A book – such as a dictionary – that is in constant use soon begins to show signs of wear. The edges of the pages gradually lose their crisp, fresh looks, and the same thing happens to your stamps with excessive handling. Thus your first essential item of equipment should be a pair of stamp tweezers – 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 (held with the hilt in the palm of your hand), and they are usually supplied in a plastic case so that you can carry them around in your pocket.
Tweezers, perforation gauge and magnifying glass are essential tools for the stamp collector. The magnifying glass is the one tool that everyone associates with stamp collecting. Through the magnifying glass stamp 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. There are folding magnifiers for the pocket, stand or ‘box’ types which are free-standing while you arrange the stamps or make notes, illuminated magnifiers and high-powered glasses for the specialist.
Perforations and watermarks will eventually concern you – differences to the normal perforation or watermark of a stamp can enhance its value, and it is necessary to be able to measure the perforation or identify the watermark if only to establish that you have the normal stamp. The perforation gauge measures the number of perforations within a 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 (widely spaced holes) to about 18 (holes closer together).
The ‘Instanta’ is a kind of slide-rule perforation gauge – other types have the various measurements, in rows of appropriately spaced dots, printed or engraved on card or plastic. 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 – a watermark detector such as the Morley-Bright ‘Inst-a-Tector’ or an electric detector such as Stanley Gibbons ‘Detectamark’. Modern British stamps no longer have watermarks.
Another kind of gauge, one that enables you to chart flaws and varieties on stamps through a plastic transparent grid, is the ‘Thirkell’ Position Finder. It pinpoints their location and provides a useful reference for other collectors. If colours or colour-names are a problem, then the novel Gibbons Colour Key will assist you. It contains 200 colour tabs, including many of the shades most likely to be encountered. Our tool-box is now almost completely filled. There are gadget-boxes for removing the paper from stamps clipped from envelopes etc, but it is simpler and safer to invest in a plastic tray – shallow with raised sides – say 12in~9in or larger, fill it with lukewarm water and lay your clippings on the surface, stamps face upwards. After 10 minutes or so you will be able to ‘float’ the stamps off the paper and dry them between sheets of clean blotting-paper. Float stamps on coloured envelope paper separately as the colour may ‘run’ and stain other stamps. Self-adhesive stamps should also be floated separately. You will need gummed hinges, too, to mount your stamps in the album.