Basics of Stamp Collecting

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(Step by step instructions for the beginners)


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Introduction

Stamp collecting is easy when you do it as a hobby. You can spend a lot of money for this wonderful hobby if you want to but you don't have to. Stamps can be acquired from various sources for free. You have to spend a very small sum of money to get a few accessories or supplies if you are starting from zero. In this section I shall discuss some basics of stamp collecting. Image of a Hong Kong, China stamp
Hong Kong, China

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Getting Started

Image of a Holland stamp
Holland
If you have no stamps at all, you might want to buy a packet of 500 or 1000 assorted worldwide stamps from a hobby shop or stamp dealer for about $3.50 to $6.50 to get started. In some stamp shows the dealers often sell a bucketful of stamps for $3. Some dealers sell on-paper stamps by the pound! These are called "kiloware". One good option to look for a big packet of worldwide stamps at an economical price these days is at eBay. Try entering phrases like "worldwide stamps" (for a packet of off-paper worldwide stamps) or "kiloware stamps" (for a bag of on-paper assorted stamps sold by weight) in the search box. Even if you want to specialize (like want to collect stamps of one country only or want to collect theme stamps) my advise is don't do it initially. Start off being a general collector until you have collected enough stamps (at least a couple of thousands) and gained enough experience so you know what your inclinations are. You should do what you like, not what others tell you.

For tips on "How to get stamps for free" and "How to buy stamps inexpensively" please see the next section Beyond Basics (Page 1).

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Sorting Stamps

Now let us assume you have some stamps and they are on paper. (They will be on paper if you collect stamps the way I do). On-paper stamps means they have been cut off from the mail. Before you take them off the paper, you should sort the stamps, for example, by country. This is because handling of stamps is much easier when they are on paper. When you take them off the paper, they become pretty delicate - they bend, crease, and tear easily.
Image of an Argentina stamp
Argentina

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Trimming Stamps

Image of a Belgium stamp
Belgium
Never try to take a stamp off its paper backing by pulling at it even if it appears to be loose enough to do so. This is a sure way of damaging a otherwise perfect stamp! First trim the paper around the stamp with a pair of sharp scissors making sure not to cut off the edge of the stamps (perforations). Until such time when you become an expert (it needs some dexterity of the hands), I recommend that you leave a quarter inch safety margin from the edge of the stamp when you trim the paper.

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Soaking Stamps

Get a clean, medium sized, rectangular "Pyrex" glass baking dish or a shallow bowl about 8 to 10 inches in diameter from the kitchen and half fill it with clean water about your body temperature. Avoid the temptation of using warm or hot water. With warm water, stamps peel off from the paper much faster. But there is great risk of either the backing paper, or the cancellation ink, or the stamp itself running color thus ruining the stamp. Soak the stamps in small batches (about 8 or 10 at a time) until you have gained enough experience to handle bigger batches at a time. You can immerse the stamps completely in water (no matter who says what) provided you watch them for any misbehavior (such as running color). In my experience, so far as running of color is concerned, the worst offender is cancellations done by rubber stamp ink, especially of purple and red color. I fail to understand while postal authorities of most countries promote philately (stamp collecting), why do they allow post offices to put the cancellation marks with rubber stamp ink? And why leading philatelic organizations of the world like American Philatelic Society do not do anything about it? The second worst offender is colored paper backings (red is worst), such as stamps that have been cut off from greeting card envelopes. Rarely, stamps themselves can run color. So watch out. Do you sort your clothes when you do your laundry? Do the same for stamps. Group colored paper backing stamps together, stamps with cancellation marks of rubber stamp ink together, etc.. In fact, you are better off soaking this kind of problem stamps individually, i.e., one at a time. If you see the backing paper running color, take the stamp out and change the water immediately so the colored water may not stain the stamp. Stamps having rubber stamp ink cancellation marks should not be immersed completely in water. You should float them on water face up. Image of a Hong Kong stamp
Hong Kong, British Rule

