Essential stamp collecting tools PT 2 – free stamp catalogues

Essential stamp collecting tools PT 2 – free stamp catalogues

One of the most important tools for any collector is access to decent stamp catalogues. Unfortunately, they can be expensive. Few of us have $600 to put down on the Scott 6 volume series. My favourite, Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth & British Empire Stamp Catalogue 1840-1970 is listed for $156.38 (Cdn) for the latest edition. Luckily, there are alternatives to new purchases.

Used stamp catalogues

One choice is to check your local library, thrift shop or second-hand bookstores for used copies. Older catalogues are excellent resources. I lurk around book sales and grab them whenever they are offered. Some of the 1930s and 40s editions have detailed information lacking in modern volumes. If you are lucky, you can pick them up for less than $5.

Some of my used finds include:

  • Sanabria North American airmail 1944
  • Sanabria World airmail 1970
  • Stanley Gibbons British Commonwealth 2 volume set
  • Scott 6 volume set 2008
  • Scott Standard set worldwide 1959 1 volume
  • Scott USA, British Commonwealth and Latin America 1960
  • Circle Squared cancels – Canada
  • Canadian Revenue Stamp Catalogue 25th Anniversary Edition
  • Stanley Gibbons Specialised – QV, KG, QEII all hard cover editions for $2 a piece
  • British External Airmails Until 1934

I have 2 shelves filled with older volumes and find them as useful today as the original owner did when they were new. It isn’t necessary to have the latest catalogue. If you are interested in current stamp values, the internet fills that gap nicely. Just search philately stores for their latest prices.

If you purchase a used book online, be wary. Check shipping costs carefully. I’ve seen some sellers charge up to $30 for a small, light pamphlet.

Photo of some of my stamp albums and catalogues, cluttering up my desk

My desk is under there somewhere.

Single country/topic volumes

If you specialise, individual country catalogues are better than larger books covering world stamps. Each of the major catalogue companies offer specialised books focusing on a specific topic or country. The 2021 Unitrade Specialised Catalogue of Canadian Stamps currently sells for $56 (Cdn). I purchase a new one every 5 or 6 years. Little of the information changes over the years and the only reason I update is to get detailed information for newer stamps.

All catalogues are not created equal. I prefer the Unitrade because it lists all the semi-official airmails. Scott and SG list official airmails only, so airmail collectors will find them frustrating. It pays off to do some basic research before committing to a specialised catalogue. Make sure it offers the level of details you need.

Catalogues in eBook format

Not everyone wants to look at the computer screen when playing around with their stamp collection. But for some of us, stamp catalogues in eBook form, are a great option.

PortableNot always easy to set up to access your laptop/tablet
Digital catalogues are in full colourMost digital stamp catalogues are subscription only, so you need to be online to use them
Easy to zoom in and see details
Less expensive than print versions

I bought the Scott Canada online catalogue last year for $14.99. I can access it via my tablet anywhere I have internet access.  I wish I could download a copy, but I understand why they don’t allow it – too easy to pirate the edition.  Stanley Gibbons, Michels and other stamp publishers offer the same options. I especially like the ability to blow up the images full screen size to see all the detail.

Free on-line stamp catalogues

It’s surprising how many free catalogues are online. You don’t need to lay out cash to access excellent information on your stamps. It takes a bit of hunting, but there are hundreds of quality sites out there.

Start with post offices. A number have basic catalogues of their products free to use on-line. India Post is a good example.  The pre-independence issues don’t have any numbers or info, but still useful if you are trying to identify a stamp. The site excels in newer issues. It offers both clear images and downloadable brochures of each stamp. The brochures offer info on topics, designer, and quantities, downloadable in pdf format. It’s ideal for collectors. If you are like me, you’ll download them and keep them on file for future reference.  When I save the pdfs, I rename them like this: India_2020_Sept. If it has an aviation topic, I’ll include a keyword in the file name as well. You can access their catalogue here -> I am currently searching for all such Post Office related catalogues as part of a spreadsheet I’m working on. I’m about 1/2 way through listing all post offices and when completed, will post it.

Another option is Colnet – a massive online stamp database. It’s searchable by topic, year, country, type, format, perforations, colours, year issued and face value. The best part of the Colnet system, is it allows you to focus on specific catalogue numbering systems. If I want to look at Canadian stamps, all the major numbers are listed.

Here’s an example:

A sample from's website information on stamps

Snapshot of type of info offered

Sample of photo of stamps available at Colnet

Canadian Airmail – allegory of flight

Keep in mind, Colnet is a work in progress. Some issues may be missing. This site is powered by the work of stamp collectors who contribute information. It’s free, and easy to use. Sign up for an account and get started

Specialty websites

If you are looking for detailed information not available in a basic catalogue, you can dig deeper into specialised websites. If you are an Indian airmail collector, for example, try It offers info on covers, stamps, airplanes, routes, and airlines.

Canadian cancel hounds should bookmark Postal History Society of Canada’s website for its in-depth explanation of types of cancels found on early Canadian mail.

These are just two samples of online resources put together by collectors for collectors. Google is your friend when it comes to stamps.

Next article in this series will cover how to use image searches to identify stamps. Check out Part one of this series below:

What are your essential stamp collecting tools?

