One of the most exciting aspects of philately (and one of its most popular until about 1940) is plating. Plating is a subspecialty that is usually only available on classic engraved stamps. When stamps are printed from the engraved (or intaglio) process a single die is created by the master engraver. How that die is handled from there determines whether a stamp can be plated and how rewarding plating that stamp can be as a philatelic specialty. The single die must be made into a plate, usually of from 50 to 150 subjects. To do this, the die must be transferred to the plate. Each different subject on the plate is created separately, with the die being rocked into the sheet. The various rocking back and forth creates very subtle differences in each transfer subject on the full sheet. Often, these difference are so slight as to be indiscernible. But usually they are observable and consistent and can be used to determine from a single stamp where they were placed originally in the sheet when it was printed.

The challenges in plating are many, but none more so than was the daunting task that faced the first platers of each issue. Take the 1c 1851-1857, a stamp that was originally plated by Stanley Ashbrook, with his work later perfected by Mortimer Neinken. Knowledge on how many plates were used to print these stamps was sketchy in the 1920s when Ashbrook began his work. He had to determine the number of plates used  and then, through careful study, the very slight design changes that existed on many of these stamps (and by “slight design differences” I mean differences often barely visible under extreme magnification). Then using blocks and pairs, Ashbrook carefully reconstructed where on the sheets each of these consistent design differences occurred. There are thousands of plate position of this one cent stamp and Ashbrook’s job at plating it successfully can be compared to having a jig saw puzzle of tens of thousands of pieces of which only a limited number will fit into a single colored puzzle of unknown dimensions and number of pieces. It took Ashbrook decades and his plating the one cent 1851-1857 has been the greatest single achievement in our hobby.

Probably over a hundred different engraved stamps of the nineteenth century have been plated from the first stamp ,the Penny Black ( which with its 2640 plate positions was an easy stamp to work out the plating scheme because all the positions in the sheet can be told by the check letters. The only difficulty is determining which of the twelve plates each stamp is printed from). Plating was popular with early philatelists, probably because of the excitement the early plating discoveries caused and the desire to be part of the wonderful challenges that plating represented and the fact that there weren’t many newer issues to collect. Another reason for plating’s popularity for earlier collectors was that collectors eighty or a hundred years ago were much more technologically savvy than people are today. This sounds simple, but it is true-technology then was less technical. People understood the internal combustion engine and stamp printing technology because it is much easier to understand moving parts than electronics such as computer chip technology or the printing technology today which combines so many different aspects that printers are now little more than computer operators. Because more people understood technology, the different characteristics of stamps that were caused by that technology were more appealing.

Today, plating collecting is not very popular. Stamp prices have risen tremendously since the 1920s in both real and nominal terms so that there are few people now who can afford to own the 2640 Penny Blacks needed for a complete plating. And the plating work is already done and many collectors today don’t have the patience to study older stamps under extreme magnification to look for the subtle plate varieties that determine plate positions. So the plating books exist and old plating studies of different stamps come up for sale from time to time (where they sell at very small percentages of catalog). But as a vibrant on going specialty plating has joined the thematic “Dodos on Stamps” on a shelf that is rarely looked at.

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