Keys to Effective Pre-War Setbuilding

A Few Tips to Collecting Sets in the Pre-War Era

There are all sorts of collectors out there. Some focus on individual players or teams. Some have a regional focus. Others are into type collecting, the art of trying to find a card from as many different types as possible (or some variation of that).

But since I got into pre-war cards, I’ve been mostly a set collector. Set collecting is kind of a lost art, I suppose. It requires you to obtain commons that you might not otherwise be interested in. But in pre-war set collecting you’re usually not buying 400-500 cards. Many sets are under 100 and some are significantly fewer than that.

I haven’t been at this for decades like some collectors but I have learned a few things along the way that you might find helpful.

Buy When You Can

W514 002 RuthThis is probably the most important thing when you’re working on tougher sets. It is such an important thing because it requires the proper amount of balance. You don’t want to drastically overpay for rare cards but also must understand that your chances to buy certain things are going to be limited.

As a pre-war set collector, you are almost certainly always going to overpay for some items whether you are knowledgeable about the set or not. The key is to limit the amount of times you need to do that.

One of the best things you can do to determine a card’s rarity is to search for it on eBay. It is by far the biggest inventory of pre-war cards but some stuff is so rare that it might not even appear there. That’s when you need to run other searches on auction houses (Google is your friend).

The amount of times you can find something will give you an idea of how rare it is. That will, in part, help you determine if you can afford to wait for it to go on sale elsewhere or if you need to act quickly.

If you find a tough card at a great price that you can afford, more times than not you should not hesitate.

A Deal is a Deal is a Deal

Bobby Jones 1928 Crescent Sportsmen GolfSome set collectors go into it with some sort of a plan of how/when to acquire certain cards. At least I typically have. That’s a good thing. But one of the things I have learned is that it’s important to spot a good deal and alter your plans if necessary.

One of my main goals in set collecting is to make adequate progress in a reasonable amount of time. I don’t want to be working on a set and be 5% finished with it three months later. So, while completion is the ultimate goal, a sub-goal of sorts is to show that I’m moving closer to completion at a good rate.

As a result, the way I approached my earliest sets was to buy up all of the commons first. That allowed me to make good progress and worry about the more expensive cards later. But that process was flawed.

Here’s why.

On the way, I passed up numerous good deals on bigger cards and, as a result, had to pay more for them later. If you have the opportunity to buy a star card at, say $50, and it’s a better deal than buying ten run-of-the-mill commons at $5 each, I’d say to go for the bigger card. You’ll make less progress in the short term but will save yourself the headache of trying to find a deal like that down the line. And if you pass on a great deal that you don’t see again, you’ll have overpaid in the end.

The best advice I can give here is to take the best deals you can, even if it’s a deviation from your plan and slows your progress slightly. You’ll be thankful at the end when you’re scrambling for the final few cards.

Have Distractions But …

Dwight Gooden 1984 Topps Traded RookieWith most pre-war sets, you’ll be dealing with cards that have some degree of rarity. Some things like 1933 Goudey cards or T206 cards are relatively plentiful. In general, though, you’ll run into roadblocks. And if you’re collecting some tougher sets, you might go months or even years before finding a card you need.

I recommend finding another collecting distraction to help pass the time. I wrote recently about buying a modern card from my childhood that I’d always sort of wanted – a Dwight Gooden 1984 Topps Traded card. It was way off the rails of what I collect but it was a fun purchase and, to be perfectly honest, is one of my favorite cards. It’s okay to stick close to what you’re collecting or go completely off the map like that.

Start a new set or look for something else to collect. If you ignore collecting altogether, you can get stagnant and it’s just not as fun. Whatever the other thing you’re collecting is doesn’t really matter. Just find something else as a side project that can help keep you occupied. And if the two things are related, you might even gather more leads to help you with holes in your first set.

All of that said …

… Don’t Collect Everything

Getting involved in too many side projects can hurt you. You can lose focus or run into a problem of not having the adequate resources available if cards from your first project come up.

Even beyond any financial constraints, it just makes things harder. Instead of having one or two sets nearing completion, you can find yourself with a dozen sets completed 1/4 way. If that works for you, that’s perfectly fine and you shouldn’t let me or anyone else tell you otherwise. But if your goal is to complete the sets in a timely manner, too many projects will slow you down.

