Sports Card Trimming: How to Spot It and Avoid It

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Card trimming may make a card look better, but such alterations can also forever destroy a card’s value.

Card collecting and dealing is fun. After all, it should be about fun, right? The father of our hobby, Jefferson Burdick, never cared for values being assigned to cards. To him, collecting was about the thrill of the chase, not the potential for a profit.

But there is a portion of the hobby that has become about profit, potentially a very large profit. And where there is the potential for profit, there will be fraud.

Like any other tangible asset such as collectibles, counterfeiting and alterations are two of the biggest areas of fraud that buyers have to be aware of and have some basic knowledge of.

Here we’re going to look at probably the most commonly seen card alteration: trimming.

A Ruler Isn’t Enough

Let’s put the biggest myth concerning trimming to bed straight away. The ruler is not how to determine if a card has been trimmed or not. In fact, if you are relying on measuring a card to detect trimming, you are going to buy some trimmed cards. The only way to determine if a card has been trimmed is to examine the cards edge. That’s not to say that there is no benefit in measuring cards, it just means that a trimmed card does not necessarily have to be undersized.

Trimming and the detection of trimming also varies from card issue to card issue. Cards like T206s and Goudey cards have specific characteristics created by the ways in which they were originally cut by the printer. Vintage Bowman cards have edges that are very different than vintage Topps cards.

Modern cards have their own characteristics as well. Topps cards have characteristics from the way they were cut just like Panini cards have their own characteristics and so, too, do Upper Deck and Leaf cards. Detecting trimming is not an exact science. It takes someone skilled with not only knowing what a particular issue is supposed to look like but also what altered edges look like. Both of these skills are learned only from handling and examining as many cards as you can.

Why Are Sports Cards Trimmed?

There are a few reasons as to why someone would alter a card by trimming.One is to hide edge chipping or other damage.

Sometimes an edge is trimmed or beveled in order to remove natural edge chipping in an attempt to improve the apparent grade.

Another reason is to attempt to improve the centering. A card that is only slightly off-centered can appear to be centered when the edge of the card with the thicker border is trimmed down. Sometimes this is also coupled with power erasing depending on the card issue.

Trimming can also be done to hide other alterations. When a corner is pressed out or color has been added to an edge, an edge can be trimmed in an attempt to hide the pressing or the color addition.

Cutting down oversized cards is a problem not only in vintage cards but also in modern. If you rely on only measuring an over-sized card that has been cut down is going to measure correctly. The trim job may get past you.

Wannabe and seasoned card doctors can use a number of different tools to trim a card. From a simple razor blade and straight edge to stock sheet cutters, each type leave tale-tell signs. Even individual card doctors can be identified by the signs they consistently leave behind from the tools they use. The more trimmed cards you examine, the more this becomes apparent.

What Do You Need to Start Detecting Trimming?

The most important tool you need is a proper loupe. This goes for trying to detect any kind of card alteration.

Fortunately, the best loupe for card grading and alteration detection is not the most expensive loupe out there. A proper loupe has a 10 powered triplet lens that is corrected for both color and image distortion. If you have ever used a cheap quality loupe and noticed that yellow halo in the lens or that the closer the image is to the edge of the lens, the more distorted it is? That is from a low quality lens and is only going to be in your way when you are trying to grade or authenticate a card.

Let’s break down what the characteristic are that you will need in a loupe:

10x Power

This is an easy one to explain. It simply means you need a lens that magnifies 10 times. The grading standards for the three top-tier grading companies were all written at 10x magnification. Using anything stronger will make it very difficult to properly grade a card in comparison to the third party graders.

Does that mean you don’t need other strengths of magnifications?

No! I have an array of loupes I use including a stereo microscope that has the ability to go up to 80x power. But these loupes and microscope are for other uses such as counterfeit detection and some alterations.

10x is all that is needed for grading and for detecting trimming.

Triplet Lens

A triplet lens means there are three elements in the making of he loupes lens. The three different elements of the lens are what correct the color and image distortion. Many of the low-end loupes are either single lens or doublet lenses. Some cheap loupes from places like China can be marked as triplet lenses. In reality, they are not true triplet lenses.

A proper lens from a known manufacturer can be had for under $50. These will last you a very long time. One of my main loupes I travel to card shows with, I’ve used full-time for over 20 years now. It may look rough and road worn, but it is still a solid workhorse lens. And it is still a pretty darn good investment.

So you have the proper loupe. You are using it to examine cards with known good edges. You are learning the right characteristics. Now what do you do to try to identify a potentially trimmed edge?

How to Identify Trimmed Sports Cards

The first step is to check all four edges for consistency. An example would be a card with three normal looking sides and one edge that is extremely smooth or uneven. An uneven or wavy edge can be a quick way to spot a bad edge.

To check an edge for waviness, hold the card with your finger along the edge just behind the card. This helps to focus your eye to the edge and can help a wavy edge stand out.

Pay particular attention to, not just an entire edge, but areas like the corners. Yes, an entire edge can be trimmed off but so can small spots of an edge such as around corners. A corner can be pressed out in order to hide creasing and or corner damage. When the corner is pressed out, the card stock stretches. The edges of the corner now have to be trimmed down in order to not stick out from the rest of the card.

Check the Corners

Corners that jut out from the card’s edge, or “dog ear” corner, can be the result of a bad trim job and or a corner that has been pressed out and not trimmed down.

Next we are going to take our loupe and look directly onto the card’s edge. When a card has one or more edge completely trimmed off, it will be apparent when we look at each edge straight on with a loupe. By starting at one end of the edge and follow the entire edge with our loupe, we can see the edges that were trimmed appear to be almost perfectly smooth with no characteristics like striations in the stock.

