The Essential Tools of Stamp Collecting

Philately is as much an art as a science. To fully enjoy all the aspects of this burgeoning hobby that’s a favorite among people around the world, you must have the basic materials for stamp collecting, preserving and, of course, showcasing. If you want to take your stamp collecting to a more serious level, you may also want to have a more advanced set of tools for stamp collecting at your disposal.

Whether you are just starting on your philately journey or you simply want to ensure you have everything you need to continue your preferred pastime, you will appreciate our guide on the essential stamp collecting tools. We’ve included everything for beginner philatelists so you can maintain a well-rounded selection of stamps from the eras, geographic locations and social events most important and interesting to you.

Guidebooks and Reference Books on Stamps and Stamp Collecting

Foremost, most stamp collectors appreciate being able to quickly find information on stamps and stamp collecting. Although the Internet is a terrific resource, so are the multitude of excellent guidebooks and reference books on the market.

An example of an annual book you might want to invest in every year or so is the Scott U.S. Pocket Stamp Catalogue. It’s a good way to find the current values for your stamps, which can be helpful for both buying and selling, not to mention purchasing insurance to cover your stamp collection. Scott has other volumes of stamp collecting reference books, too.

In addition, the U.S. Postal Service sells a guide to understanding, finding and naming stamps that are from America’s past and present.

If you have a very specific philately niche, such as collecting stamps from China, Texas, the Great Depression, Victorian England, etc., you can uncover reference guides that will assist you in your stamp collecting activities.

The Internet is fantastic for gathering information quickly, but there is something very rewarding and tangible when you have books as part of your stamp collection supplies to help you make new philately discoveries.

Solvents and Chemicals

One of the biggest challenges for any stamp collector is figuring out how to remove the gum mucilage from self-adhesive stamps, as well as safely removing stamps from envelopes, postcards and mailers. Depending upon the type of stamp you have, you will need an assortment of solvents and chemicals beyond just warm water. Additionally, self-adhesive versus moisture gum stamps can create a conundrum, even for advanced stamp collectors.

Trial and error is the general rule when it comes to figuring out how to safely remove stamps without damaging any part of them. Many articles have been written about various ways to deal with the inherent difficulties, including some that give particularly unique and eco-friendlier ways to deal with the self-adhesive stamps that have flooded the market since the 1990s.

Most importantly, you want to ensure that any chemicals or solvents you use are going to be safe. Although some philatelists once swore by the use of benzene, a potent and potentially dangerous compound that removed gum. Benzine is considered a better, although still flammable, option. In many cases, however, stamp collectors are moving away from chemicals that aren’t found in nature, and they are forging ahead with warm water and salt baths.

If you’re new to stamp collecting, it’s best to learn by trial and error, all the while keeping the safety of you and your stamps in mind. Fortunately, there are plenty of solvents and chemicals including mildew stain remover, as well as natural alternatives, that will get you results without damaging your collection, reducing its value, or putting you in harm’s way.

One interesting note to keep in mind: Before 1883, some stamps from the United States had advertising printed on the gummed side. If you have these stamps, be cautious when soaking them or using solvents/chemicals.

Tongs and Similar Stamp Collecting Tools

For most stamp collectors, the thought of actually touching a stamp is downright horrifying. The oils and debris on skin can instantly start to break down the stamp. You may not have realized just how toxic the sulphur released from your body can be to a stamp. This is where tongs, which are basically a type of tweezer-like piece of equipment, come into play.

Tongs come in plenty of shapes and sizes. For instance, there are round, pointed, spade and bent spade varieties. Each type of tong has been manufactured to give you a very specific ability to manipulate your stamp. Some collectors swear by spades, while others find that pointed tongs seem to work well. The good news is that most tongs are very reasonably priced. This gives you the ability to keep several tongs on hand. The more stamp collecting tools you have, the less likely you’ll be to accidentally ruin a stamp, or reduce its inherent value.

Not accustomed to working with tongs? Practice makes perfect. Try out any tongs you buy on practice stamps before you use them on your collection, particularly if you have a high value collection. This will assist you in getting comfortable using the tongs to lift, separate and place. If and when they get dirty, clean your tongs thoroughly with rubbing alcohol, which will sanitize the tongs, and then allow them to air dry. If you prefer, you can wash them with soap and warm water, but be careful not to have any soap residue on the tongs.

A clean pair of tongs should last a long time. If you notice yours are wearing out or getting rusty in places, though, immediately discard them and upgrade to a new pair.

Magnifying Glasses

Even if you have the best eyesight on the planet, you may find it difficult to see all the nuances of a stamp. For instance, the smallest stamp recorded was a South American one from the mid-19th century. At 9.5mm by 8.0mm, it would be tough to see its details without assistance. This is where a magnifying glass or similar apparatus is helpful.

You can purchase magnifying glasses from any hobby supply store. You’ll want one that either can be mounted to give you a hands-free experience, or one that has a long-enough handle so you can easily grasp it and move it around. You may even want to consider investing in an illuminating microscope with a zoom lens.

What can you see with a magnifying glass or microscope that you can’t see with the naked eye? Watermarks, perforations, phosphor marks, flaws, ink stains and more will suddenly reveal themselves. Consider yourself a detective. No sleuth would want to be without a handy, reliable way to see all the clues.

