A Collector’s Quest for the Ultimate Federal Set

In today’s post, we will meet a stamp collector on a mission to assemble one of the finest sets of federal duck stamps, ever. We will learn more about the production side of our hobby and gain an understanding for how a single step in this process – perforating –  can greatly affect aesthetics, demand and value.

However, our main purpose is to partake in more enthralling philatelic eye candy and, in so doing, help assuage the uncertainty of the day. So take a little time to loose yourself in his collection.



Postage stamps were first introduced in Great Britain in 1840 and later in the United States in 1847. At this time it was necessary to separate the stamps with scissors (see Figures 1 and 2).



Figure 1. 1840 “Penny Black” top sheet margin block of six. Photo courtesy of Spink Auctions.



Figure 2. U.S. five cent 1847 unused block of 16 (The Lord Crawford Block). Photo courtesy of Siegel Auction Galleries.



This proved to be inconvenient for postal clerks and time consuming (costly) for large businesses. As you can see from the photos above, the spaces between the stamps were small and, in many cases, the cutting process also damaged the stamps.

After many years of frustration, in 1847, a man named Henry Archer invented a machine known as the “Archer Roulette.” The device produced a series of small cuts in the spaces between the stamps, aimed at facilitating easy separation. While his rouletting machine would not provide a permanent solution to the problem – it did lead to Archer to invent another machine that produced a series of small holes between the stamps and this was much more efficient.

Archer patented the “Comb” perforating machine in 1849 and sold it in 1853. In 1854, David Napier and Son Ltd developed an improved perforating machine based on Archer’s patent. That year, the British “Penny Red” became the first stamp to be issued with perforations (see Figure 3).



Figure 3. 1854-57 “Penny Red” block of 24. Photo courtesy of David Feldman Auctions.



Also in 1854, William and Henry Bemrose (Bemrose & Co) developed their own device for stamp separation. Initially it employed roulettes or slots between the stamps but it was later redesigned as a rotary perforating machine.

In 1855, Bemrose & Co sold their rouletting device to the American securities printer Toppan, Carpenter & Co. (see The Nebraska Pheasant & Quail Stamps – Part One). Toppan & Carpenter converted the device into a perforating machine by replacing the original wheels which utilized knife blades and grooves with new wheels employing pins and holes. In 1857, they produced the the first perforated U.S. postage stamps (see Figures 4 and 5).



Figure 4. 1857-61 One cent block of four. Photo courtesy of Siegel Auction Galleries.



Figure 5. Rotary perforating machine, circa 1861. Image courtesy of the National Postal Museum.



It soon became common practice to perforate stamps, worldwide. There were relatively few changes made to the design of the rotary wheel perforating machine between the time Toppan & Carpenter perfected it in the years prior to the Civil War and those leading up to WWI, when such devices were used at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP). Typically, they were operated by two women (see Figures 6 and 7).



Figure 6. Old postcard (1907-1914) showing postage stamps being perforated at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.



Figure 7. A similar view to the one above, captioned (Click to enlarge).



The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum has a larger Stickney bar and wheel perforator which was used following WWI. After they were printed, sheets of flat plate stamps were fed through the machine one time. The machines utilized matching sets of pins and holes on wheels (in front) for making vertical holes and on bars (behind the wheels) for horizontal holes (see Figures 8 and 9).



Figure 8. Bar and wheel perforating machine, circa 1918. Photo courtesy of the National Postal Museum.



Figure 9. Close up showing the matching sets of pins and holes on the wheels. Courtesy of the NPM.



The matching sets of pins and holes on perforating machines removed small circular pieces of paper from the blank spaces between the stamp designs. The resulting holes are known as perforations and the tiny pieces of paper between the holes are commonly referred to as “perfs.” At this point, the stamps could be easily separated by hand (see Figure 10).



Figure 10. Small, circular pieces of paper that were removed by a perforating machine (back of a British stamp).



