To many, the plating of the worlds most famous stamp is a mystery, indeed it was to me when I first started stamp collecting.
But the plating of the 1d black can be both absorbing and rewarding. The 1d black was placed on sale to the public on May 2nd 1840 for use on May 6th.
It was printed in sheets of 240. From a series of plates, each plate was manufactured from the same master dye. This dye was engraved and hardened before being pressed 240 times on to a softened plate.
This plate was then hardened, cleaned and polished and eventually set to print many millions of stamps, 68 million 1d blacks were printed and released from 12 different plates, numbered 1 to 11, plate 1 being 2 plates, the softened version plate 1A and the hardened and longer wearing plate 1B.
The plate numbers appeared in the sheet margin at the bottom left and right hand corners.
At the end of 1840 it was decided to change the colour of the stamps to red brown as the black cancellers used in the later stages of this issue did not show up too clearly on the black stamp.
Plate 11 was the first plate produced solely for printing stamps in the new red brown shade, due to last minute shortages of the black stamp before the red could be issued, it was, for two days only, used as an emergency to supply the late demand. Plate 11 therefore is by far the rarest of all the 1d blacks and is highly sought in any condition.
In order to plate a 1d black we must first look at the corner letters, on each sheet there are 240 differently lettered stamps, the first stamp of the top row is lettered AA. The row continues to AL and then starts at the 2nd row BA to BL and so on throughout the sheet until the final row TA to TL.
These letters are the only part of the design that was put in my hand. After the steel dye had been rolled 240 times to produce the plate, the letters were then punched in. It is therefore possible to collect a 1d black lettered say, AA from each plate, although the stamps looks identical it can be seen that in each case the letters differ in position, some may be high, others low or to the left or right, some may be crooked or doubled where the punch was struck twice, so these letters play an important role in plating the black. As the dye was pressed during the manufacture of this plate, weakness occurred, some of the arms of the top left hand star became invisible in certain plates, known as the 5 o clock, 7 o clock ray flaws because of their positions on the clock face appearance of the star. These rays became faint and disappeared and this clue is a guide to some plates.
Let us suppose that a 1d black shows a ray flaw in the top left star, as this was only found on plates 1A, 1B and 2, then it must come from one of these three. The engravers finally saw what had happened and retouched the dye, so this clue has your black almost plated, but there are other clues, the O flaw, where the O in one of one penny grows a leg, much like a Q in appearance. Plates 7, 8, 9 and 10 have this flaw, it is faint in plate 7 but gets worse in plate 10 and there are three stages of the flaw, known as O flaw 1, 2 and 3. Faint to pronounced as the dye works through the four plates. Plate 11 has a single flaw that sets it apart from the others. A 7 o clock ray flaw in the right star. It is completely missing and very clearly so, it is the easiest and rarest of blacks to plate.
If a stamp is on a dated cover, your chances of finding its plate are even better, if the cover is dated say August 1840, then that black can only come from 1 to 6, as later plates were not set for printing until after this date, if the stamp shows no ray flaws then it must be from plate 3, 4, 5 or 6. Narrowing the field by eye is relatively simple, it is when you want to pin point the plate that you must look closer at your black much closer in fact for fainter, slighter clues are hidden in this most perfect of designs. With a strong glass (a watch makers glass in perfect) and a good light, there are many tiny flaws that show up as pointers to the correct plate. 'Re entries'. The most substantial variety, where the roller impression on the newly prepared plate was not firm enough, resulting in loss of design. The engravers sometimes rolled the impression over again or re entered the design by hand, engraving or touching up lines or strokes, usually visible in the corner stars, they look hairy or bitty with doubling or odd marks that should not be there.
Also marks in the wording and lower squares 'Guide Lines'. Simply lines scratched on to the plate to guide the dye roller, usually seen horizontally or vertically in the star and letter squares and sometimes through the value wording, fairly clear to see in most cases. 'Extended Lines'. Going past the design at the corners. 'Dots and Spots'.
Again for guiding purpose in laying the plate. All over the place but generally in or around the letter squares. 'Double or crooked letters'. A good guide. 'The colour of the cancel', red for early plates, black for later plates although all plates can be found in RED and BLACK, but a reasonable guide especially for plate 10, which is rare, with red cancel and plate 11, which is almost always in black.
But to be honest it is impossible for all but the true black specialist to plate a stamp by eye, if you handle them in quantity which is a dream of course we would all like to realise, then with careful study you can plate more or less without turning to the reference works on the subject. If however you have just a few blacks then you will need to get a book and use it with this short guide.
Gibbons specialist red book vol 1 is a good aid, although not outstanding.
'The Postage Stamps of Great Britain Vol 1' by Seymore is better and if you have both books it is easier. Ormond plating cards in folder give a good break down with most flaws listed, but by far the best book is 'Guide lines to the Penny Black' by Litchfield, with almost 100% success every time.
Plating the 1d black is not easy but it is a most rewarding and worthwhile pastime that can be polished to a fine art. Plating penny reds is exactly the same but much harder, as instead of twelve plates to choose from, there are over 170, but it is always a delight to turn the page of a collection and see a fine plated set of penny blacks.
Yes, very nice indeed.