Refresher Course

Three basic tools to master to be an accomplished collector

By Janet Klug


For around $25, you can buy every tool you need to be a stamp collector. The $25 budget would contain the basics, and none of it would be fancy or frivolous.

Figure 1. These three basic tools are what you need to collect stamps: a pair of tongs, a black watermark tray and a perforation gauge.
Figure 2. Stamp tongs of various styles, shapes and sizes.

You would have a pair of tongs, a black plastic watermark tray and a basic perforation gauge, all of which are shown in Figure 1.

Tongs, a watermark tray and a perforation gauge are the essentials. You can't really do much with your stamps if you don't have these three things. If you need a magnifying glass, that will add to the startup cost, but if you have reached the age of bifocals, you probably already have a magnifying glass.

Tongs are important because stamps are moved from glassine to album or stock book or from one stock book to another. You could pick up and handle a stamp hundreds of times while you own it.

Every time you pick up a stamp with your fingers, natural body oil and dirt from your hands are transferred to the stamp. Over time, the stamp will be damaged and discolored.

Using a pair of stamp tongs (not eyebrow tweezers) minimizes this kind of damage.

Using a pair of tongs is simple. They are manufactured to be in the open position. Slide one of the arms under the stamp. Pinch the two arms together and lift the stamp. From that position you can insert the stamp into a mount, affix a hinge or slide the stamp into a stock book.

It takes practice to get the hang of it, but once you acquire the skill you will find it is easier and faster to use the tongs than it is to use just your fingers.

Tongs come in a variety of shapes and styles. Some are easier to use than others. Even tongs that look identical might have a different feel or springiness in the hand.

Figure 2 shows several of my most used tongs. For ordinary work with stamps, I prefer long 6-inch tongs with pointed tips. For putting stamps in stock books, I like tongs that are bent in such a way as to get the stamps into the plastic strips in the stock books.

I keep all of my tongs and other small stamp collecting tools in a separate pen holder on my desk with the idea that they won't walk away and hide somewhere I can't find them. This works about 75 percent of the time.

Watermarks are created in the papermaking process as a way to discourage counterfeiting. Today most stamps do not have watermarks. Many older stamps do have watermarks. Stamp collectors care about watermarks because some stamps may look alike but have different watermarks. That difference makes them different stamps, often with different values when it comes time to buy or sell.

The watermark tray shown in Figure 1 is commercially made and sold as a watermark tray. It is black plastic and about an inch deep so that it can hold watermark fluid. I did not include watermark fluid in the three essential tools for stamp collectors, because often the simple act of putting a stamp face down in the watermark tray will show the watermark sufficiently to identify it properly. If you have a small black tray, lid or other such object, that will do the trick, too. Just make sure it is clean before you begin putting stamps into it or on it.

When a watermark tray alone does not work, watermark fluid is required. There are several brands of watermark fluid available.

To use the fluid, place the stamp face down in the watermark tray and apply a few drops directly on the stamp. Doing so will not harm the stamp, even if it has original gum.

In a second or two the watermark should appear long enough for you to identify and properly catalog the stamp. Some watermarks are still difficult to see, but for the most part, you will be able to see most watermarks using a tray alone, or with a few drops of watermark fluid.

Read all of the instructions and warnings on the fluid container, and keep the lid on tightly when you are not using the fluid. Watermark fluid is designed to evaporate quickly and it is not inexpensive, so protect your investment.

The very first stamps were issued without perforations and they had to be cut apart with a scissors. This was labor intensive for postal clerks, and the need for speed often trumped the desire for careful cutting between stamps.

A better way of separating stamps was developed, using machinery that punched holes called perforations into the margins between the stamps. The purpose of the holes is to weaken the paper and make it easy to separate one stamp from another in a sheet of stamps.

In recent times, perforations have given way to self-adhesive stamps that are separated by die cutting. Although some have been issued with straightline die cuts, most U.S. stamps have wavy line or serpentine die cuts. Other countries have used die cuts that follow the lines of the stamp design.

The spacing of the perforation holes can vary quite a bit. The number of perforation holes in a given length is called the gauge.

Just as stamps may look alike but be different because of their watermarks, stamps may look alike and be different because of the gauge of their perforations.

There are many types of perforation gauges available for measuring the gauge of stamp perforations. For ordinary use, simple is best.

The gauge of perforations is determined by the number of perforations within 20 millimeters. You could waste a lot of time holding a stamp against a ruler that measures in millimeters, and then counting the perforations individually. This would be not only time consuming, but also lacking in accuracy.

Some perforation gauges give fractional measurements, a difficult task with an ordinary ruler.

Using a perforation gauge is fairly simple. Using stamp tongs, slowly run the edge of the stamp up and down the scale on the perforation gauge until all of the “teeth” (the part of the perforation that sticks up) line up perfectly somewhere on the scale.

The corresponding number is the gauge for the side of the stamp you have just inspected. Some stamps have different gauges of perforation on the sides than on the tops and bottoms. There are even stamps that have a different gauge of perforation on all four sides.

The gauge of serpentine or wavy-line die cuts can be measured in exactly the same way with the same perforation gauge.

Mastering these three inexpensive tools of the hobby is essential to using stamp catalogs or even putting your stamps in the proper place in your albums. Once you get the hang of using them, you will undoubtedly enjoy your hobby even more.