The Effect of Perforations on Aesthetics

The widespread use of perforating machines had a profound effect on stamp aesthetics. Ideally, the holes would be located in the exact center of the blank spaces between the images – resulting in a perfectly balanced, pleasing effect. However, that is rarely the case. From one sheet to another – and even within sheets and individual panes of stamps – there can often be found a wide range in deviations away from this ideal (see Figure 11).



Figure 11. Notice the the wide range of centering on the stamps from this partial sheet of one cent stamps – especially in the upper right area.



As many (certainly not all) collectors of anything like for their things to have a pleasing appearance – perforations became a determining factor as whether or not something was desirable or “collectible” and to what extent. Before I go on, it is important to understand that adherence to this collectibles ground rule is directly related to the population of items extant.

In other words, If millions of a stamp, baseball or postcard were printed and hundreds of thousands have survived – the rule tends to apply to a greater degree. If, on the other hand, only 100 were printed and 30 or less have survived, it logically follows the rule applies to a much lesser degree (beggars can’t be choosers).

When the perforations are applied in such a manner that a stamp is “perfectly centered” within the  border or “margin” between the image and the perforations the design is framed in a pleasing way to all (see Figure 12). The same can be said for the design of a baseball card within the white border.



Figure 12. The design of this stamp is very well centered within the perforations and, therefore, pleasing to the eye.



At this point I like to employ the following analogy: When you have a photo or piece of art framed, the framer uses some kind of tape or (preferably) corner mounts to keep the object centered within the matboard and or frame. Most people would agree the result is pleasing to the eye.

Now, say a rambunctious child causes the framed piece to fall off the wall, loosening the object and causing it to slide toward a lower corner. You now have to bring it back to the framer and have it fixed. In the meantime, you have to live with an image that is badly off center. Is this pleasing? Probably… not so much. Many people feel the same way about their collectibles (see Figure 13).



Figure 13. To many collectors, this poorly centered baseball card looks like a kid knocked it off the wall.



Stamp Grading, Demand and Value

Within virtually all hobbies, some sort of grading system applies. There are several reasons for this; universally accepted grades are an indispensable part of auction descriptions and help facilitate the buying, selling and trading of collectibles over long distances where it is not convenient for both parties to meet in person.

Historically, grading systems have also served an unstated purpose – they are often a means to “create greater value” within collectible areas that otherwise have little intrinsic value. Let’s take the example of stamps or baseball cards where millions were printed and hundreds of thousands exist.

In order for collectibles that exist in those quantities (or supply) to justify more than a nominal price, the number of people seeking to buy them (the demand) ordinarily would have to exceed “hundreds of thousands.” During extended periods of economic expansion (such as the 1980s) such transient demand presents itself and prices for collectibles such as post-1960 baseball cards can be expected to rise – sometimes a great deal.

In lieu of such demand, grading has been used to divide the overall population of a collectible up into many smaller ones. The unstated goal is to create small enough population numbers for each grade where the demand in any given year exceeds the market supply and an appropriate pricing structure is supported.

At this point, a basic economic principal is applied and “prices are used to ration scarce goods.” In general, the stricter the grade – the smaller the population of such stamps or baseball cards is “created” and the higher the price.

In my opinion, this is not a bad thing per se, in that it does not prevent people from participating in and enjoying a particular hobby. Just as most people are perfectly happy with something less than a D color, flawless diamond in their (or their spouse’s) wedding ring – I have found that most collectors are perfectly happy with a nice-looking stamp that is not in one of the very top grades.

If some collectors have the time, money and are seeking a greater “difficulty of acquisition” challenge – more power to them. The fact of the matter is that the practice of grading allows for the business side of many hobbies to remain viable during economic contractions or recessions.



Traditional Stamp Grading

As we delve further into stamp grading, it should be understood that while much of the discussion in today’s blog revolves around centering – the relative space between the image and the perforations on all four sides – that in order to receive a high grade the stamps have to otherwise be sound; they can have no stains, creases, thins, etc.

It should also be understood that the stamps may not have been altered in any way: regummed, repaired or reperforated. Some stamps have been reperforated to improve their aesthetic and this, in fact, renders them defective.

