A Guide to Custom Album Pages
Every collector is introduced to the hobby through the use of commercial album pages. These pages look good and are usually complete for a given country or theme, and as a starter, they serve their function well.
However, as a collector develops his interest and broadens his collection, he invariably discovers that commercial pages are lacking. Often, the designated spaces for particular issues are too large or too small. When an issue comes with attached selvedge, the collector must decide between removing the selvedge and mounting the issue in a space smaller than necessary. Often, a collector decides to collect more than just the basics, and commercial pages usually don't go far beyond the basics. Once a collector opts to collect unusual multiples, minor variants, errors, booklets or booklet panes, and so on, the commercial pages come up short.
The solution to this is to design your own pages.
Having spent several years designing my own set of U.S. album pages, I have some insight into the process of designing custom pages, and my experiences may help the collector who is considering designing his own pages. There are a lot of "gotchas" that one may encounter, and many of them may not occur until one is committed to and well into the design process. I offer my insights, in the hope that you may find them useful.
I should make it clear that despite what appears here, there is no "right answer", any more than there is such thing as a "right" way to collect stamps. Your style of stamp collecting is fundamentally a personal preference, and the way in which you house your collection should reflect your preferences and not what someone tells you is the "right way". Clearly, I think my way is the "right way". But in reality, it is merely the "right way for me". Use this guide as an insight into what is possible, but view it skeptically when it tells you specifically what to do.
Also take into account that my experience is most certainly colored by the fact that I collect MNH U.S. stamps. Collectors of used or foreign material and postal history collectors should be cautious about following my advice too closely.
The benefits from designing your own pages are obvious - you can construct an album that represents exactly what you collect, presented exactly as you want it, nothing more, nothing less. You can create a collection which is consummately you - personal, your perception of the hobby, showing off your creativity and occasional ingenuity.
This may manifest itself in many different ways. For instance, when I was designing my modern 20th century U.S. pages, I noticed that many of the newer issues contain descriptive text on the back of the stamp. Conventional album pages conceal this text, or simply reproduce it. My personal solution was to buy additional copies of such issues and design the pages with two copies of each stamp - one mounted forward, and one mounted backwards:
Every country and every specialty has its unique cases and concerns, including and not limited to
Each of these presents unique challenges, and designing your own pages allows you to address those challenges in the best way available.
One other benefit is that it allows you to house the "odd" issues in the album. Often, you have issues which won't "fit", because of lack of space in the pre-printed pages or similar restrictions, and you're forced to keep them in side albums or loose. By designing your own pages, you can have an album where everything you own is actually in the album, and not sitting on a shelf somewhere.
There are many risks, and some of them aren't immediately obvious.
The primary risk is simple - you're not a professional album page designer. Your collection will look as good or as bad as you make it, and the end result is only as good as the effort you put into it. If you lose interest in the effort, if you cannot keep up the expense of designing pages, if you lose access to some critical design resource, or if you simply don't have as much skill as you need, you are left with an album that's less than you want. I'll give you a warning right now - for all of you who see my site, like my album, and want to build something similar, please keep in mind that I've spent (no exaggeration) thousands of hours and thousands of dollars over five years just designing the pages and building both the album and this site. Don't underestimate the effort and dedication required to build an album like this.
Even if you do finish, you have an album that is "under construction" for the duration of your efforts. And even the simplest album with a small number of pages can take months to get right.
Another risk is the expense involved. The quality of the end result is directly related to the expense put into the effort. And if you spend money on page design, that is money that can't be spent on stamps themselves.
There is also the problem of "infinite revision". Every time you find out that you've overlooked an issue, you must revise one or more pages. Often, these revisions have a "cascade effect" that forces you to revise several subsequent pages. Oversights are common, because catalogs often use subtle phrasing to convey points. For instance, Scott's U.S. catalog uses the term "tagging omitted" to indicate an error, and "untagged" to indicate a printing variety. If you collect varieties but not errors, this distinction matters. Likewise, U.S.#2283b is described in the Scott catalogue as a "red removed from sky" variant. It isn't immediately obvious to the uninformed reader whether this represents an error or a printing variation. Only after finding the corresponding entry in the booklet section and noting that this variant has a distinct plate number can one determine that this was a deliberate printing variant and not an error. If you don't notice this distinction immediately, you will end up revising that page at a later date.
