Mentor new collectors so they can get more out of the stamp hobby

Sep 11, 2006, 11 AM
The United States 22¢ Stamp Collecting stamp (Scott 2199).

By Janet Klug

Have you ever tried to interest a friend or family member in stamp collecting?

Beginning stamp collectors have a lot to learn. There is the jargon that is unique to stamp collecting, the acronyms, supplies and where to get them, how to find stamps, and even figuring out what you want and where to find it. It can be overwhelming.

Even for adults, it takes some doing to get to the level of the boy who is depicted examining his stamp collection on the United States 22¢ Stamp Collecting stamp (Scott 2199) shown nearby.

Those who have been collecting for a long time want to help, but often we assume that the entry-level collector we are trying to help has more knowledge about the hobby than he actually does.

This can have devastating effects. Our protege is embarrassed to say that he needs more help or to ask questions, while we go blithely along spouting more technical data than can be assimilated by the newbie.

So let's go way, way back to the beginning and tackle the most basic needs of an entry-level stamp collector, remembering that this is a fun hobby that should be relaxing and enjoyable, not a commando raid on philately.

What does a beginning collector need to get started? There is only one answer to this — stamps!

Without stamps to examine and enjoy, a beginning collector is going to lose interest very quickly. The stamps must have appeal to the entry-level collector.

That appeal might come from the subject illustrated on the stamps, the colors, the visual appeal, the country or some other parameter that the beginner should choose.

If you, the seasoned collector, try to influence a beginner to collect what you like to collect, you have just set a pattern for failure. It is OK to show the newbie your collection and say why you collect a particular region or theme. It is not OK to insist they collect the same as you.

After stamps, then what? The next best thing you can do for your entry-level collector is give them some time and space. Cramming stamps down anyone's throat is self-defeating.

Also, being too generous about giving away massive quantities of stamps is also self-defeating. You have heard the expression about too much of a good thing. It is true.

Let the new collector become intrigued with the idea of collecting the small pieces of history. Give them a sense of their worth.

This does not equate with their value. Stamps prove their worth by educating about people, places and cultures. They reflect history. They can be humorous or serious. Let the new collector find the joy. Give them a few stamps to get started and then answer their questions. If they are really interested, then spend time with them and help them move to the next steps.

What's next?

Keeping the stamps safe and available to enjoy is a priority. After all, stamps are (mostly) fragile bits of paper. They can be easily lost or damaged, so it is a good idea to put them some place safe. Putting them loose into a desk drawer or shoebox is not the safest place, and furthermore, such storage methods do not allow for easy viewing or enjoyment of the stamps.

Encourage the new collector to invest a small amount of money into buying a stock book where the stamps can be slid in behind strips of glassine or plastic film and still be enjoyed. Many sellers offer great buys on stock books in every price range.

The next most important item for a beginner is a pair of stamp tongs. These look like tweezers, but they aren't.

Some tongs have rounded, spade-shaped tips. Others have pointed tips. They come in a variety of lengths.

The pointed-tip kind might be the most difficult for a beginner to learn how to use because of the possibility of poking a hole in the stamp he is trying to pick up.

Let your beginner use your own tongs for a time to get used to them, and encourage the use of tongs every time a stamp is handled.

Natural oils on fingers and hands can be transferred to the stamp. It is unlikely the results of this transfer will manifest itself immediately, but over time these oils will discolor the stamp.

Help the beginner to learn to carefully insert stamps into the stock book by lifting the glassine or plastic strip slightly away and carefully using the tongs to tuck the stamp behind the strip. If this is done properly, none of the corners of the stamps will be bent, all of the perforations will remain smooth and flat, and the stamps will not get torn.

Stamps, a stock book and tongs are the three essentials for beginning collectors. With these a collector can learn a lot about stamp collecting, experience all the fun the hobby provides, and go a very long time without having to purchase any other supplies or equipment.

How does a beginner expand beyond the basics?