Historically, stamp defects have been noted on the certificates provided by professional philatelic authentication and expertizing organizations such as the American Philatelic Society (APS) and the Philatelic Foundation (PF).

Grading, as it pertains specifically to stamp centering originated with professional stamp dealers and it was not until the end of the 20th century that third party organizations such as the APS and PF began to render opinions on centering as part of their service.

Traditionally, stamp grading involved fewer classifications (or populations) than it does today. If the perforations were cutting into the design on one or more sides it was graded poor; if the perforations were touching the design on one or more sides it was average; if they just cleared the design on one or more sides it was fine.

The higher grades of fine to very fine (f-vf), very fine (vf), extra fine or extremely fine (xf) and superb were somewhat arbitrary and were better explained by way of an illustration or photograph. The Scott Specialized Catalog of United States Stamps & Covers has such an illustration included in the Introduction (see Figure 14).



Figure 14. Grading guide included in the Introduction to the Scott Specialized Catalog (Click to enlarge).



Traditionally, the grade of superb was reserved for stamps whose centering met the ideal discussed above – the image was perfectly centered within the perforations on all four sides. Unfortunately, all of the “arbitrary” grades, including superb, were sometimes subject to abuse.



Professional Stamp Grading

Professional grading of stamps has come into widespread use in recent years. Originating for the coin and currency hobbies, grading is now offered for other major collectibles, including movie lobby cards, sports cards and stamps.

With regard to stamps, currently the third-party grading services are The Philatelic Foundation (PF), Professional Stamp Experts (PSE) and Philatelic Stamp Authentication and Grading (PSAG).

Grading differs from traditional expertizing in that the items are scored on an pseudo-scientific numerical basis. Much of this is concerned with centering, the relative distance between the outer edge of the stamp design and the inner edge of the holes (perforations) on all four sides. An electronic device is used to measure the distance and this data is collected and used by the grader to assign a numerical score.

Ostensibly, the higher the score, the greater the value of the item. One grading service, PSE, offers a Set Registry where collectors can compare their sets to others, worldwide. There are many different registries for federal duck stamps; for used, OG (original gum, hinged), NH (never hinged – see Figure 15), etc. To be taken to an index page for the various duck stamp registries, click here.



Figure 15. the PSE Set Registry for Federal Duck Stamps.



Specific to Duck Stamps

The first federal duck stamp was issued in 1934 and was valid for the 1934-35 fiscal year. The stamps were printed in large sheets of 112 subjects. these sheets were then cut in the center both horizontally and vertically to produce four individual panes of 28. This resulted in ten stamps along two sides of each pane (36%) having straight edges (see Figure 16).



Figure 16. 1935-36 federal duck stamp (RW2), complete pane from the lower left (LL) of a sheet. Photo courtesy of Richard Prager. Note the straight edges along the top and right sides.



These stamps are, by their very nature, automatically eliminated from contending for a high grade. This is important to keep in mind when considering the challenge in putting together a set of duck stamps in a uniform, top grade. Starting with the 1946-47 issue, the sheets were printed with horizontal and vertical gutters (perforated blank spaces) between the four panes. Therefore, when the sheets were cut into panes – all 112 stamps were perforated on all four sides and are potentially eligible to receive a high grade (see Figure 17).



Figure 17. 1953-54 federal duck stamp (RW20) complete pane from the lower left (LL) of a sheet. Note the gutters along the top and right sides allow for all 28 stamps to be perforated on all four sides.



Starting with the first 1959-60 issue, designed by Maynard Reece, the sheet size was increased to 120 subjects and the gutters remained – so that when they were cut into panes, all 30 stamps were perforated on all four sides (see Figure 18).



Figure 18. 1959-60 federal duck stamp (RW26) complete pane from the lower right (LR) of a sheet. Note the gutters along the top and left sides allow for all 30 stamps to be perforated on all four sides.



Meet Bob Budesa

Robert Budesa was born in the Bronx on April 9, 1951. Both of his grandfathers were collectors; one coins and one stamps. These men were a great influence on young Robert and he became involved in both hobbies at an early age.

