How to Start Collecting a Vintage Topps Set

Today, I open up the mailbag (or e-mailbag I should say) and hear from one of my loyal followers Jonathan. He writes:

"I know you are a set builder and you build sets of older cards. I've been wanting to build a 1977 (my birth year) Topps set and I just want a couple tips on how I might go about it. So here are my questions.

I don't have any cards from 1977 that are in good condition. When I was in high school I got a handful of cards from this set that a friend of mine had scotch taped to the wall. They still have the tape on them and the corners are pretty bad. So it's safe to say that I'm starting with no cards from the set.

Where is a good place to start?

I'm not looking for the cards to be in MT condition and I don't have unlimited money to spend, so I want something in between.

I guess I could find one of these sets already put together, but I think it would be more fun to build over time, plus would fit into my budget easier.

Any tips or advice you have would be much apprectiated. Thanks so much for your time!


Thank you for the email Jonathan! Here is my response:

I would be glad to answer some of your questions and hopefully give you some useful advice. Building a set is a very fun and challenging pastime that I have been doing for over 30 years. There are several ways you can go about building a set as well as things you need to consider before you start. One way you can build a set is to flat out buy it! This is the easiest way to have a complete set and in some cases can be the cheapest. While this may be easy to do for people who have the money to do so, it is not what I do. Why? For me, there is no challenge in buying a complete set and doing so lacks that sense of accomplishment. To me, there is no greater feeling than to complete an old vintage set that I have been working on for years. (Well, except for pulling a 2010 Topps Allen & Ginter Stephen Strasburg autograph card out of a pack numbered to 10 and selling it for $3,250 but that’s another story for another time)

If people did not want to be challenged and did not want the possibility of a game-used memorabilia card or an autograph and all they wanted was a complete set, they would buy factory sets. This is why I do not buy factory sets – although cheaper, it is not challenging and not very fun for me.

Some people find that upgrading a set is a fun challenge. You may consider buying a set off of Ebay and then work on upgrading it. However, if condition does not matter to you, then this would not be an option for you.

Before you begin your own vintage set quest, you need to ask yourself a few questions:

Do I have the time and patience to do this? If you do not, you need to find another project as building a set requires a lot of time and patience. At first, it mays seem like an uphill battle that you will never accomplish but if you have the time and patience, you will eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel. It took me 30 years to build some of my sets.

What condition do I want my set to be in? Some people want near perfect sets, some collect only graded cards, and some do not care what condition the cards are in as long as they are not mangled. Heck, I know of one person who is putting together sets of mangled cards! For me, condition is pretty important. I want the cards to look like they came straight out of a pack. Corners do not have to be razor sharp but they must look really nice. Gum stains and wax stains I try to avoid and I do not own a single card from 1955 to present that has creases or ink marks. I am not too much of a stickler on centering because that is the way they come out of packs. All of my cards would grade a PSA 5 or higher. I have made an exception for the 1952, 1953, and 1954 sets I am working on. The cards must be graded by PSA and be a rating of 3 or higher. I’ll accept a 2 on the 1952 Topps high numbers.

How should I go about getting cards? Well, it helps if you have some and can find collectors that are also building sets so you can trade. But if you do not have any to trade, the best source is to look at EBay first. I wouldn’t buy right away without doing a little research. It is important to look at completed auctions to see what the market is on the set you are working on. You can also have a better idea of what a “good deal” is by knowing the sales history I have found that the best way to buy cards for a set is to buy common lots (100 count lots, for example) first and then focus on bigger names at the end. I have a friend who is building vintage sets just like me and his philosophy is to buy the big stars first and then that way buying commons later makes it seem like he is not spending as much money. For me, the closer I get to completing a set, the more likely I am to spend a larger amount for the star players. Other sources that I have found to be quite helpful are trading forums like The Bench and Freedom Card Board. I tried using Beckett’s trading forum a year ago or so after they completely revamped their web site, but I never could get comfortable with it and decided to stick with what was familiar to me. If you have a lot of cards to trade, I have found The Bench to be a great community of helpful collectors and I have never had any bad experiences over there.

One way I have received a lot of vintage cards is by getting a few boxes of Topps Heritage cards, opening them, and trading my hits and shortprints for vintage cards on my want list. A lot of people that collect Topps Heritage have vintage collections. I have been lucky in that there are a couple of people that will trade me cards off of my vintage want list for my Heritage cards that they need. One person sends me cards without even telling me who he is sending. The other day I received a 1967 Topps Jim Palmer card in my mail in very nice condition. In return, I will be sending him $80 worth of 2013 Topps Heritage when it comes out.

Is my want list current? Another important thing to do is to have an updated want list. I have mine updated and it can be found at By keeping an updated want list, you and other collectors will always know what cards you need for your set.

What kind of budget do I want to have? It is always a good idea to have a set amount in mind when building a set. For me, I have a card account that I use for buying and selling. When my funds run low I usually sell cards to replenish it. I do a lot of buying and selling which helps me keep my account in the positive. There are some good deals that can be found on sites like EBay, especially from those who do not use a good title for what they are selling or from those that end their auctions at odd times. If you ever see me sell a bunch of cards, it usually means I am about to make a big purchase. My next big purchase will probably be a 1967 Topps Tom Seaver rookie card since I am just 11 cards away of completing that monster!

Now that you have asked these questions and have my advice, you are ready to begin!

Take care and good luck! I'd be interested in hearing your progress!

Craig from Texas

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One Response to How to Start Collecting a Vintage Topps Set

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