Magnifying your view of the postage stamp
By Michael Baadke
What are you looking at?
|Figure 1. Stamp collectors often examine stamps using a magnifying glass. Just what is it we're looking
|Figure 2. The features on magnifying tools affect the individual prices. These magnifiers all cost less
than $10 each.|
|Figure 3. A powerful magnifier is needed to read the microprinting on selected U.S. stamps. The words "OUR
TOWN" appear on the 1997 32¢ Thornton Wilder stamp.|
|Figure 4. Magnification reveals faults on this example of the 1¢ Pan-American Exposition stamp of 1901.|
|Figure 5. The beauty of a line-engraved stamp design is more apparent when details of the image are magnified.
Click on image to enlarge.|
That's a question stamp collectors hear pretty regularly. It's also a question that many collectors like to ask each other.
Stamp collectors are frequently seen peering intently through a magnifying glass at a stamp, much like the young collector
shown in Figure 1.
Magnification brings up a number of details that are important to stamp collectors, from information about the stamp's
condition to the tiniest images concealed within the design.
Figure 2 shows a small selection of common magnifiers that a stamp collector might use. All of the tools shown are available
for less than $10 each.
An important feature of a magnifier is the apparent degree of magnification, expressed as "power." For example, a magnifier
that enlarges an image to appear twice its actual size is described as having a "two power" magnification.
In print, this is usually indicated with a symbol "x," as in "2x" magnification.
At left and top center of Figure 2 are two different basic magnifiers that produce a limited enlargement of the object
The larger magnifier at left is 1.5x, which increases the overall visibility of a small object -- but not by much.
This handheld magnifier can be used to make a general inspection of a postage stamp a little easier.
Greater magnification is available from the double-lens plastic magnifier at top center. The 3x magnification from the
larger lens makes it possible to closely inspect the outer edges of the stamp for condition faults. The 6x magnification from
the smaller lens gives the collector an enhanced view of small details within the stamp design.
One drawback of any handheld magnifier is that the collector must find the focal point -- the precise distance between
the lens and the object where the object is properly in focus when viewed through the lens -- and hold the magnifier steady
at that location.
A static magnifier, shown at far right in Figure 2, works differently.
With a magnification of 8x or 10x, the static magnifier rests on the stamp or other object that is being examined and enlarges
it enough to study finer details of printing, paper and more. It has a fixed focal point between the lens and the object,
so the viewer does not need to adjust the distance.
Because the lightweight static magnifier rests upon the object that is being studied, it is always a good idea to lift
the magnifier carefully off the stamp before moving it to inspect another area. This should avert the potential for damage
to the stamp.
Another type of magnifier is the illuminated microscope. The portable version shown at the bottom of Figure 2 is available
at Radio Shack retail stores for about $10.
This pocket microscope provides 30x magnification. This degree of image enlargement has at least a couple of useful applications.
For the past six years the United States Postal Service has made use of a security printing feature known as microprinting.
Extremely small lettering, normally invisible to the naked eye, is placed within the stamp design on selected issues to help
detect counterfeit stamps.
While microprinting is normally legible when viewed with powerful magnification, the relatively low resolution of standard
photocopiers causes the lettering to become unreadable on a reproduction of the stamp.
An example of micro-printing on the 1997 32¢ Thornton Wilder stamp (Scott 3134) is shown in Figure 3.
Along the left edge of the protruding white building visible over the playwright's left shoulder in the design (viewer's
right), the words "OUR TOWN" (the name of Wilder's best-known play) appear in microprinted letters.
The microscope also provides a remarkably close examination of printing details, such as the dot-like impressions of gravure
printing or the raised images found on line-engraved designs.
Like the static magnifier described previously, the illuminated microscope rests upon the stamp. The viewer adjusts the
focus using a small rotating thumbwheel on the side of the microscope.
A nearby sliding switch activates a light powered by two AA-size batteries.
This particular model also includes a small slide-out 8x magnifier that is useful for locating the detail that a viewer
might wish to see with greater magnification.
These are just a few of the less expensive magnifiers available. There are many others, as well as more costly tools.
A number of illuminated handheld magnifiers are available, some with adjustable light intensities and plug-in capabilities.
Collectors can also purchase magnifiers with precision scales that measure the detail of the magnified object.
Many of the regular stamp hobby supply advertisers in Linn's Stamp News offer a large selection of magnifiers, with
prices ranging from a couple of dollars to a couple hundred dollars. The higher prices are charged for additional features
like protective lens coatings, color correcting lenses and so on.
So, with your magnifier in hand, just what is it that you're looking at?
Most collectors use magnification to check details of condition and design.
The condition of a stamp is a significant component of its value. If a stamp has physical faults, its value is substantially
Because of the small size of the postage stamp, even minute faults are a matter of concern.
It is important for the collector who intends to buy or trade for a stamp of any value to first inspect that stamp for
What kind of faults are we looking for?
The outer edges of nearly all stamps are often an area of concern. When perforated stamps are separated from one another,
paper points known as perforation "teeth" frame the stamp.
All of these points should be about the same size. Perforation teeth that are shorter or missing detract from the overall
appearance of the stamp and are considered a form of damage.
Shown in Figure 4 is the 1¢ value from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition issue, Scott 294. The 1998 Scott Specialized
Catalogue of United States Stamps values this unused stamp at $19.
The catalog valuation depends on two important factors, however.
First, the grade of the stamp must qualify as "very fine," meaning the design may be slightly off-center on one side, but
generally the stamp presents a well-balanced appearance.
Second, the stamp must be undamaged.
Although the 1¢ Pan-American stamp shown in Figure 4 presents a pleasant appearance, magnification reveals that it does
not meet the valuing criteria.
The stamp shown in the illustration is actually enlarged to the approximate size it would appear when viewed with the weakest
Even with that low level of magnification, the collector can see that the design of the stamp is closer to both the top
and left edges than it is to the bottom and right edge.
It is also possible to see that not all of the perforation teeth are sound.
With considerably stronger magnification, represented by the enlargement at the top of Figure 4, a small tear along the
top of the stamp (above the first "T" in "UNITED STATES") can be detected.
While condition problems detract from the value of a stamp, another type of flaw, known as a plate flaw, often enhances
That's because the flaw on the printing plate causes markings to be printed on the stamp that create a collectible variety.
One such flaw is the double transfer, which leaves a slightly doubled image of a line-engraved design. Double transfers
were described with more detail in last week's Refresher Course.
Plate varieties usually appear within the design of the stamp. They are often discovered while collectors use their magnifiers
to examine the details of printing.
The best reason of all for using a magnifier is to admire the beauty of a line-engraved stamp design.
For more than a century, the vast majority of United States stamps were intaglio-printed, reproducing via a recess printing
process a design that is line-engraved in steel.
The resulting image consists of extremely fine lines and remarkable detail that are a testimony to the engraver's skill.
The 1¢ Pan-American stamp shows such detail in the columns and flourishes that frame the vignette (the central design)
and in the great portrait of the lake steamer that is shown enlarged in Figure 5.
Imagine trying to create that detailed image in a surface area that fits within the center of a postage stamp.
For the stamp collector, the magnifier is a tool that allows him to learn about the fantastic items he collects, to admire
the skill of engravers like G.F.C. Smillie, who created the Fast Lake Navigation vignette, and to fully appreciate each stamp
that he adds to a cherished collection.