More stamp collecting tools: magnifiers and ultraviolet lamps

Jul 25, 2011, 12 PM

By Janet Klug

In the July 11 Refresher Course, I discussed the three essential tools a stamp collector must have to protect, learn about and fully enjoy collecting stamps.

These three tools are stamp tongs, a watermark tray and a perforation gauge.

Nonessential tools can be added at will, but the acquisition of equipment can take on a life of its own.

I recently helped with the sale and disbursement of a deceased friend's philatelic estate, which included not only stamps and covers, but also a substantial philatelic library, and a couple of cabinets filled with philatelic paraphernalia, the like of which I had never before seen.

Seemingly simple things like a magnifying glass became increasingly complex to the point of being a device that resembled a Rube Goldberg contraption.

An electronic device to measure the gauge of perforations shredded the first two stamps I attempted to use it on. I finally got the hang of using it, but I decided that for me, an old-fashioned perforation gauge works better. Perhaps if I'd had the instructions, the device would have worked just fine.

It was fun playing with this stuff, but I came away with the feeling that, for me, in the realm of stamp collecting equipment, keeping it simple is best.

Adding more equipment to the three essentials can be done over time, and most of these things will cost you more than the initial acquisition of stamp tongs, a watermark tray and a perforation gauge.

If you don't already have one, a good magnifier is a handy tool.

There are endless uses for a magnifier. The joy of viewing a highly detailed engraved stamp magnified so you can really appreciate the detail is indescribable. You cannot truly appreciate the beauty of the engraving until you see each fine line and experience the engraver's attention to detail.

A variety of magnifiers is shown in Figure 1. They range from a simple and cheap plastic giveaway worth precisely what was paid for it, to the Rube Goldberg gizmo I referred to earlier that certainly works when you finally figure out which lens to use for the task at hand.

The one I use most often is a polished acrylic dome. It magnifies well without distortion and is designed to let in light through the open sides of the dome. Another good choice is the flashlight-style magnifier that uses batteries to provide a light that flows over the object being magnified.

Either or both of these will fulfill the needs for most stamp collectors. For those who are engaged in plating studies, flyspecking or other highly detailed technical stamp work, a magnifier that is more like a microscope is a useful tool. A few of these are shown in Figure 2.

Through the Amos Advantage program, Linn's subscribers can select from a variety of magnifiers and other supplies, and receive a substantial price discount.

Learn more online at, or write to Amos Hobby Publishing, Box 828, Sidney, OH 45365-0828.

Many of the world's stamps are coated with a luminescent material that glows when exposed to ultraviolet light, but is invisible to the unaided eye.

The coating is called taggant, and the application of taggant to a stamp is called tagging.

In the 1960s, postal equipment was developed that would search for the glowing stamp and turn the cover, in a process called facing, so that the postmark would strike in the correct place to cancel the stamp. This high-speed automated operation significantly shortened the time it takes to process mail.

Viewing the glow of tagging on a stamp requires an ultraviolet lamp. These come in a variety of styles, sizes, and configurations. They can be battery operated or electric. A few different ultraviolet lamps are shown in Figure 3.

There are two wavelengths used in detecting tagging – long wave and short wave. Some ultraviolet lamps will produce only long-wave or shortwave light, and both are useful to stamp collectors. When selecting an ultraviolet lamp, try to find one that has dual functionality.

Tagged United States stamps are best viewed in a darkened room with a lamp producing shortwave ultraviolet light, but longwave ultraviolet light is useful for many foreign stamps. Select an ultraviolet lamp that best serves your needs.

Read the warnings on the lamp. Looking directly into the light could cause painful eye damage similar to that experienced if you would look directly into the sun.

Work in short spurts to reduce your exposure to ultraviolet light. Wear gloves to keep your hands from getting sunburned if you will be working with an ultraviolet lamp for more than a few minutes.

Never let children use an ultraviolet lamp without adult supervision, but by all means, show them the magic that happens to a stamp when ultraviolet light is shined upon it.

One of the most appealing aspects of stamp collecting is that each collector gets to decide what and how to collect. If you want to keep it simple, you can do so with just a few inexpensive tools such as stamp tongs, a watermark tray and a perforation gauge. If you want to start looking for obscure varieties or tagging, then you might want to add magnifiers, scopes and ultraviolet lamps.

Just remember that you will enjoy your hobby more with the proper tools.