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About ten years ago, contributors began asking me for advice on how they could make good images of their certificates. Their requests gradually increased to the point where I decided it would be easier to compile information in a special section on my web site. (See Scan-home.asp.) While I use railroad certificates for examples, the information applies to all certificates.
Cost. There are several reasons that collectors started asking for advice. The cost of scanners, especially letter-size (A4) scanners, dropped to below $100. They became more reliable and easier to use. Hard drive sizes increased and prices dropped so precipitously that it became possible to store hundreds of images on home computers without "breaking the bank."
Uses. As prices dropped, it became cost-effective to make excellent full-color images for insurance and record-keeping purposes. Decent home scanners prompted collectors to start sending hundreds of images to help with my railroad database project; it seemed everyone enjoyed having a way to contribute to this hobby. Many of my contributors also started scanning certificates so they could post images to their own personal web sites for everyone else to see. And, of course, many collectors wanted images so they could sell certificates on eBay.
Investment necessary. As easy as it sounds, scanning certificates requires investment in both money and time. Letter-size scanners are affordable, but if someone wants to scan entire bonds, the cost for A3-size (tabloid) scanners can be a shock. Then there is the cost of software to manipulate images. Finally comes the time necessary to climb the steep learning curve in order to figure out both machinery and software. Fortunately, if collectors can avoid (or at least delay) becoming perfectionists, entry-level scanners and software will create perfectly acceptable images for as little as a $100.
Let's look at the three concerns I hear most often.
What kinds of scanner should I buy? First off, you want a flatbed scanner. You NEVER want to send certificates through a feeding mechanism. While prices vary dramatically, most top-tier manufacturers have decent machinery that works well with either Windows, Mac or Linux computers. From my viewpoint, the weak link is not the hardware, but rather the software that controls scanners. The software that comes with most scanners is "adequate," a term I do not use in a flattering way. If you don't like the software that comes with your scanner, and I generally don't, then you should check out VueScan, a third party vendor that writes software for almost every scanner. After avoiding the purchase for too long, I can now testify without reservation that VueScan is a great way to bypass the free, but barely usable, manufacturer software.
What if my scanner is too small to scan large certificates? Don't worry. Simply install good "stitching" software. That is software that automatically stiches two or more images together. There are two tricks to stitching images. 1) Scan your certificates in pieces, all facing the same direction. 2) Insure adequate overlap (1.5 inches / 3 cm) between scans. My favorite stitching program is "Image Composite Editor" by Microsoft Research. It is free, but only works on the Windows platform.
What kind of software should I use to improve my images? This is the first question everyone asks after they have scanned a few items. They always want to fix images that are crooked, dark or the color if off.
Everyone has heard of Adobe Photoshop®. It is the 900-pound gorilla of image manipulation. Photoshop owns the market because of its incredible flexibility, power and features. It has a large selection of "plug-ins" created by third-party vendors that vastly expand Photoshop's native abilities. Consequently, every other image editing software compares itself to Photoshop. Unfortunately, Photoshop is expensive and targeted to people involved in creative visual industries.
Of course, Photoshop has many competitors, each with loyal users. PaintShop Pro and Photoshop Elements are two popular, low-cost alternatives. More powerful alternatives include Photo-Paint, part of the CorelDraw suite and Gimp, a free, open source program.
You can find even more programs by searching on the internet using the keywords, "photo manipulation software." Many products are free or low-cost. Because of copyright issues, programmers take very different approaches in creating image editing programs. While those programs usually end up with remarkably similar capabilities, usability and logic appeals to users very differently. Consequently, I stress two important recommendations: always try before buying and always make sure there are third-party instructional books available for the exact version you are considering.
Here is why we scan. The top image is a photograph and bottom image is a scan of the same certificate. The scanned image was created using a flat-bed scanner set at 300 dpi (dots per inch). The photo might be quicker to make, but which image would be most appealing to you if you saw it on eBay or a personal website?
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