Stamp collecting lets a new collector see the world in a completely different light, but like any collectible, the better you treat your stamps, the more you will get out of your collection. You need the right tools to ensure your stamps are looked after and cared for in the best manner possible.
The 10 tools and supplies needed to start stamp collecting are:
- Reference materials
- Magnifying glass
- Measurement gauges
- Glassine envelopes
- Stamp removal solvent
- Stamp storage and presentation books
- Equipment storage box
- Your appraiser
Stamp collecting can be educational, interesting and fun if you do it correctly. Working with and placing your stamps is important if you want the collection to last. These 10 tools can help you get started safely collecting, identifying, presenting and storing your stamps for years to come.
10 Tools And Supplies Needed To Start Stamp Collecting
1. Reference Materials
For the entire time you collect stamps, you will need reference materials. Some of the basic reference materials you need are:
- Stamp identification books
- Color guide
- Access to the internet
- US Post Office
Stamp Identification Books
You will need a few of these and the books you need will be determined by the type of stamps you specialize in. If you opt to collect any stamps you find, your range of stamp identification books will be significant.
A good book to buy is the Scott US Pocket Stamp Catalogue. Not only will it give you the current values for your stamps, but it will also aid in identifying the stamps you have. Another great reference book is Warman’s US Stamps and Field Guide, as is The World Encyclopedia of Stamps & Stamp Collecting.
There are other reference books that cover specific genres of stamps (US stamps, English stamps, etc.), but these three are a great “starter kit” of reference books for the new stamp collector. They are written in a straightforward and easy to understand manner and are entertaining too.
This is more for education of where stamps originate, so if all that is being collected are US stamps, it is not necessary. If you are collecting stamps from all over the world, however, an atlas can help you learn where the stamps you are collecting came from.
A color guide can come in handy when color variations separate stamps by year. For example, there have been several differently colored Benjamin Franklin stamps. Because Franklin is one of the most popular figures to be included on stamps, stamps bearing his visage often represent new developments in postal stamp technology.
For example, some Benjamin Franklin stamps have different backgrounds (the Z grill is one example). Other Franklin stamps had new or different perforations or denominations. The one thing every edition of a Franklin stamp has in common is the color used for the stamp or its background.
Color guides are also helpful if you grow your stamp collection into something more than just a hobby. Often, the color of a stamp can determine its value based on how long a stamp’s print run was and its rarity.
Access To The Internet
The internet is a godsend for stamp collectors. The list of stamp collection-related things that can be found on the internet is almost endless. Making sure you have reliable connection to the internet and know how to use it is vital to being able to access the information you need pertaining to your stamp collection.
For example, a printed stamp guide will have mostly accurate prices or at least a price range. But you can find up to the minute prices on the internet, and that can help you quickly identify if investing in a particular stamp is a good idea. Another way the internet can help you is via the following:
- Philately periodicals
You can find tutorials, guides and historical information on YouTube pertaining to just about everything related to stamps. There are also several podcasts that cover philately and stamp collecting. Finally, many stamp and post office related periodicals are available online for free or for a nominal cost.
You still want to have the hardcopy books recommended above though, mainly because it is easy to work with them while reviewing your stamp collection. But the internet is an extremely valuable add-on.
US Post Office
As can be expected, the US Post Office is a great resource for stamp collectors. The organization has an online portal for collectors to get access to guidebooks, and commemorative and themed stamps. In addition, the Post Office has a quarterly guide that highlights all the stamps it is currently featuring.
Handling a stamp can be one of the most destructive actions a collector can take against their collection. The oils and dirt that is almost always present on skin can quickly degrade a stamp. To avoid that, the use of tongs or tweezers is recommended.
Tweezers vs Tongs
Some people argue that tweezers can be destructive to a stamp. Because of the sharp edges most tweezers have, stamps can become marred, punctured, scraped or crimped, reducing collectability and value.