In the case where only a portion of the edge has been trimmed or sanded, the edge will not appear uniform from one end to the other.

It’s Not an Exact Science

As stated previously, detecting trimming is unfortunately not an exact science. It is a constant battle between the learned skills of the grader and the skills of the card doctor. Understanding what and why trimming is remains one important step towards being able to detect such alterations. And like any alteration detection, the more cards you examine with a loupe and learn what a natural edge looks like, the easier it can be to detect the alteration and potentially avoid making a poor purchase that can cost you money.

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5 comments

  1. Ike 8 August, 2020 at 11:44

    Funny article! I just bought a sportscard about 60 days ago in a Beckett 9.5 off of Ebay and immediately submitted it to PSA to try to crossover to a PSA 10 and it came back as evidence of trimming. Any suggestions on what might have occured and how this might have been missed?

  2. Deron Fields 12 November, 2020 at 23:43

    I’m curious what type card you submitted. Guessing it wasnt vintage since it graded so high. I never even think about trimming when it comes to modern cards. I’ve always thought that PSA should give a brief explanation of the problem when they deem a card altered.

  3. Ed Skonieczny 8 July, 2021 at 10:19

    Is there a market for N5 trading cards? Not sure what to do with mine now that PSA has send it back that way.

  4. Johnny Harry 18 October, 2021 at 23:06

    I must be a moron. Please help me. Why would it be wrong to cut a card to it’s factory specifications if it is not the size it is supposed to be? If its oversized, cutting it to factory specs is not wrong & such a card should not be considered altered – but corrected. The 1 who cut it to it’s correct specs (with skill, precision & diligent care) should be thanked not belittled, slandered, insulted or shunned. There are – what I would term “radical purist”, that don’t use facts & evidence to make their judgments about things, but instead use a “follow the rules regardless” approach. Even if the rules are unreasonable, irrational, unsound, absurd, ridiculous, ludicrous & the most accurate word of all would be “UNTENABLE” which means “not able to be defended”. They do not “think”. Instead they blindly follow a rule, a rule that has no basis in reality. No one knows where this rule came from, it certainly it didn’t come from a human mind interested in exercising sound judgment. (if you know where it came from please inform me – I beg you). If I found a genuine 1952 Topps Mickey Mantel card that was 2 7/8 x 4 inches (& not the correct 1952 Topps factory specifications of 2 5/8 x 3 3/4) where the other adjacent card portions could be partly seen, I would without hesitation cut it to correct factory specs. I want someone to explain – with plain reason & common sense – why such a card should not be designated a Gem Mint 10 if it has no print imperfections, extraordinary color, 50/50 centering, showed no surface abrasion or indentations of any kind, perfect focus & completely in register printing, 4 perfect corners & edges & original surface sheen. Why? Why should it not be thusly graded? I have no problem with a rule that says “if a card has been cut to specs that the seller should inform a buyer of it”. In fact I would do just that in the above cited scenario, I would probably keep a record of it, with witnesses, signed documents, photos etc. I also have no problem with “pressing” out or “rolling” out dinged corners. If they are not pressed out they will become worse. Its a matter of preservation not deception. Again I’d inform any buyer. I have a set of 1993 Topps Finest baseball cards that are badly curved I know how to make them perfectly flat again without causing them any damage, is that a baseball card crime? I would be glad to tell any prospective buyer that I flattened them, but what purpose would telling them serve? There is no way that anyone could tell that I flatten them or that they were ever curved. A card dealer told me a story of someone who found very well preserved full sheets of 1957 Topps BB cards (I never learned how it all turned out). They had a number of Frank Robison RC’s. Could the man who found them cut out the FR RC’s making perfectly even jumbo borders? (Jumbos are worth more) doing so would sacrifice some of the adjacent cards. Could he take the sheets to Topps & ask them to help him cut them into perfectly centered individual cards on their equipment or would he have to keep them in sheet form? Would cutting them in this way be immoral or make the cards worth less because they weren’t cut at the factory in 1957? Would he have to tell any buyers all that he did? I would give the history if it were me (especially if I did the jumbos – which I probably wouldn’t do) but in this particular case I don’t believe it would be necessary. I wouldn’t care if didn’t tell me. Is there any empirical way to ascertain that the cards weren’t cut at the factory in 1957? Maybe. With careful scientific analysis or very strong – even microscopic examination which would have to have to take place very soon after the cards were cut. Another question is how did jumbos ever come into being in the 1st place? I’d have to do some research, but I’m sure some at least were created, not accidently – but on purpose, for monetary reasons, by those who had access to the sheets. In 1957 it wouldn’t be like it is today, taking some out the back door would have been easier & I’m sure it would have been easy for higher ranking employees to get some with out even hiding it even with permission. The same kind of irrationality prevails in the coin collecting hobby. If you “clean” a coin, your a “coin doctor” an immoral fraudster out to bilk people out of their money. Why would it be immoral to remove foreign matter from the surface of a coin especially if it could be done without abrading, acid etching it’s surface or in any other way altering it. Doing so with with skill, precision & diligent care. If any harmful alteration did occur, unavoidably or inadvertently any buyer should be informed. I have removed foreign matter from coins & they not only have not been harmed but greatly improved. Moved from not worthy of collecting to being beautiful specimens people are proud to display in their collection. Who wants a gunked up coin whose beauty is concealed by… gunk. THINK about this. You can think cant you? Can you reevaluate? We all can if we try. Or we can continue to blindly follow rules whose source we are completely ignorant of. May God have mercy! Thank you for letting me share.

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