Bob, as he prefers to be called, attended Samuel Gompers High School in one of the toughest parts of the Bronx. Samuel Gompers was a vocational and technical education high school and it prepared Bob to pursue a future career in electrical engineering.

After graduating, Bob attended NYU and subsequently found work as an electrician in the city. During this time, Bob maintained his interests in coins and stamps. Eventually, Bob achieved his career goal and became an electrical engineer.

The arbitrary nature of traditional stamp grading did not endear itself to Bob and so while he kept up his U.S. stamp collection, he spent most of his time pursuing coins – mint state U.S. coins graded MS-60 or higher – where he knew exactly what he was getting for his hard earned money. He especially liked Morgan Dollars and Peace Dollars (see Figure 19).



Figure 19. 1882 Morgan Dollar, graded MS-65+ by PCGS. Photo courtesy of Lovable Collectibles.



When professional stamp grading came into being in 2004, it immediately caught Bob’s attention. At this point in his life, Bob was looking for a serious challenge. He took some time to study numerous grading reports and realized that within the populations of graded federal duck stamps – a very low percentage were awarded “J” for jumbo (as in larger than normal margins).

It did not take Bob long to figure out that one of the most difficult federal duck stamps to acquire in a high grade was the 1938-39 issue (RW5), artwork created by Roland Clark. In 2005, one came up at auction, graded 95J – and Bob made sure he was the successful bidder (see Figure 20).



Figure 20. Bob’s first graded duck – an RW5 graded 95J.



Now owning the consensus most difficult piece, Bob set assigned to himself a daunting task – to assemble the ultimate federal duck stamp set. Not only would every stamp have to be graded 90 or above (he is shooting for all 95-100J) but every certificate would have to state the stamp had jumbo margins!

Bob sought help from another Bob, as in Robert Dumaine of Sam Houston Philatelics, who was then starting to make a market in graded federal duck stamps. Dumaine provided many of the stamps in the collection early on, before Bob (Budesa) starting figuring out he parameters of high grade federal duck stamps with jumbo margins. Then he began to submit his own stamps to PSE.

For over ten years now, Bob Budesa has tried to acquire every federal duck stamp he could find that might earn a high grade, followed by that all important “J”. He submits all of the stamps to PSE. Sometimes he gets lucky and is able to add a stamp to his collection; most of the time they don’t come back with the J and he gives them to his collector friends.

Bob points out that it is not possible to obtain the J on stamps past 1986-87 (RW53). At this point, out of the 53 possible stamps, Bob has 48. While a remarkable feat already –  Bob knows in his heart that he will someday complete the short set (RW1-53) of graded jumbos. Then he can relax and savor his ultimate accomplishment.

All of us at Waterfowl Stamps and More are rooting for you, Bob! In the meantime he has kindly agreed to share with us those he has collected so far. So, enjoy these beauties (see Figures 21-26). To see Bob Budesa’s entire collection in one gallery, click here.



Figure 21. RW2 graded 98J.


Figure 22. RW4 graded 95J.


Figure 23. RW8 graded 95J.


Figure 24. RW18 graded 98J.


Figure 25. RW31 graded 95J.


Figure 26. RW34 graded 100J.




We first met Bob when he came by our booth at New York 2016 and introduced himself. This was recently after the initial launch of Waterfowlstampsandmore.com and after chatting for a while, we were all excited to display his fabulous collection on the website. He was too busy with his work – until he was ordered to shelter in place a couple of months ago. Stay safe, everyone.



A large stamp perforating machine at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, circa 1938. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.




  1. Phil Scionka on October 25, 2020 at 2:03 am

    Finding a XFJ was a great accomplishment when I collected First issue US revenues. They were more common amongst the imperfs. More than once I created a XFJ from a faulty multiple ie a damaged block. Perforated stamps made this technique impossible.
    Nice ducks ! I will have to look at my inventory haven’t seen them in 20 years or so.

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