Compromising is Acceptable

E90-1 055 JacksonOne of the conflicts you may have is deciding whether or not to pursue a set with an overly expensive card. For example, a lot of collectors may be interested in the E90-1 American Caramel set but take a pass once they realize there’s a five-figure Joe Jackson card in it as well as some very tough cards.

My advice in that regard is to never let a big card (or even a few of them) get in the way of pursuing a set. While you may never technically complete it, if you’re in love with the way a set looks or the idea of collecting it is really attractive, go for it.

I have a ‘set’ of 520 T206 cards. Technically, there are 524 in the set with the Big 4 of Honus Wagner, Eddie Plank, and two error cards of Sherry Magee (Magie) and Joe Doyle. All are generally five-figure cards and the Wagner sells for, at minimum, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Barring something crazy like winning the lottery, I will never be buying these cards. But that didn’t stop me or other collectors at all from setting a goal of 520 and being perfectly satisfied with that. If you are unwilling to work on a set of something that you absolutely love for the sake of one or two cards, you’re kind of missing the point of collecting.

Don’t base set collecting on the inability to get every single card. Making sacrifices in set collecting (as in any type of collecting) to meet financial constraints is perfectly acceptable whether the cards in question are five dollars or thousands of dollars.


You might be kind of a closet collector that likes to keep to yourself. In general, that’s fine. But if you want to track down rare cards, you’re going to need some help.

Find dealers online. Email eBay sellers. Join forums, such as Net54. Get involved in social media where you can find other collectors through Facebook groups or Twitter. The more you reach out and make inquiries, the more people you’ll find are willing to help.

Search Creatively

The widespread availability of the internet has really made pre-war set collecting much easier. I can’t imagine even trying to collect rare sets in the old days without online capabilities. Some things are still incredibly hard to find but in the pre-internet days, you could go an entire lifetime without completing many of the tougher sets.

Many collectors will stick to eBay or other well-known collecting sites for purchases. Those are good and I probably buy about 95% of my stuff from eBay. But you’ve also got to look outside the box.

Run searches on specific cards and you’ll be surprised to find some on even non-card sites. Some finds of a few of my rarest cards were found on sites for non-card vendors.

Be Patient and Rest Up if Necessary


Above all, patience is a virtue. While you’ll be able to complete some pre-war sets easily most will be somewhat challenging.

Sometimes, despite all of your efforts, you’ll be stuck. Your level of stickiness, stuckiness, whatever, will vary. You might know where you can locate cards you need but don’t want to pay the asking price for them. Or you might be at a complete dead end. There are a few cards in sets I’m looking for that I’ve literally not seen for sale since starting them. That can be an extreme case but, however stuck you find yourself, be patient.

That might require taking a break from collecting altogether. Go out and take a walk. Go to the park. Play with your dog, I don’t know. I find that when I get out of card mode for a week or so, I’m much more excited about my cards than before.

Getting away from cards and taking a break is not only acceptable but it’s absolutely necessary as a good reminder that, at the end of the day, these things just aren’t all that important.

Killing a Project

I intentionally left this for last but also did not want to go without mentioning it. What if you’ve exhausted your resources and are still frustrated? Maybe you’ve even taken a break and you’re still disinterested even to the point where you are thinking about moving on to something else in the hobby?

That might end up being a good solution.

Now, I’m not saying to pack up your tent and hang it up after a tough stretch. To finish almost any pre-war set, you’re going to need some perseverance and quitting at the drop of a hat or even a dry spell isn’t going to make set collecting anything else any easier. But if you find yourself no longer having fun for months at a time, even after a break, that’s not a good thing. The ugly truth is that, as collectors, our wants change quite frequently and it’s okay to be less enamored with something than you once were.

Always remember that there are plenty of things to collect. This site probably has over 1,000 or so cataloged pre-war sets. And that’s just pre-war stuff. You can always find something to collect and pulling the plug on a project might be worth your time.

One thing to do is consider your level of effort to get to whatever point you were. If you’ve been working on something for years, you want to make sure you’re at a place where you won’t regret it later. If you’re pulling the plug in terms of hanging onto the cards but not selling them, that’s less of an issue. But if you want to sell them, just be sure to consider the cost and understand what it took to get you to that point.

There’s no right or wrong way, really, to do set collecting. But hopefully these tips will help you.

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