Collecting Stamps - Coney's Stamps

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Introduction to the Tools of Stamp Collecting:

The tools and supplies that you select as a collector can make or break a good collection. It can make a mediocre collection shine or turn a great collection into junk.

The Tools which are covered on this page are also in greater detail in its own section on this Web site but this will give you a good primer on both to give you an idea of what you’re looking at before diving into details. Additional tools, supplies and tip for their use are also available.

An introduction to Stamp Collecting Supplies is also available in this section.

What’s more basic that handling the materials in your collection: right? You have to get them to where they are going somehow.; Depending on what you’re moving you need to be careful not to damage or degrade the value of it. If you are new to stamps than there are some basic things you should not do.

One of them is using your hands directly. There are times when you can and times when you should never.
Of all the tools available to Stamp collectors a good set of Stamp Tongs is essential. This is the primary tools we use to move and handle stamps safely while reducing the chance of damage and in the case of mint stamps; they reduce the chance of a disturbance to the gum.

If you are handling a lot of sheets or panes then you might even invest in some inexpensive white linen gloves.

Stamps should not be handled with your fingers. It’s all too easy to unintentionally bend or crease a stamp when handling them with fingers. Mint stamps with undisturbed gum are particularly susceptible to damage by fingerprints or the oils and moisture in the skin. Even if you just washed your hands! Used stamps many not have gum to disturb but the oil and moisture may still have adverse effects on certain stamp issues and types.

Just a side note for those who are new to stamp collecting: Don’t call tongs “tweezers” You may get laughed at or teased about it.

A Drying Book is used to aid stamps that have become wet, if for any other reason, from soaking them off of paper (or each other) to dry evenly and flat. I would not recommend using a drying book for drying stamps that have become wet during watermark identification because of the fluids used in the process.

A Stamp Press is used to flatten stamps and many of them sort of resemble an old time manual printing press. Many other methods of pressing stamps are available without the need to purchase a special press but it has its advantages other then the fact that they look neat and have a knob and look like a tool.

A good magnifier can be valuable in detecting errors or specific varieties of any issue. They come in a wide variety of types, sizes and magnification levels. These range from small pocket magnifying glasses to more expensive microscopic devices.

Magnifying glasses are available with folding covers, stands for hands free operation and some even have lights built in to aid the collector in any venue or lighting conditions. For general stamp collecting; try to stick to a magnification in the 5x to 10x range.

Jeweler’s and engineer’s loops also work well, their small and portable but can be tiring for the face muscles if you’re not accustom to their use and holding them.

Fresnel Lenses:; I have seen small pocket sized versions that will fit in your wallet and may work in a pinch but the thinner they are there are problems with twisting and distortion.

Digital Cameras can also be used to magnify, after the fact but most will not do a good job for on the spot magnification.

Microscopes are good and are available in digital formats which connect to a PC. Not all are expensive, some particularly the ones designed for children are adequate for stamp collectors and can capture movies as well as take still photographs. Look for a minimum resolution of 640x480 pixels, more is better.

There are a number of tools used in general stamps identification, each are important but will also depend on what you collect or may specialize in.

Color Guides: These guides are used to identify subtle differences in color shades which may have a dramatic effect on a stamps value. This is particularly important for US collectors who have collections containing pre-1940 stamps.

Perforation Gauges: These guides help the collector determine the size and spacing or interval of the perforations. You’ll see a wide range of prices and materials for these. They are available in clear plastic, cardboard, metal and you can even find templates for them which can be downloaded and printed. Although I’d be wary of downloading and printing them as they are not all accurate and depend on proper calibration.
Prices range from free handouts at stamp shows or magazine enclosures to 20+ dollars.

Watermark Detectors: Detectors come in three basic types: Fluids, Pressure and Electronic. When hearing about these methods those new to collecting may be shocked and think… that can’t be right! But it is safe and if done as directed the stamp will not be harmed.

Fluids range a bit in cost but are usually cheap. The better ones are volatile give off noxious fumes and are flammable. The non-flammable fluids don’t give off the noxious fumes and while they are good, they don’t seem to be quite as effective. Although some may disagree.

The stamp is dipped in the fluid, and then held up with a light source behind. The watermark becomes visible when you look “through” the stamp. The watermark image goes away as the stamp dries.

Pressure types squeeze the stamp with an encapsulated fluid pouch and glass plate on one side and a hard surface on the other. The stamp never gets wet but it may take some practice and the watermark image disappears as soon as the pressure is released. Some are manual and some are electric. The higher end electric models will hold the watermark pattern until the stamp is removed or the machine turned off.

Catalogs are actually an important multi-use in nature. They will help the stamp collector keep up on general stamp data, be used as a basic identification guide and help the collector track the values of his collection and his want list. There are several types and publishers of stamp catalogs. This site predominantly references the Scott Catalog for numbering and facts.

Catalogs may seem expensive when just starting out so a couple good recommendations are to use the free resources of your public library, many have them in the reference section and when starting out you may want to shop around for a used set. A catalog that is two years old is close enough for the average collector starting out. Values don’t generally climb that fast unless a particularly desirable variant is discovered. The stamp data and identification information is 99.999% as viable as the day it was printed. The only information it will be lacking is for the issues released since it was printed. Much of that data and identification information is available in new catalogs at the library or on-line.

