Introduction to Stamp Collecting

Stamp Collecting Tools

By Jim Watson

The principal tools used by stamp collectors are: tongs* (not tweezers), perforation gauges, magnifying glasses, albums, and hinges or other mounting material. A stamp catalogue, a book with detailed information on stamps, is essential to get the most from the hobby. Success in identifying a stamp after searching the catalogue is a particularly rewarding activity, similar to solving a puzzle. It also gives the structure for your collection.

The tongs that stamp collectors use are designed to enhance handling stamps. Typical designs are plated nickel silver, brass, or steel, and they are about 5 to 6 inches long with flat, thin tips. There are a variety of choices - rounded, pointed, bent, or spade tips. Each has its supporters but the rounded tip is easier to learn to use. Tongs are held like a scalpel between the thumb and finger tips, and not like a pencil. Practice quickly improves using the tongs.

Perforations are one of the characteristics by which stamps are classified. The number of perforations in a 2-cm group defines the characteristic. The stamp is "perf. 10" if there are 10 perforation holes in the 2-cm length. Collectors use a perforation gauge to assess the measurement. This gauge is a flat card made of paper, metal, or plastic that has rows of black dots in graduated scales from perhaps perf. 7 to perf. 17. To use the perforation gauge, the collector holds the stamp in tongs and moves it up and down the scale until a group of dots on the gauge matches the holes on the stamp. Reading the gauge markings provides the perforation count.

Magnifying glasses are used to examine stamps to make design details clear and to reveal defects such thin spots and tears. Any magnifying glass works well, as long as the glass has at least a 5-power magnification. This is an item that can be added when needed.

A catalogue should be one of the early acquisitions of a serious stamp collector. There are a number of catalogues available. The standard catalogue used in the United States is the Scott Catalogue and is published by the Amos Publishing Company. It is published annually and has a number of volumes covering the world of stamps. A complete set is expensive, so collectors may want to consider buying only the volume(s) that deal with stamps of countries in which they are interested.

The catalogue has two principal functions: first, it provides the ordered framework for stamp identification and a numbering system that collectors and dealers can use to exchange data about stamps. Second, it provides a guide to the price of stamps. The catalogues provide an excellent solution to the first objective and a limited answer to the second objective. For this reason, it is possible that your needs for a catalogue can be solved by purchasing a catalogue issued some time ago. Many such catalogues are offered on eBay. They are perfectly useful in building a collection although they do not have the very latest catalogue values and do not illustrate the very latest stamps. Since such values are only a guide, and values do not generally change rapidly, older catalogues can still be useful. New issues can be found in the various stamp journals -- some of which are online. In addition, a catalogue provides information which will expand the philatelic knowledge of both the novice and experienced collector. The introductory material in Scott's Catalogue is particularly useful in this regard. It is highly recommended that all collectors read it.

If collectors have access to a good local library, catalogues are often available there or can be obtained through interlibrary loan services. It is well worth the time to at least visit the library and determine whether its resources can meet your needs. You can also see how the catalogues are organized and find out firsthand which one you might need. One caution, however; Scott has rearranged the volumes several times so make sure that the volumes you acquire cover the material in which you are interested.

Another solution to the need for a catalogue is to use the price lists of various dealers and the publications of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). These are helpful to U.S. collectors, in particular. There are foreign catalogues available as well. If you are going to limit your collecting interests to Great Britain or its colonies, then a Stanley Gibbons catalogue will be quite useful, since it is the catalogue of choice of such collectors. There are even some limited online catalogues provided by dealers and collector groups.

* Words in red are defined in the Glossary section - see link under Outline at right.



A Brief History
Why People Collect Stamps
Major Stamp Categories
Factors Influencing Value
Tips for Finding and Buying Stamps
Tips for Listing and Selling
Displaying or Storing
Stamp Collecting Tools
Caring for Stamps
Insuring Your Collection
Books and Other Sources
Building a Collection
Describing Stamp Condition
I Have This Stamp Collection...
Appendix I: Tips for Finding
   and Buying Stamps on eBay

Appendix II: Tips for Listing
   and Selling Stamps on eBay

Comments and  suggestions to
improve this guide are appreciated.
Click here to send me your ideas.