Refresher Course

Save the whole sheet or collect the pieces

By Michael Baadke

The United States Postal Service began selling a few of its new commemorative stamps as uncut press sheets in 1994. The program caught the interest of many U.S. collectors, but just as many have asked, "What am I supposed to do with these things?" Uncut press sheets, after all, are large and more than a little unwieldy.

Figure 1. The 33¢ Stars and Stripes stamps issued June 14 are sold in individual panes of 20 at the post office, but uncut press sheets of six panes like this can be ordered by mail. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. When stamps are issued as press sheets, the catalog listing describes the various position pieces that collectors can create and save.
 
Figure 3. Position pieces from the press sheet. At left, horizontal and vertical pairs (top) and the horizontal block of eight with vertical gutter (bottom). In the center, the vertical block of 10 with horizontal gutter. At right, the cross-gutter block of 20 stamps. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 4. At left: a razor knife and straight-edge ruler can be used with care to cut through unperforated areas of the press sheet, but not through perforations. The press sheet should be folded back and forth through perforated areas to separate stamps, as shown at right.
 
Figure 5. Position pieces can be stored in stock sheets or on preprinted album pages.

Stamps today are almost always printed as large press sheets in continuous rolls, but most of the time no one sees them that way except for the stamp printer. Before the sheets leave the printing plant, they are cut apart into the smaller formats that are sold at the post office.

The press sheet may contain as many as nine of the 20-stamp panes that are sold over the post office counter, so some press sheets measure nearly two feet square.

When the Postal Service decides to make a stamp available for purchase as an uncut press sheet, the printing contractor usually trims away excess margin paper around the outside of the printed stamps, but leaves the individual panes together, unsevered.

Figure 1 shows the uncut press sheet of the 33¢ Stars and Stripes stamps issued June 14. The local post office sells the Stars and Stripes issue only as panes of 20 stamps, but the press sheet, sold through the USPS mail-order division, contains six 20-stamp panes as one large unit.

The Postal Service often sends the press sheets through the mail rolled up in reinforced cardboard tubes, but that's not a good way to store stamps long-term. The uncut sheets are too big to fit into a conventional album, and until recently there just wasn't an established way to store these large items safely and protect them from creases.

These days many collectors choose to save the large sheets intact in specially designed press sheet storage units developed by stamp hobby supply dealers such as Scott Publishing Co. and Subway Stamp Shop. The sheets are saved flat in oversize stock pages created from chemically safe materials. A special press sheet storage box is also available.

A number of collectors, however, prefer to save what are known as "position pieces": pairs and blocks of stamps that, because they contain gutters, clearly show they were removed from a press sheet. The gutter is the uncut margin paper between adjoining panes on the sheet.

Look again at the Figure 1 sheet. It contains two gutters that run from top to bottom. On this issue, some colored boxes are printed within each of these two gutters. The sheet also has one narrow gutter that runs through the middle of the sheet from side to side, just above the printed banner "THE STARS AND STRIPES" on the bottom three panes.

The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers lists the different collectible configurations that can be extracted from the sheet.

The Scott catalog listing for the Stars and Stripes press sheet is shown in Figure 2, as printed in the August issue of Scott Stamp Monthly. The catalog listing identifies the standard pane of 20 as Scott 3403 and assigns minor letters to each of the 20 different flag stamps.

It also lists a series of position pieces from the press sheet, beginning with the complete press sheet of 120 stamps. Also listed are a horizontal block of eight with vertical gutter, a vertical block of 10 with horizontal gutter, a cross-gutter block of 20, vertical pairs with horizontal gutter, and horizontal pairs with vertical gutter.

One example of each of these items is pictured in Figure 3. On the left side of the illustration are the horizontal pair with vertical gutter (at left) and the vertical pair with horizontal gutter (at right). This sheet contains five different horizontal pairs and four different vertical pairs to collect. Only one of each is shown in the illustration.

At bottom left in Figure 3 is the horizontal block of eight with gutter. Notice that it contains the bottom row of stamps from one pane, the gutter, the printed banner "THE STARS AND STRIPES" from the top of the pane below it, and the top row of stamps from that lower pane.

The center of Figure 3 shows the vertical block of 10 with gutter. At the left side of the block is the vertical row of stamps from the right side of one pane. The gutter runs down the center of the block, and the right side of the block contains the vertical row of stamps from the left side of an adjoining pane.

At right in Figure 3 is the cross-gutter block of 20 stamps. Notice that block contains parts of both the vertical and horizontal gutters, intersecting to make a cross, and 20 different stamps from four adjoining panes.

The catalog listing states, "Cross gutter block of 20 consists of six stamps from each of two panes and four stamps from each of two other panes with the cross gutter between."

Extracting all of these pieces from the press sheet takes a little advance planning. In some cases, it also takes more than one press sheet. That's true with the Stars and Stripes issue: if you look at the Figure 1 photo and consider the various blocks in Figure 3, you'll see that to gather them all you need to take apart two press sheets, not just one.

A steel straight-edge ruler and a razor knife are handy to separate the pieces. Of course, you have to be very careful when using the razor knife and its extra-sharp blade, and children should not handle it at all.

As shown at left in Figure 4, the knife is used to cut through unperforated areas of the press sheet. On the cross-gutter block at right in Figure 3, for example, a razor knife was used to cut through the printed banner.

Don't use the knife through perforations though. Once you've cut through the unperforated areas, fold the sheet as shown at right in Figure 4. You may wish to wear light cotton or powder-free rubber gloves while handling the stamps to avoid getting fingerprints on the stamps or gum.

Once again, if you're going to divide up your press sheet, look at the catalog listings first and plan your strategy carefully. Press sheets are manufactured in several different formats, and sometimes only one sheet is needed to create the position pieces — if you're careful.

The position pieces are small enough to fit on standard album pages. Figure 5 shows a sample page from Scott Publishing Co. for a cross-gutter block from the 1998 Four Centuries of American Art issue.

When you're done creating your position pieces, you'll find that from the remains of the press sheet you can make extra vertical or horizontal pairs with gutters between. These are often good items to trade with other collectors, or they can be used to create first-day covers with a little extra appeal.

They also can be used for postage on mail to other collectors or to friends who will return the unusual covers to you for your collection.