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The Joys of Stamp Collecting - An Introduction to a Fascinating Hobby

Updated on September 30, 2013
Set of stamps issued in 1935 by St. Lucia commemorating the Silver Jubilee of the reign of King George V of England.  Most members of the British Commonwealth issued a similar set of stamps.
Set of stamps issued in 1935 by St. Lucia commemorating the Silver Jubilee of the reign of King George V of England. Most members of the British Commonwealth issued a similar set of stamps.

Do You Want To Be A Stamp Collector?

So, you are thinking about becoming a stamp collector. Welcome to the most fascinating hobby in the world today.

When the first postage stamp was issued in Great Britain in 1840, stamp collecting also had its birth. Since that time the hobby has been enjoyed by people at all levels of society, including kings, queens, and presidents.

In fact, one of the largest stamp collections of today is owned by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was an avid stamp collector. He worked with his stamps every day, and even inspired some designs that appeared on U.S. stamps. His massive collection was sold shortly after his death in 1946.

A stamp collector collects stamps for various reasons. Many collectors get into the hobby because they think that what they buy today will be worth a lot more money tomorrow. In other words, their stamp collection is an investment. I will comment on that later. A lot of collectors collect stamps and other related postal items because they enjoy studying postal history. Still others collect stamps that have a common theme or topic.

But no matter what your reason for collecting stamps, you will learn a tremendous amount about history and geography, and have a lot of fun.

Stamp collecting can and should be a life-long hobby. The most important advantage to continuing stamp collecting even into your declining years, is that it keeps your mind active. And an active mind is a young mind. Even though your body ages your mind doesn’t have to. It should only get better with age.

What Do You Need to Be a Stamp Collector?

To be a serious stamp collector you will need many things. But don’t try to purchase all the things right away that you might not need for years down the road. A big outlay of funds in albums and supplies might discourage you before you purchase your first stamp. Get a bunch of stamps first before you start purchasing all the accessories.

The reason for this is that I want you to make sure that you want to get involved in stamp collecting before you make a heavy capital outlay. Stamp collecting should be a lifetime pursuit. But start slowly and let it build. I think you will enjoy it more that way.

But there are a few inexpensive items you do need when you start. The first is a good pair of tongs (also called tweezers). Tongs come in several configurations, so take a look at the different types before you decide which style would suit you. My favorite type is called a bent spade. (See picture) The tongs at the top of picture are of the bent spade type. I purchased the one pictured in 1981 and it has been in use since. Still has the same strength. The second pair is a straight tip type, also known as a lethal point. The points are sharp and I advise the use of this type to be delayed until you are more experienced at handling tongs. Tongs are used for the safe handling of stamps. Using your fingers will leave marks on the gum of unused stamps.

Many stamps will require checking a watermark to determine its proper identification. So you will need a small watermark tray (see picture) and a bottle of watermark fluid. If you collect early British Commonwealth stamps, you will find many issues that have the same image, but will have a different watermark. The same is true of a few later issues. The watermark fluid will not damage the stamp, and will dry very quickly if you happen to spill any.

You also need a simple method of sorting your stamps. A small stock book or stock pages would be ideal for this purpose. (See picture)

A small magnifying glass is also helpful. It should be strong enough to allow you to study the smaller details on a stamp. (Picture shows two types, one desk-size, and the other that can be carried on a keychain.)

And you will need a perforation gauge (see picture). This is a tool used to measure the perforations of stamps. Two stamps may look just alike, but will have different size perforations. That difference could dictate a big difference in value. So your perf gauge is very important. They are very inexpensive, so you can have several, because they are easy to lose.

Your first album should be a very simple, inexpensive one. You will obtain a lot of experience in hinging stamps into the album. Get one that has a lot of illustrations of the stamps. A simple album will probably not show the varieties of different issues, but that is OK. You will get more into the varieties as you advance in knowledge, and eventually move up to a larger album, or probably, albums. Be patient. Have fun. Get serious later, and you will still have a lot of fun with your collection.