Another hit against tweezers if that if they’re not used exclusively for stamp collecting, a pair of tweezers can pick up residue from other substances it touches and damage a stamp.
Tongs that are designed for stamp collecting have rounded edges, which greatly reduces the risk of damaging a stamp. Additionally, some tongs have longer arms, which makes it easier to view stamps.
But two factors work against tongs. First, they are much more expensive than run-of-the-mill tweezers. Second, both tweezers and tongs need to be washed before each use to ensure there is no residue on them. This negates the “regular tweezers are dirty” argument.
Tongs specifically made for stamp collecting tend to have features that serve a purpose for picking up and inspecting stamps. For example, tong ends can be rounded, pointed or have spade ends. The type of tongs you use is generally a matter of personal preference.
3. Magnifying Glass
Stamp details can be small and obscured. Plus, even the best eyes on the planet will grow fatigued if used to look at stamp details over a long period. To aid in seeing the tiny details or to find other identifying or value-impacting markings, a good magnifying glass is critical.
There are three basic types of magnifying glass.
These are the type of magnifying glass that everyone is familiar with. They are usually rounded but can be rectangular, and they have a long handle that holds the lens in place. The downside to handled magnifying classes is the handle itself. To use one, you must dedicate one arm and hand to holding it in place.
These are hands free and can usually be flipped down to two different magnifying powers. They sit on the head like a golf or tennis visor. The only downside to this type of magnifying glass is the comfort factor. A person can become fatigued if they use this type of magnifier over long periods of time.
A stationary magnifier sits on a base and usually has a lens large enough to look at something using both eyes. The head – the part with the lens – can be maneuvered to get the best viewing angle. Additionally, most stationary magnifiers have a light that can illuminate the area being magnified too.
Personal preference should drive the type of magnifier you select. Many people have more than one type. If you are older or not as able with your hands, the stationary magnifier requires the least amount of effort and skill to use.
You can use a magnifier to see details on stamps or postmarks that you cannot easily see with the naked eye. This includes watermarks, ink stains and flaws, as well as to easily count perforation marks. A magnifier also lets you use your eyes without as much strain, which means you can look at stamps for longer periods of time without noticing fatigue.
Can you get along without a magnifying glass? Of course, but you may be missing something important by not having one. At the least, you are missing the opportunity to see your stamps in more detail!
Hinges are folded pieces of paper with adhesive on two sides that affix a stamp to a piece of paper. Mounts are sleeves with a transparent front that is sealed on three sides. A stamp is slipped into the sleeve and then the mount is affixed to a presentation surface. Every stamp collector should have some of each and use them as follows.
A stamp’s value diminishes by half when it is hinged. Thus, using a hinge should only be done on less valuable stamps. When purchasing stamps that are being presented as “never hinged,” use a pocket magnifying glass and look for hinge gum marks on top of the gum side of the stamp. If you see them, the stamp has been hinged.
Mounts preserve a stamp much better than a hinge, but also involve a lot more material. Thus, mounts are more expensive. At the least, you should use mounts for more valuable stamps or stamps you think will grow in value over time.
Regardless of what you use or how you use it, always purchase complete hinges or mounts. They are manufactured in a way to help preserve stamps. Using products that you have to put together on your own will not likely be engineered for stamp preservation.
5. Measurement Gauges
Measurement gauges are valuable tools that can help determine the parameters and dimensions of a stamp. Each can significantly alter the overall value of a stamp. In some cases, the right tool can also verify that the stamp you are looking at is authentic.
This measures the spacing of the perforations on a stamp. The perforation marks on a stamp can often help verify if it is a specific type of stamp. Electronic perforation gauges are on the market, but as a beginner you should invest in a handheld gauge. These are much less expensive and, while not as accurate, will be suitable for your purposes.