Even when one is diligent and accurate, the catalog of available issues is not static. Catalog revisions do not only add new issues, but they also add, update, or delete existing issues. The 2001 Scott U.S. catalog introduced many new non-error variants and promoted various minor variants to major variants. If you tie yourself too closely to a catalog (as I have done), you will invariably find yourself redesigning pages when new issues are published. Worse, the changes often create a "revision cascade", when insufficient space forces you to not only redesign one page, but many pages afterwards until you find the room for the new issue.
The Big Issues
There are four "big issues" which govern custom album pages - Scale, Time, Cost, and Forethought.
Scale is a subtle concept which may not become evident for some time. When you develop a plan for your album pages, you must take into account that that plan may cover huge numbers of stamps and hundreds or even thousands of album pages. Consider the scale of your task - how many countries it will cover, how many issues, and so on. It is trivial to design a really nice album page, but it is much more difficult to design two hundred pages that are just as nice. With a collection of any size, every task you do will be repeated many times over. If a task is painful to do once, it's going to be significantly more painful to do several hundred times. So consider the effort required to do a task repeatedly, and spend the time to figure out easier ways to accomplish every step that may be repeated.
Time goes hand-in-hand with Scale, in that if it takes you an hour to design one page, it will take you a hundred hours to design a hundred pages. Think about your goal - how quickly you want to finish, what you want to accomplish, and so on. Do one page as a test, and then do the math to figure out how long it will take you to complete your task. Do you really want to spend the next five years simply designing pages? You may have to cut corners or lessen your ambitions in order to meet all of your concerns in a time frame that you consider to be reasonable.
Keep in mind when you develop your plan that every dollar you spend on custom album pages is a dollar you are not spending on stamps or covers. Showgard mounts cost about 6¢ apiece for pre-cut single stamp mounts; for the 1940's issues, that's more than the actual stamps cost. Is that expense really worth it? Also keep in mind that you will inevitably make mistakes and be forced to redo pages, sometimes many times over, and all of that costs you money. Determine how much you really want to spend on your album alone. And remember Scale - it may be cheap enough to do that one page, but you're doing hundreds of pages, not just one.
But at the same time, consider that you may be designing an album that will last you for the rest of your life. And to that end, consider the cost of your album to be a one-time, permanent investment.
One final concern with Cost - when you calculate the cost of performing some task, do not blindly assume that task will be performed exactly once. Let me give you a real life example. It costs me $0.45 + 30 * .06 + $1.50 = $3.75 to mount stamps from a single Celebrate the Century sheet (representing three blank pages, 30 individual 'S' Showgard mounts, and one full page Showgard mount, respectively). However, due to mistakes, changes in global album formatting rules, and the like, I've mounted every Celebrate the Century page four times over, not including the paper costs for my initial page design trials. So I've spent in excess of $15.00 per sheet to mount stamps with a total face value of $5.10. You can greatly decrease your costs by planning very far ahead, as you will greatly reduce your mistakes and oversights, and you won't waste money on mounts before finding those changes.
Forethought is the issue that is most likely to bite you in the butt, and when it does, it really hurts. For any design issue, consider how that issue will manifest itself for any country or topic you collect, for any issue, for any year. If you start designing your pages by doing U.S. 1845 first, you might finish a good hundred years worth of pages and find that 8½x11" paper works just fine. But once you hit the 1970's and 1980's, with their full-sheet setenants and larger booklet panes, you may find yourself out of luck. That's a painful lesson to learn the hard way. Likewise, you may want to print the color shades with every stamp, but what do you do with modern U.S. issues, when every one is "multicolored"? What do you do when you find your first instance of a stamp with six or seven different colors and some fifty characters of color description alone?
Once you have your plan in place, spend the time to review the full span of contries, topics, and their issues, to try and see where your plan may fail. Don't just design pages sequentially - try doing samples from different countries or years, just to see if your plan holds up.
