Just as dancers have shoes and hockey players have sticks, stamp collectors have their own list of tools to perform the activity. The novice stamp collector will find that a simple pair of tongs, an album, and a general reference book are sufficient tools. But as the person approaches new levels of increasing specialization in the study and collection of stamps, more tools and an expanding reference library are required.
If you have trouble in telling the difference between two seemingly similar stamps you may want to measure the perforations. A perforation gauge is used to measure the number of perforations in a prescribed space on each stamp. Some stamp designs may look alike but the gauge of the perforation is different.
Subtle differences are apparent in other ways. Another way of distinguishing seemingly similar stamps is by using a watermark detector. Some stamps have a very faint watermark which has been incorporated into the paper during its manufacture, and it is necessary to use a special device to detect such marks.
Although sometimes a watermark can be found by holding the stamp up to the light, more often the stamp has to be examined in a watermark detector. Place a few drops of special, non-toxic, watermark detector fluid into the detector dish, adding enough to shallowly cover the bottom. The stamp is then placed face-down in the smooth black tray. The watermark should quickly become visible. As a precaution, remember to always use watermark fluid in well ventilated areas.
As with watermarks, look-alike stamps also differ in color. Color guides provide another helpful guide to differentiate between stamps which appear similar. Using a color guide can help you tell if your stamp is rose, rose-red, deep rose-red or dull rose-red.
Knowing how to handle stamps properly is only one part of the fun of collecting. Once you've got a stamp or envelope, you will no doubt want to learn more about it. Perforation gauges, watermark detectors and magnifying glass will help you identify the differences between stamps, but referring to periodicals, reference books, and catalogues will help you not only identify each item, but learn more about them as well.
The most important book which you will want to use is a stamp catalogue. The catalogue you use will depend on the type of stamps you collect. The most common catalogue used in the United States is the Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, produced by the Scott Publishing Company.
If you collect only stamps from the United States, then you would need to use only the Scott Specialized Catalogue of the United States. For other countries, there are five other catalogues. Volume 1 includes U.S. and territories, Canada, Great Britain and the Commonwealth as well as the United Nations. Volumes 2 through 5 include the remaining countries of the world listed alphabetically.
There are other specialized catalogues too. They are used by collectors who specialize in collecting stamps from other countries, or specialized collections that focus on transportation methods and other topics. The most common international catalogs are produced by Gibbons in Great Britain; Yvert and Tellier in France; and Michel in Germany.
These catalogues list stamps or covers by number, and if you are using pre-printed albums produced by the same companies, that number will probably be used as a reference there as well. In addition to numbering the stamp, the catalogue will usually tell such things as which printing method was used to produce the stamp and the date it was first issued.