Ten 'best practices' for caring for your stamp collection

May 2, 2021, 2 AM

It doesn't take much to damage a postage stamp. After all, they are nothing more than little slips of paper that can be easily torn, creased, stained or lost. Good collecting habits are essential to minimize, or erase completely, the factors that can ruin stamps in your collection.

1. Put new acquisitions away as soon as you acquire them. Leaving stamps sitting loose on your desk is tempting fate. A random breeze can send a stamp flying through the air, where it can be stepped on, "collected" by the family pet, or sucked up by a vacuum.Here are 10 "best practices" for stamp collectors:

Loose stamps get lost easily. They sift into stacks of paper that end up in the recycling bin, never to be seen again.

Solution. Acquire a few stock books. If you do not have time to mount your new stamps in albums, put them into stock books where they will remain safe until you can spend time mounting them in albums.

2. Use stamp tongs. This cannot be said often enough. Picking up stamps with your fingers will transfer moisture and natural oils from your hands to the paper stamp. Over time the stamps will become stained or discolored from the bare hands that have touched them.

Solution. Use tongs when working with stamps. Stamp tongs come in a number of different configurations and prices. Try a few before you buy a pair, and try to pick up some stamps with them. It will not take long to decide which type of tongs will be comfortable enough for you to use on a regular basis.

3. Practice care when mounting stamps in albums or on pages. Careless, improper mounting habits can damage stamps and make albums unattractive.

Solution. Do not use cellophane tape as a substitute for stamp hinges or mounts. Over time the adhesive will turn brown and greasy and will discolor and damage your stamps.

Some collectors have switched to using matte-finish tape in place of hinges, but this type of tape will leave a lightly sticky residue when taken off the stamps.

If using hinges to mount stamps, do not over-moisten them. Lightly moisten the short fold of the hinge, and place that fold at the back of the stamp, close to the top edge. Lightly moisten the bottom third of the long fold, and put the stamp in the proper place in the album.

Use tongs to lift the stamp away from the page for a few seconds, allowing the hinge to dry. This helps to prevent the stamp from sticking to the album page. A stamp that is hinged properly should be able to move up and down when lifted.

If using mounts for stamps, do not put the stamp into the mount before cutting it to size. Measure the mount, cut it to size and then insert the stamp.

4. Avoid stamp album problems through careful handling. Stamp albums that have printed spaces on both sides of each page can lead to trouble if care is not taken.

As pages are turned, stamps can hook on to one another. When the album is closed, the entangled stamps are likely to become bent and creased.

Solution. Reduce the risk by using great care when turning pages, or insert glassine interleaving between pages.

Some collectors stack varieties of the same stamp and mount them by overlapping one on top of the other in their album. This is never a good idea and will definitely put the stamps at great risk of creasing.

5. Move albums out of the way of children and pets. If you leave an album out, you might find that your family pet has a taste for stamps and loves gnawing on the album cover. Or you could discover your children or grandchildren think a stamp album is a big coloring book with pretty stickers.

Solution. Put the albums on a shelf when you have finished working with them for the day.

6. Keep your work area clean. Food, drink and cigarettes are detrimental to your collection. Food crumbs that fall into a stamp album will likely attract insects that will begin with the crumb main course and finish up with a dessert of your favorite postage stamp.

Liquid refreshments can be knocked over into an album or on a pile of stamps and ruin them. If you need a food break while working on your collection, have it away from the stamps.

Solution. When you are finished for the day, put everything away. Albums and catalogs go back on shelves. Mounts get put away in a drawer. Loose stamps go into a stock book.

Tongs, perforation gauges, watermark trays and other small stamp paraphernalia fit nicely into a shoe box or a plastic container.

It only takes a couple of minutes to tidy the work area. Doing so will save many hours of time looking for the tongs that seem to disappear if not imprisoned in a container.

7. Learn the proper use of stamp collectors' tools. It takes a couple of weeks getting used to using stamp tongs.

At first it will try your dexterity, but once you get the hang of it, you will find that using tongs is actually easier and safer than using fingers.

Using a perforation gauge also takes some practice.

Solution. The easiest way to learn is to select a stamp from your collection that has only one gauge of perforation. The Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue will identify it with a description such as "Perf. 12."

Slide the stamp along the perforation gauge until the perforations fit perfectly on the lines or ridges that delineate the gauge of perforations.

Once you get the knack of aligning the perforations on a gauge, using a perforation gauge becomes an easy process.

A watermark tray and some watermark fluid will help you identify your stamps, but read and heed the warning label on any watermark fluid you use. Remember, safety first.

The same goes for using an ultraviolet lamp to detect phosphor tagging on stamps. Read the warnings and follow the instructions.

8. Use stamp catalogs effectively. Beginning, intermediate and even advanced collectors need quick answers about their stamps. Looking up stamps in a catalog might provide those answers, but only if you know how to get the most out of it.

Solution. Read the introduction found in the Scott catalogs. Every volume of the Scott Standard catalog has introductory pages that provide basic stamp information.

Many collectors have never bothered to read this truly excellent primer that explains all the terminology used within the catalogs.

This includes pithy text and illustrations about paper types, watermarks perforations, printing processes, tagging, gum, and other commonly used stamp-collecting terminology, as well as instruction on how to use the catalog.

The Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers also has introductory pages similar to the Scott Standard catalog, but the information is geared more closely to U.S. stamps.

9. Don't work in a rush. If you are rushing to put new acquisitions into an album, you can make mistakes and damage stamps.

Solution. Take time to enjoy your collecting. Look at the stamps you are placing into an album. Enjoy the image. Carefully put the stamp in the correct space.

If the stamp has a portrait of a person you do not know, look it up. If it is from a country you never heard of before, find it on a map.

Remember that you are not on a time schedule, and if you are just filling spaces and not soaking up the experience, you are not getting the most out of your hobby.

10. Stop wondering if you are the only person in the world who collects stamps. Stamp collecting is much more fun when you have friends and resources that will provide answers to questions, but where do you find these friends?

Solution. Join the American Philatelic Society, a local stamp club and/or a specialty society that matches your philatelic interests.

The APS has dozens of membership services, plus two outstanding stamp shows each year.

To find a local stamp club in your area or a specialty society that matches your interests, go to the APS website at and click the "Stamp Collecting" tab on the far left where you will find links to stamp clubs and specialty societies.

If you incorporate these practices in your collecting activities, your stamps will stay safe and you will enjoy the hobby even more.