Stamps for Dummies

Robert Murray Stamp Shop, Edinburgh
Advice on . . .


This is a skill that every collector of British stamps has to learn. It is an easy skill, and once learned, you wonder why you couldn't ever do it before !  We often find collectors, usually fairly new to the game, who have heard about phosphor bands, but can't see them. Normally a half-minute lesson and demonstration at the counter is all that is needed.

What is phosphor ?
Since the early 1960s many United Kingdom stamps have had phosphor ink applied to the face. This is done to allow automatic postal sorting machinery to turn all the mail so that the stamp is in the top right corner, and to extract the second-class mail. The phosphor ink can be detected by the machines. However, the phosphor has no colour, and is not obvious to the naked eye. During the period 1962-67, the use of phosphor was only experimental, so phosphor stamps were only on normal sale in the areas in which the trials were taking place. After that period, virtually every Great Britain stamp has had phosphor in some way.

How can you see the phosphor ?
On stamps which have phosphor bands, this is usually quite simple. The surface of the phosphor ink is normally less shiny than the rest of the stamp's surface.
Hold the stamp up to the light (natural or artificial, but the more directional the better) and change the angle until you get the surface of the stamp as reflective as possible. You should then have a shiny stamp with one or more duller lines. These less reflective bands are the phosphor. Easy ?

looking at phosphor bands

Potential problems.
1. Although the earliest stamps came either without phosphor ("plain", "ordinary") or with phosphor bands, many later issues had an all-over phosphor - sometimes coated onto the paper, sometimes printed across the whole stamp. These can be difficult to discern without some experience. The best way, however, is to get some samples which only come in one version, and use these to get a feel for the way they look.
2. Used stamps, if soaked off the paper, can lose some of the contrast between the ordinary paper and the phosphor. To avoid this, don't soak - float !  (See article about soaking).
3. There are some stamps with very obvious bands of colour in the main design (e.g. Forth Road Bridge, Post Office Tower), and these can still be seen when using the method described above. Take care not to confuse these with the phosphor bands. My suggestion here is to look at the design face-on, and be aware of the position of these colour bands as the stamp is being tilted.

Ultra-Violet Lamps
UV lamps can be a useful accessory for seeing the phosphor on stamps. My advice - don't get one till you need one !  Try, and use, the naked eye method as far as possible, then, and only when you know what your problem stamps are, you might think about a UV light. Most stamp shops carry these as stock (or in difficulty, see uv lamps).

Although the information and advice contained in this article is based on many years' experience as a professional philatelist and collector, no liability can be accepted for any loss or damage, however caused.



Robert Murray Stamp Shop
5 & 6 Inverleith Gardens
Scotland EH3 5PU
Tel. 0131 552 1220  or  0131 478 7021
Email; [email protected]
Our Shop
is open four days each week, and customers are always, of course, welcome.
We carry very wide stocks of the whole world - much, much more than is listed on our website.
Full shop information at this link.

Page last updated Friday 30 January 2015. © Robert Murray 2015

Articles on other pages; Stamp Investment, How to see UK Phosphor Bands, How to Soak Stamps off Paper, Common Misconceptions about Stamp Values, links to all.