Beginning Stamp Collecting

The study of stamps is called philately, and people who collect stamps are often called philatelists. Stamp collecting is a hobby that can span generations, offering collectors virtually limitless options as they add stamps to a growing collection. Some collectors choose to focus a collection on specific eras, countries, or subjects, which is known as topical collecting. Other collectors prefer to generalize their collecting efforts, adding all types of stamps to a collection. This hobby can fit nicely into a limited budget when necessary.

Stamps to Collect

Stamps may be definitive, produced in large quantities and usually more than once. Stamps can also be commemorative in nature, printed only once in smaller quantities. Special stamps usually focus on a holiday or celebration and are available for a short time. Stamps are classified according to their condition. The highest condition possible for a stamp is superb, and the lowest condition is poor. To attain a superb rating, a stamp must be perfectly centered. Both used and unused stamps can be called superb, but if it's used, a superb stamp must have fresh colors, be undamaged, and have only a light cancellation mark. An unused superb stamp will have perfect gum adhesive on the back. Slightly lower than superb, fine stamps will have more muted colors and heavier cancellation marks. A stamp would be called "good" if it has minor defects like disturbed gum, off-centering, and heavy hinge marks. A stamp that doesn't meet the "good" criteria is not worth adding to a collection.

Soaking Stamps

Soaking is the process used for removing stamps from envelopes. First, cut around the stamp, leaving a thin margin of paper around each edge. Place the stamp face-up in a bowl of warm water. Let the stamp float in the water for several minutes until the glue loosens from the paper. Use tongs to lift the stamp out of the water and carefully slide off the backing paper, then place it face-down on a sheet of paper towel. Once it's dry, place it between two sheets of paper towel. Place the stamp inside a heavy book to dry overnight.

Tools Needed

Stamp catalogs list stamps for specific countries or according to specialized collections and categories. Catalogs may also provide additional information about stamps such as issue dates and printing methods. Stamps can be very fragile, so most philatelists handle them with special tongs to prevent damage. A magnifying glass can help you see the tiniest details on stamps. Sometimes, these details can help differentiate similar stamps from each other. A perforation gauge measures the perforations, which can help with stamp identification. Using a watermark detector can also help discern faint watermarks, which is also useful when analyzing look-alike stamps. Philatelists will also need a method for organizing and storing stamps, such as a three-ring binder, a stamp album, or special glassine envelopes that protect the stamps from damage.