Hinges and Mounts

As stamp collectors know, a hinge or mount is a small piece of mounting paper or slip in which you will be able to display single stamps or stamp strips. Not only do you need to have enough hinges and mounts, but they should be made to protect the integrity of your stamps. This means you have to find hinges and mounts that have been manufactured for this purpose. Unless you are an expert, never try to make your own hinges or mounts because the type of paper or stock you use could have an improper pH balance, which will cause it to react negatively with the stamps.

The hinges you have in your stamp collection are usually going to be transparent and peelable. They have a bit of gum on them, which allows you to adhere the stamp to a surface, such as an album. Mounts are a bit different. They are like little sealed envelopes that keep the stamp away from dirt, moisture and air.

Should you use a hinge or a mount? The answer is that it depends upon the quality of your stamp. A mint stamp that has a high value may be better-protected if you use a mount, whereas a fun stamp that you’re not collecting for the value can be hinged. Again, this is up to you as a stamp collector to decide. However, your goal should be to have options at your disposal, so try to stock up on both hinges and mounts. That way, you can pick and choose as you need.

Albums, Books and Sleeves

What would a stamp collection be without a way to showcase it to the world? This is where you’ll want to purchase albums and books.

There is a wide variety of stamp collecting albums and books on the market, such as first day cover albums or albums by country and area. To determine which type of album is best-suited for your needs, consider the status of your collection in general. For instance, are you collecting a particular type of stamp? You may want to find a book that is perfectly-suited for those stamps. On the other hand, if you’re just collecting any stamps you discover that hold a personal interest, a basic stamp collecting album would be a better bet.

You are not expected to have a certain kind of stamp collecting album or book, nor do you have to organize it in a particular manner. But you should always make certain that any books or albums you buy are meant for the purpose of holding stamps and not collector’s photographs, postcards or modern pictures. Stamp albums and books are meant to keep your stamps safe and out of harm’s way.

Sleeves are a little different than books. They are standalone stamp collecting materials, and they are perfect if you are displaying a wonderful specimen, or are prepping a stamp for sale.

Glassine Envelopes

Glassine envelopes are ideal for holding your stamp treasures, either after you have removed them from a backing, if desired, or are keeping them in the condition you bought them. Glassine envelopes are semi-transparent, so it’s easy to see what they contain. They come in several different sizes, which is great for stamp collectors since stamps vary widely in shape. Plus, if you have a strip, you can store them in a larger glassine envelope.

Look for glassine envelopes that have a neutral pH and are considered archival quality. If you get hand-me-down glassine envelopes from another collector, be sure they don’t contain residue or dust. Older glassine envelopes that have already been used many times may not be the safest storage options for your stamps. Check, too, to make sure the seams are still intact and strong.

Fortunately, quality glassine envelopes aren’t expensive if you need to replace the ones you have with more pristine materials.

Perforation Gauges and Thickness Gauges

For beginning philatelists, perforation gauges are “nice to have,” but not “need to have” tools.

As you know from your experience with stamps, most have some type of perforation. At first glance, these perforations may seem to be all the same, but they are quite different. This is where a perforation gauge comes into play.

With a perforation gauge and, if needed, a magnifying glass and tongs, you can better understand the “perf” gauge of your stamp. For the purpose of identifying a stamp, authenticating a stamp, pricing a stamp or buying a stamp, having a deeper knowledge about the perforations is essential.

Although there are electronic perforation gauges on the market, you can also get very inexpensive handheld gauges made of materials like flexible plastic. This gives you the options you need while saving you money that you can then invest into expanding your stamp collection.

Like perforation gauges, thickness gauges enable you to quickly measure the paper thickness on which a stamp is printed. Precision is important when coming to an understanding of stamp thickness, which is why most thickness gauges are a larger cost investment. If you’re just collecting stamps as a very part-time hobby and aren’t serious about taking it to the next level, a thickness gauge may not be important for you. However, if you are planning to dig in deeper into the world of philately, this is a stamp collecting tool you’ll want to pick up sooner or later.


No, cutters aren’t used for stamps, but rather for stamp mounts and other display pieces. Cutters are designed to give you the sharp edges you want and need to perfectly and attractively display all of your stamps.

Stamp cutters, or guillotines, come in a couple of sizes. Moderately priced, they are fast and effective. Unless you are satisfied that you can cut your mounts accurately using scissors, you’ll likely want to get a cutter to make your work more efficient and aesthetically appealing.

Stamp Collecting Materials Storage

Finally, we come to a large consideration: How are you going to store all your stamp-collecting materials? Obviously, you want to have storage that is big enough for everything and keeps your collection safe, dirt-free, moisture-free and secure.

Certainly, some people have turned to simple “shoebox storage” methods, but that’s not a recommended way to keep your collection and stamp collecting tools from any type of risk. Consider opting for boxes made of aluminum or another sturdy, reliable material that will protect all of your items when you are not working with them. If your collection is contained in albums, you can always keep them on a bookshelf where you can easily access and look at it.

A Final Word on Stamp Collecting Tools

Being a stamp collector means accepting that you’re going to evolve as you delve deeper into this hobby. Over time, your stamp collecting kit will evolve, too. Start by investing in the basics, and then move on to continued expansion of your tool set as you grow within the hobby. Your collection will benefit from your diligence, patience and consideration!

At Apfelbaum, Inc., we’ve been a trusted source in the world of philately since 1910. Contact us today if you have any questions about stamp collecting tools or anything else stamp related. 

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