Stamp perforation and separation


This article is devoted to the process of stamps separation – one of the key stages of a stamp creation. Separation is one of the most important terms for stamp collectors in philately. It generally refers to the means provided for separating the stamps. The common methods of separation include:

  • Perforation –the stamps being separated with columns of small holes

  • Rouletting – the stamps being separated with small horizontal and vertical cuts

  • Die-cutting – the stamps are separated using a metal die—usually used for self-adhesive stamps.

There are other variations of stamp separations and we will try to take closer look at the most common ones in this article. So let`s begin!

Early years and stamp separation

The earliest stamp issues did not have any means provided for separating, and the stamps were usually cut apart by hand with scissors. This was not very convenient method and the stamps created using it are now called imperforate or unperforated. As many imperforate stamps were afterwards issued perforated, the collectors must pay attention while buying stamps because they can be actually trimmed items. The margins on all four sides of a real imperforate stamp should be wide and the total width of the stamp greater than the distance from hole to hole of the perforated ones. 

The inconvenience of cutting the stamps apart with scissors forced Henry Archer of London to experiment in 1848 upon a method of stamp separation that would be much easier and faster. This method consisted in the following - the strength of the paper between the stamps was reduced so that they could be torn apart without any damage to the stamps. His first attempt resulted in irregular failed, but lately he managed to achieve the result of regular rows of small holes punched out in straight lines. 

General methods of stamp separation

Separations are fulfilled by three general methods, rouletting, perforating and die-cutting. In rouletting the paper is cut partly or wholly through but no paper is removed; in perforating a part of the paper is removed; diecutting is a method that is used to separate self-adhesive stamps with the help of a special machine.


Rouletting derives its name from the French roulette, a small wheel, like the rowel of a spur, which is passed over the paper, causing little slits in the paper between stamps, alternate spaces being left uncut. The French expression for this separation is percage and the German, durchstick. As the shape of the wheel points are not straight lines the cuts will correspond to their shape, and this gives rise to a variety of roulettes known generally by their French names. One of the most famous type of rouletting is serpentine.


Stamp perforation and separation

The second chief method of stamp separation is perforation. This is the most widely used method that is employed by all countries. By this process the paper between the stamps is cut away in a line of holes, leaving some untouched spaces that hold the stamps together. When the time comes the items are easily separated without being damaged. The untouched paper between the stamps are called the teeth of the perforation, and of course project from the stamp when it is torn from the sheet. The width of the teeth and the diameter of the holes between are usually equal. 


Die-cutting is a method of stamp separation that is mostly used to separate self-adhesive stamps. Modern self-adhesive stamps are very rarely perforated, instead they are die-cut. In other words, a special machine die cuts out the sides of the stamps. As self-adhesive stamps are usually released in a coil form, the metal die cuts through the stamp paper and leaves the backing paper intact, providing the collectors with an opportunity  to leave the unused stamps in their coil. 

Stamp perforation and separation

Sometimes die-cut stamps are cut to simulate the look of traditional perforations; this is called a «serpentine» die-cut. And sometimes such stamps can be cut into fancy shapes adding a special flavor to a philatelic item. 

Perforation gauge

As the size of the perforation often gives us a hint to the date when the stamps was released, it is necessary to measure them and describe them by a gauge number. Usually there are 12 or 13 perforations that can be counted in the space of two centimeters. 

Stamp perforation and separation

This space is considered by collectors as the length in which perforations shall be measured, and the number of perforations in two centimeters is called the gauge of that perforation. Thus a stamp perforated 12 would have perforations that take a span of two centimeters. The current United States stamps are perforated 12, and give a great material for testing the above rule. 

How to measure stamp perforation

Stamp perforation and separation

The surest way to measure perforations is to paste a black band on a white card exactly two centimeters wide and lay the stamp on it so that the center of a tooth coincides with the edge of the black band;  then you need to count the number of perforations to the other edge of the band. The number you`ll get by fulfilling these simple instructions is the gauge of that perforation. If the center of a tooth falls on the other edge the perforation is an even gauge, such as 13, 16, etc., but if a hollow falls on the edge it is a half gauge such as 13 etc.  

Stamp perforation and separation

A perforation with small holes and teeth close together is called a fine perforation ; one with large holes and teeth far apart is called a coarse perforation; and one in which the holes are not clean cut, but jagged, is called a rough perforation. In some cases the gauge of the perforations on the side of a stamp differs from that of the top and bottom, and such stamps are said to have compound perforations. In measuring compound perforations the gauge of the top is usually given first and then the gauge of the sides of the stamp.

Errors and oddities

Stamp perforation and separation

The process of stamp separation is mechanical, that is why many things can go wrong causing some philatelic errors and oddities. In such a way so called blind perforations have appeared. These are the perfs that occur when a hole is not completely punched out. The stamp collectors may also find the off-center perfs that cut into the design of the stamp. One more oddity may appear when a stamp has different perforations on opposite sides. The philatelic items that have some errors in their perforations are often called misperfs.

We would also like you to get acquainted with other stamps that have some odd perforations. 


Perfins are the stamps that have somebody`s initials perforated on them. In the early times such stamps were considered to be beneath the collectors` notice and were often destroyed. Nowadays there is some controversy among stamps collectors. Their views are divided. Some philately enthusiasts think of perfins as of interesting philatelic material, but many avoid them like the plague.

Stamp perforation and separation

However, a lot of perfins are now listed in the catalogue and some of them carry a price higher than they would have as normals. This is, for example, the China ‘Large Dragons’ perforated ‘NCH’ by the North China Herald.  

Coil stamps

Coil stamps were initially designed for use on automatic stamp affixing machines. They are printed in long rolled strips with non-perforated edges on two opposite sides and perforated ones on the other two sides. 

Stamp perforation and separation

When coil stamps first appeared for use many stamp collectors ignored them as they did not consider such stamps to be separate and valuable items. As a result, some coil stamps are quite rare and expensive today.

A closer look at imperforate stamps…

Stamp perforation and separation

An imperforate stamp is a stamp that has no perforations as it has been not punched but cut by hand with scissors. These stamps are peculiar for early years when there were no printing machines.  An imperforate stamp has straight but often uneven edges making the stamp off-centered. As imperforate stamps are very old and rare, they are often highly priced in the world of philately. The most expensive are the imperforate stamps that were neatly and evenly cut on all four sides.

As you see, the perforations are one of the key aspects in defining the value of a stamp. They also provide the stamp collectors with one of the most effective ways to distinguish different stamps (a perf 10 may be rarer and more valuable than a perf 11 of the same design). So, perforations are one of the most important aspects that determine the value of a philatelic item and define its place on the philatelic market.