Refresher Course

How well do you know stamp perforations?

By Janet Klug

The world's first postage stamps, the black 1-penny and blue 2d stamps issued by Great Britain in May 1840, Scott 1 and 2, were printed in separate sheets of 240. Individual stamps had to be cut from a sheet with scissors.

Figure 1. An imperforate four-margin Penny Black stamp, Scott 1, issued by Great Britain in 1840.
 
Figure 2. Coil strip of four U.S. 1¢ blue-green Franklin stamps Scott 314, perforated by the Schermack company with type III perforations for automated vending machines.
 
Figure 3. A line-perforated block of four 2d Queen Salote stamps, Tonga Scott 55, showing perforation holes overlapping one another where the vertical and horizontal perforations intersect.
 
Figure 4. A comb-perforated block-of-six 2d Queen Elizabeth II stamps, Gilbert and Ellice Islands Scott 63, showing corner perforations that meet in alignment.
 
Figure 5. Harrow perforations result when entire sheets are perforated in a single operation, such as on this World Stamp Expo 89 show sheet issued by Tonga-Niuafo'ou, Scott 122.
 
Figure 6. This block-of-six Australian 5d Queen Elizabeth II stamps, Scott 365b, is missing the middle vertical perforations and the bottom horizontal ones.
 
Figure 7. A misperforated block-of-four 20¢ Australia Day stamps, Scott 695.
 
Figure 8. Linn's Multi-gauge gives fast, accurate stamp perforation measurements.

The process was slow and imprecise. Careless scissor wielding damaged the stamps.

Most examples do not have full margins on all four sides, and a perfectly centered four-margin Penny Black, such as the one shown in Figure 1, commands a premium.

Postage stamps were a good idea, even a great idea, and they still are.

The prototype postage stamp described by its inventor Rowland Hill in 1837 as "a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp, and covered at the back with a glutinous wash" pretty much describes the product still in use 165 years later. However, there was room for improvement.

One of the first improvements was more efficient separation of stamps.

Henry Archer, an Irish businessman working in London, invented a device that cut tiny slits called "roulettes" into the margins between the stamps.

Archer had the machinery built and made some unsuccessful trials of the roulette separations.

A later adaptation of the concept punched rows of tiny round holes — perforations — between the stamp designs.

The British government eventually accepted Archer's product, and in 1854, Britain issued the world's first officially perforated postage stamps.

The different methods of making perforations are of interest to stamp collectors, and they can greatly affect the value of the stamps.

Some perforation methods, such as those introduced in the United States by Schermack and Mailometer companies, were developed for dispensing stamps from coils in automated vending machines.

A coil strip of four 1¢ blue-green Franklin stamps, U.S. Scott 314, perforated with Schermack type III perforations, is shown in Figure 2.

Privately perforated U.S. stamps are listed under "Vending & Affixing Machine Perforations" in the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers.

Stamps with line perforations are those that have had their perforations made in a straight line, one or more rows of stamps at a time.

For example, a sheet of stamps would have all the horizontal perforations applied and then be turned and have the vertical perforations done, one or more rows at a time.

Stamps with line perforations often have holes that overlap one another where they intersect, thus giving the stamp corners an uneven appearance. A line-perforated block-of-four 2d Queen Salote stamps, Tonga Scott 55, showing perforation holes overlapping at the stamp corners, is pictured in Figure 3.

Stamps with comb perforations have at least three sides perforated at one time. Some comb machines completely perforate two or three rows and one row on three sides.

Then the sheet is advanced through the machine and the next row or rows have their perforations applied until the sheet is completely perforated.

Stamps with comb perforations that have been perfectly applied have corner perforations that meet in alignment. A comb-perforated block-of-six 2d Queen Elizabeth II stamps, Gilbert and Ellice Islands Scott 63, with corner perforations that meet in alignment, is shown in Figure 4.

Sheets or panes of stamps that have been entirely perforated in a single operation are harrow perforated, such as on the World Stamp Expo 89 sheet issued by Tonga-Niuafo'ou, Scott 122, shown in Figure 5.

Self-adhesive stamps that have wavy edges resembling perforations are actually die cut and not perforated.

Problems can occur in the perforating process. A machine that missed a row during the perforating process leaves a row or two of stamps with no perforations. Such stamps are listed in catalogs as "pair, imperf between."

Figure 6 illustrates a block of six Australian 5d Queen Elizabeth II stamps, Scott 365b, that has no middle vertical row of perforations and no bottom horizontal row.

In this instance, the missing perforations are not an error, but a deliberate issue. The intent was that the stamps would be cut along the rows having no perforations to make them into stamp booklet panes.

Uncut sheets of these stamps were sold to collectors by the Australian post office.

Such stamps are collected as imperforate-between pairs or blocks.

Stamps can be misperforated, such as the block-of-four 20¢ Australia Day stamps shown in Figure 7, double-perforated, or not perforated at all.

Blind perforations are slight indentations made by perforating pins, but there's no hole and no paper is missing.

Punched-out perforation holes are called "chad," a word prominent in the 2000 presidential election.

The perforations on stamps can be measured, and the measurement of the perforations can be a deciding factor in determining a rare stamp from an otherwise identical-looking common stamp.

Perforation gauges measure the number of holes or teeth per two centimeters. A stamp that measures "perf 11" is one that would have 11 teeth or 11 holes within the confines of two centimeters, if the stamp is that long. The gauge works for any stamp, no matter how large or small it is.

Perforations that do not measure the same on all four sides of a stamp are known as "compound perforations." Catalogs list compound perforations by the horizontal (top and bottom) measurements first, followed by the vertical (side) measurements.

Thus, a stamp listed as gauge 11 by 12 has top and bottom perforations that measure gauge 11 while the side perforations measure gauge 12.

Some stamps have perforations that gauge differently on all four sides. Bosnia and Herzegovina's pictorial definitives of 1906 are notorious for their multiple compound perforations. For collectors who like measuring perforations, this is a good area for specialization.

Acquiring a good perforation gauge is the key to quick, accurate perforation measurements.

Linn's Multi-gauge, shown in Figure 8, is an excellent and affordable choice. Other perforation gauges work on the same principle.

To measure horizontal perforations or die cuts, place the stamp's top edge along the top of the grid work and slowly slide the stamp down along the grid until all the teeth of the perforations match up perfectly with the gauge's vertical lines.

When the perforations align with the vertical lines, read the corresponding number to the left or right of the stamp on the gauge. This is the measurement of the horizontal perforations.

To find the measurement of the vertical perforations or die cuts, turn the stamp on its side and repeat the process.

The Multi-gauge reveals that the stamp being measured in Figure 8 is a perf 14 perforation variety, Croatia Scott C1a.

Another feature of Linn's Multi-gauge, the zero-center ruler, is of great assistance in centering covers and other large items on blank pages.

The Multi-gauge also offers a ruler and a circular cancellation gauge that is useful in measuring the size of cancels. Place the gauge over the cancel to be measured and adjust the centering until one of the rings matches the outer circle of the cancel. It's a handy and affordable gadget.

Catalogs are a great help in reducing the time and effort it takes to measure perforations. In most cases, a quick consultation with a catalog will give the known perforations or ranges of perforations for a particular stamp.

It is then up to the collector to measure a stamp to find out which variety it is.

Use care when purchasing expensive stamps whose value is dependent on its perforation measurement.

Stamps can be reperforated. Sometimes straightedged or badly centered stamps are reperforated to increase their apparent value.

When a significant amount of money is involved, it is best to have a stamp checked by an expertization service.