How to Determine if a Stamp Has Line-Engraved Issues

Like if this guide is helpful
How to Determine if a Stamp Has Line-Engraved Issues

Stamp collecting is a simple hobby for some, and for others it a serious pastime where significant effort is put into building a collection of stamps of a very specific type. Highly specialised collections may take years to collate and are sometimes worth considerable sums of money. Line-engraved stamps are one type of stamp that lends itself to specialised collection. Any collector seeking to build a collection of line-engraved stamps from a very narrow range of issues needs to be able to verify that a particular stamp is not a forgery. They also must know how to establish a fair market price for the stamp before making an offer to purchase.

Reference manuals listing stamps and identifying features of a particular issue make online stamp purchasing decisions easier. Line-engraved stamps are widely available through a variety of retail outlets. Hobbyists looking to become more specialised collectors benefit from understanding the line-engraving process and can also use reference books to assist with validating a particular stamps authenticity.

What Does Line Engraving Mean For Stamp Collectors?

Line engraving is a technique that was used to produce some of the first postage stamps ever issued. Stamps were first issued in Victorian Britain during the 1840s, when the famous Penny Black was first released depicting Queen Victoria's head. Stamps from this era hold a fascination for many collectors.

What Is Line Engraving?

Line engraving is a technique used to create printing plates. Images are made by carving into the hard surface of a plate made of copper, zinc or possibly steel. Ink is then applied to the plate, and it collects in the carved areas. Dampened paper is then applied to the plate. The ink transfers to the paper, leaving the finished print. Line engraved stamps are printed using one of two techniques, relief or intaglio. Relief printed stamps have the design raised above the surface of the non-printed area, while intaglio or gravure printing cuts the design below the non-printing surface.

Why Was Line Engraving Used For Printing Stamps?

Printing stamps has always been akin to printing money, albeit the face value is far less than the value of most notes. When postal services were in their infancy, service operators required a way to mark high volumes of letters as "postage paid", and so the postage stamp was devised. Because it indicated that money had been paid, it was important to create a stamp that was difficult to forge. The best technology for creating difficult to forge prints during the mid-nineteenth century was line-engraving. Shadows and texture were created by highly skilled artists who carved entire plates of multiple stamps. Therefore, it is by looking for the details and human error inherent in each individual engraving, expert can identify if a stamp is actually from a line-engraved issue.

Where Do Stamp Plates Fit In?

To produce sufficient quantities of stamps, the line-engraved images were created multiple times on a single plate. In the case of the famous Penny Black, the plate bore 12 columns of 20 rows, producing 240 stamps from each pressing. Talented as the artisans were, repeatedly creating the image for each block was never as accurate as copying things digitally with today's technology. Each stamp engraving provided an opportunity for tiny errors to creep in, sometimes leading to production differences between stamps on the same plate. This explains why collectors are so interested in line-engraved stamps.

This fascination with imperfect stamps is also served by the fact that, during the lifetime of a particular stamp, multiple plates were required, since the equipment wore out after extended use and was unable to create stamps of the right quality. Again using the Penny Black as an example, 11 plates were commissioned and used during the period the stamp was in circulation. The first plate in particular wore out very quickly and had to be repaired several times.

Variations between the plates, as well as small imperfections in the plates arising from wear, are of interest to collectors. Some buyers use them to identify a stamp's position on a specific plate. Stamps printed on a given plate may also be rarer than others, again increasing interest levels in them. For many collectors, assembling a collection of stamps from a particular line-engraved issue, or from a particular plate from that issue, is the focus of their collection efforts.

How Does a New Collector Know What They Are Buying?

Understanding that line-engraving and plates led to stamps with clearly identifiable flaws means that a collector has a means to specifically identify some stamps. Clearly, there are so many different line-engraved versions of any give stamp that it is difficult for collectors to know which stamp is which. Philately is a popular hobby, there are an estimated 20 million collectors in the United States alone, and this amount of interest encourages collectors to publish definitive references detailing the various issues of line-engraved stamps.

Reference materials that list stamp descriptions and values are widely available. For example, "Guidelines to the Penny Black", by P. C. Litchfield was first published in 1949, and used copies can frequently be found for sale. Stanley Gibbons catalogues are another useful reference. Stamps from different countries and different periods of time are documented in detail. References of this type are widely available, and are also used to confirm the market value of a particular stamp.

What to Look Out For

A good reference only ever tells what to beware of, and it may not contain enough detail to identify every version of a line-engraved stamp. There are two simple techniques that can be used to confirm whether a stamp is from a line-engraved issue or is just a clever copy: by touch and feel, or by visual inspection. Each method is discussed below.

Touch and Feel

Because line-engraved stamps involve printing ink on only part of the stamp, it should be possible to feel raised areas of ink across the surface of the paper. If it is not possible to touch the stamp or feel the ink, then a powerful magnifying glass should reveal if the areas of the ink are raised. Reference materials should detail whether a stamp is relief or intaglio printed, which will help make identification easier.

Detailed Visual Inspection

Current printing technology is able to produce forged copies that are visually convincing, and stamp collectors need to be able to distinguish copies from original prints. Details provided in stamp reference guides should indicate whether a stamp is line-engraved, and detailed inspection with a 10x magnifying glass helps determine whether the stamp is line-engraved or a modern copy. At 10x magnification, a line-engraved stamp can be identified by a visible dot pattern that is particularly noticeable at the margins of the print. A modern copy produced using lithographic printing often displays margins that are clearer and more firmly distinguished.

Visual inspection also provides another clue as to authenticity. Many stamps also incorporated a reference of their position on the printing plate. A grid reference identifying the column and row position was stamped onto the plate after each line-engraving was complete. Watermarks were often added to the printing paper; as plates changed, it was not unusual for watermarks to be changed as well. Using documented references, it is possible to establish specific flaws and details such as watermarking attributed to individual stamps.

How to Buy Line-Engraved Stamps on eBay

Buying line-engraved stamps on eBay is a straightforward process. Simply type in "line-engraved stamps" into the search box that appears on every eBay page. If the listings eBay displays are too general, you can narrow your search in two ways. First, you can enter a more specific search term, perhaps "1d line-engraved stamps". Second, you use the filters that eBay offers to weed out unwanted results. eBay suggests a number of filters that relate to your original search phrase, and you can filter stamps by country, by price range, by buying format, and by other criteria.

Once you have narrowed the list of the stamp offerings, browse each listing more closely. The seller's description should give you all the information you need. However, if it does not, use the eBay messaging utility to send a question directly to the seller. You can also review the seller's returns and shipping policies. A good seller should allow buyers to return any stamp they are not happy with.


When buying line-engraved stamps, collectors need to be certain they are buying genuine stamps, as opposed to modern lithographic copies. Understanding the production techniques of each particular line-engraved stamp is the starting point. A specialist collector needs to understand how many plates of each stamp were issued, how many line-engravings were created on each plate, what watermarks were used in the paper, and how individual stamps were originally marked with flaws or errors. They also need a wealth of reference materials that document information about the stamps they are considering. Cross referencing details of this nature allows a collector to establish the provenance of a stamp offered for sale. A visual inspection of the individual stamp also provides an indication of the stamp's authenticity. eBay is great place to find both reference materials and collectable line-engraved stamps, and buyers can choose amongst many sellers to find the best quality stamps at the best prices.

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