Collecting Stamps – the basics

It seems reasonable to assume, since you are reading this, that you already collect British stamps – but of course there are many ways of building on any collection and if, you are relatively new to it, we hope that the following will be of some guidance.

Traditionally, stamp collectors were introduced to the hobby with a quantity of world stamps, some still on envelopes and cards, which were then sorted and mounted in an album. In due course, many  would decide to concentrate on a single country or group of countries and“specialisation” would begin, based on the experience built up as a “world collector’.

More recently, an alternative route has become prevalent, in which, often as a gift, collections may be built on a“standing order” from a philatelic bureau, with stamps or covers arriving automatically, as they are issued, to be mounted in an album or stockbook. Albums are conveniently designed to meet the needs of this type of collection, with an illustrated space in which to mount every stamp.

This type of collection has much to recommend it – but one big disadvantage – it will be exactly the same as thousands of others, built up in the same way. For this reason, many collectors are now returning to the delights of general collecting while maintaining their existing collections, and finding that the fun they had as children is very easy to recapture!

Stamp starter kit

Obtaining your stamps

Children were encouraged to buy – or persuade their parents to buy – the largest pack of stamps they could, as just sorting them into countries would prove enormously interesting and educational.

Unfortunately large packets of world stamps are not as easy to obtain as  they  used  to  be,  but you can still buy existing collections of all sorts at stamp fairs, shops or at auction, prices to suit every pocket. Just sorting and remounting such a collection will prove tremendously exciting. Sooner or later, of course, you will identify gaps in your collection that you want to fill. It is useful to keep a note of these in a book that you can take with you when you visit a stamp shop or stamp fair – no one can remember everything and it is always annoying to discover that you have just bought a stamp you didn’t need!

It is vitally important of course that you keep your “wants” book up-to-date and cross out items as you acquire them. As well as visiting stamp fairs, you can check out the advertisements in the press; establish a good relationship with a dealer you like and, he will be happy to receive a “wants list” from you. He will then supply you with any items on it he has currently in stock and keep a record of anything else so that he can send it on to you if he gets one. All such items are usually “on approval’, so that if you have found them somewhere else, you are not obliged to purchase them.

More expensive items can be purchased at auction. Many of the larger auction houses do not like to sell items of lower value and therefore, in the main, offer more expensive single stamps and covers or complete collections and accumulations.

Another method of buying stamps is ‘kiloware’. These are stamps sold by weight and generally assumed to be“unsorted” i.e. no one has been through them before and picked the good ones out. Many collectors enjoy this approach to stamp collecting and they will tell you of the wonderful “finds” they have made – but inevitably you will be left with a vast majority of stamps that you do not want because they duplicate items already in your collection. Charity shops will always be happy to receive them – and they will eventually finish up in someone else’s “genuinely unsorted kiloware” – so once again, if this is your kind of collecting, establish a good relationship with a reliable supplier.

“Kiloware” is generally  supplied  in  the  form  of  stamps  on paper, torn or cut from envelopes – so this is probably a good point at which to discuss one of the real basics of stamp collecting – soaking stamps off paper.

It is helpful to carry out some rudimentary sorting before you start. Soaking stamps is quite a time-consuming process, so you do not want to waste time on stamps you don’t need or don’t want, maybe because they are damaged.

Once you have sorted out the stamps you want to soak off, pour some clean water (warm but not hot) into a bowl; then float each stamp (face uppermost) on the surface of the water. You can float as many stamps at one time as you have room for.

Leave the stamps for 15 minutes or so to give the water time to soak the gum that is sticking the stamp to the paper. Most stamps can then be gently peeled away. If they do not come away easily do not try to tear them off the paper. Leave them for another five minutes or so and try again.

Providing your hands are clean it’s better to handle the stamps with your fingers when peeling off the envelope paper. The paper of stamps is weakened when it is damp and picking them up with tweezers may damage them. When you have peeled the stamps off the envelope there will probably be some damp gum still on the back of them.


Use a soft brush dipped in water to remove this, a paint brush is ideal. Alternatively let the stamp float on the water for a few minutes – the gum will dissolve away. However, do not immerse the stamp in water. For most stamps this would be safe enough but for some it may be be dangerous as the ink may run. Then shake off any excess water and place the stamps face upwards on a sheet of clean kitchen paper towel. This is why it is so important to clean all the gum off. If you do not, your stamps will stick to the paper and you will have to float them off all over again.

When all the stamps are laid out cover them with more paper towel then make a kind of sandwich by putting a few sheets of ordinary paper on top. Place a heavy book on this sandwich. This will flatten the stamps as they dry. After half an hour open up the sandwich and carefully remove the stamps. Spread them out on another piece of clean paper and leave to dry in the air for a little while. When completely dry they are ready for mounting in your album. Or you can just lay the stamps face down on paper towel and allow them to dry out in the air. If you use this method do not try to speed up the drying by putting the stamps in the sun or close to a hot radiator as they will curl up and you may damage them when you flatten them out to put them in your album. There are two things which you must be very careful about when floating stamps. Firstly, many old stamps were printed in special inks which run, change colour, or even disappear completely in water.

Fewer modern stamps are affected in this way but even so it is best to be safe, so avoid letting water get on the surface of the stamp when you are floating­off. Be careful when floating stamps to keep separate stamps affixed to white and coloured envelopes. Take out any stamp which are stuck to bits of coloured paper and float these separately. Floating can easily make the ink run and so damage your stamps by staining them with unwanted colours.

