What Do I Need To Get Started?

There are really only two things that you need to get started in collecting stamps, other than the stamps themselves:

  1. A pair of stamp tongs, so that you can pick up your stamps without getting them dirty or damaging them.
  2. A place to display and store your stamps.

I have written a separate article about the many options open to you for displaying and storing your stamps, and you can reach this article by clicking here. However, I will quickly discuss the different types of stamp tongs available and then I will briefly discuss some other accessories you might want to consider buying, depending on how you are planning to collect.

Stamp Tongs

The very first piece of equipment you will need as a stamp collector is a good pair of stamp tongs, like the one shown above. A good pair of stamp tongs will slide easily under a stamp that is on a flat surface, without damaging the stamp and allow you to easily pick it up and hold it firmly. Thus the tips need to be made from smooth metal, that has no raised areas, which might otherwise damage stamps. The tips need to be thin enough to get under a stamp that is laying on a flat surface. This is why I do not recommend regular tweezers. For one, the tips are not thin enough to get underneath a stamp without risk of damage. Secondly, they do not press together very easily compared to stamp tongs and thirdly, the feet on tweezers usually contain minute raised grooves, which can place an imprint in a stamp that is held with them.

There are generally three types of stamp tongs on the market:

  1. The best and most expensive kind are about 1/3rd to 1/2 longer than the ones shown above, and have very pointed tips that are about half the width of those shown here. Because of their length, it is very easy to press them closed. Because the tips are so thin and small, they can slide underneath stamps on the thinnest possible paper, even when they are on a flat surface.
  2. The mid-range priced tongs, which I use, are shown above. They have moderate, rounded tips that are thin enough to get underneath almost any stamp easily. They are relatively easy to press closed, but not so easy that they can damage the stamp by being pressed out of shape.
  3. The cheapest tongs have a broad spade shaped tips that are a little thicker than that shown above. They are usually fairly good at getting under most stamps, but are not generally suitable for the more delicate stamps.

One of the dangers with the expensive tongs is that you can accidentally pierce the stamp if you press them closed too hard, causing the tips to slide past one another. This doesn't happen often, but can be devastating when it does. However, they are simply the best when you have to pick up and examine stamps on very thin and fragile paper, such as Canada #1. I like the mid-range tongs, and have used them for most of my life. The spade tip tongs are perfectly fine if you are not working with fragile stamps and are just getting used to using tongs. The cheapest tongs will generally cost around $3-5 a pair. Mid-range will be $8-10, and the most expensive tongs will be more than $20. However, it is well worth the investment, as you will generally find that you do not ever need to replace your tongs, unless you lose them!

Other Accessories

The other accessories shown here are not essential for the beginner, though having them will enable you to more closely study your stamps and learn about them, thus opening up new avenues of collecting, that you may not have previously considered.

1. Colour Key

Stanley Gibbons colour key

 A colour key like the one shown above is a must if you plan on collecting shade variations and want to give definite names to colours that other collectors can understand. The best known is the Gibbons colour key shown above. This key includes 200 colour swatches, and covers most of the colours you will encounter as a collector. A less expensive version is available that has 100 colour swatches, but the one shown above isn't too expensive.

However, a colour key is only as good as the person using it. So, before you start using your colour key, it is a good idea to gain a full understanding of the language of colour, as well as how to use the key effectively. I have written all about it here.

2. Watermark Tray and Fluid

Watermark Tray and Fluid

You will need one of these if you are collecting stamps that were issued on watermarked paper. Most stamps issued prior to the 1970's from around the word are on some type of watermarked paper, so this is an important piece of equipment for most collectors. Even if you are collecting unwatermarked stamps, it is also useful for detecting thins and tears in stamps.

There are other alternative accessories available for detecting watermarks that may be more suitable than this, depending on what types of stamps you are collecting. I have written a separate article discussing this, which you can access by clicking here.  

3. Perforation Gauge

Instanta Perforation Gauge

This device is used to measure the perforation of a stamp. The gauge shown above is called an Instanta gauge, and is the best on the market, in terms of accuracy. There are cheaper aluminum and plastic gauges available on the market that only measure to the nearest 1/2 perforation. These are generally fine if the stamps you are collecting do not require decimal accuracy.

Many collectors do not use gauges like the above correctly, and using it correctly is critical to obtaining accurate readings. I have written a separate article about how to use the above gauge to correctly measure perforations. You can access that article by clicking here.

4. Magnifying Glass or Loupe

Magnifying glass

This is another important piece of equipment for most collectors, although specialists who are studying plate flaws on stamps and re-entries will make the most use of one. However, it comes in handy for detecting alterations and repairs on stamps, as well as hidden defects. Collectors specializing in fluorescent papers will also need it to examine the fluorescent fibre pattern in papers.

There are many types of magnifiers on the market. I like the one shown above that retracts into the housing and is deployed when the button is pressed. It contains a small battery powered LED light as well. I find that I don't use it, as I have a strong light at my desk. However, it has been very useful in situations where I do not have a strong light source.

The above loupe is a 10x magnification, which I find to be plenty. There are microscopes on the market, produced by Lighthouse that give much greater magnification. However, I find them difficult to use because of how difficult they are to focus properly. Unless you are expertising early US 1851's or Great Britain #33 from plate 77, I do not think you will generally need any power greater than 10x.

5. Ultra Violet Lamp

Ultra Violet Lamp

If you collect modern stamps to any degree of specialization, then you will absolutely need one of these, as most differences in paper, tagging and ink will only show up under ultra-violet light.

There are two types of ultra violet lights:

  1. Long-Wave UV, also known as Black Light - this is the type shown above. The term "black" is a misnomer, as the light appears violet. This type of light works for Canadian, Australian and many European stamps with fluorescent tagging. It is completely safe for the eyes, which is why there is no protective shield on the lamp shown. The actual light shown above is about twice as long, being 18 inches long and about 4 inches wide.
  2. Short Wave UV - this type is extremely dangerous to the eyes, and because of this, the models on the marketplace are usually sold with assemblies that shine the light down directly at the stamp while completely shielding the eyes from the harmful rays. Unfortunately, it is the only type that will work for the stamps of United States and Great Britain.

Short wave models are produced by Stanley Gibbons and Lighthouse and are quite expensive, being in the $200-$300 range. You can buy equally expensive long-wave models, but there is no need. You can buy the 18 inch model shown above at a housewares store like Canadian Tire for around $40, and it it works much better than any model in the philatelic marketplace, I find.

6. Micrometer

A micrometer is used to measure the thickness of paper to the nearest thousandth of an inch, though the above model is also calibrated in metric units. It is the only way to reliably measure the thickness of stamp paper, and is a must if you are planning to collect in a specialized manner where studying papers will be important.

These devices used to be very expensive, with the Lighthouse model costing several hundred dollars in the early 1990's. However, it is now possible to source models from China that work very well for less than $20.