You should be able to obtain these absolute necessities for less than $100 total.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A regular size stockbook, about 8" x 11".Pages of the regular size stockbook with stamps.A stock page that will fit most ring binders.  These pages come in one or two-sided.  And there are different configurations for the rows to fit various sizes of stamps.Some tools that a stamp collector will use all the time.
A regular size stockbook, about 8" x 11".
A regular size stockbook, about 8" x 11".
Pages of the regular size stockbook with stamps.
Pages of the regular size stockbook with stamps.
A stock page that will fit most ring binders.  These pages come in one or two-sided.  And there are different configurations for the rows to fit various sizes of stamps.
A stock page that will fit most ring binders. These pages come in one or two-sided. And there are different configurations for the rows to fit various sizes of stamps.
Some tools that a stamp collector will use all the time.
Some tools that a stamp collector will use all the time.

How Do I Get Stamps for My Collection



So, where do you get your first stamps? A lot of people start by saving stamps from the mail that they receive, or that other people give them. As a general rule these stamps will be only from your own country. Maybe you know someone who receives mail from a foreign country. If so, ask them to save the envelopes for you. Today, most mail that goes through the postal system is metered. Practically all business mail is metered. If you take a letter to the post office to be mailed, chances are the clerk will use the meter to stamp it. So this limits what you can find on your mail today, unless you want to collect different meter designs.

Stamp Dealers

There are a lot of stamp dealers in this country, and around the world. The average stamp dealer is usually involved in dealing on a part-time basis. Most stamp dealers get involved in dealing because they have a great love for stamps. As a dealer they can buy in larger quantities and get a better price. This way they can re-sell at a reasonable price, and earn a reasonable profit which allows them to increase their stock. But one great benefit to being a stamp dealer is that they get to see stamps that they might never have seen as a stamp collector.

You can find the advertisements of reputable dealers in the major stamp publications indicated below.

Buying from the internet has also become very popular. Ebay is probably the largest source of stamps on the internet. But beware! There are some very unscrupulous people who offer stamps on Ebay. Never buy anything on the internet that costs more than a few dollars, unless you know the reputation of the dealer involved. I will give you some ideas later on as to how to determine if a dealer is reputable.

In addition to Ebay, there is another large internet auction called Bidstart. It is now owned by Stanley Gibbons of England. The same warning applies to buying from all internet sites. Know who you are dealing with before paying a lot of money.

Many dealers have their own web site and huge lists of the stamps they have for sale.

There are lots of stamp dealers offering stamps to collectors. How do you separate the good from the bad. Check on them. A good dealer will belong to various stamp organizations, especially the American Philatelic Society. Advertisements in the APS Journal are a good source. If you see some stamps on Ebay that you would like, check on the dealer first. Reputable dealers will list the organizations of which they are members. You can check with the organization to determine the dealers reputation. As I mentioned earlier don't purchase stamps of more than a few dollars if you can not determine the reputation of the dealer. A good dealer will offer a money back guarantee on what they offer. But beware of guarantees on internet sites. Anyone can say anything, and there is no real way to enforce it. Another good source of advertisements is the Linn's Weekly publication. Both APS and Linn's also have a web site that will have advertisements.

It is a good idea to deal with dealers who list the organizations to which they belong. There is one organization of worldwide stamp dealers who are devoted to fair dealing on the internet. They are the Internet Philatelic Dealers Association (IPDA). If a dealer belongs to this group you are assured that they are reputable. The American Philatelic Association also has a Dealer Members Group. There are many other groups of dealers worldwide,



Stamp Publications

There are two major American publications that I will name that carry advertisements for stamp collectors. In fact, the two publications are devoted to stamp collecting. The first is the American Philatelist. This is a monthly magazine that is mailed to all members of the American Philatelic Society. I will have more on this organization later. The other publication I want to mention is Linn’s Stamp News. It is published on a weekly basis, and has a lot of articles of interest, as well as a large group of advertisements by dealers, both full-time and part-time. Linn’s can be found occasionally on newsstands, but your best chance of finding one is at a stamp show, or by writing to them. I will have an address for them later. As I mentioned before, the American Philatelist is only mailed to members, although you can receive a complimentary copy by asking and paying a small amount for the postage.

Stamp Clubs

Most cities and many smaller towns have a very active stamp club. This is a good place to meet other stamp collectors and also trade stamps. Most clubs have a periodic auction of material that belongs to their members. And sometimes a member will leave his/her stamp collection to the club to be auctioned with the proceeds benefiting the stamp club. To find a stamp club in your area, check the APS website. I will have a section on this later.

Recent issue of the "American Philatelist", the Journal of the American Philatelic Society.  It is issued monthly.
Recent issue of the "American Philatelist", the Journal of the American Philatelic Society. It is issued monthly.
Recent issue of Linn's Stamp Weekly.  Linn's also has a monthly publication in magazine form.
Recent issue of Linn's Stamp Weekly. Linn's also has a monthly publication in magazine form.

Which Stamps Should I Collect


What you collect depends on your own interests and resources. If your funds are limited, then I suggest you collect worldwide. That way you can collect stamps for a long time without spending a lot of money for any one stamp. Look at a lot of stamps before you make a decision on what you will collect. My favorite area is the former British colonies up to the point where they became independent countries. You might decide to collect just one or two countries. If so, you could get to the expensive level very quickly.

Some collectors like to collect just an era, such as the reign of King George V of England. He reigned from 1910 until his death in 1936. If you are collecting British Colonies during that period, you can collect a long time, and you might get them all. Most of the issues of that era can be purchased for a reasonable price.

Some collectors collect stamps that have a specific theme or topic. They are called thematics and topicals. A topic is something like Trains on Stamps, Ships, Flowers, Airplanes, etc. No matter what you like, you will probably find stamps that have that topic. A theme might be collecting stamps that commemorate a particular event in history. Believe it or not, but there are stamps that have "accounting" as the subject. I mention this because accounting was my lifetime profession. You will also learn about historical events that you never read about in school. There is a world of history and geography on stamps. I have never met a stamp that I didn't like. Most collectors of themes and topics will have only mint stamps in their collection.

Another decision you have to make is whether to collect used or unused stamps. A mint stamp is one that is unused and has never been hinged in an album. But you will see the word used for any stamp that has never been used. A hinged stamp is unused but has been hinged to the album page with a small piece of material that folds, so that one side is attached to the back of the stamp and the other side is attached to the album page. Another way of placing stamps in the album is with mounts so that the stamp is enclosed and the gum is not damaged, and the front can still be viewed even though it is protected from dust.

When you look at listings of stamps for sale there will be a liberal use of initials. For example, “NH” stands for Never Hinged. In some countries it will be indicated by “MUH” which is Mint Unhinged. You will also see never hinged stamps indicated with a double asterisk (**). A hinged stamp will be indicated by “H” or “MH” or a single asterisk (*). Used stamps are indicated by “U” or a small (o). You will come to distinguish between the designations,

Used stamps are ones that have gone through the postal system to deliver mail or packages. Some people only collect postally used stamps. Real prizes in used stamps are those that have a clear complete circular cancel that shows the date it was mailed.

You will find stamps that have been cancelled but still have full gum. These stamps were cancelled by the issuing post office and then sold to collectors at a fraction of face value. They are usually identifiable by a fourth part of a circular cancel that is in one corner of the stamp. The reason is that to minimize the amount of work necessary to cancel a sheet of unused stamps by hand was to place the cancel at the intersection of a block of four stamps. So only the corner of the stamp received the fourth part of the cancel. Most collectors prefer not to collect these stamps which are known as CTOs (Cancelled-to-order). Also beware of used stamps that have a heavy cancellation such as the one illustrated.

Should you just collect used and unused and mix them in the album? Some collectors do. But doing so will not get a good price if you try to sell your collection. If you like used and unused, consider having parallel collections.

The choice of what you collect is one that you should not make right away.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Stamp issued for Somaliland during the reign of King Edward VII.  Stamp was issued in 1905.U.S. airmail stamp issued in 1928 shows an airplane and a beacon in the Rocky Mountains.  Because of the way the sheet of stamps was printed the blue center can be shifted in relation to the red design.This is another airmail stamp from U.S. issued in 1941.  This is a plate block of 4, which is a corner block with the Plate Number in the margin.This set of stamps from Belgium is a complete set according to the Scott catalog.  A set may have two or more stamps with the same image, but a different denomination; or they may have different images with the same or different denominations.This is an example of a stamp that has been overprinted for a special occasion.This is an example of a topic or theme - Olympics, animals, horses, sports.This U.S. stamp is an example of a printing error.  The name under the flag should be "Korea", but has a plate flaw that makes it into "Korpa".
Stamp issued for Somaliland during the reign of King Edward VII.  Stamp was issued in 1905.
Stamp issued for Somaliland during the reign of King Edward VII. Stamp was issued in 1905.
U.S. airmail stamp issued in 1928 shows an airplane and a beacon in the Rocky Mountains.  Because of the way the sheet of stamps was printed the blue center can be shifted in relation to the red design.
U.S. airmail stamp issued in 1928 shows an airplane and a beacon in the Rocky Mountains. Because of the way the sheet of stamps was printed the blue center can be shifted in relation to the red design.
This is another airmail stamp from U.S. issued in 1941.  This is a plate block of 4, which is a corner block with the Plate Number in the margin.
This is another airmail stamp from U.S. issued in 1941. This is a plate block of 4, which is a corner block with the Plate Number in the margin.
This set of stamps from Belgium is a complete set according to the Scott catalog.  A set may have two or more stamps with the same image, but a different denomination; or they may have different images with the same or different denominations.
This set of stamps from Belgium is a complete set according to the Scott catalog. A set may have two or more stamps with the same image, but a different denomination; or they may have different images with the same or different denominations.
This is an example of a stamp that has been overprinted for a special occasion.
This is an example of a stamp that has been overprinted for a special occasion.
This is an example of a topic or theme - Olympics, animals, horses, sports.
This is an example of a topic or theme - Olympics, animals, horses, sports.
This U.S. stamp is an example of a printing error.  The name under the flag should be "Korea", but has a plate flaw that makes it into "Korpa".
This U.S. stamp is an example of a printing error. The name under the flag should be "Korea", but has a plate flaw that makes it into "Korpa".

Condition of Stamps

As you see more and more stamps you will also see that condition is a major factor. You must determine what level of condition you can live with. Some collectors want nothing but perfect stamps in their collection. Consequently, they pay more for each stamp, and also it will take them longer to complete a collection.

What do I mean by condition? There are several things to consider when choosing stamps for your collection. We have already looked at whether you will collect used or unused stamps. And also whether your unused stamps will be never hinged or hinged, or both.

Next thing to consider is the front of the stamp. It should be free of scuff marks. Watch for fingerprints also. When you handle stamps without the use of tongs, the natural oils in your skin can leave a perfect fingerprint on the front or back of the stamp. Another consideration is the centering of the image on the stamp. Poorly centered stamps should be much cheaper than well-centered examples. The type of centering that you will accept is a matter of personal preference. Look at some of the examples pictured.

The back of the stamp is also important. If it is an unused stamp, any hinge mark shouldn’t be too heavy. With more expensive stamps you might be willing to accept a stamp with a heavy hinge mark if the price is very reasonable relative to catalog value. Watch for any album offset on the gum. This happens when a hinged stamp sticks slightly to the album page, and some of the color of the page is transferred to the gum. There have been many different types of gum used on stamps, so learn as much as you can about gum. In the front of every Scott catalogue there is a lot of information that will be useful.

If you are collecting used stamps, make sure that the stamp was soaked clean of all remnants of the paper to which it was attached. It should also be free of wrinkles or creases. A used stamp should not have a heavy cancellation. You will see some stamps where the cancellation is so heavy it is almost impossible to identify the stamp.

Now consider the perforations. These are the little teeth on the sides of stamps that makes it easier to separate stamps in a sheet. For short we call these little teeth “perfs”. Perfs come in many configurations and are measured with a perf gauge. Make sure that there are no short perfs. This is especially important when you are buying from the internet. Each item offered on the internet should have a clear scan that shows the perfs.

See illustrations below.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
This is the back of a stamp that has been removed from an envelope.  There is still a lot of paper attached to the stamp.  This is not desirable.The back of this stamp shows some color offset from the album page.  Albums will have pictures of many stamps, and stamps are hinged over the picture.  Improper hinging can cause this problem.This early stamp from Switzerland is damaged.  The lower left corner is missing.  Older stamps that are hard to get may be collectible even in this condition.  But price should be very low relative to catalog value.This stamp from Great Britain has a catalog value of $150 for a used copy.  However, this copy has a very heavy and messy cancel, and should sell at a huge discount.This stamp from New Zealand is an example of good centering of the stamp's image.This is an example of a stamp which has been canceled-to-order.  It is also an example of a topical since it shows a large cat.This stamp from Canada shows a heavy cancel and is off-center.  The perforations on the right side are cut into the design.  Still collectible if you cannot find a better copy at a decent price.Another off-center stamp, this one from Australia.This stamp from Canada is missing the upper right corner.  Otherwise it is a nice looking stamp.  This stamp from Straits Settlements has several short perforations.  One on the bottom, and several on the right side.
This is the back of a stamp that has been removed from an envelope.  There is still a lot of paper attached to the stamp.  This is not desirable.
This is the back of a stamp that has been removed from an envelope. There is still a lot of paper attached to the stamp. This is not desirable.
The back of this stamp shows some color offset from the album page.  Albums will have pictures of many stamps, and stamps are hinged over the picture.  Improper hinging can cause this problem.
The back of this stamp shows some color offset from the album page. Albums will have pictures of many stamps, and stamps are hinged over the picture. Improper hinging can cause this problem.
This early stamp from Switzerland is damaged.  The lower left corner is missing.  Older stamps that are hard to get may be collectible even in this condition.  But price should be very low relative to catalog value.
This early stamp from Switzerland is damaged. The lower left corner is missing. Older stamps that are hard to get may be collectible even in this condition. But price should be very low relative to catalog value.
This stamp from Great Britain has a catalog value of $150 for a used copy.  However, this copy has a very heavy and messy cancel, and should sell at a huge discount.
This stamp from Great Britain has a catalog value of $150 for a used copy. However, this copy has a very heavy and messy cancel, and should sell at a huge discount.
This stamp from New Zealand is an example of good centering of the stamp's image.
This stamp from New Zealand is an example of good centering of the stamp's image.
This is an example of a stamp which has been canceled-to-order.  It is also an example of a topical since it shows a large cat.
This is an example of a stamp which has been canceled-to-order. It is also an example of a topical since it shows a large cat.
This stamp from Canada shows a heavy cancel and is off-center.  The perforations on the right side are cut into the design.  Still collectible if you cannot find a better copy at a decent price.
This stamp from Canada shows a heavy cancel and is off-center. The perforations on the right side are cut into the design. Still collectible if you cannot find a better copy at a decent price.
Another off-center stamp, this one from Australia.
Another off-center stamp, this one from Australia.
This stamp from Canada is missing the upper right corner.  Otherwise it is a nice looking stamp.
This stamp from Canada is missing the upper right corner. Otherwise it is a nice looking stamp.
This stamp from Straits Settlements has several short perforations.  One on the bottom, and several on the right side.
This stamp from Straits Settlements has several short perforations. One on the bottom, and several on the right side.

How Do I Identify and Value My Stamps

In the United States the most popular stamp catalog is the Scott catalog. The countries of the world are in six volumes. With very few exceptions, each stamp is listed and assigned a value for used and unused copies. Prior to a particular date (not necessarily the same for all countries) never hinged stamps will have a premium added to its catalog value. You will usually see dealers selling stamps at some percentage of the Scott catalog value. Rare stamps will usually be sold at public auctions and will sell to the highest bidder without regard to its catalog value.

There are other catalogs such as Stanley Gibbons in England and Michel in Europe. In addition, there are specialized catalogs for many countries.

Catalogs are expensive and I don’t recommend that you invest in a new set right away. You can usually buy a used set from dealers or on Ebay. In your early days as a collector you will use the catalog to identify stamps rather than to value them. So unless you are into collecting stamps of the past few years, your catalogs can be as much as ten years old.

Most big public libraries in the U.S. will have a set of Scott catalogs. They may be a few years old, but that will be sufficient for the beginner.

One important note: if you go to a stamp store or a stamp show, always take along a Want List of those items that you know you don’t already have. Without a list you are likely to buy something that you already have. A computerized Want List is probably the most efficient and easy to maintain. Never visit a stamp dealer without a list. It will save you a lot of unnecessary buying.

Should I Collect Stamps As An Investment?

If you are going to invest in something that is paper, make it a CD at your bank. I do not recommend stamps as a good investment. Stamps are made of paper and they damage very easily. If you damage or lose your bank CD, your investment is still safe. If you damage or lose an expensive stamp, you lose your investment. The stamp market is not as volatile as the stock market, but there are ups and downs. Many factors determine the catalog value of stamps, so I won’t go into them. I know of no stamps that can turn a profit in the short run, unless you have the resources to deal in the very, very rare stamps. But that would not be considered stamp collecting, so I will just leave it at that.

Stamp Organizations

There are lots of good stamp organizations. The first you should look at is your local Stamp Club. There you will meet and get to know many other collectors with the same interests as yours.

In the United States the American Philatelic Society (APS) is the main organization of stamp collectors. It has been around since 1886 and had 31,888 members as of July 31, 2013. The APS has a worldwide membership and is the largest philatelic organization in the world.

Another big organization in the U.S. is the American Topical Association. And as the name implies, it is comprised of members who are interested in topicals. But anyone can join.

If you collect U.S. stamps, there is the United States Stamp Society.

Each of these organizations have very reasonable annual dues, and they each provide a monthly publication that is well worth the dues you pay. In addition, each organization also offers many other publications at reasonable prices to their members.

There are also comparable organizations in most other countries. The number of organizations are indicative of the worldwide popularity of stamp collecting.

Caring for Your Collection


In addition to proper mounting and/or hinging of stamps into an album, the album should be stored in a cool, dry place. Humidity can cause unused stamps to stick to the mount, or album page. If you have to go for some time without working on your collection, be sure to check it periodically for exposure to unsafe conditions. I have seen many collections that were stored improperly, and the collection became practically worthless. Don’t let that happen to your collection.

Ready, Set, Go

You are now ready to become a serious collector. But you still have a lot to learn. I have only touched on a few high points. But the more you work with your collection the more you will learn about stamps. You can learn a lot from stamp dealers. And most of them are willing to share their knowledge. So visit stamp shows, visit local stamp shops. And please join your local stamp club. There is also a web site that is comprised of very knowledgeable collectors who are willing to share their knowledge. You can visit and join at http://www.mystampworld.net. I also invite you to visit our web site at http://www.jimjih.com. You will find that most stamp collectors have a love of their hobby that you don’t see very often. So enjoy.

You still have a lot to learn about stamp collecting, but if you keep at it you will gain a lifetime of enjoyment.

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    • emge profile image

      Madan 2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      This is an interesting article. I used to collect stamps as a boy, but gave up as an adult. I regret it now.

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      This is a rather complete article. When I started with coins I bought from a place that had three people, one coin person and two stamp people. They id not get into each other's area.

    • profile image

      CARLOS RELVAS 2 years ago

      Boa noite

      Sou colecionador desde os meus 13 anos, coleciono apenas selos usados de Portugal, e antigas colónias portuguesas até que se tornaram países independentes. Escrevo estas linhas pois concordo em absoluto com os ensinamentos que o Jim partilha. Quem quer que me leia , o meu conselho, se quer abraçar o gosto de construir a sua coleção, saiba que ela vai crescer consigo, tal como nos relata o autor nas suas sábias palavras. O meu Bem Haja para Jim Holbrook.

      Saúde e Selos

      Carlos Relvas

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Great article! This tells he beginner everything that they could possibly want. I got my start as a kid with H.E. Harris.