How to Buy Stamps with Line-Engraved Issues

Like if this guide is helpful
How to Buy Stamps with Line-Engraved Issues

Line-engraving is a method of printing stamps. This printing method was used in the early days of the postage stamp, primarily in Victorian Britain but also to a lesser extent in the United States and in some of the British colonies. Line-engraved stamps were characterised by very high quality images. However, as the demand for stamps grew, line-engraved issued stamps fell out of favour, to be replaced by stamps printed using high-volume printing techniques.

There are still substantial numbers of line-engraved stamps available. Included among these are some of the most sought-after and valuable of all stamps. However, not all line-engraved stamps are valuable. Before starting a collection, it is important that the collector learn about the salient features of line-engraved stamps, and what to look out for when searching for stamps. In order to do this, it is helpful to study as wide a selection of line-engraved stamps as possible. This is difficult unless the proposed buyer has both the time and money for extended travel. Therefore, many of today's stamp collector source their line-engraved stamps online, where market platforms such as eBay have a wide range of line-engraved issues to choose from.

What Are Line-Engraved Issues?

The world's first stamps were issued in Britain in 1840, shortly after the accession of Queen Victoria. These stamps were line-engraved, and included such famous examples as the Penny Black. Line-engraved stamps continued to be commonly issued in Great Britain until 1880, although by 1855 the increased demand for stamps meant that line-engraving, which was a slow production process, fell out of favour. They were also issued for several years in the United States, and in some Commonwealth and Colonial countries including Canada, South Africa, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), although their issue in these countries was not on the same scale as in Britain. After that date most stamps were surface printed. The table below shows the principle line-engraved British stamp issues.


Penny Black

Two Penny Blue

Penny Red

Ha'penny Rose Red

Three Halfpence Red

Year of Issue






Line-engraving, which is also known by the name 'intaglio,' involves carving or engraving the image in reverse onto the surface of a metal plate, called a die. The die is then hardened, and used to make a positive image on a surface called a transfer roll. This is then used to make further printing plates.

Key Characteristics of Line-Engraved Issues

Because of the sheer number of stamps printed using this process, these printing plates inevitably wore out quite quickly. This gave rise to characteristic imperfections in the stamps. It is these imperfections that collectors use to identify the individual plates used to print particular stamps. The replacement or repair of these printing plates gave rise among stamp collectors to an art known as 'plating'. This involves using known characteristics of a plate to piece together the entire sheet of the stamps it produced. The plate can also be a valuable guide to defining authenticity.

It was the fine detail characteristic of the imagery used in line-engraved issues that reduced the number of counterfeit stamps  in circulation. Another key characteristic of line-engraved issues is raised ink.

Fine Detail

Line-engraving allowed for the production of stamps with especially fine quality images.The fine line engraving used to create the dies was carried out by hand and involved a sharp metal tool used to incise dots and lines. The engraver required many years of experience to master this art form.

The level of detail achieved when creating a stamp by line-engraving was not just important aesthetically.  Because few craftsmen had the skill necessary to reproduce a complex line-engraved images accurately, the use of this printing technique made it difficult to produce counterfeit stamps. To maximise this benefit, stamp issuing authorities tended to include complex swirling or otherwise detailed patterns in line-engraved stamps. Of course, these intricate patterns were desirable in their own right as pieces of art.

Raised Ink

Another important characteristic of line-engraved stamps is that the ink is not flush with the paper. Rather it is slightly raised on the surface. To check that a stamp is genuine, a collector simply needs to check for this raised ink. One's fingertips are sensitive enough to feel a ridge where the ink rises above the surface. As the fingertips can impart skin oils and dirt to the stamp, a better method involves placing foil over the stamp and rubbing very gently. Holding the stamp at an flat angle and looking to see whether the colour disappears is another useful test. In a line-engraved stamp, the colour of the ink should still be visible.

Buying Considerations for Line-Engraved Issues

There are so many variables to consider when buying any stamp. Therefore, it pays for the collector to learn as much about the market as possible before parting with their money. For one, there is the matter of authenticity. Line-engraved stamps like the Penny Black and Two Penny Blue are very distinctive, and because they are non-perforated stamps, they are easy to copy.

Plate Designations

As mentioned previously, the study of plating is a deep art. For a casual purchase worth just a few pounds, it is probably too complex a study to master effectively. However, if the purchase is a substantial or if the buyer is looking to build a valuable collection, it is an essential part of stamp collecting. Before buying a stamp, the collector should consider finding out more about the plate that the seller claims the stamp is printed from. The collector can then check if the characteristics of that plate are present on the stamp.

From 1858, all British stamps came with a plate designation included in the stamp's design. This makes it easy for a collector to look up a plate designation in a suitable catalogue or reference guide. Since most line-engraved stamps predate 1858, checking the plate designation can prove more of a challenge. But it is possible, and for a major purchase, one should check the plate designation.

Perforate or Imperforate?

The first stamps were designed to be cut from their sheets, and therefore, many line-engraved stamps such as the Penny Black lack perforations. Only in 1854 were perforations introduced, by which time some early line-engraved stamps such as the Penny Black had been replaced. It is an obvious point, but if a collector finds a Penny Black offered for sale with perforations, it is not genuine. Before buying any stamps, it is worthwhile to research the stamp's history to learn more about what to expect in a stamp of a particular age and type.

Value and Condition

Even though comparatively speaking, line-engraved stamps are less common than other stamps, they were still produced in large numbers. Over 60 million Penny Blacks were printed, for example, so in the case of stamps, rarity alone does not make a stamp valuable. Factors to look out for include overall condition, the absence or presence of gum, and whether the stamp is mounted. All of these factors can affect the value of the stamp.

Finding Line-Engraved Stamps on eBay

Most stamp collectors find the process of searching for line-engraved stamps on eBay a simple affair. From the eBay home page, just type in a generic search phrase such as 'line-engraved issues' into the search bar. The local search engine then goes through all the listings for stamps and pull out all the listings for stamps printing using that method.

The number of listing can be in their thousands. If you wish, you can simply browse through these at your leisure, but if you are pressed for time, it is best that you use some of eBay's search filters to sort the listings For example, if you want a specific denomination, such as 1d, simply specify that using the relevant search filter on the results page. You can also instruct the search engine to find listings for stamps from particular parts of Britain if desired.

Read the seller's item description carefully, and study the photos in detail, as these are your best guide to the stamp's quality. If you are making an important purchase, you should ask to see photos or better still scans of the front and back, as well as detailed notes on the condition, mounting, presence of gum, and other characteristics that affect price. A good seller should be happy to assist with these questions. Again, if it is an important purchase do consider asking for plating information, and check it. Should you wish to examine the stamp in person, you can filter your search results to show only those sellers who are within a convenient travelling distance to you.


Line-engraving printing was used to create the first postage stamps. It is characterised by a raised ink surface and very fine quality images, which were at the time difficult to copy. The widest use of line-engraved printing for stamps was in Great Britain, although it was also used in the United States and some Commonwealth and Colonial countries.

When searching for line-engraved stamps, it is important to gain an understanding of the market, and a familiarity with the buying factors that should be considered when making a purchase. This includes assessing authenticity, as well as understanding some of the factors which can affect the value of the stamp. Learning about these factors involves studying as wide a range of line-engraved stamps, as well as sourcing collectors' catalogues and guides. Many collectors find that the best way to find the stamps they need for their collections is by going looking online, where Internet retailers such as eBay have a huge selection of line-engraved stamps to look through.

Have something to share, create your own guide... Write a guide
Explore more guides