A Lesser Concern: Consistency
When you design your pages, keep one other notion in mind - consistency from page to page. The mark of a truly professional work in any field is consistency - ensuring that a customer knows exactly what to expect at any given moment. In the case of custom album pages, that means consistent fonts, standardized terminology, uniform graphical formats and layouts, and so on. Every misspelling, every case that just "looks different" makes your effort look that much more amateurish. To that end, you should select specific fonts for specific cases and write them down, so you know exactly what you're doing. You should use uniform margins and size offsets, and write them down. For instance, on my pages, you'll note that every issue has a double-line border, with an "inner border" that I add to help guide me when I'm applying the mount to the page. In every case, the inner border is exactly 1mm smaller than the mount, in both directions. And the outer border is exactly 5mm larger than the mount (or 6mm larger than the inner border). The bottom text is .24mm below the outer border, and the top text is .34mm above the outer border. I have these numbers memorized, and I do everything possible to use them at all times.
This isn't as relevant for handwritten pages, but it's still true to an extent. Decide what information you will report, and report it for every issue, in exactly the same format, using the same terms.
I mention this as a "lesser concern" for two reasons. First, you will inevitably find cases where the size or shape of issues force you to deviate. In order to mount a full 50-issue setenant sheet on a 10x11½ inch page, you have absolutely no room for computer printing of any sort. Some issues will fit within your page size, but not with enough room to add text on top or bottom. Some booklet panes are too large to be mounted with proper orientation. For some issues, nobody in the world may know some piece of information, such as the issue date or specific color shade term. Expect that you will encounter the unexpected.
Second, as with any other aspect of philately, your collection is what you want it to be. You may find joy and character in inconsistency. Above all else, make your album your own, and if doing so includes inconsistency, so be it.
There are many ways to present your stamps, ranging in price and level of effort required. You may decide that the best way to present your stamps is to use one of any number of commercial hingeless albums, with printed text inserts describing the issues. You may decide that you want to mount them on custom pages. Those pages may be letter-sized or they may be the more traditional Scott National album-sized (10x11½"). You may use hinges. You may use mounts such as Scott or Showgard mounts. Those mounts might be clear-backed or black-backed. Here are some of the items you should consider:
First and foremost, you must decide how you will store your pages. This fundamentally guides all subsequent decisions. Consider the size of the material you collect - an 8½x11" binder will not work for full sheets, for instance, while a 10x11½" album may be unnecessarily large for a cover collection. Take into consideration the volume of material to be housed, as well as the storage space available to you. My custom U.S. pages span six 3" Scott National binders, plus a 1" Scott National binder for the airmail/BOB issues (plus slipcovers). This requires about two feet of shelf space, 14" high.
Also consider whether or not your material is or will be valuable enough to warrant storage in a safe or in a safe deposit box, and what size restrictions this may impose.
Consider the nature of the binder. Do you want a three ring binder or a two-post binder? The Scott two-post binders are extremely durable, but it is difficult to remove and replace pages in the middle of an album. Three-ring binders are great for removing pages wherever you want, but when a binder becomes extremely full, accessing pages at either end of the album becomes difficult.
Will you be able to make holes of the appropriate size or shape in your custom pages, or will you be able to buy pages or stock sheets that already have the desired holes? What about labeling binders so their contents are obvious? How will your solution hold up to years of handling?
I use 3" and 1" Scott Specialty binders, stock numbers ACBR03 and ACBR01 respectively, along with their slipcovers, ACSR03 and ACSR01, and they work great for me. However, my experience is primarily with a large collection involving a large number of pages. Collections involving smaller countries or groups of fewer issues may need a different solution entirely. Likewise, this solution does not necessarily work with hingeless or stock page solutions.
Note that it is an extremely bad idea to use "magnetic" photo albums to house stamps, as the "magnetic" material is acidic and damages stamps - even through any sort of protective mount.
What are you going to stick the stamps on?
There are many approaches. You may use a hingeless album. You may use stock pages with added handwritten annotations. You may like the conventional printed album page. You may go with simple 8½x11" quadrille 3-hole paper with handwritten annotations. You must decide what works for you, in terms of cost, time, effort, and availability.