Image of a Finland stamp
Finland

Image of a Malawi stamp
Malawi

Image of a Slovenia stamp
Slovenia
If you use water of your body temperature, soaking for about 15 minutes is usually sufficient. Most stamps peel off very easily at that point. But a word of caution: soaking time varies greatly from stamp to stamp. It all depends on the type of adhesive that is on the back of the stamps. Self-adhesive stamps that have become very common these days can take upto 2 hours though many self-adhesive stamps peel off easily in 45 minutes to about an hour. I have seen stamps dislodging themselves from the paper and falling to the bottom of the soaking vessel in less than a minute. My advise is after the stamps have soaked for about 15 minutes, pick one up with your fingers (yes, fingers - not stamp tongs; unless you are an expert, you sure will ruin the stamps if you use stamp tongs to pick up stamps when they are wet!!) and try to peel it off the paper very gently from one corner. If you meet with any resistance at all, drop it back in the water and try again in a few minutes. Some stamp pundits suggest that stamps should dislodge themselves from their backing when you should remove them from water. In my experience that sometimes takes a very very long time. That makes the stamp paper so soft that they tear very easily. So you have to strike a balance - soak the stamp long enough so it peels off easily but not so long as to make the stamp too soft and weak. Don't despair. Your experience will soon teach you exactly for how long a particular stamp should be soaked. The key is to stay with the stamps while they are soaking. Don't go away and don't forget them when they are in water.

Once the stamps are off paper, they need special care, especially when they are wet. This is what I do: When the stamps separate from the paper, I very gently rub off any remaining adhesive from their back with my index finger and thumb and put them in a second bowl of clean water to give them a final wash. The soaking water gets turbid very quickly. So change the water for every batch of stamps. Image of a Bavaria stamp
Bavaria

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Drying Stamps

Image of a New Zealand stamp
New Zealand
After the stamps receive a final bath, carefully pick them up with your fingers and lay them flat on a paper towel (face up) in a single layer, making sure the stamps do not touch each other. I then cover the wet stamps with another paper towel and give it a gentle press to blot the excess water from the face of the stamps. You can use old newspapers to dry the stamps but the printing ink from the newspaper may ruin the back of the stamps. These days, newspapers have a lot of colored printing (photos, comic strips, ads etc.). Never dry stamps on the colored part of the newspaper - it will stain the stamps.

Drying the stamps properly and flattening them is very important for their final appearance. Inexpensive stamp drying books can be bought from stamp dealers (about $4-5 for ordinary ones). I recommend you buy one such book. After the stamps have dried partially between two paper towels (plain, white kinds recommended), move them in the stamp drying book. Stamp drying books have alternate plastic-like pages (on which no stamp adhesives can stick) and blotter pages. You start from the last page of the book which is a plastic page. Lay the stamps face up on this page and cover them up with the blotter page. Turn the next page. It is plastic. Lay a second batch of stamps face up on this page and turn the blotter page over it. In this way you use the book from last page to first page. Whether you are drying one pageful of stamps or the entire bookful, remember to put some heavy books (like dictionaries) on top of the drying book so the stamps can flatten out nicely. Stamp flattening presses are available in the market, but there is no need to buy those unless you are collecting stamps for profit. In three to four hours the stamps will dry completely and flatten out nicely. I often leave the stamps in the drying book overnight. After taking them out of the drying book, I lay them flat on a table and let them air out for a few minutes. Image of an USA stamp
USA

Image of a Canada stamp
Canada

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Stockbook or Album?

Image of an Austria stamp
Austria
After you have soaked, dried, and flattened the stamps, you have to organize the stamps for display and safe keeping. You can just keep them in a stockbook or mount them nicely on the pages of a stamp album. A stockbook, as the name implies, is for holding your stock of stamps. In this book the pages are made of Manila paper or boards of variable thickness on which thin strips of Manila paper, glassine paper, or crystal-clear poly film are attached in horizontal rows. The number of rows varies from about two to twelve per page so that different sizes of stamps or blocks of stamps can be accommodated. These thin strips of paper are like long pockets in which you stick the stamps side by side in a row. If you don't want to take the time to mount the stamps in your album, this is the second best way to store your stamps. Stockbooks are ideal for saving your duplicate copies. Stamp dealers use stockbooks to store their stamps.

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