Organizing a collection in a stock book does not require a lot of collecting supplies, but adding stamp catalogs to the list of necessities will help a new collector get the most out of a collection and do a better job of organizing it.

Catalogs can be an expensive acquisition, but most public libraries have a set of the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue. Spend a day in the library with a new collector and show him how to use the catalog.

Encourage him to read the introduction, which is arguably the best and most concise primer for stamp collectors available. Be prepared to answer questions.

A new collector can be taught how to look up a stamp in the catalog, but it takes time and lots of practice to learn how to identify and look up a stamp quickly. The use of catalogs will lead to the need for other equipment such as a perforation gauge, a watermark tray and watermark fluid.

Show how different gauges of perforation might mean big differences in the values of stamps, and that the same is true of watermarks. Both perforations and watermarks are instrumental in the correct identification of a stamp and in the correct placement of a stamp in a printed album.

Should a beginner use a printed album?

Sure, if that is what they want. Many — perhaps most — collectors will use printed stamp albums for all or part of their collections.

There are many advantages and some disadvantages. High on the list of advantages is that it is an easy and attractive way to display and enjoy the collection. An album is easy to thumb through, but care should be taken when turning the pages so that stamps do not get bent.

Albums whose pages are printed on both sides pose a problem. Stamps hinged in such albums can pull on one another and cause tears, creases or lost stamps.

The use of an album poses another dilemma for a collector. A choice must be made about whether to use stamp hinges or stamp mounts.

Hinges are inexpensive but not as peelable as they were 25 years ago. When removed, most hinges today will leave a trace of themselves on the stamps and on the album pages, or they will peel away part of the stamp or album page when they are removed.

Stamp mounts are not inexpensive. They usually cannot be peeled from an album page without damaging the page, and they require acquiring a variety of sizes to accommodate a multitude of different-size stamps. Mounts do, however, protect the stamp better than a hinge does and you can remove a stamp from a mount and put it back easily.

Printed albums require supplements to keep them updated for new stamps that are issued each year.

Although stamp albums exist for some topical subjects, most stamp albums are set up for a single country, a group of related countries, or for a worldwide collection.

I think it is good advice for a beginner not to use a printed album for specialized or topical collections or for covers. Stock books or self-made albums are better choices in these instances.

To specialize or not to specialize?

I often see well-intentioned, seasoned collectors telling beginners to specialize. By that they mean to pick a country or topic and collect that exclusively.

The reasoning behind that advice is that there are far too many stamps issued in the world to achieve anything close to completion with a worldwide collection. I think that this is bad advice and that completion of a country is highly overrated as a collecting goal.

A beginning collector benefits by having exposure to a broad cross-section of stamps. For example, it is beneficial to learn how to decipher Cyrillic alphabets to figure out what country a stamp came from.

Learning about currencies found on stamps from other countries will help a new collector figure out postal rates and postage due markings on covers that might eventually draw his interest.

In my opinion, being a worldwide general collector first is the very best training for a future specialist, but a stamp collector should not necessarily start off as a specialist. The world of stamps is full of highways and byways, any of which can be explored. But if a collector is never exposed to them, how will they ever capture his attention?

Here's how to get the most from stamp collecting:

Stamp collecting is an enriching hobby. It is nearly impossible not to learn something new about the world when you are a stamp collector. But a beginner will get more out of the hobby by being proactive.

Beginners should be encouraged to join a local stamp club and meet other collectors. This is good advice for seasoned collectors, too. You can meet fellow collectors, learn from them, swap stamps and stamp stories, and make new friends.

Subscribe to a stamp magazine or a stamp newspaper such as Linn's Stamp News. Frequent exposure to stamp terminology, acronyms and advertising will make them a part of your everyday lexicon. New collectors can learn through osmosis by reading a stamp journal.

Join the American Philatelic Society. APS membership brings many useful member services as well as the monthly magazine American Philatelist.

For membership information, write to the APS, 100 Match Factory Place, Bellefonte, PA 16823 or visit the society's web site at

Stamp collecting is a fun hobby.

Mentor a new collector and double your fun.