Sunday, April 3, 2016

How I learned to love Lighthouse Vario Stockpages (tutorial on how I make my own stamp albums)

It's a question I have seen many times on different stamp collecting fora.

"What Is The Best Stamp Album?"

In the end this is the question that can only be answered by trial and error.  You just have to try different methods of housing your collection, and eventually like Goldilocks you will find the one that is "just right" for what you are collecting and what your plans to collect might entail in the future.

The standard practice in philately has of course to house stamp collections in albums.  For many, the pre-printed albums published by companies as widely varied as Scott, Palo, Minkus, Gibbons, Ka-Be, Lighthouse, Lindner etc. etc. are exactly the right solution. Everything laid out with a spot, all you have to do is fill the spaces and that's all.

But....we all know that there are limitations with pre-printed albums.  Often they do not show spaces for stamps that we may acquire in the course of our collecting lives.  This is moreso with the "representative albums" like a Scott Internations or Minkus Supreme Global where the editors consciously will not include items, usually due to price but sometimes merely on a whim.

(and for those of you who have not checked out the blog  Big Blue 1840-1940 by my fellow blogger Jim aka jkjblue, first SHAME ON YOU! and second check it out, as this is an issue that collectors using the Part 1 of the Scott International Albums face time and time again.)

More specialized albums of course can provide more coverage, but often it will still lack spaces for items listed in specialist catalogs.   Of course you can always insert a blank page for the odd varieties that may not have a space.

OR you could decide to design your own stamp album.   That way you can control what goes into your album and how you want to display it for later viewing.  Nothing new, this idea, most of the great collections have historically been on custom-made or homemade pages exactly because of this.

So you decide to make your own album. If you want you can have it be based on actual pages you create yourself.  Desktop publishing means these days you do not have to have a degree in art to create a well-designed page, and adding artwork no longer requires a huge degree of artistic ability, though if you have it in you, its easy enough to add your own personal touches.

So you need to buy paper (best be acid-free, preferably archival quality), and of course some way to mount the stamps onto the pages. Hinges are one solution, but hinges these days just are not what they used to be, hence why some collectors will scour ebay looking for unopened packs of Dennison hinges from the 1950s.

And then of course there are the plastic stamp mounts,  Clear back or black-back, back slit or top slit, strips you cut or pre-cut sizes, you can pretty much find the exact right size for whatever stamp you are trying to mount. Though if you collect a large area over a long period of its philatelic history, you will likely need to have a bunch of different sizes, and while not as expensive as they were when they first came out in the 1980s, they are still a few US$ per pack.

And of course there is one potential pitfall.  You make a page, get it all done and mounted, then realize you have missed one value in a set.  Back to the drawing board on making a new page.  It may not take as long as it used to doing everything by hand, but still that is more time spent to create a page that has all the correct items on it.

There is an alternative to making your own pages on paper.  Stockbooks and stock pages.  Here all you have to do is decide how you want to lay out the stamps on a page of the stockbook or stockpage and put the stamps in the pocket, and...DONE!  Missed a stamp in a set, not a huge problem just have to rearrange how things are organized a bit to fit it in.  Which is why of the two, I prefer stock pages over stock books.  Pages can be put in a binder, have no fixed limit, and if you need to rearrange a couple pages it most likely will not mean rearranging the whole book.

My Method Of Madness To Organizing My Collection

As those of you who have followed my posts in this blog the last few months know, I love specialized catalogs.  My goal is to have a good specialized catalog for each nation that will be the base of how I collect the stamps of that nation.  Of course no pre-printed album would work for that, and after a couple of tests I finally settled on using Lighthouse Vario stockpages to house my collections.

The most important thing though is to create an organized system to help keep track of what is in the collection and what I need, as well as make sure space is provided for all stamps I may ever hope to acquire during the remainder of my collecting days (knock on wood another half century or so!)  So the first thing I do is plan a layout of the album on excel (actually OpenOffice's freeware equivalent) so that I know where to put a stamp on which page in the album.

First a few things to remember about Vario F pages. They come in an array of pocket height sizes, which means the pockets will vary in height. Pages with 6 pockets per side have pockets 39mm in height, 5 pocket pages are 51 mm in height, and 4 pocket pages are 63mm in height per row.  All Vario F pages have a standard row length of 195mm.

