Refresher Course

Must-have tools start beginners off right

By Janet Klug

Unlike golfers who need expensive clubs, shoes, balls, bags, and other mandatory equipment to enjoy the sport, stamp collectors can participate in their hobby with relatively few specialized items. The equipment that is needed by stamp collectors can be divided into two main categories: that which is absolutely essential and that which is nice to have when a budget allows.

Figure 1. Two pairs of commonly used stamp tongs: one with pointed tips and one with spade-shaped tips.
 
Figure 2. Four different perforation gauges available to collectors. Linn's Multi-gauge is in the center, with a stamp.
 
Figure 3. Three magnifying glasses representing different powers of magnification, sizes and cost.
 
Figure 4. A stamp catalog, a watermark tray and a color key.

Must Haves

Stamp tongs: The single most important piece of equipment a stamp collector can own and use is a pair of stamp tongs. Stamps are fragile. Careless handling will damage them and the best way to avoid careless handling is by using stamp tongs to pick them up and place them in mounts or on pages. Using tongs reduces the risk of creasing the stamps, damaging the perforations, disturbing the gum on mint stamps or transferring oil from hands to stamps.

Some tongs have tips that are spade-shaped, angled, square or pointed. Two pairs of tongs are shown in Figure 1: one with pointed tips and one with spade-shaped tips. You should try all styles of tongs to see which are the most comfortable for you to use. It takes practice, but once you get into the habit of using tongs every time you pick up a stamp, it will become very natural. Look for tongs that are balanced, fit comfortably in your hand, and open and close with minimum effort.

Perforation gauge: Anyone who has ever looked at the listings in a stamp catalog knows that one of the important identifying features of most stamps is the measurement of the perforations or die cuts. Stamps that look alike can have different catalog numbers and vastly different values based solely on the measurement of the perforations.

Perforations are the holes punched between stamps to make it easy to separate one from the other. They are measured by the number of holes per 20 millimeters (2 centimeters). Die cuts are measured from peak to peak or valley to valley.

Using a gauge makes checking these measurements a simple process. It is accomplished by using tongs to slide a stamp along the guides until the teeth or peaks perfectly match the guidelines. The measurement number is printed on the scale. Many stamps have different perforation measurements for the tops, bottoms and sides. When this happens, the measurements are given for the top first and then for the side.

There are many different perforation gauges from which to choose. Four different perforation gauges are shown in Figure 2. One of the best is Linn's Multi-gauge. Because it is clear, it allows the accurate measurement of stamps on cover. It also has a millimeter scale, a centerline ruler (useful for neatly placing stamps on a blank album page) and a gauge that measures the size of circular cancellations. Try several perforation gauges to find one that works well for you.

Watermark tray and fluid: Watermarks are security features that deter counterfeiting of stamps and other accountable paper. A watermark tray is shown in Figure 4. Watermarks are really nothing more than a slight thinning of the paper in a pattern or design that can be viewed when the paper is held to a light source or put into fluid.

Many stamp watermarks can be readily seen from the back of the stamp. Some watermarks are not prominent and require an aid to see them. Many devices have been invented for this purpose, but the simplest, least expensive and arguably the most effective is a small, black, plastic watermark tray. Place the stamp face down in the tray. Often this will be enough to allow the watermark to show, but in more stubborn cases, a few drops of watermark fluid might be necessary.

Magnifying glass: A good magnifying glass is imperative for collectors who are looking for the secret marks found on 19th-century U.S. stamps and for plate and die varieties on other stamps. A magnifier also allows greater appreciation of the fine detail in stamp designs.

Magnifiers can be found in a variety of sizes, powers and prices. Three magnifying glasses are shown in Figure 3. Collectors may acquire two magnifiers for different purposes. One would be for ordinary day-to-day use and a more powerful one would be for fine detail viewing. Try them out before making a purchase.

Catalogs: A catalog of the country or areas you collect will help you organize, appreciate, and keep track of your collection. A stamp catalog is shown in Figure 4. You might choose a specialized catalog, such as the Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, general worldwide catalogs, or one that lists stamps by topic.

These are the minimum essential tools for stamp collectors. A beginner should acquire these items at the same time the first album or stockbook is purchased for housing a collection.

Nice to Have

Stock cards or stock books: Tossing duplicates into a shoebox is a bad idea. The stamps could curl, get bent, stick together or become damaged in some other way. Placing duplicate stamps into glassine envelopes can help minimize damage, but glassines are not suitable for long-term storage. It is better to place duplicate stamps on stock pages or in stock books that are suitable for long-term storage.

Ultraviolet lamp: Many countries apply phosphor or fluorescent tagging to stamps. It triggers automatic sorting and facing machines set to detect the tagging. Initially tagging took the form of a coating applied to the surface of the stamp, after the stamp design was printed. Today, most stamps are printed on prephosphored paper.

Phosphorescence is usually visible only with the use of an ultraviolet (UV) lamp. These come in longwave and shortwave and in many styles and price ranges. They may be supplied with electric current from a wall outlet or by a battery.

Longwave UV is relatively harmless and can detect tagging on some foreign stamps. For detecting tagging on most U.S. stamps, you will need a shortwave UV lamp. Be careful when using a shortwave UV lamp. Prolonged indirect exposure or gazing directly into the light can burn the cornea of the eye and cause cataracts.

Prescription glasses provide some protection. Using protective goggles is a good idea. Shortwave UV can also cause damage to your skin. For prolonged use, it is a good idea to wear gloves and long sleeves.

Color key: A basic color key might help differentiate between a common stamp and a scarce color variety, but the best color guides are stamps themselves. A general color key is shown in Figure 4. Color keys look like paint chips or paint charts, with blocks of color that have been identified with color names. A stamp is placed next to the color chip and compared until a matching chip is found.

Most stamp tools must be acquired through stamp supply dealers, but many of them may be found at local office-supply stores. These warehouse-type stores are everywhere in suburban shopping areas. All of them offer similar stock.

Among the items useful for stamp collecting I have found in these stores: rotary and guillotine paper cutters that are useful for cutting stamp mounts quickly and evenly; acid-free paper for making your own album pages; glue sticks; paper testers that check paper to determine if it is acid free; high-quality page protectors; padded binders with matching slip cases that make superb stamp albums; and light boxes for making tracings of postal markings or illuminating stamps from behind to check for damage.

The start-up costs for beginning stamp collectors is far less than for other activities. Getting the right tools will assure a beginner of getting the right start.