Refresher Course

Even stamp collectors need the right tools

By Michael Baadke

Stamp collecting may be a leisure-time activity, but there are specific tools that every collector should own to properly handle and store stamps and covers. By their nature, stamps are fragile items. Because damage can reduce a stamp's value and desirability, collectors are always concerned about keeping their stamps safe and free from harm. A number of different stamp collecting tools help collectors preserve their stamps and handle them with minimal risk.

Figure 1. Stamp collectors use tongs to hold stamps without harming them. Shown are tongs with pointed tips for precision work (left) and spade tips to hold larger items (right).
 
Figure 2. Stock pages (left) and stock books hold stamps in place, yet allow them to be easily moved or rearranged.
 
Figure 3. Glassine envelopes (left and top right) and polybag sleeves (lower right) provide inexpensive protection.
 
Figure 4. Magnifying glasses help collectors spot defects in stamps. They also provide a better view of stamp designs.

Stamp tongs

Stamp tongs are an essential tool for every stamp collector. In many different ways, tongs help collectors handle stamps safely and reduce the chances of damage. Stamp tongs resemble tweezers that are sold for beauty care or first-aid service. They are generally made of two flat metal legs welded together at one end to create a spring action that allows the free ends to pinch together.

Figure 1 shows stamp tongs being used to hold British definitive postage stamps. Stamp tongs have rounded, polished tips that make them safe for use with stamps. Standard tweezers have sharpened edges that can easily cut into stamp paper. Tweezers designed for beauty care should never be used to handle stamps.

Stamp collectors use stamp tongs because postage stamps can be harmed by fingers attempting to grasp or hold them. Even hands that have been thoroughly washed have a light coating of skin oil that can transfer to the surface of the stamp. Once this oil is on the stamp, it can stain the printed design, either immediately or by reacting with the ink over time.

On the reverse of a stamp, indelible fingerprints can also appear on the otherwise unblemished gum of mint stamps that have been held with fingers. These may seem like small defects, but they occur on small objects –– your postage stamps –– so the size of the defect is relative. Even this small damage can substantially detract from the appearance and value of your stamps.

It's easy to bend or crease stamps by trying to pinch and grip them with a finger and thumb. By using stamp tongs, the collector can slide one flat tip underneath the stamp and then securely grasp the stamp by pinching the two tips together.

Stamp tongs are available with different tip styles and in a couple of different lengths. The picture in Figure 1 shows tongs with pointed tips at left, and flat or spade tips at right. The pointed tips are more maneuverable and slide easily underneath a stamp on a flat surface, such as a tabletop. The spade tips provide a firmer grasp of the stamp and are good for holding larger stamps or stamp multiples.

Stamp tongs generally sell for $3 to $7, depending upon the style desired and the manufacturer. Gold-plated tongs cost a little more and may provide protection for those who have a sensitivity to the nickel finish of standard tongs. Collectors need to inspect their tongs from time to time to make sure they are clean and free from damage. Tongs that are properly handled will last for many years, but they should be replaced if they show any defect to the tips.

Stock pages and stock books

The stock page is a firm sheet with horizontal compartments that can hold your stamp inventory safely. Most stock pages have holes punched along one edge so they can fit into a three-ring or similar binder.

Stock books are bound volumes containing stock pages that cannot be removed from the book. Figure 2 shows a simple manila card stock page at left, and a small open stock book at right.

The pages of the stock book in the illustration have horizontal strips of glassine affixed to the page to act as pockets that support and hold stamps. The book also has glassine interleaving to protect the stamps on facing pages. Glassine is a thin, semitransparent paper that has several uses in the stamp hobby. Some stock pages are made of black plastic or vinyl manufactured specifically to be free of harmful chemicals that can damage stamps.

Stock pages and stock books hold stamps firmly in place, yet the stamps can be moved easily from one location to another as a collection grows and evolves. The collector must be careful when placing stamps into a stock page to avoid bumping the edge or corner of the stamp against the top of the holding strip. Some collectors use tongs to pull back slightly on the holding strip while placing the stamp (held with a second pair of tongs) into position.