A thickness gauge measures the paper the stamp is printed on to determine if it adheres to postal specifications. This is one way of routing out counterfeit stamps. While that is not so much of a worry for a beginner, understanding how to use a thickness gauge is important if you plan to take your stamp collecting to the next level.
Rulers can help verify height and width. The best type of ruler to get is one made of very thin sheet plastic. These can be put up against a stamp without causing an unevenness and are easier to use than a standard ruler.
6. Glassine Envelopes
Glassine envelopes are almost translucent and allow you to clearly see whatever is inside them. The envelopes will have a neutral pH level in most cases and are categorized as “archival quality.” That means they are perfect for stamp storage.
They come in multiple sizes, which helps when having to temporarily store oversized stamps. They can also store strips of stamps easily and safely.
If your glassine envelopes have already been used, always inspect them before using them again. Prior use can sometimes result in dust and dirt getting trapped inside the envelope, and that can jeopardize the integrity of a stamp. You should also inspect every envelope’s sides and make sure that any seams are firmly in place.
7. Stamp Removal Solvent
Any envelope or package to which a stamp is affixed that has cancellation marks and an address is called a cover. The term does not include whatever was in the package. Some stamp collectors specifically collect covers. Most stamp collectors will include a cover, but do not specifically collect them.
With that in mind, before we get into the issue of removing stamps from covers, a word to the wise: Even if you have no interest in collecting stamps with covers, in many cases, leaving a stamp on an envelope or even part of an envelope is preferable to taking it off the envelope and damaging the stamp.
A stamp can tear during the removal process if it is not done correctly, become “thin” in places, or get punctured. A valuable stamp or a stamp with potential value becomes virtually worthless as a collectible when it is damaged.
Removing A Stamp
In some instances, however, removing a stamp is preferable for presentation reasons or because the cover is damaged, or the stamp is only on a partial cover. In those cases, removal solvent is necessary.
Often, removing a stamp can be accomplished by immersing it in cold water. Cold water is recommended as some stamps have ink that is designed to bleed when immersed in water. It is made like that to discourage people from lifting stamps off envelopes and attempting to reuse them.
Let the stamp sit in the water until it begins to peel away from the cover paper. After that has happened, carefully remove the freed stamp and any attached cover from the water and place face down on a paper towel.
Repeat If Necessary
If any of the cover remains attached, let the stamp dry and repeat the process. If the stamp is not coming away on its own, do not try and peel it off. Run through this process three or four times and if the cover is still not releasing fully, you should consider using a solvent.
If a solvent is the only solution, many philatelists use benzine, a safer but still flammable alternative to benzene. When handling any chemicals, always follow safety protocols:
- Wear gloves
- Work in a well-ventilated room
- Vacate the room if you experience light headedness or dizziness
- Always have adequate equipment on hand to address spills and fires
- Tell someone you are working with chemicals and ask them to check up on you from time to time
Another solvent option is any of the numerous “eco-friendly” alternatives. These include solvents with limited Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) content and high flashpoints. Each is also safe for the environment. The key to using any chemical is to use it sparingly and follow the specified instructions. Not following the instructions can lead to damaging the stamp.
If you are working with extremely old stamps, be very careful when using solvent. Some stamps produced prior to 1883 had advertising printed on the gum side of the stamp. If you are working with a stamp that old, use the water immersion method of removal first and use chemicals only as a last resort.
8. Stamp Storage And Presentation Books
You can buy stamp presentation books at any hobby store or through an online vendor that sells stamp collecting equipment. Presenting or storing your stamps in books is the preferred option short of using sleeves to present and store them each individually.
While a book designated to store stamps is preferable, any album that has plastic or cellophane page covers and a flat, textured surface is sufficient. Many old photo albums work well, but you need to figure out your own linear layout on them using a ruler if you want perfectly straight rows to put stamps on. Your storage environment is also important.
The perfect temperature for stamp storage and presentation is between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The key, however, is to avoid extreme hot and extreme cold or rapid fluctuations between both. Hot and cold temperatures cause things to expand and contract. This can damage stamps, particularly if they are being held in a stationary position in a book.
