Collectors put printers under the magnifying glass

Over the past few months I have been looking closely at some aspects of stamp production.

My studies into watermarks and various forms of perforations have been interesting because it gives me the opportunity to combine stamp collecting with the art and science of printing.

I developed a fondness for printing early on in my career, when I worked for a daily newspaper. Today printing is done in large centralized plants, but back then every daily newspaper had most of its ground floor place dedicated to a printing press. Every day, when the press started running, the whole building would shake a little. It was an exhilarating experience, and whenever possible I would take a few minutes to watch the press come up to speed.

One thing I learned very quickly is that printers think a little differently than the rest of us. For them, a good quality printing job is all about the appearance of the printing. It doesn’t matter if the press is running publications, advertising material, or even stamps, the printer’s goal is to produce a product that is usable and pleasing to the customer.

When it comes to stamps, the same thing happens. Collectors revel in details. For them, minute differences between stamps are clues that allow them to reassemble a printing plate, or even a plant’s whole production procedures. Take the world of perforations: the fine details of each stamp in a booklet offers a clue as to which configuration of perforation tools were in use.

To the printer, those perforations serve a purpose: they make it easy to separate the stamps and put them on letters. As long as they come apart easily, but not too easily, and cleanly, the printer considers his job done. They are not exactly unaware that collectors study the hills and valleys of each perforation in fine detail; they just don’t understand why.

Another example is the world of adhesives.

Sure, covers and postal history are fun, but the truth is that lots of stamps enter the world of collecting on tiny scraps of paper. Inevitably they end up being soaked.

In the old days it was easy: stamps were attached using water-activated adhesive, so getting them off the paper was a simple matter of soaking them until the gum released.

Modern stamps are mostly self-adhesive, a somewhat different formula. The problem is that the adhesive is not water-activated, but pressure activated. This stuff doesn’t always soak off with water. To this day, trying to find a safe, non-toxic, and inexpensive way to separate these stamps from paper is a constant source of discussion and debate.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to the manager of a security printer, and I took the opportunity to ask what the best way was to get self-adhesive stamps off envelopes.

Without a second’s pause, he looked me straight in the eye and gave me the definitive answer.“I have no idea,” he said. “We do our best to make sure the stamps don’t come off the mail.”

Sometimes it seems the only thing printers and collectors have in common is that they both handle stamps.

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