Stamp Perforations – Imperforate Stamps, Comb Perforations & More!


The world’s first postage stamps, issued by Great Britain in 1840, were without means of self-separation. They are called “imperforate” or, abbreviated, “imperf.” Such stamps had to be cut apart with scissors or some other means. Hence it is unusual to find “imperf.” stamps with nice margins on all four sides.


Shortly after the first stamps were issued, the idea of separating each stamp from the other by means of rows of small holes between the rows of stamps was introduced. The story, probably apocryphal, is told that a ne’er-dowell had purchased some of England’s first stamps and, under the influence of drink, sat on the curb where he produced a pin and began to poke pin holes between his stamps so that he could tear them apart. The idea worked so well that he took his stamps back to the Post Office and pointed out his great discovery. Later, it is related, the British Government provided this gentleman with a substantial sum of money for his invention.

There seems to be some evidence that something of this nature actually took place. But, whether or no, the fact remains that after the first few issues of postage stamps had made their appearance without perforations, the rows of holes became almost universally accepted as a necessary part of a postage stamp.


There is, of course, a very apparent difference between a stamp without perforations – “imperf.” – and one with perforations – “perf.” – and one can readily understand why early collectors made such an important point of that difference. However, in this day of collecting it is somewhat difficult to understand why so much emphasis is placed on the different gauges of perforation.

The fact remains that for United States stamps, which have been perforated by machines producing various gauges of perforations, there is often an enormous difference in value running from a few cents to as much as several hundred dollars for what, to all intents and purposes, is the identical stamp except for the gauge of the perforation. The same situation applies to most foreign issues but until the advent of “The New World-Wide Postage Stamp Catalog” few collectors in the United States were aware of this fact. “The New World-Wide Postage Stamp Catalog” lists and gives values for practically all perforation varieties of all stamps of the world. In this, as well as in many other respects, “The New World-Wide Postage Stamp Catalog” has greatly advanced our knowledge of foreign stamps.

Likewise the printed albums – those which provide spaces in which to place each stamp – seldom bother with perforation varieties even for the stamps of the United States. The matter is important, however, and especially so as one becomes advanced in his or her collecting interests.



Now let us take into consideration the various kinds of perforations and the methods by which they are applied to stamps. The original perforating machine, one that is still in common use for the stamps of some countries, is the “comb” perforator. As the name implies, this is an instrument shaped like a comb. The pins that do the perforating are arranged in a long row to fit the width of the sheet of stamps and the extensions of shorter rows of prongs are arranged so as to fall between each stamp, like this:

Comb perforation
Comb perforation.
Stamps in sheets are stacked in quantity and the comb is punched through the top row. Then the comb is moved to the next row and so on. The comb does not always line up exactly with the preceding row so that this style of perforation can often be identified in any vertical pair of stamps.However, it has never come to our attention that these variations in the placement of the comb have received any important consideration among collectors. Usually the punches, or prongs, that make the perforations are round in shape. They need not be, however, and sometimes they are oblong, or lozenge, in shape or perhaps some other shape. Collectors refer to these odd shapes as “hyphen hole” perfs., or “Lozenge” perfs., and “square” perfs.

Different Types Of Perforations

Different Types Of Perforations

Modern perforating machines, as used in the production of United States stamps, are sprocket wheel punches which punch continuous rows of holes between the stamps. When the stamps are produced on rotary presses in a continuous strip, the sprockets are small wheels that make a continuous row of perforations in one direction.

Then, a little further along on the machine, the sprockets are on a long shaft running the complete width of the sheet to produce the cross row of perforations at each turn of the wheel. Naturally this is a complicated device requiring careful coordination with the printed stamps so that the rows of holes will fall at exactly the correct place between the stamps. Nowadays this coordination is accomplished electrically by what collectors call the “electric eye”.

Electric<br /><br /><br />
eye perforator
Photo by Bureau of Engraving and Printing – Electric eye perforator.

All true perforations actually remove some of the paper and leave holes. (Incidentally, these tiny pieces of paper that are removed from the stamps produced in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D. C, amount to many tons of waste a year and are sold as such at a good profit to the Government.)

When no paper is actually removed, but, instead, slits or pricks in the paper are made, they are referred to by collectors as “roulettes.” Roulettes are made in a variety of shapes running from plain slits to arcs and serpentine shapes. All have names to collectors and all are easily identifiable as the names describe the shapes. Roulettes may be measured the same as perforations.

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