Stamp Collecting – Tools for the Collector

Each individual will have his or her preferred way of preparing, mounting and storing stamps. But despite personal choices there are common tools that most collectors will find useful, regardless of his or her own way of working.

Most collectors will want to separate newly acquired stamps from the cover (envelope, packaging, etc) to which they are affixed. This assumes the stamp wasn’t purchased already prepared, which is often the case, of course. For that a number of common philatelic tools are helpful: soaking fluid, trays and tongs.

Soaking fluid can be as simple as distilled water, warmed enough to soften the adhesive but not so hot as to damage the stamp. Others will prefer a dilute mix of water and liquid dishwashing detergent, though care should be taken that it doesn’t cause the ink to run. Not surprisingly, there are special-made fluids available for this purpose.

Soaking will require the use of trays and tongs, as well. Clear glass trays or bowls, sometimes made of Pyrex, are helpful since they allow viewing the stamp from all angles. Also, the glass sides make it possible to manipulate the cover and stamp up the side of the tray or bowl, for easier separation.

Tongs are useful for a variety of purposes, soaking is just one. It’s always preferable to avoid handling stamps with the fingers. The moisture, dirt and oils in fingertips can cause several different kinds of damage to the stamp.

When you select tongs, don’t settle for ordinary tweezers. Tweezers are smaller, too small for the hands of many, and sometimes have serrated surfaces. You want tongs more like those used in home photography for developing photos, though smaller. Those are longer and have wider surfaces.

Be sure to use only tongs that have flat surfaces, though you may want two or more in order to get styles with varying kinds of points. In some styles the tongs have very dull points, which are safer for the stamp. Some have sharp points, making the stamps easier to pick up, but beware not to stab or rip the stamp.

Watermark fluid is helpful for, as the name suggests, detecting watermarks on stamps. These are small, embedded designs that were historically used to combat counterfeiting and give distinctive details to an issue. Their use has largely gone out of practice, and an otherwise ordinary stamp can be somewhat more valuable if it has a unique watermark no longer part of the design.

Benzene was once the standard choice, but it’s highly flammable and it can dissolve inks. Some collectors have used ordinary lighter fluid for this purpose, but it’s volatile, unsafe to breathe and can damage the stamp.

It’s best to stick to stamp collecting watermark fluid. TCE (trichloroethane) is sometimes used. It’s non-flammable, but long exposure carries some risk of skin cancer.

Some collectors use fluorescent lamps or even watermark detecting machines (the famed ‘Morley-Bright’) that use no chemicals. The lamps can range in price from very inexpensive to absurdly high. The machines work well, but are expensive and tend to be used only by very committed collectors.

And, of course, you’ll want a magnifying glass or two and maybe even a low-power microscope for close-up examinations.

Even if you have no plans to become a professional, acquiring the tools of the trade will enhance the safety and efficacy of your collecting efforts. Shop around and always buy quality.


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