The Secrets of Reperfing

The first postage stamps were issued without a preordered method of separation. In 1840, it was revolutionary enough for the stamp itself to be issued. Rowland Hill hardly thought it necessary to provide Great Britain’s postal users with a means of separating their stamps apart, or, in the case of large mail users where speed was essential, razors were used so that entire rows, several sheets deep, could be separated at once. Such separating methods were crude, and resulted in many stamps being damaged. The situation caused complaints in 1840, and it has been a bane of collectors even today.

In 1847, Henry Archer, an Englishman and a contemporary of Hill’s, proposed that a separating machine of his own design be used to place tiny holes between the stamps so that separation became a simple matter of tearing and not the laborious process of cutting apart stamps. Archer’s first invention was a rouletting process, where cuts were made in the paper between the stamps, which, when folded, were easy to tear apart. Rouletting separated stamps well enough; the reason for its ultimate oblivion was a technical one-the knives that did the rouletting so cut the surface (technically called a bed) beneath the sheets of stamps, that replacement of both the beds and the damaged knives was a constant task. A perforation machine, in which a sharpened spheroidd cut through the paper and then through a hole placed in the bed obviated this problem. Though Archer’s truly innovative invention solved the technological problems of perforating and England of 1850 clamored for an easier method of separating postage stamps, Rowland Hill, the inventor of the postage stamp never warmed up to the idea. Though Hill himself was a great innovator, he often had trouble seeing beyond the postage stamp itself. One co-worker once said that Hill never was enthusiastic about an idea that he hadn’t thought of himself.

Despite some late experiments with rouletting, by 1857 nearly all postage stamp issues around the world were being perforated. In fact the 1857 issues of the United States (Scott no. 18-36) is really a perforated version of the 1851 issue (Scott no. 5-17). Philatelists are fortunate that the perforated versions of these United States issues are, in nearly every case, more common; otherwise unethical stamp people would have been tempted years ago to perforate sides of the imperforate stamps.

Philatelist assign a number to the perforations that corresponds to the number of perforations per two centimeters. Commercially sold perf gauges measure this more easily than counting. United States government printers experimented with different gauges of perforations. The more frequent perforations (perf 14 and 12) were found to separate too easily. The less frequent perforations (perf 10 and 8 1/2) were found to be too difficult to tear apart. By the 1920’s, the United States was using a perf 11, and has generally used that gauge to this day.

But perforations have more than historical interest to philatelists. It is easy to build or buy a perforating machine and dishonestly apply perforations to a side of an originally perforated stamp that may have become damaged. The result is to make the reperforated stamp look as if it is undamaged, with full original perforations. Or worse yet, most United States stamps in the 1890 to 1930 period were issued in sheets with one or more straight edges, that is imperforate sides. Collectors have little desire for these items. Because differentials exist between straight edged and fully perforated stamps, the reperfer has made these straight edges disappear.

How common is reperfing? Extremely common! As an example, philatelists know for a fact that fourteen stamps out of every fifty in a sheet of the 1893 Columbians were issued with a straight edge. Yet, rarely are Columbians offered that way. In fact, straight edged dollar value Columbians are becoming virtual rarities despite the fact that they should number 28% of the supply.

It is collector fashion that has relegated straight edged stamps to second class status. So, a collector must learn to protect himself from buying a reperforated stamp that is offered as a completely perforated one. As an aside, there is nothing wrong with a reperforated, regummed or repaired stamp providing that it is offered that way and priced commensurate with its true value. Often, a collector will be able to afford a reperfed or regummed example of a stamp when he or she cannot afford a perfect one. And such repaired or altered stamps when purchased for what they are at the price that they are worth, usually have the same investment potential that unaltered stamps do. Determining reporforated stamps is extremely difficult but some of the methods we use are as follows: Viewing the holes- One of the ways of determining a reperforated stamp is by examining the actual size of the perforation holes themselves. All perforations are made by perforating pins, the size of which is difficult to match. If the holes are too large or too small compared to two or three of the other side, you should be suspicious.

Are they too smooth? Any perforated stamp is best separated by tearing. This means that the edges of the perforations should be ever so slightly jagged. Avoid too smooth, too straight perforation edges. But good reperfers, and among the breed there are the skillful and the crude (and we can’t think of anything lower than a crude reperfer), will use an emory board to file roughness into their work.

Are the rows of perforation parallel? This test is based on the fact that the perforating pins of the Bureau of Engraving’s perforating machine is set on full parallel rows whereas the perforating pins that the reperfer uses are only perforating one stamp, or even sometimes one perforation at a time.

Even relatively inexpensive United States stamps with straight edges are being reperforated with frequency. How do you protect yourself? Use the criteria listed above, ask an experienced philatelist or deal with trusted professionals. One reperfer has boasted that even he cannot tell his own work when he is finished. But, this is only a boast and if there is no honor among thieves why should there by honesty? Though difficult, all can learn to tell even the most expert reperfing job.

Share on:
Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top