Stock pages are made with as many as 12 rows to hold stamps, or as few as one (for full panes or larger souvenir sheets). Some stock pages are double-sided, providing extra storage space. Most stock books have a set number of rows per page. Stock books come in different sizes with pages made of different materials, including manila card, or black or white board.

Several styles are available for less than $10, while fancier versions with extra pages and padded leather covers can cost as much as $40. Stock pages are usually sold together in packs of five or 10, with prices ranging from 25¢ to $1 per page or more, depending on the style.

Glassine envelopes and cover sleeves

Glassine envelopes are used by many collectors to keep together small groups of stamps. The semitransparent glassine paper makes it possible to see the stamps inside the envelope, but the material is strong enough to provide some protection from damage. Figure 3 shows a number of glassine envelopes at left.

Glassines can be used to hold postally used stamps that have been soaked and dried until the collector has an opportunity to sort them and put them into a stock book or album. Collectors can write identifying information on glassine envelopes, but any writing should be done before stamps are placed in the envelope, to prevent the impression of the writing onto the stamps inside.

Large glassine envelopes can be used to hold covers, which are envelopes or cards that are stamped or postmarked. At top right in Figure 3 is a first-day cover from the Czech Republic that will fit into the glassine envelope behind it.

All stamps or covers that are placed into glassine envelopes will need additional protection from creasing or other damage. Many collectors use sturdy storage boxes that hold their glassines in place. If glassines are simply tossed into a drawer with other objects, for example stock books or stamp catalogs, the heavier objects can easily crumple the glassine envelope and the items inside.

Some collectors prefer inexpensive transparent polybag sleeves to enclose the covers they save. A first-day cover is shown in a polybag sleeve at lower-right in Figure 3. Packages of 100 sleeves are generally available from 3¢ to 5¢ per sleeve. Glassine envelopes may be slightly more expensive.

Magnifying glass

Stamp collectors rely upon magnifiers to see important details in stamp designs and to detect faults in stamps they are examining. Though a magnifier doesn't protect stamps from damage, it can protect you from buying a damaged stamp. Because stamps are so small and fragile, even a tiny defect can substantially detract from a stamp's quality.

A collector can use the magnifier to examine a stamp before he purchases it to make sure the stamp is sound. Most collectors begin by looking over the outer edges of the stamp. The points extending from the edge of a perforated stamp are known as perforation teeth. They are one of the most vulnerable elements of a stamp.

Collectors should avoid stamps that have bent or missing teeth. Stamp edges should also be examined for minute tears or cuts into the stamp paper.

There are many different kinds of magnifiers, ranging in price from a couple of dollars for small hand-held lenses to precision illuminated models that sell for a couple hundred dollars. A glass with four- or eight-power magnification (symbolized as 4x or 8x) will help the beginner collector get a good close-up view of stamp details. With higher power magnification the details will appear even larger.

Figure 4 shows three magnifiers commonly used by collectors. The object in the center of the illustration is a magnifying loupe with a fixed focal point. This magnifier can be placed carefully over the stamp and the details of the stamp will be enlarged and precisely focused.

All of these important stamp collecting tools are available from local stamp dealers or from mail-order stamp supply dealers. Many dealers advertise in the pages of Linn's Stamp News. Some travel to stamp shows and exhibitions to sell supplies to collectors. Visiting a stamp dealer at his shop or at a show gives you the option of seeing first-hand the many different kinds of products that are available.

For information about stamp shows taking place in your area, check Linn's Stamp Events Calendar.

To see if there is a stamp dealer near you, try checking the yellow pages of your telephone book under the headings "Hobbies," "Stamps for Collectors" or "Coins and Stamps for Collectors." Once you have the right tools in hand, you can feel confident that you are handling and protecting your stamps and covers properly.