Apart from being the enemy of a good night’s sleep, humidity is also a mortal enemy of stamps, or any other paper collectible. Humidity can cause warping, mildew growth, and fragility. While most homes are stable in terms of temperature, humidity levels often fluctuate, which can lead to damage to stamps.
The solution is to keep your stamp collection in as climate controlled an area as possible. The ideal humidity level is between 35 and 55 percent.
If you have ever seen the bleaching that happens to just about anything when it is left in the sun for a long period, you understand the danger light and the Sun pose to stamps. While internal light is far less damaging, over time, some bleaching will occur if your stamps are left out in the open.
This is particularly true if sunlight can get to your stamps. Sunlight can lead to fading, color alterations, yellowing, and drying out, which can lead to cracking. Your stamps should be store away from any light, but especially sunlight. If you want to display your stamps in the open, the best option is behind a glass pane in a room that gets only indirect sunlight and has minimal lighting.
Inevitably, if your stamp collection is good enough or if you are extremely proud of it, you will want people to see it. People are, intentionally or not, a greater threat to stamps than even the Sun.
People touch stamps and leave oil and debris on them. They spill drinks, neglect to wear protective gloves, or leave a stamp book out in the open. In short, the more you can control access to your stamp collection, including handling, the better off your stamp collection will be in the long run.
The best way to sum this up is that “attics and basements are the enemy of stamps.” Attics and basements both can have pests – including insects and rodents – that can be stamp collection killers. They eat the paper, are attracted to the gum, introduce corrosive organic matter to the collection, and even use whatever paper they can find to make nests.
Make sure your stamp collection is safely stored in a well trafficked area that is free from pests. If your collection is ever exposed to an insect or rodent infestation, the best approach is to remove your stamps from the area, inspect each one, and re-install them in a new booklet.
Spares And Uninspected Stamps
Many people store spare stamps or stamps they have not made suitable for presentation in boxes. This is asking for trouble. Stamps in boxes are targets for pests and have no protection if exposed to water, heat, or mold. Never store your stamps in anything that will “heap” them together.
The smartest approach is to use glassine envelopes or have a “spares” stock-book that you can store stamps in that keeps them flat and protected from the elements.
9. Equipment Storage Box
Where you store your tools is as important as where and how you store your stamps.
Have a separate storage box for your stamp collecting tools. This way, there is no confusion as to what tools you use exclusively for your stamp collection activities. A separate box, even a toolbox, is particularly necessary if you have family members that might utilize your tools without asking.
Someone who sews always has a set of tools that are kept away from anyone else in the family. The same needs to be the case with your stamp collecting tools. To understand why it is important, consider these common problems with stamp collecting tools that can happen when someone misuses them:
- Dull scissors from being used to cut various materials
- Smudged or missing magnifying glasses
- Removal solvent that gets spilled or used up
- Missing glassine envelopes that force you to store stamps unsafely
- Residue left on tweezers or tongs that gets on stamps
Having a strict policy of who can and can’t use your tools and for what purpose is important to ensure your stamp collecting tools are managed properly.
10. Your Appraiser
An appraiser might not seem like an obvious stamp collecting tool. An honest and loyal appraiser, however, is as valuable to your stamp collection as all the equipment you have. Appraisers can help you accurately value stamps you want to buy and can help you sell stamps you want to sell.
Additionally, an appraiser can keep their eyes open for you and alert you when a good deal or coveted stamp is on the market. Finally, an appraiser can tell you if the asking price for a stamp is worth the investment. This makes them an invaluable tool for any stamp collector.
Using the proper tools for stamp collecting ensures your collection will always be in as good a condition as possible. The tools you need are straightforward, but each has a role that is hard to duplicate. Hinges or mounts, tweezers or tongs, and a magnifier are the most valuable tools.