A is for Aden and Z is for Zanzabar

A is for Aden and Z is for Zanzibar... Now what is between? For the world wide classical era philatelist and stamp collector, a country specific philatelic survey is offered by the blog author, Jim Jackson, with two albums: Big Blue, aka Scott International Part 1 (checklists available), and Deep Blue, aka William Steiner's Stamp Album Web PDF pages. In addition, "Bud" offers commentary and a look at his completely filled Big Blue. Interested? So into the Blues...

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Closeup study of Stamp surfaces using a Digital Microscope Part I

Tabletop Digital Microscope with HDMI connection to Monitor
Into the Deep Blue
One would think if one has a decent scanner ( I have a Perfection Epson V600), that one would not need additional evaluative equipment as a WW classical era collector. After all, the scanner does remarkably well at showing stamp design. I routinely scan my stamps @ 1200, more than enough to show every bit of the design detail.

Except, scanners are not good in my opinion at stamp surface micro detail: showing the paper, and the interaction of the paper with the overlying printing. Scanners, a two dimensional tool, are limited at showing the three dimensional paper- ink interface. And shockingly, they do not have enough effective resolution. Later in the blog posts on this topic, I will demonstrate these assertions. ;-)

Enter the digital microscope.

(The binocular microscope is also a good candidate, perhaps even better, but a digital microscope can document the results (take pics).  I will save discussion about the binocular microscope for a later date.)

Digital Microscope with USB connection to Laptop
I recently purchased a digital microscope (AmScope UHM350), which offers either a USB connection to a computer, or a HDMI connection to a monitor (or television). With appropriate included software installed in my laptop, I can see the microscope view, manipulate the stamp, and take desired pictures (jpg).

One can take JPG  pics
I am not going to review the UHM350 digital microscope specifically here - except to say it fits the purpose - but rather look at some of the areas that a digital  microscope can be used for on stamps.

But first, a word about lighting the stamp field.....

The Moon can teach stamp collectors that oblique lateral
lighting brings out dimensional surface detail best
Why is there a picture of the moon on a stamp blog? Well, my other hobby is amateur astronomy, and I've looked at the moon through telescopes many times. The worst time to look at the moon is when it is at it's brightest - Full Moon. All the features are washed out. The best place to get excellent surface detail is at the moon terminator - the line (which moves with time) between the dark areas and light areas on the moon. 

Oblique lateral Light source
Usually, I don't even use the internal direct lighting that the digital microscope provides around the lens, but improvise a source that will provide light at a lateral angle. This is a halogen lamp, but an LED flashlight would probably work as well.

O.K., next is a broad (but not detailed at this time) overview exploration of some of the areas in which the Digital Microscope might be found useful for the stamp collector.

Even if not overly detailed and specific, the topic will require three blog posts - Part I, Part II, & Part III.

Part I will cover....

Printing Processes

Part II will cover...

Part III will cover....
Varnish Bars on paper

This will be followed up by a comparison demonstration  of a scanner's capabilities versus a digital microscope's capabilities on stamp surface details.

Printing Processes
One of the continuing vexing problems a collector has is determining the printing process for a particular stamp. Sure, catalogues usually give that information, but they are not always necessarily correct. And, not infrequently, a stamp design during the classical era might have used several printing processes. Then there are the ubiquitous forgeries which often use a different printing process.

An examination of the stamp itself, especially surface detail, is often a good way to characterize the printing process. And that is where a digital  microscope, even more than a scanner, can be helpful.

The exquisite detail that an engraved stamp can have is good clue. I've mentioned before that an engraved stamp actually looks better and better as one examines the details.

Through the engraving process, the ink lines might be slightly raised compared to the surface of the stamp. One can feel the raised texture on the surface of the stamp. Or one can use the "foil" test.

And one can look at the surface with a magnifying glass, or a loupe.

Or one can use a digital microscope or a binocular microscope.

1915 Belgium Scott 116 35c brown orange & black
"Cloth Hall of Ypres"; Image with scanner @ 1200
Lovely stamp, the level of detail would already argue this stamp is engraved.

By the way, the "Cloth Hall of Ypres" building houses today an exquisite (and painful) museum dedicated to WW I. You see, Flanders Fields is close by. I highly recommend an all day visit.

Belgium Scott 116 close-up (click, and enlarge)
Digital Microscope
Immense detail is available with the digital microscope. But, usually only part of the stamp can be seen. The collector will probably need to use the scanner for a whole view of the stamp. 

I can't say that the view is necessarily better with the digital microscope here. Certainly, the scanner is able to do as well with these details. But the digital microscope (let's abbreviate to DM) will add paper surface elements that the scanner will miss.

Belgium Scott 116 close-up (click, and enlarge)
Digital Microscope (DM)
There is perhaps an element of raised ink lines here, but not "for sure". The binocular vision microscope (Binocular microscope) might have an easier time with that question.

But note the way the printed ink and the paper form into one another. The DM works well in showing that.
USA 1884 Scott J15 1c red brown "Numerals"
Image with scanner @ 1200
A functional USA postage due with a machine lathe interior. Has the look of an engraved specimen.

