheets through the mail rolled up in reinforced cardboard tubes, but that's not a good way to store stamps long-term. The uncut sheets are too big to fit into a conventional album, and until recently there just wasn't an established way to store these large items safely and protect them from creases.
These days many collectors choose to save the large sheets intact in specially designed press sheet storage units developed by stamp hobby supply dealers such as Scott Publishing Co. and Subway Stamp Shop. The sheets are saved flat in oversize stock pages created from chemically safe materials. A special press sheet storage box is also available.
A number of collectors, however, prefer to save what are known as "position pieces": pairs and blocks of stamps that, because they contain gutters, clearly show they were removed from a press sheet. The gutter is the uncut margin paper between adjoining panes on the sheet.
Look again at the Figure 1 sheet. It contains two gutters that run from top to bottom. On this issue, some colored boxes are printed within each of these two gutters. The sheet also has one narrow gutter that runs through the middle of the sheet from side to side, just above the printed banner "THE STARS AND STRIPES" on the bottom three panes.
The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Coverslists the different collectible configurations that can be extracted from the sheet.
The Scott catalog listing for the Stars and Stripes press sheet is shown in Figure 2, as printed in the August issue of Scott Stamp Monthly. The catalog listing identifies the standard pane of 20 as Scott 3403 and assigns minor letters to each of the 20 different flag stamps.
It also lists a series of position pieces from the press sheet, beginning with the complete press sheet of 120 stamps. Also listed are a horizontal block of eight with vertical gutter, a vertical block of 10 with horizontal gutter, a cross-gutter block of 20, vertical pairs with horizontal gutter, and horizontal pairs with vertical gutter.
One example of each of these items is pictured in Figure 3. On the left side of the illustration are the horizontal pair with vertical gutter (at left) and the vertical pair with horizontal gutter (at right). This sheet contains five different horizontal pairs and four different vertical pairs to collect. Only one of each is shown in the illustration.
At bottom left in Figure 3 is the horizontal block of eight with gutter. Notice that it contains the bottom row of stamps from one pane, the gutter, the printed banner "THE STARS AND STRIPES" from the top of the pane below it, and the top row of stamps from that lower pane.
The center of Figure 3 shows the vertical block of 10 with gutter. At the left side of the block is the vertical row of stamps from the right side of one pane. The gutter runs down the center of the block, and the right side of the block contains the vertical row of stamps from the left side of an adjoining pane.
At right in Figure 3 is the cross-gutter block of 20 stamps. Notice that block contains parts of both the vertical and horizontal gutters, intersecting to make a cross, and 20 different stamps from four adjoining panes.
The catalog listing states, "Cross gutter block of 20 consists of six stamps from each of two panes and four stamps from each of two other panes with the cross gutter between."
Extracting all of these pieces from the press sheet takes a little advance planning. In some cases, it also takes more than one press sheet. That's true with the Stars and Stripes issue: if you look at the Figure 1 photo and consider the various blocks in Figure 3, you'll see that to gather them all you need to take apart two press sheets, not just one.
A steel straight-edge ruler and a razor knife are handy to separate the pieces. Of course, you have to be very careful when using the razor knife and its extra-sharp blade, and children should not handle it at all.
As shown at left in Figure 4, the knife is used to cut through unperforated areas of the press sheet. On the cross-gutter block at right in Figure 3, for example, a razor knife was used to cut through the printed banner.
Don't use the knife through perforations though. Once you've cut through the unperforated areas, fold the sheet as shown at right in Figure 4. You may wish to wear light cotton or powder-free rubber gloves while handling the stamps to avoid getting fingerprints on the stamps or gum.
Once again, if you're going to divide up your press sheet, look at the catalog listings first and plan your strategy carefully. Press sheets are manufactured in several different formats, and sometimes only one sheet is needed to create the position pieces — if you're careful.
The position pieces are small enough to fit on standard album pages. Figure 5 shows a sample page from Scott Publishing Co. for a cross-gutter block from the 1998 Four Centuries of American Art issue.
When you're done creating your position pieces, you'll find that from the remains of the press sheet you can make extra vertical or horizontal pairs with gutters between. These are often good items to trade with other collectors, or they can be used to create first-day covers with a little extra appeal.
They also can be used for postage on mail to other collectors or to friends who will return the unusual covers to you for your collection.
blogI see examples of reused stamps on a regular basis while sorting through subscription-reply mail sent to the circulation department of Linn’s parent company, Amos Media. For the most part, the reused stamp has been carefully and closely cut from its original envelope and either glued or taped in place. Read More ›
blogIn this column in the Aug. 24 issue of Linn’s, I referred to the American Philatelic Research Library in Bellefonte, Pa., as a “gift to stamp collectors.” The BNAPS library and the APRL are two of many libraries available to stamp collectors, and some philatelic libraries are available online. Read More ›
blogIt’s often been said that one of the salutary benefits of collecting stamps is the friendships made along one’s philatelic journey. If I were asked to place a value on the bonds thus forged with collectors in locales near and far, I would be rich beyond measure. A few of these hobby friends I have never met in person. Read More ›
blogToday, Nov. 11, 2015, is Veterans Day. Over the years, a number of United States stamps honoring those who have served in our nation’s armed forces have been issued. Read More ›
Watch as Linn’s Stamp News associate editor Michael Baadke reports on a new Charlie Brown computer-vended postage stamp that is sold only through post office self-service kiosks.
Watch as Linn’s Stamp News senior editor Denise McCarty discusses Great Britain’s final stamp issue for 2015, a Star Wars prestige booklet, and reveals what is included in its stamp program for 2016.
Watch as Linn’s Stamp News managing editor Chad Snee discusses a registered 1967 cover from Qatar that recently sold for almost $1,200 and the latest discovery of an Upright Jenny Invert pane.
Watch as Linn’s Stamp News editorial director Donna Houseman announces that Linn’s has been named official daily publisher of World Stamp Show-NY 2016 and provides an update on the reorganization of the Scott catalogs.
It is always a treat to get to see stamp dealers’ own collections.
In the recently concluded Linn’s United States Stamp Popularity Poll, the Circus Posters set of eight stamps was chosen as the overall favorite issue of 2014.
Dispersal of the splendid Daniel B. Curtis collection continued March 25, with Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries gaveling items from United States back-of-the-book and possessions.
The 175th anniversary of the first postage stamp, Great Britain's Penny Black, is May 6, but the stamp was placed on sale May 1, 1840, for mailers to use beginning on May 6, the designated issue date.