Basically most of the tools used in stamp collecting are used with the aim of preserving stamps. That is to say handling and identifying stamps without causing any harm or damaging the stamp.

Most of preservation concerns would come under supplies but I decided to put a word in here to talk about excessive bright lights, heat and humidity.

  • Don’t subject your stamps to excessive light, direct sun light can even be harmful and cause fading, discoloration or warping.
  • Be mindful of the temperature. The long term effects of excessive heat can also include hardening and cracking of the gum. Heat can also cause warping and discoloration.
  • Excessive humidity will cause unused stamps to stick together of what ever surface they may be touching. Long term effects of humidity can include the break down of the paper and gum. The flip side of that coin is if they are too dry the gum can become brittle, dry out and crack.

Combination of any of these elements in their extremes can be disastrous for your collection. For more information see the Purpose and Risks section.

There are some archival sprays and But would advise you to stay away from anything you don’t understand or know the long term effects of. I have no experience with the spray, it’s mostly used for drawings and artwork but I’d recommend holding off until you or I find a knowledgeable authoritative source for more information about any side effects.

Lighting can play a very important roll in your collection and to a greater degree than many realize. Stamps viewed under one set of lighting conditions can take on an entirely different hue or shade of color. Lighting can also mask small defects and make some paper types harder to detect.

Direct sunlight: Bad. Short durations may be tolerable but long term exposure will fade stamps and discolor paper. The heat from the light can also dry stamps out and cause curling and gum to dry out, harden and crack.
The bottom line is: The best light to use while identifying color shades is an “OTT” lamp or “True color” lamp.
Incandescent and florescent lighting is fine for casual viewing but again be mindful of the heat generated by your lighting.;

UV LightAnother type of lighting is very helpful in identification is the ultraviolet light. There are two different types Short wave and Long wave.

Short wave are for checking tagging on stamps of USA, Canada, Israel, Great Britain, etc. (to identify difficult tagged stamps, like block and overall tagging on US stamps or Phosphor Bands of Great Britain.

Long wave are for identifying fluorescent paper (tagging) on stamps of Canada, China, France, Mexico, etc. Also for verifying inks, colors, forgeries, and repairs. Check for quality and authenticity of coins, banknotes, certificates, artwork, etc. Nylon strap is attached for easy carrying.

There are many advanced tools for those who want or need to go to such extremes. There are high end digital microscopes for getting down to extreme detail or papers and inks, Micrometers to accurately gauge paper thickness.

Although we will cover a small number of more advanced tools most of the high end ultrasonic, electronic and other space aged tools for examination or materials and dating won’t really be covered on this Web site because they are out of the scope for all but a hand full of specialists and extremely wealthy collectors.

By the way if you are one of those extremely wealthy collectors, we take donations towards running this site and if you’re outrageously wealthy I’m up for adoption.

Digital CameraFor those who are inclined or have a need to there is a plethora of reasonably priced digital imaging tools available that were only a dream a few years ago and a figment of the imagination when I started collecting.

Digital imaging devices such as digital cameras, scanners, video cameras or digital microscopes can be used for a number of things in the life of a collection. They can take quick and accurate records for insurance purposes, used to build advertisements if you sell or trade. You can enlarge items for ease of identification and I can post digital photos of items from my collection on this Web site. Use your imagination.

Digital cameras with macro capabilities or digital SLR's with close-up/macro lenses are quite common now. Some of the better digital cameras with high mega-pixel specifications can take a normal photo and be enlarged with such clarity and fine quality it’s staggering.

Flat Bed ScannerScanners can take a high resolution “image” of your stamp or other item and make it into an easily used computer file for any number of uses.

Video cameras can be used for inventorying your collection for investment or insurance purposes.


Mini Digital Micro ScopeLow cost digital microscopes which connect to the USB post o a computer and can capture video or stills are easily available for under 100 and some under 50 dollars. I have been very pleased with the results of some of these newer low cost units.

More information on digital Imagery is available in the Computing for the Collector Section of this Web site.

Home ComputerComputers… You must have one or at least have access to one or you wouldn’t be reading this now.
Computers can be a very useful tool in among any number of other things, Stamps Collecting. They are of use to the collector in many ways from maintaining an inventory and digital imagery to online research and communicating with other collectors.

Although these are rude generalizations:

The younger readers more than likely have a good handle on this subject but even experienced computer users may find out more about them and specifically their use in stamp collecting.

In many cases the older you are the less familiar with computers you may be. Having said that I must acknowledge that I know some older users that A: designed them and the programming languages used; B: teach advanced computing courses, OR BOTH.

Professionally I have been in I.T. since the early 80’s but played with computers in the 70’s and ever since.

Every day new advances take place in home computers.  We’ve tried to cover all the basics to a depth that should make most any collector happy. It’ll be deeper than most will need but less than a true geek might expect. Even so I’d encourage you to check out the Computing for the Collector section for Hardware, Software and Collector specific information and tips.