Paper alone can be an extensive decision, as there are issues of size, color, content, availability, cost, and so on. Make sure your solution is viable as a long-term archival solution. This means acid-free paper, mounts that do not degrade over time, and so on. As an example, Crystal Mounts are infamous for failing as a long-term archival solution, causing eventual glazing of stamp gum. Also remember that "long-term" means "available" as well. When you select your paper, ensure that it is easy to match, that it will be available for years to come, or that you've bought an awful lot of it up front. It can be devastating to spend years finishing most of your work, only to have to redo almost everything because your paper has changed on you.
First and foremost, decide on the size of the paper. There are three factors here - the size of the album (which may be driven by this choice or which may drive this choice), the size of the material to be mounted, and the expense you're willing to incur. Simply put, 8½x11" solutions are extremely cheap, because such material is common and easy to handle. 10x11½" solutions are much more difficult. The paper is harder to find and more expensive. The binders and supporting material is likewise more rare and expensive. And any supporting hardware becomes expensive. It is cheap and easy to find a printer to print 8½x11" pages. It is considerably harder to find one which will handle a 10" width. The same goes for a scanner - flatbed scanners wider than 8½" are virtually unheard-of.
The Printing Technique
Whatever your collection, you will wish to have some sort of accompanying text, and how you generate that text matters. There are generally three styles of printing:
Handwritten on page
This is the easiest technique, and the most common. One simply lays out a page on quadrille or blank paper of whatever size and notes details of the issue by hand on the page. This can be as formal or informal as the author desires. This creates a collection that is extremely personal, showing off the character of the collector much more than any other technique.
There are several down-sides to this approach. If pages must be laid out a second time to address errors or new issues, all of the handwritten notations must be redone. As such, redoing handwritten pages requires the most work. It also depends upon the collector having legible handwriting... It is also the least "professional-looking" solution. And there is a real danger, depending on ink, mounts, and other factors, that stamps may become damaged from ink that hasn't fully dried or ink which runs when moistened (by, say, a wet hinge or mount).
Computer-generated on page
This technique produces the most professional result, as it shows fewer errors. Laserprinted pages can rival commercial pages in quality (and in fact I've shown my album to people who didn't realize that my pages were custom-made by me). Computer-generated pages save you work in some ways, in that if you discover an error and must rearrange pages or correct errors, the time required to do so is minimal.
There are some down-sides to computer-generated pages. The first is that the resulting pages are more "cold" and impersonal than handwritten pages. Printed pages are also more expensive than hand-written pages, and that cost becomes noticeable when a collection involves many pages. And printed pages are subject to typos, which almost never occur with handwritten pages.
Also note that computer-printed material isn't free from running ink. Laserprinted pages are generally safe. Inkjet printers are as unsafe as many handwritten inks. I've been told that Epson makes very strong statements about the archival quality of their inks. Supposedly, they guarantee that their inks will not fade in natural light for one hundred years on regular paper, and that their inks will not run. I've heard of an independent study of the archival quality of inkjet inks that strongly backs up this claim. I also received anecdotal information from Dr. Robert T. Marous backing up this claim in a particularly impressive (albeit tragic) fashion. I continue to be a fan of laserprinters, But they are expensive solutions for most collectors. For those of you interested in inkjets, I recommend checking out Epson, and treating others with skepticism unless provided with equally strong manufacturer guarantees.
Keep in mind that all bets are off if you use an inkjet printer with even the strongest guarantee, but refill the ink cartridges with those various DIY kits or cheapo refilling services. As an engineer who has been around computers for over 25 years, I'm firmly of the belief that any of the inkjet cartridge refilling options available are a Very Bad Idea, and that the smart consumer will simply buy new OEM refills.
Handwritten or computer-generated text inserts
This technique involves creating handwritten or computer-generated captions on small pieces of paper, which are inserted into stock book pages. In many ways, this is the best of both worlds. The text is movable, so correcting errors or rearranging pages is easy and localized. One down-side is that the inserts are subject to movement and may become displaced over time. It is recommended that adhesives not be used, as they introduce acids and other factors that may affect long-term archival.
