What Is a Line-Engraved Stamp?

Like if this guide is helpful
What Is a Line-Engraved Stamp?

The practice of philately, in which individuals focus upon the study of postal history and specifically stamps,, has become quite popular again of late. This is partly because of the influx of stamps and collecting information available through the internet as well as online marketplaces and exchange communities that allow philatelists to communicate with one another regardless of their locations around the world. However, before entering the world of stamp collecting, one must learn the basics. That is, in order to be a successful collector, it is important to know precisely what one is looking for and how to tell authentic stamps from forgeries, especially when buying stamps online.

One of the oldest and most treasured methods of stamp production, line-engraving, is one such term that collectors need to understand. Line-engraved stamps are amongst the oldest stamps available to collectors and ones that display certain key features that set them apart from modern stamps, which are produced using more technologically advanced, mass production methods.

A Brief Postal History

Unlike coins or books, the collection, cataloguing, and study of stamps is relatively new. This is because the modern concept of stamps and post in general only came into being during the 1830s. It was then that English teacher and reformer Rowland Hill began a movement to help the Royal Post Office turn a profit. The resulting Great Post Office Reform of 1839 designed and instituted a method in which individuals prepaid to send letters and packages rather than charging the recipients upon delivery. This new shipment method based the cost of sending an item on its weight, rather than the distance that it needed to travel, and introduced the stamp as a means of proving that one had completed the prepayment process and allowing for easier delivery of all sorts of items.

The First Postage Stamps

Originally, the Great Post Office Reform charged fourpence, 4d, for a half ounce letter, but the relative success of that programme allowed for a lower cost to be implemented in January of 1840. At that time, the use of the adhesive postage stamp to represent one's payment officially began. On 6 May 1840, what is known as the Penny Black,, not only Great Britain's but the world's first postage stamp, was released. As its name implies, the one penny stamp was printed in black ink and bore the image of Queen Victoria in profile. The cost of the standard one pence was required by the Uniform Penny Post, enacted in January of that year.

At the same time, another stamp was printed, called the Two Penny or Tuppence Blue. This stamp was used for letters over the one half ounce limit of the Penny Post and, again, as the name implies, it was printed in blue ink rather than black for quick differentiation.

Intaglio or Line-Engraved Printing

The original postage stamps issued in 1840, along with five others released over the following 30 years, were all printed using the same method: intaglio, or line-engraving. This method, which has its roots in the old printing methods of the 15th century, is what defined this postage stamp as a line-engraved stamp..

The History of Intaglio Printing

Intaglio printing was invented in 15th century Germany. It is a process based upon the same principles as woodcut printing, but is a much younger one by comparison. Because of its method of engraving, intaglio printing was used primarily by metalsmiths who could use intaglio to engrave the same images into numerous pieces of armour or religious objects.

Later, intaglio became more of an artistic method, as artists such as Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Durer began using intaglio in their work. Indeed, it is still common today to see modern brides-to-be use a process of embossment through lithography or offset printing to produce the ridged look of intaglio printing on their wedding invitations.

How Line-Engraved Stamps Are Created

In essence, the process of intaglio printing, which is more commonly referred to as line-engraving, is quite simple. Basically, an image is inset or etched onto a plate, making a diecast of sorts. Next, ink is applied to the surface of the plate through a dabbing or wiping method that is meant to pool the ink into the grooves of the etching. Then, a cloth removes excess ink from the surface of the plate in an effort to limit the ink to the incisions on the plate.

Once properly prepared, a dampened piece of paper is applied to the top of the plate and covered by a thick blanket to help keep it in place. Finally, the plate and blanket are put through a rolling press, which applies high pressure to the paper, thereby squeezing it into the grooves of the plate. Once completed, the blanket can be removed. What remains is the image embossed on the paper with a raised portion present anywhere ink was applied.

Clearly, the process of making a line-engraved stamp is quite labor intensive and inefficient as compared to modern technology, which uses surface printing similar to that of a home printer. However, this is exactly what makes line-engraved stamps so special. Indeed, after 1870, all British stamps were made using the more efficient surface printing technique still in use today.

A List of Line-Engraved British Stamps

Despite its romantic connotations of days gone by, the process of line-engraving stamps was relatively short-lived in the UK. As such, there are only seven known types of line-engraved British stamps. They are described in the table below.

Name of Stamp

Year(s) Produced

Special Notes on Collection

Penny Black

From 6 May 1840

Not at all rare; more than 68 million produced

Two Penny Blue

From 6 May 1840

Substantially rarer than Penny Black, but still widely available

One Penny Red


Meant to replace the Penny Black; the first perforated stamp sheets (1848) were of Penny Reds; generally easy to acquire

Prince Consort Essay


'Sample stamp' or 'dummy stamp', never circulated; only 25 recorded examples

Two Penny Blue (new ink)


Design added white lines to top and bottom of image

Half Penny Rose Red

1 October 1870

For reduced-cost postcards and newspapers; smallest British stamp ever issued

Three Halfpence Red

1 October 1870

Meant to represent a new postal rate which was never approved; most stamps were subsequently destroyed

Part of what makes line-engraved stamps so interesting is, as the table above indicates, their relative rarity. There are few examples of real line-engraved stamps for purchase on the collector's market today.

Finding Line-Engraved Stamps

Once collectors learn about the amazing methods of line-engraved stamps and see the beauty of these first examples of stamps in the world, it is natural to want to collect them. However, as the table in the previous section indicates, the number of line-engraved British stamps actually available to collectors is extraordinarily limited. Though there are many places to buy stamps for a collection, including trade shows, collectables shops, and online, not all sellers are created equally.

Most philatelists only acquire the Penny Black, One Penny Red, and Two Penny Blue for their private collections. This is important to note when searching online for stamps from collectors who may claim to have one of the other very rare, line-engraved stamps. This is why careful buying methods are of the utmost importance.

Buying Line-Engraved Stamps on eBay

eBay is a great place for stamp collectors to find items for their collections. This is because the nature of eBay is as a marketplace that unites sellers and buyers worldwide and which allows for far more selection and opportunity than websites run by individual dealers. However, buyers need to follow some precautionary guidelines when shopping for line-engraved British stamps on eBay..

First, it is important for buyers to carefully read the description of any stamp they wish to buy. This means learning the details of the product listing page,, scrutinising photos, and asking questions before committing to a purchase. Next, buyers also need to pay attention to the sellers themselves. eBay makes the process of evaluating sellers very simple by posting feedback scores directly on the product listing pages and allowing buyers to read through a seller's history before purchase. Make sure to steer clear of any seller whose past may indicate a less than accurate product description. Remember: if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


Line-engraved stamps are a fascinating and rare example of the history of stamps and postage in the United Kingdom and throughout the world. With a fascinating history of leading the globe in the prepayment of post, Great Britain is the epitome of, and innovator to, philatelists. This is precisely why the early stamps produced by the British through the line-engraving method are so popular and so important to recognise.

The process of line-engraving lasted in Great Britain from 1840 to roughly 1870. In total, there are only seven types of British stamps that bear the marks of line-engraving, most notably the Penny Black, Penny Red, and Two Penny Blue. These three types of stamps are easily available to collectors through a variety of buying channels, such as eBay. The other line-engraved British stamps, however, are far rarer and nearly impossible to find. This is why knowing about and appreciating the complexity of line-engraved stamps is so important for philatelists. Armed with knowledge, it is possible to grow one's collection without the worry of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous sellers. This added knowledge also makes philately a much more fun and productive hobby.

Have something to share? Create your own guide... Write a guide