Schematic of a Vario 5S (5 pocket page) showing height of pocket, which varies on the number of rows on a page.  All the Vario pages have pockets 195mm across.

From my album making, I have found 6-row pages work well for most nations up to about 1945, then the increasing number of tall stamps (44mm or taller) means I switch from 6 to 5 pockets, and then depending on the nation, many go to 4 pocket pages for newer issues to handle se-tenant blocks and the like. Personally I do not mind a stamp sticking 1-2mm above the pocket line, but if you prefer to have the pocket completely cover the stamp, just keep in mind the pocket row height.

So with those basics on the pages done, the process of laying out the pages can start. The hardest part is usually determining stamp size and how many might fit across.  It's not that hard though, as most nations have (at least until the last couple decades) usually used a few specific dimensions for all their stamps and keep them that way for decades.

A good rule of thumb though that works for me 99% of the time : You can usually fit 8 small vertical-oriented definitives, 7 horizonal-oriented definitives, 6 vertical oriented commemoratives or pictorials and 4 horizontal-oriented commemoratives or pictorials in a row.  In the end the limit of space per row is 195mm, so you can mix and match, as you will see below.

So now to lay out a page, I use excel and whatever catalog I am going to base my collection on. Sometimes, that is more than one catalog.

My excel master file for my albums, open to Algeria. Numbers before independence are based on the Maury Afrique Catalogue, post-independence on Scott. 

For the colonial era I use Maury numbers, but Maury does not cover post-independence issues so for those I swithch to Scott numbers. Each outlined box represents a page and the numbers are the catalog numbers (Maury pre-independence, Scott post-independence in this example).  Its not anything fancy, and the best thing is if i miss a stamp as i go thru the catalog, its easy enought to tweak a few lines and voila all set to go.

And as some of you may notice, I like to mix back of the book with regular issues. Never did think Scott's parcing out each of the subtypes into separate categories such as Postage Dues, Airmail etc, made a lot of sense.   By creating my own album pages, I can reflect where those stamps fit in the overall timeline of postal emissions by a country.

And then once I get a bunch of pages laid out, all I need to do is print a copy and take it over to my stamp desk and start putting the right stamp on the right page.

Page 31 of my Algeria collection. Only one stamp left to complete it!

This page of French Algeria is page 31 on the excel, as you can see, I am almost complete.  I also try to make sure the page has some visual interest, it is nice to mix vertical and horizontal-oriented commemoratives in the same row.  You got 195mm of width to play with in each row, so make the best use of it (OK not so easy if all the stamps are small vertical-oriented definitives, but if you have an artistic or design bent you can still exercise it with using stock pages).

Page 31?? French Algeria didn't issue that many stamps!  Well if you only collect with Scott, even its Classic 1840-1940 catalog it might seem that way.  But Maury also provides listings for close to three HUNDRED parcel post stamps, similar to what Scott lists for France in the Classic Specialized, but produced for the Algerian post office and printed in Algeria, starting in 1899.  THIS is why I love specialized catalogs, you discover whole new areas of collecting that other, more general catalogs miss.

Another nice thing with using excel to create an album page key is you can color code each cell to mark if you have the stamp, and there are enough color varieties you can mark one color as Mint Never hinged, one as Mint Hinged, one as Used, and any other category you wish.

And when there is a stampshow in the Area, such as the upcoming COLOPEX show by the Columbus Philatelic Club in early June, all I need to do is download my excel to my tablet computer and take with me, and i have my want list all set to go.  Album page setup AND inventory all in one.

And since I am a worldwide collector, this means I have (and continue to grow) the number of different binders for different countries.  As I previously blogged in the 1.0 version of this blog, I decided the coolest look would be to print coats-of-arms stickers to put on the binders.

A selection of my stamp collection arranged by nation.  This pic shows Algeria - Andorra - Benin - Burkina Faso (ex Upper Volta) - Cameroun - Central African Republic (ex Ubangi-Shari) and at right edge, Chad.

Because of the leatherette nature of the Lighthouse Binders, the stickers by themselves sometimes do not stick well.  To counteract that, I use a bit of Gorilla Clear tape and that hold them down quite nicely.

Like I said at the start of this post though, finding the right collection housing method will take time, I didn't just come to this system, it involved a lot of false starts using other storage device systems. But not I think I really have got it "just right" for how I collect.  Whether a similar system will work for others, can only be determined if they try it and see how they like it.

hmm..I'm hungry for some porridge....


