Refresher Course

What are you looking at?

Figure 1. Stamp collectors often examine stamps using a magnifying glass. Just what is it we're looking at?

Figure 2. The features on magnifying tools affect the individual prices. These magnifiers all cost less than $10 each.

Figure 3. A powerful magnifier is needed to read the microprinting on selected U.S. stamps. The words "OUR TOWN" appear on the 1997 32¢ Thornton Wilder stamp.

Figure 4. Magnification reveals faults on this example of the 1¢ Pan-American Exposition stamp of 1901.

Figure 5. The beauty of a line-engraved stamp design is more apparent when details of the image are magnified. Click on image to enlarge.

That's a question stamp collectors hear pretty regularly. It's also a question that many collectors like to ask each other.

Stamp collectors are frequently seen peering intently through a magnifying glass at a stamp.

Magnification brings up a number of details that are important to stamp collectors, from information about the stamp's condition to the tiniest images concealed within the design.

An important feature of a magnifier is the apparent degree of magnification, expressed as "power." For example, a magnifier that enlarges an image to appear twice its actual size is described as having a "two power" magnification. In print, this is usually indicated with a symbol "x," as in "2x" magnification.

Some larger magnifiers have a power of 1.5x, which increases the overall visibility of a small object — but not by much.

That type of magnifier can be used to make a general inspection of a postage stamp a little easier.

Greater magnification makes it possible to closely inspect the outer edges of the stamp for condition faults. Magnification of 6x or more gives the collector an enhanced view of small details within the stamp design.

One drawback of any handheld magnifier is that the collector must find the focal point — the precise distance between the lens and the object where the object is properly in focus when viewed through the lens — and hold the magnifier steady at that location.

A static magnifier works differently. With a magnification of 8x or 10x, the static magnifier rests on the stamp or other object that is being examined and enlarges it enough to study finer details of printing, paper and more. It has a fixed focal point between the lens and the object, so the viewer does not need to adjust the distance.

Because the lightweight static magnifier rests upon the object that is being studied, it is always a good idea to lift the magnifier carefully off the stamp before moving it to inspect another area. This should avert the potential for damage to the stamp.

Another type of magnifier is the illuminated microscope. Although it sounds expensive, some handheld illuminated microscopes sell for as little as $10.

Some pocket microscopes provide 30x magnification. This degree of image enlargement has at least a couple of useful applications. The United States Postal Service makes occasional use of a security printing feature known as microprinting. Extremely small lettering, normally invisible to the naked eye, is placed within the stamp design on selected issues to help detect counterfeit stamps.

While microprinting is normally legible when viewed with powerful magnification, the relatively low resolution of standard scanners and photocopiers causes the lettering to become unreadable on a reproduction of the stamp.

The microscope also provides a remarkably close examination of printing details, such as the dot-like impressions of gravure printing or the raised images found on line-engraved designs.

A number of illuminated handheld magnifiers are available, some with adjustable light intensities and plug-in capabilities. Collectors can also purchase magnifiers with precision scales that measure the detail of the magnified object.

Regular stamp hobby supply advertisers in Linn's Stamp News offer a large selection of magnifiers, with prices ranging from a couple of dollars to a couple hundred dollars. The higher prices are charged for additional features like protective lens coatings, color correcting lenses and so on.

So, with your magnifier in hand, just what is it that you're looking at?

Most collectors use magnification to check details of condition and design.

The condition of a stamp is a significant component of its value. If a stamp has physical faults, its value is substantially reduced.

Because of the small size of the postage stamp, even minute faults are a matter of concern.

It is important for the collector who intends to buy or trade for a stamp of any value to first inspect that stamp for possible defects.

The best reason of all for using a magnifier is to admire the beauty of a line-engraved stamp design.

For more than a century, the vast majority of United States stamps were intaglio-printed, reproducing via a recess printing process a design that is line-engraved in steel.

The resulting image consists of extremely fine lines and remarkable detail that are a testimony to the engraver's skill. For the stamp collector, the magnifier is a tool that allows him to learn about the fantastic items he collects.