USA 1884 Scott J15 1c red brown close-up
Digital Microscope (DM)  (Click and enlarge)
Clearly, the paper, which is well seen with the DM, appears to be wove.

USA 1884 Scott J15 1c red brown close-up
Digital Microscope (DM)  (Click and enlarge)
The red brown semi-circular tablet, which surrounds the "POS" lettering, to my eyes is definitely raised off the surface.

= Engraved.

Wow, the paper texture is really well seen here.

Embossed stamps are usually fairly evident, no fancy tools are really needed. 

But let's take a look....
1859 Austria Scott 10kr brown, Type II
"Emperor Franz Josef', Image with scanner @ 1200
The early stamps of Austria and Lombardy-Venetia were embossed. As the embossed head has two major types, a good look at the details might be helpful.

1859 Austria Scott 10kr brown, Type II
Digital Microscope (DM) (Click and enlarge for examination)
Now that head is three- dimensional! Yes, a scanner can give a suggestion of this, but the DM knocks it out of the ballpark!

The second major printing method during the classical era is typography (letterpress). I think of it like a typewriter key that pushed the ink into the paper when the key is struck, leaving a little indentation in the paper. And because of the force of the typewriter key on the paper, the ink is squeezed to the sides, leaving more ink there. I suppose an oversimplification, but it works for me. ;-)

1874 Austria Scott 40 50kr red brown
"Franz Josef", Fine Print
Image scanned @ 1200
Many nations initially used typography for the majority of their stamps. Great Britain and Austria are examples. One needs the ability to identify typographic stamps, as there can be lithographic issues with similar designs.

1874 Austria Scott 40 50kr red brown
Digital Microscope (DM) (Click and enlarge for examination)
Actually, I don't find an indentation of the design always evident in real life for typographic stamps. Often, the stamp seems "flat", or perhaps, if lucky, a suggestion of a depressed design (relative to the paper). Here the white "50", which is part of the paper, seems elevated compared to the surrounding printed brown circle. But be aware of optical illusions that can fool. A Binocular microscope (with stereo vision) might be confirmatory.

What is helpful is the absence of elevation of the design- this is not an engraved stamp.

And another feature is helpful: note the irregular (in width) outer vertical frame line? The more ragged look can be seen with typographic stamps, much less with lithographic stamps.

And enlarging the image and searching the design, I find areas where the ink is thicker along the edge of the design: characteristic for typographic stamps.

Belgium Scott 109 2c chocolate "Albert I"
Scanned @ 1200
If one examines the corners, one will see some ink squeezing evidence: Typographic rather than lithographic.

Let's look at the DM image...

Belgium Scott 109 2c chocolate 
Digital Microscope (DM)
A little bit of an ink bump in the corner. And the white paper "2c" and the "lgie" seem elevated compared to the  chocolate tablets in the design surround them. 

I've seen enough to feel comfortable calling this stamp "typographic".

1941 Belgium Scott B265  30c + 5c multi "Ghent"
Scanned @ 1200
The 1940-41 Belgium semi-postal issue was for winter relief.  The outer frame line is rather irregular, more a characteristic of a typographic printing.

1941 Belgium Scott B265  30c + 5c multi "Ghent" close-up
On close-up. note the inconstant horizontal upper frame line, and the thickening of black at the edge (this may have been intentional). This stamp appears to be typographic.

O.K., enough for Part I. The next blog post (Part II)  on this topic will cover Lithography and Photogravure.

DM close-up of 1901 USA Scott 296 4c deep red brown & black
"Electric Automobile"
Out of the Blue
I'm really excited about the uses and potential uses for the digital microscope for evaluating stamps, especially surface characteristics. !!! We will explore more in Part II & III. Stay tuned!

Note: Moon pic appears to be in the public domain.

 Comments appreciated!


  1. Jim - this was a fabulous read, and I'm already anxiously waiting for parts 2 & 3 to come out. Especially that lighting tip is something I will definitely try in action.


    1. Thanks Keijo - I enjoyed exploring the capabilities of the DM for stamp evaluation. I think you will like the next two posts also. :-)

  2. Really interesting post contrasting the capabilities of a digital microscope with a lateral lighting source versus a flat bed scanner. Definitely it will require some practice with known stamps so that one can interpret what is being seen effectively as the differences even with the high resolution scans from the digital microscope don't exactly jump out from the captured .JPG images. It does make you wonder how a stereo microscope would impact the image view. There was a recent set of posts from a member on Stamporama discussing a new low vision viewing system that a sight impaired member has recently received which has been a life saver for her involvement in the hobby. She, also, shared some new offerings for low vision support that were fascinating tools.

    1. I agree it does take some interpretation and experience. I find the binocular microscope (which I have on long term permanent loan thanks to a coin collecting friend) is very helpful to confirm observations, as two eyes truly does give a stereoscopic view, and really helps with elevations/depressions on the stamp.