The Mounting Technique
One of the most basic elements of your album's look and feel is the way you choose to mount your material in your album. There is little value in discussing this, as this is one of the very first decisions a philatelist or postal historian makes. There are four basic approaches:
An unmounted approach typically uses some form of stock pages to hold issues in an album. These can be conventional cardboard stock pages or more expensive pages with clear plastic pockets. These include Advantage and Schaubek stocksheets. The advantage to these pages is that it is one of the most convenient ways to display material. The disadvantage is that this mounting style is much more likely to damage material than a full mount. Material can move and even fall out. If material is placed on a stocksheet such that it is partially within and partially outside of a pocket, the pocket's pressure can bend the issue. This is especially true of dealer stock pages, where issues are often "stacked" within a single pocket, meaning that in addition to pressure placed on an issue by the pocket, every other issue places pressure on an issue. This method can be used effectively and safely, and it is certainly safer than a hinge, but it requires much greater care than a conventional mount.
A hingeless album is again very convenient for mounting stamps, as it frees a collector from worrying about any paraphenalia other than the album itself. However, hingeless albums do not allow for issues to have selvedge, which is a major drawback. Also, the nature of the mounts varies from product to product, with some providing pockets sealed on three sides and others providing only one closed edge. The single-edged hingeless albums can be even less secure than a stocksheet, as stamps can come loose from mere side-to-side action. The three-sided hingeless albums are almost as secure as a full mount.
A hinged approach is extremely cheap. First, the hinges themselves are inexpensive - thousands for a few dollars. Second, the decision to use hinges frees the collector from the hinged-vs.-NH decision, and hinged material is far less expensive than NH material. The decision to collect previously-hinged material can cut a collector's purchase prices in half. Hinges do involve a risk of damaging material, in that stamps can come free of their hinges. And issues which are mounted improperly can flip over and become bent when the album is closed. However, a hinge gives a view much more direct access to a stamp, and a hinged collection has much more of a "collection" feel and less of an "untouchable showpiece" feel.
I should note that I have a philosophical objection to hinges, in part because I'm such a purist. There is a finite amount of collectible material in existence, and hinges damage material. So whenever hinges are used on a previously-unhinged issue, the pool of available collectible material is decreased slightly. You wouldn't use duct tape to mount the Mona Lisa on a wall, after all. But you won't find many collectors (or even many purists) who will agree with the extreme view I have on the topic.
A mounted approach is the most secure, most professional, and least damaging method of securing material to an album (provided one doesn't use Crystal Mounts, of course). The issue is safe in a two-sided Showgard, Scott, or Hawid mount and not subject to displacement from vertical movement. And provided the mount is of the proper size, the issue is unlikely to work itself free from side-to-side movement. Note, however, that most booklet panes will have side-to-side problems, just by their nature. The downside to such mounts is the cost involved. The mounts themselves are expensive, with a typical pre-cut single stamp mount running about $0.06 each, and full page mounts as much as $2 each. Further, for best results, a collector must maintain a stock of all available mount sizes. I maintain a bag with every size Showgard has issued, which is around $700 worth of mounts.
Software for Printing Album Pages
There are many products available for printing album pages, and this list is far from complete.
Microsoft Word is a common and convenient approach, since many people already have this or another word processor at home. It's everywhere, everyone can handle it, and it performs basic publication functionality with little hassle.
Microsoft Excel is another approach that some collectors take. It doesn't offer all of the publication functionality that Word does, but it shares so much of Word's functionality as to be "close enough" for many collectors.
Similar to Word is Adobe FrameMaker, the premier publication tool for UNIX-based platforms (although available under Windows as well). If you have it, you know it, and if you haven't heard of it, you shouldn't bother looking into it, as you're better off with Word, probably.
Some collectors have luck with Acrobat tools. However, the freely-available Acrobat tools are read-only, meaning that a collector must obtain pages from someone else who is capable of creating such pages from another word processing format, and an existing page cannot be edited. Bill Steiner has a good collection of Acrobat pages ready to be printed. In the world of custom album pages, Bill is "the man".
Microsoft Publisher is one step up from Excel and Word, offering many of the layout tools of high-end publication software. It's a good solution for someone looking for something better than Word but unwilling to go all the way to the next level.