  1. Nice review Gene. (And hope you are recovered from the colitis.)

    If I was going the stockpage route for housing collections, I think your approach makes very good sense- and it looks quite aesthetically pleasing also.

  2. Couldn't agree more. There's a method for all of us out there... If stock pages where not so damn expensive in Finland, I'd be all over experimenting (and likely switching) that route as well. LOL.

  3. Thanks Jim, am feeling a good bit better. Home on sick leave til the 13th but definitely on the road to recovery.

    Keijo - that does surprise me since the pages are made in Germany. I know things in Finland tend to be quite expensive due to taxes, but seems crazy that they can import the pages to the USA more cheaply than sell them in Finland, which is much closer to their production base in Germany. Can you order direct from Lighthouse in Germany, not sure if that would save you much but might cut out the cost of middlemen dealers (no offense to any dealers!)

  4. Gene.... Sure I could, but not worth it.

    Local dealer price for a pack (5 pages) of Vario 5S is 9.08€ (10.30$).

    Direct order straight from Leuchtturm's website (in German) would be 7.50€ (8.52$) + shipping

    With above prices it's pretty hard to beat stockbooks in local/European markets. Assuming one still would prefer the black pages, a basic LS4/16 stockbook is just 10,50€ (11.90$) a piece.

    Now compare above European prices to US prices....

    You can buy a pack from Amazon at $6.50 (5.70€) + free shipping.

    Or a pack from Lighthouse US at $5.25 + shipping.

    An LS4/16 seems to cost $18.95.

    Nothing new under the sun... A lot of products are cheaper in US than in Europe. The usual 'reason' is that marketing expenses in smaller regions are higher than in big markets, and thus prices are different (despite the goods are 100% the same and come from the same source).


    1. And even better buys on Amazon are the packs of 25 lighthouse pages. Currently a pack of 25 5S pages can be purchased for just under US$20 with free shipping from Amazon.

  5. Gene,
    Thank you for a well made post. Your reasoning for using the varios are more or less identical to what I am thinking. I am seriously considering to replace my 160 x 64 pgs stockbooks with Lighthouse albums and vario sheets. I have been considering this for more than a year now, and I think I am ready for the big move - however still a bit reluctant. So I figured you would be in a good position to give me advice on my concerns.
    As already stated, I certainly see all the advantages of vario pages. But what is the disadvantages?
    I am curious if :
    - the static plastic pages easily pick up dust etc, which also could easily make it into the pockets. I know the albums come with dust covers, so that's always something. But do you have to be very 'disciplined' to avoid dust accumulating in your albums while working the pages?
    - I have seen used vario pages with a cloudy/grayish shine to them, is this something you have experienced? How do the pages look after 20 years of use?
    - Lighthouse claims the classic giant album can hold up to 80 vario pgs, and the normal Lighthouse classic album can hold up to 60 pgs. Does this only apply for empty pages - or is still the case when those pages are populated with stamps?
    - My Lighthouse stockbooks seems to be very durable, I have been flipping through my albums now for 16 years without any sign of wear caused by the flipping action itself. Any durability issues with the plastic pages flipping back and forth on the D-ring locking mechanism?
    - In Norway the Vario-plus pages are at almost 3 times the price of the standard vario pages. Are the plus pages really required - isn't the standard pages sufficient?
    - Is there any other cons one should consider before taking the plunge into the varios?

    Jon - aka "Blaamand"

    1. Hi Jon, let me try to answer point by point

      1 - Dust can be an issue on the pages if you leave the pages open and out in the air for extended periods, or have a dusty room you work in. However, since the stamps fit inside the pocket and usually are covered by the pocket, it is a simple matter of using a dry towel or feather duster if the buildup of dust get to be more than you can bear. But if you only work on a page for a couple hours, it shouldn't pick up too much dust provided your stamp room is not too dusty to begin with. Perhaps an air filter would be something to consider as well if you do have dust issues.

      2 - I've only had the pages a couple years so can not speak on any greyish "tinge". None has appeared to me so far, and it is possible that the tinge may be due to excessive exposure to sunlight or UV light over long periods (???) But nothing that I have noticed in my pages over the past couple years.

      3 - the normal albums can hold 50-60 pages with stamps without too much cramping. I can even get to about 80 pages in a regular binder without it feeling like the pages are crowded (to me) but then many of the pages are empty so that may not be the best gauge.

