June 2019

A guide to stamp collecting

Great Britain

SG HIG RES Shop 13

Postage stamps are miniature works of art— colourful, well-designed and superbly printed. Some of them commemorate famous people and events; others show animals and birds, fish and flowers, railways, ships and aeroplanes, buildings and bridges, coats-of-arms and flags, achievements in space and in sport. They are educational and provide some of the most practical ways of learning geography and history, politics and religion, and the everyday way of life in different parts of the world.

Before you buy a single stamp

Take every opportunity to discover the enormous number and variety of stamps that have been issued so far.

Browse a stamp catalogue, attend dealers’ showcases and auctions, visit shops and peruse the many displays at stamp exhibitions and fairs. This way, you are exposed to the many facets of the hobby and are equipped to appeal to you most of all.

How to start collecting


Start with an accumulation

The usual advice is to buy the largest packet of whole-world stamps you can afford.  You can also gather stamps through friends and family abroad, from old letters. If you’re very lucky to have inherited a set of albums from a generous relative, use it as a foundation for a much larger collection.

Expert tip: Store your collection in a stock book to keep your stamps in order and in good condition.

album pages.jpg

Choose what condition to collect

The stamps that you have now gathered will be varied in condition. Whether you buy collections or packets you are bound to acquire a good percentage of common stamps. At this point, choose which of the two types to collect at this point to have an attractive and cohesive collection.

Used stamps have had postal, telegraphic or fiscal use and have been cancelled accordingly. These are usually cheaper and easier to find.

Unused stamps have not been used in the post and is consequently not postmarked or otherwise defaced. They should have their original gum as issued in ‘mint’ condition by the post office, though traces of the use of a gummed hinge are generally acceptable.

Fine-used stamps have postmarks that are light, but have sharp and clear distinction. Heavy black cancellations that obliterate the stamp’s design are entirely unacceptable. Some postmarks, especially early types (prior to 1920) from military camps, railway stations and ship cancellations, etc. are often more valuable than the stamps, especially if kept intact on the original cover.

Important to note: Be careful not to discard any items from your collection too hastily. You may, at a later date, switch to collecting only the stamps of a certain country or group of countries where even the common stamps may be needed to form the nucleus of a collection.


Identify your stamps

The stamp catalogue is a dealer’s price-list and is the most essential work of reference for the stamp collector. It provides complete, detailed lists of all the postage stamps issued by every country in the world from the earliest days.

Collectors use guides to assess a set can be completed or how stamps should be arranged in an album. It also helps readers become more acquainted with the colours and their names.

The most useful catalogue for the beginner is the Stanley Gibbons Simplified Catalogue of Stamps of the World, published in six volumes. Countries in Stamps of the World are arranged in alphabetical order, from Abu Dhabi to Zululand.

There are also single volume Commonwealth Simplified and Western Europe Simplified Catalogues, following the same format, for those whose collecting area is more restricted.

Commonwealth and British Empire Stamp Catalogue 1840–1952 includes all stamps of this area from the earliest issues up to the end of George VI’s reign and additionally lists and illustrates many of the better varieties popular with collectors.

Catalogues like the Great Britain Concise Stamp and Collect British Stamps show all the new issues and latest prices.


Assemble your toolbox


An essential item of equipment– these are made of light, plated metal with slender, flattened tips or ‘spade’ ends enabling stamps to be picked up and sorted quickly and surely. With a little practice, tweezers are easy to handle.



Designs appear in detailed close-up and are seen to be miniature works of art. You can see the lines or cuts which make up a portrait or scene on an engraved stamp or study the quality and peculiarities of the other printing processes – the graduated ‘dots’ of photogravure or the smooth honeycomb background of lithographed stamps.

You will also enjoy looking for errors and varieties many of which are visible only through a glass.


Once your interest advances, charting the flaws of stamps will start to concern you. The following tools will help:

Perforation gauge

The perforation gauge measures the number of perforations within the measure of 2 centimetres. Perforations are a stamp’s ‘teeth’ and their measurements vary according to the type of perforating machine used. Often the stamp’s top and bottom ‘perfs’ differ from those at the sides (called a ‘compound perforation’), and measurements range from 7 (large holes) to about 18 (small holes).


Watermark detectors

The main instrument for detecting stamp watermarks is the human eye! The watermark is simply a thinning of the paper in the form of letters or an emblem such as a crown, and it can usually be seen when the stamp is held with the light shining through it, or if the stamp is placed face down on a dark – preferably black – surface, remembering that the watermark is ‘right way round’ when viewed through the front, and in reverse when viewed through the back. If a watermark is known to exist on a particular stamp and it is still not visible, then we have to use scientific aids.



Display your stamps

You have stocked an accumulation, chosen the condition of stamps to collect, read about your area or theme of interest, identified your stamps and assembled a tool kit. Now, it is time to create an attractive display of your items.

Depending on what you have decided to collect, carefully choose an appropriate album size. Don’t choose a large album unless you have a large collection or anticipate buying many more stamps. Your existing stamps will be greatly extended and give your collection a sparse appearance.

Albums can be purchased fast bound (like a book) or as a binder with accompanying loose-leaves. The great advantage of the loose-leaf system is that the leaves can be rearranged – and extra leaves added – as you wish.

Hingeless albums have transparent mounts already affixed over the illustrations of the stamps so that you only need to slot in your stamps. Obviously the affixing of the mounts by hand is a time-consuming process and hence such albums are more expensive than those requiring you to affix the mounts yourself.

Gummed stamp hinges attach the stamp to the album page – just fold down about a quarter of the hinge, gummed side outwards, and lightly moisten the narrow folded portion with the tip of your little finger. Attach this portion to the back of the stamp at the top, just below the perforations, and then moisten the lower part of the ‘flap’ and place the stamp in its appropriate place and press down.


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