The high end solution is Adobe PageMaker, which is the king of publication functionality. It's very expensive, and it is harder to learn to use than Word or similar applications. But it does a much better job of merging text with graphical elements such as stamp spaces than any of the previous options. A PageMaker user further has the option of creating Acrobat versions of completed pages and distributing them to others in read-only fashion. Further, a user of PageMaker can take advantage of the templates offered by Bill Steiner. If you're interested in spending money on the high end approach, a good starter path is to get PageMaker, then buy Bill's pages and/or templates, and use them as a first attempt. As you get more familiar with PageMaker and develop a feel for what you want, you can edit the pages and move towards the look and feel that you envision.
There are other high-end approaches, such as QuarkXPress, but if you're using QuarkXPress to create album pages, then you're just showing off... One can also use LaTeX, PostScript, Adobe Illustrator, and virtually any tool capable of sending instructions to a printer. But for most of these tools, if you know about them, then you don't need me to tell you about them.
A Discussion of Copyright Issues
It's worth talking a bit about copyright issues, as it is easy to run afoul of copyright law when designing your own pages. Please note that I'm not a lawyer, and you should consult a lawyer when in doubt. First, some clarification of copyright law.
Many collectors disbelieve one or the other of the above, and they're simply wrong. Generally speaking, you are unlikely to run into threats of legal action, as the owner would have to both know about your violation and care about it. Nevertheless, it's common publishing courtesy, as well as basic common sense, to simply avoid breaking the law.
Copyright law regarding stamp collections is kind of funny. The law says you cannot copyright facts. The law says you can copyright the presentation of facts. Such a copyright is often referred to as a "compilation copyright". For instance, a map is effectively a collection of facts. One cannot claim that "my map shows Smith Street, so nobody can print the term 'Smith Street'". The existence of Smith Street is a fact, and therefore not copyrightable. However, the way the lines are drawn, the choice of fonts, the decision as to which features are shown and which aren't, all such things contribute to the overall style of presentation, and that presentation style is what is copyrighted in a "compilation copyright".
So how does this apply to stamp albums? Well, like the "Smith Street" example, you can place the text label "5th International Philatelic Exhibition" above the FIPEX souvenir sheet, because that souvenir sheet has that text printed upon it, and that text is simply a fact. But if you arrange your pages just like someone else arranges their pages, you're violating his copyright. If you steal all of your text labels verbatim (or even mostly verbatim) from an album or catalog, you're violating a copyright, because not every label is a matter of fact.
Another "gotcha" may lie in your choice of what to collect and what not to collect. Part of a compilation copyright is also exactly which elements form the compilation. If your album contains spaces for exactly the same number and type of issues as another album, that's also a copyright violation. While you might think that "exactly which issues exist" would be a matter of fact, it isn't. It's a matter of opinion. Not everyone agrees with Scott that "this issue is a major variant, while this is a minor color variant, while this one doesn't even get a letter designation". And if your choice of what to include and what to exclude exactly matches the choices reflected in some other work, it can be legally argued that there is enough subjectivity in philately that you could only have come to the same conclusion by stealing from the other work.
As an aside, the mapping industry is so aware of this issue that it is an industry practice to insert "copyright traps" - individual pieces of information which are distinctively false. That way, if anyone else publishes a work with the exact same mistake, the original publisher can sue the later work for copyright infringement, and the infringer has no defense whatsoever.
There are some more obscure possible violations. In general, if your album is "just like" some work in some way, you're violating a copyright.
There's a further complication, in that the Scott catalog numbering system is in itself copyrighted by Scott. They created it and they claim the exclusive rights on its usage. If you look at the beginning of a Scott catalog, you will see that they grant many exceptions to allow for normal stamp business to be conducted, but those exceptions don't technically cover custom album pages. In general, if you are designing your pages strictly for your own use, and if you don't intend to make pages for anyone else (for free or otherwise), then Scott will allow you to use their catalog numbers on your pages. You may notice that Bill Steiner's album pages do not include Scott numbers, for exactly this reason. You're allowed to use a select few Scott catalog numbers in works, as a matter of "fair use". But any systematic usage doesn't fall under "Fair Use", and virtually any usage of catalog numbers in albums will qualify as "systematic".
There's a third element that I'm unfamiliar with. The U.S. government holds some copyrights, possibly including copyrights on individual stamp designs. It may be a copyright violation to include stamp images in quantity on album pages without permission. I'm really unsure here, so ask a lawyer if this is an issue for you.