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Screen capture of a notebook for sale at Red Bubble

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What are your essential stamp collecting tools?

What are your essential stamp collecting tools?

Stanley Gibbons posted an interesting question on their Facebook page about essential stamp collecting tools:

What tools do you use the most? A good magnifying glass is useful for examining stamp detail. Tweezers are useful for handling them. Perforation gauges and watermark detectors are needed in the more advanced stages of the hobby.
Stanley Gibbons Facebook page

That started me thinking about what my essential tools are. Yes, I have the usual suspects, a good pair of tweezers, various perforation gauges, watermark fluid, magnifier, and a UV light. I also consider a handy little position finder and the Stanley Gibbons Stamp colour key essentials as well.

The position finder is invaluable when trying to figure out the position of a flaw or detail on a stamp. It took me awhile to master using one, and if you’re interested, I can post a tutorial on it.

Photo of a position finder, used in stamp collecting to find location of details on stamps

Handy position finder for stamp collecting

I rely heavily on Stanley Gibbons catalogues, even if they are getting a little long in the tooth, because the amount of detail they offer so when I look at colours, I tend towards SG’s key. I keep it tucked into a dark cupboard, so the colours haven’t faded over the years.

Catalogues, catalogues and more catalogues

I have a lot of catalogues as well. Scott, Stanley Gibbons, Unitrade, Sanabria are the main ones. I scour book sales looking for editions I don’t own and often get them for a song. Well, except for the two I use the most, which I saved up for and purchased new – Stanley Gibbons Commonwealth & Empire Stamps 1840-1952 (With the exception of Canadian stamps, I don’t tend to collect after 1950) and Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps & Covers 1840-1940. I rely on the two old Sanabria airmail catalogues for identification, but the prices are sorely out of date.

For Canadian stamps, I switch between SG, Unitrade and Canadian E.F.O.’s: Errors, Freaks and Oddities (Darnell), which I can’t seem to find, at the moment. I put it down somewhere the other day and for the life of me, can’t remember where. It’ll turn up.

What’s missing is The Pioneer and Semi-Official Air Stamps of Canada 1918-1934 by Longworth-Dames. No idea why I keep putting off buying this essential guide. I’ll have to remedy that one day.

There are 3 more tools I use extensively – an excellent quality scanner, Tineye/Google image search and my largish collection of stamp related bookmarks. I rarely see these make the list of essential stamp collecting tools. I can’t live without them.

Scanners as an essential stamp collecting tool.

I’m not a fan of squinting into a magnifier for any length of time, especially with the vision issues I have. That’s where a good scanner allows me to capture details, I’d otherwise miss with just a magnifying glass. With the scanner set to a high resolution, outstanding results can be produced. The benefits of a scanner over a camera, is the stamps lay flat and I get a quality image every time. I don’t have to worry about flash, lighting, or weird angles. I have most of the scans stored in the cloud for reference. When I have a question, they are all categorised and stored away.

Careful scanning will show flaws, condition clearly (nibbled corners, small tears will be easier to spot), fine details and, if you get lucky, you can also see the watermark on certain stamps.

Scan of an early German airmail stamp, showing watermarks

Weimar Republic airmail stamp with selvage and clear watermark 126 network

Here’s how my stamp folders are organised. 001 signifies airmail, 002 general stamps (pre 1950), 003 covers and used post cards, 004 revenues, 005 all reference materials, including inventory lists and album pages, and finally 006 a catch-all for photos I’ve taken of postal boxes, postcards not used, but interesting (usually air related), and posters I’ve found about stamps. The numbering makes it easy to scan down the list and locate what I need.

screen capture of some of my stamp folders I store in the cloud

A partial view of my stamp collecting folders.

Another use for the scanner is to scan magazine and book articles for later use. I have an extensive archive of pdfs, culled from library sources, stamp magazines and old publications. Instead of letting them accumulate, collecting dust on a shelf, they are scanned, labeled, and stored in one of the 005 folders for easy access. By keeping them on the cloud, I can access them from any device.  I think of it as my personal library of essential stamp resources. I’m going to resort the 005 this weekend because it’s becoming a bit large. I need to refine the categories such as 005 Canadian Reference, 005 Flaws.

Scanning also allows me to create visual lists of the stamps I own. I struggled for years with trying to catalogue my collection and finally realised most of the software was too clumsy to use. Instead, I scan the stamps into contact sheets, label them and store them for future reference.

Scan of sheet of Canadian airmail stamps

Click on the image to see it in full size

Scan of Canadian semi-official stamps

Not as tidy, but still easy to use for reference  purposes.

If I’m looking for a stamp to buy, I’ll call up my master lists and see if it’s there. In newer lists, I’ve been including various catalogue numbers and details like flaws, colour variations etc. I also now list the type of cancels I have. This is great when I’m looking for a specific cancel.

Those are the basic tools I use. Next article, I’ll discuss how to use Tineye and Google image search as a reference tool. If you aren’t familiar with using them, come back in a week to find out how. I’ll also finish up the article on my stamp related bookmarks.

What are the essential stamp collecting tools you couldn’t live without? Drop a comment below or on Facebook and let me know. Don’t forget to give the article a like to let me know you want more articles like this.