Getting started

Choosing an Album and Mounting your stamps 

These are two different topics but really need to be considered together, as the way you mount your stamps will depend on the album you choose and your choice of album may depend on the way you wish to mount your stamps. Here are some of the options:

Printed Albums

You may be used to an album with a space for every stamp and these may be obtained for larger groups of countries such as the Stanley Gibbons New Imperial Album with spaces fora all Commonwealth and Empire stamps up to 1936. If this is the sort of collection you hope to build they are fine albums – as they have space for every stamp, filling one would be a time-consuming and expensive business!

great britain album

Blank Albums

These are made up of blank pages, printed with a faint “quadrille” (tiny squares) which help you lay your stamps out neatly. These give you freedom to lay your collection out as you wish, leaving spaces for stamps you are hoping to obtain, or a neat display of the stamps you have. The former option may mean that you have a lot of gaps on the page, the latter may mean fairly regular rearrangement of your collection – the choice is yours.

Blank albums come in a wide range of prices and binding types, from inexpensive ring binders, through traditional “springbacks” to high quality “peg-fitting” types. Again, the choice is yours.

multi ring albums


In the past, collectors used stockbooks to hold  duplicates  and stamps awaiting mounting in the main album, but due    to their convenience and cost, many collectors are now using stockbooks to house their main collections.

They certainly make it easy to “mount” your stamps – you just slip them into the strips on the pages and you can move them around easily to accommodate new acquisitions too! You can even write notes regarding different stamps or sets and slip those into the strips.

Stockbooks Getting Started Stamp Collecting

Stock albums

These are loose-leaf stockbooks, which have the added benefit of being able to insert extra pages in the book. Also, because the strips come in a number of formats, they look better than a stockbook layout which is a bit restricting and does not show larger items, such as covers, blocks and miniature sheets, very well.

Mounting your stamps

Before we come on to cover albums, let’s return to the matter of mounting your stamps. If you have chosen either the stockbook or stock album option, this is not really an issue as you can just slip your stamps into the strips on the page. If you have opted for a printed or blank album, on the other hand, the question of mounting is important.

The traditional stamp hinge is generally the preferred option for used stamps. Instructions for their use are generally given on the packet, so we will not repeat them here, but we must stress that the key points are to lightly moisten the hinge before attaching it to the stamp or album page and not to try to remove it until it’s dry or you may damage the page – or even more important, the stamp.

For unused stamps that have been previously mounted, stamp hinges are also perfectly acceptable, but for stamps which still have “full original gum” and show no evidence of having  been  previously  hinged,  most  collectors  now favour  hingeless mounts”, which allow you to attach the stamp to the page without disturbing the gum (keeping the stamp “unmounted’).

For most of the most frequently encountered stamp sizes, cut-to-size mounts are available for immediate use. Less common sizes will have to be cut from bigger  strips,  but  even large blocks and miniature sheets can be mounted in  this way.

Although hingeless mounts are gummed, ready for use, many collectors prefer to use hinges to attach them to the album page as this makes them easier to move around when new stamps are added.


Many  collectors  like  to  include  covers  in  their  collections – either “first day” or “souvenir” covers or simply envelopes that show examples of the stamps in use. This is especially desirable in the case of early covers, which might show unusual postmarks or other features.

Collecting Stamps


Covers can be mounted on blank pages using gummed photograph corners, but may also be accommodated in purpose-built cover albums. There are even albums, such as the Stanley Gibbons Universal, which are designed to hold stamp and cover pages together (and booklet pages too!).


Again, what you need in the way of equipment will depend largely on what you are collecting, the degree of specialisation you intend to achieve and the type of album you use.


We have already discussed albums and stamp mounts, the only other item every stamp collector must have is a pair of tweezers. All stamps should be handled with tweezers; they ensure that the natural oils in our fingers do not get on to the stamps and, after a bit of practice, they are easier to use than fingers as well. They come in different lengths, with different points and made from different materials (generally stainless steel or gold-plated). Find a style that suits you and stick with it. From then on the equipment you need is up to you. Most collectors like to have  a  magnifying  glass  so  they can look at their stamps more closely. Again, they come in a wide range, from the fairly basic, offering 2 or 3× magnification to pocket microscopes giving 30× magnification, and digital microscopes that you can attach to your computer for really detailed examination of your stamps, such as the SG UM02 or UM05, or the pocket-size Pro 10 microscope with integrated digital camera which gives up to 200× magnification, stores up to 2000 images and is perfect for stamp shows.


Another useful type of magnifier is one that incorporates a millimetre scale – ideal for measuring overprints and other features.

Even a quick look in any catalogue will show that differences in perforation, watermark and colour can make an enormous difference to the price of a stamp. So most collectors like to have the necessary equipment to measure perforations, view watermarks and identify colours and shades.

Fortunately, as far as perforations are concerned, the perforation gauge used by most of the world’s top collectors and dealers is accessible to all – it’s the Stanley Gibbons Instanta  –  which  measures  perforations to a decimal point.

Instantata Perforation Gauge

Philatelic accessories of all types are available from Stanley Gibbons Publications or at the SG shop.

Share this Post: