While the popularity of stamp collecting has diminished dramatically over the years, especially among younger collectors, I think it’s still a fun, valuable and interesting hobby that I would encourage people to look into. It might not be as exciting as video games or make the blood pump as fast as extreme sports, but not everyone is an adrenaline junkie, some people like quiet hobbies that make them think.
Philately is one of those things and I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about the tools of the trade for those getting into the hobby.
Of course, I can only give my own experiences and why I think some things are more important than others, ultimately it depends on your level of interest and your collecting specialties will dictate what you actually need.
First, every single collector needs a good pair of stamp tongs. The oils on your fingers can and do damage stamps, even used stamps, and thus you should avoid handling your stamps with your hands as much as possible. Tongs come in a variety of shapes and configurations and are inexpensive so you ought to pick up several pairs, just in case. While they may look similar to regular tweezers, they are not and tweezers will damage your stamps.
Next, you need somewhere to store your stamps. This is where it gets a bit complicated and you need to decide what your collecting interests dictate. If you are collecting a single country, you should get an album dedicated to that country. If you have specialized collecting interests, you may have to look to find something dedicated to your area, or you may have to create your own album. I do not recommend that you buy one of those “worldwide” albums unless you’re just looking for a random smattering of stamps from countries around the world, most of those albums come with a page or two for each country and once you fill that page, you either have to make your own pages to supplement, or you just don’t get more stamps from that country. Do not skimp on your album, it is not only responsible for storing and protecting your stamps, but you are likely going to own it for many, many years or decades, get something you like and can live with for the long term.
After that, you need some way to put your stamps into your album. If you go for a high-end album, that’s already taken care of as they already have mounts for all of the stamps, but those albums tend to be quite expensive and therefore, most people don’t use them. You have two choices here, mounts or hinges. I’ll say right off the bat, don’t use hinges. I know a lot of people like them, but only because they’re cheap. They damage the stamps, they do not hold them securely to the page, when you’re flipping through your album, they tend to twist and bend your stamps, I just don’t think it’s worth it and never have. If you’re going to spend the money on the stamps in the first place, you might as well spend the money to keep them safe and in excellent condition. Stamp mounts allow you to remove and examine your stamps over and over and over again, they mount firmly to your album page and are not apt to bend or twist or otherwise damage your stamps. Take my advice, either do it right or don’t do it at all.
Speaking of looking at your stamps, they tend to be small things and as such, you probably need a magnifier or two in order to get full enjoyment of the intricate engraving on most classic stamps. I recommend that you have more than one, just for ease and versatility. I have both handheld and head-mounted magnifiers and if I had to pick one, the worn magnifier gets used a lot more often because it’s hands-free. Checking out the details on your stamps is often necessary to determine various varieties and EFOs (errors, freaks and oddities) that may occur.
Finally, you really need a guide for your particular area of interest that will tell you what stamps are actually available. The best known are the Scott guides, released annually, in multiple volumes. They are quite pricey though, the complete 2013 set of 6 would run you about $600. There are other specialty catalogs as well, depending on your area of interest so you should ask at your local stamp shop what the best catalog is for you. Some catalogs are available digitally as well and can be loaded onto your phone or tablet for easy transport.
Those are the basics but there are other things that the beginning stamp collector should consider. A metal perforation gauge is very useful, it allows you to measure how many perforations per inch there are on your stamp and there are many stamps where only the number of perforations differentiate between different stamps. Likewise, a watermark detector is useful because there are some stamps that are identical, except for a watermark embossed into the paper. You might also consider a color gauge, there are many stamps that are identical except for slight color variations and these can help you to determine what color, and therefore, what stamp you actually have. At the higher end, you can also get an ultraviolet light that can help you see if your stamps have any phosphorescence markers, which have been used as a tool against forgery.
In the future, I’ll go into getting started, how to acquire your stamps and how to bypass a lot of the problems that inexperienced collectors often run into. Please let me know if you have any questions, I’d be happy to help anyone get into this fun and interesting hobby.