      4 - have not noticed any durability issues with the pages and binders but as i said i've only had this system a couple years. Since i use only the normal binders they have regular round rings, not the D-Lock. I am NOT fond of the D-lock ones as they make turning pages more difficult, I find. The thinner binders I think overall are just easier to handle.

      5 - I never really noticed that there are 2 different page systems for their regular three ring binders. Here in the USA, at least from the Amazon dealers I use, they are I guess the regular pages, and I have noticed no real issues. The Plus pages are apparently a bit more durable, but unless you treat your pages like a gorilla throwing at temper-tantrum I don't see why the regular pages would not be fine to use.

      I really don't have any other "cons" with this system, because once you get an album set up, you don't have to worry about mounts, supplements and the like. The only issue would be getting the right mix of pages for your stamps. Generally for stamps up to approx 1940 i use 6S, then drop to 5S size until the late 1970s-early 1980s when setenant issues become popular thus requiring a taller pocket to cover the stamps (I tend to put vertical blocks in sideways, so I use pretty much 4S for newer issues). Then again it depends on the nation, many countries can stick with 6S and 5S longer because the size of their stamps do not get a lot bigger over time until much more recently.

      For Souvenir sheets, I usually put them all together at the end of the volume for the chronological period, and generally use the 2S pages. Really large sheets will fit in the 1S pages, but those only start being an issue after the mid-1960s for the most part. Earlier SSs generally fit in a 2S pocket nicely.

  6. Hi Gene, thanks a lot for a comprehensive and sensible reply! It seems you are really satisfied with the varios and do not share my concerns - which gives me even more positive arguments for going the vario route myself!
    I an surprised you can actually hold as much as 80 pages in your normal albums. I take it you are using the Vario F?
    I am myself considering to use the Vario Classic - or the Vario Classic Giant. However I do think the giant might be a bit large and awkard, and that many standard size albums will give more flexibility than a few giant albums. Also presume the smaller albums will be more durable.
    Have you considered the giant version?
    (For the Grande format, they are simply too large for my bookshelf, so they are not an option for me)

    1. Yes I am using the Vario F binder. Would agree that the Classic Giant might be too big, and I think it uses the D-rings which I greatly dislike. Smaller albums are just easier to handle.

      Good luck if you do decide to go with the Vario stockpage system. Are you thinking of plotting out your pages first like I have, so you have dedicated spaces for future acquisitions, or just leaving room for some expansion without having specific stamps be on specific pages?

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Thank you Gene - it seems the albums can actually hold more pages than nominated by Lighthouse then. Great news!

    Yes, I will absolutely dedicate space for stamps I do not yet have, like you do. In my present 160 stockbook-collection I had already made a setup which were dedicating space for all the worlds stamps from the beginning (at various compression level for wallpaper etc). The intention was that this would be a static one-time fix, never needing to re arrange my collection again. Kind off what you have in your excel sheet. But life happens, and you make other plans, sets different goals. For my stamp collection, I have learned I need a storage solution which is more flexible so I can easily re-arrange and give room for more varieties, more shades, postmarks, blocks, covers, whatever. So even I am intending to leave room for all major stamps numbers already from the start, that will only be a starting point from which to expand further - hopefully! The flexibility is what mostly attracts me to vario pages - so this time I will not strive to maintain an absolute or 'static' set-up like I have today - rather let the collection grow and let the set-up be dynamic.
    btw - you've already seen some examples of my stockbook setup here

    Jon - aka Blaamand

    1. Yes when you have ambitions like we do to have space for all the stamps from the beginning, you need to have a system that is flexible so that as you discover new information regarding issues you can work that into your system.

      For example, I am making my Canada collection "modular" by period because of the wealth of specialized info on the Canadian Stamp blog I link to on this blog. A lot of information that even the specialized Unitrade Canada catalog does not contain, and the result is up to the early 1930s I have already laid out almost 50 pages for material :D

  9. Hi Gene

    I noticed you were looking for feedback (on Stampboards) regarding how to organize your stamps using Vario pages - how much information to include on slips of paper etc.

    Without spilling the beans, there will be a blog post on February 5th from a guest poster who uses Vario and Scott Brown pages in a synergistic way.

    I thought you might be interested, although I am not sure it would solve your specific questions.

    All the best!