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The Complete Guide to Grading and Evaluating the Condition of Trading Cards

Updated: Mar 14

Trading card grading plays a pivotal role in the hobby for collectors seeking to preserve and maximize the value of their cards. Cards evaluated and slabbed by respected companies like PSA or BGS with high grades can be worth exponentially more than their ungraded counterparts.


But before submitting your cards for professional assessment and encapsulation, it’s imperative to understand the detailed criteria graders use to analyze condition. Learning to examine and grade the important attributes of your cards allows you to strategically cherry pick only those worthy of grading fees and wait times.


This comprehensive guide will explore all the essential elements professional graders are observing and how they factor into the final numeric grade. You’ll enhance your skills to better assess your cards’ flaws and merits to achieve higher grades and secure a better investment. Let’s delve into the anatomy of a graded card:




Centering



Centering refers to how evenly balanced the card’s image is within the borders. Graders will meticulously measure the spacing on all four sides to determine how well centered the image is.

A perfectly centered card should have equal distance from the image to each border. The ideal centering for a card is a minimum of 55/45 on the front and 60/40 on the back. However, each company has their own set of standards, and it behooves those interested in grading cards to review those unique standards prior to submission on the company’s website. Anything more off-center than that can diminish the card’s grade, and ultimately be the difference between Mint and Gem.


Here’s a breakdown of major grading companies’ centering standards:

  • PSA prefers 55/45 not to exceed 60/40 on the front and 75/25 on the back for Gem Mint.

  • BGS prefers 55/45 on the front and 60/40 on the back for Gem Mint.


Even the slightest off-centering of a card can be hard to notice. You can check the alignment using a jeweler’s loupe, centering tool, or digital calipers. The closer to perfect, the better.





Corners

Card corners are the most vulnerable areas to accumulating wear and damage during handling and storage. Graders will inspect for:

  • Dings

  • Fraying

  • Lifting

  • White Tips

  • Rounding

  • Compression

  • Callusing



Ideally, corners should be at 90-degree angles with a sharp point. A single significantly compromised corner can drastically reduce value. Use a jeweler’s loupe, magnifying glass, or even your cell phone to zoom in. Don’t stress yourself out, remember, even a needle looks dull under a microscope.







Edges

Edges tell the story of a card’s lifespan. Graders check for:

  • Chipping or small bites along the edge

  • Dents or impressions

  • Roughness or texture changes

  • Visible over-cutting into the border

Clean, smooth edges are essential for flawless grades. Check edges against a light source to catch imperfections. Even minuscule edge nicks or roughness call attention during grading.






Surface

The surface should be free of blemishes and discrepancies, including but not limited to:

  • Scratches, scuffs or abrasions

  • Indentations and dimples

  • Staining or discoloration

  • Print defects or inaccurate colors

  • Residue or dirt

  • Print lines are very common with modern cards

Surface quality is an important factor in the overall grade of a card. While we’re being honest to the average collector, the image on the front of the card is the defining factor in determining if it should be graded or not? Here’s some tips to help you evaluate your cards surface more thoroughly, and remember just because your card has flaws doesn’t mean it’s not submission worthy:

  1. Purchase a bright LED light. This is the most important tool for not only the surface but for reviewing corners and edges. It also assists well when checking for the centering.

  2. Move your cards in different angles under the bright light. Look for small flashes of light and other blemishes that may not appear while the card is lying flat even under adequate lighting.





Authenticity

All graders verify authenticity before assigning a final grade, checking for:

  • Proper fonts, logos, copyrights

  • Correct photographic image reproduction.

  • Official card size measurements

  • Evidence of trimming or re-coloring



Most of us aren’t trained to detect fraud and alterations of cards and collectibles. In this case, grading companies will offer this service for a fee and thoroughly inspect, validate, and certify the authenticity of your cards. Some things you can do to help mitigate the risk of fraud is to:

  • Purchase from credible retailers or vendors

  • Research the history of the card and study other images

  • Ask another credible source.

  • Submit your card to a professional grading company or authenticator.


The Grading Scale

Grading companies use a 10-point numeric scale to reflect a card’s assessed condition. Here is a breakdown of what each grade level signifies:

10 Gem Mint: Virtually perfect condition with zero to minimal flaws. The best of the best.

9 Mint: Near pristine with only the most subtle imperfections. Excellent card.

8 Near Mint-Mint: Slight imperfections visible upon close inspection but overall beautiful card.

7 Near Mint: Solid condition with minor flaws evident upon cursory review.

6 Excellent: Above-average condition but flaws more apparent. Still very collectible.

5 Excellent-Very Good: High-end card but multiple condition issues are apparent.

4 Very Good: Signs of noticeable wear but still appealing for collectors.

3 Good: Heavy wear with significant damage affecting eye appeal.

2 Poor: Severely damaged with little collectibility remaining.

1 Basal State: Extremely worn with severe damage. More of a novelty item.

Half-grades like 8.5 or 9.5 may also be given for cards on the cusp between categories.


For more details on the grading scales used by the four major grading companies, click here.

Sub-grades

In addition to the 1-10 final grade, companies like BGS provide sub-grades for each specific attribute:

  • Centering

  • Corners

  • Edges

  • Surface

The aggregate of the sub-grades leads to the final grade. The overall numerical grade is not a simple average of the four report card grades. Beckett Grading Services uses an algorithm which determines the final grade using the 4 sub grades on the front label of the card holder. The lowest overall grade is the first category to observe because it is the most obvious defect, and the lowest grade is the most heavily weighted in determining the overall grade.

Example :

Centering = 9.5

Corners = 9.5

Edges = 9

Surface = 8

Final grade = 8.5


The Grading Process

Once you’ve evaluated your cards and singled out only the best contenders for grading, here’s what you can expect:

  • Total turnaround time ranges from 2-5 business days to 60 plus business days depending on the grading tier.

  • Costs range from around $10 to over $600 per card depending on declared value, grading tier, and company.

  • Cards attributes are evaluated by multiple expert graders for consistency. In most cases the cards are first touched by a junior grader and verified by a senior grader for consistency.

  • Cards are sonically sealed in tamper-proof acrylic slabs with label detailing grades and shipped back to you or your submitter.

For extremely valuable cards, consider insuring your cards for market value in the event they are lost or damaged in transit. Additionally, card markets fluctuate often, so getting your cards back in a timely matter can make or break your return on investment. Therefore, paying for a higher tier and faster turnaround time may be a wise decision.


Resubmitting Cards

If you disagree with a card’s grade, resubmitting it may potentially improve the grade, but results vary:

  • There’s no guarantee the same company will upgrade their previous grade.

  • Different companies have slightly different grading criteria that may work in your favor.

  • Make sure the card has not deteriorated since prior grading before resubmitting.


Resubmission becomes a numbers game, but the potential value boost of scoring a higher grade makes it worthwhile in many cases. Most grading companies are still going to charge you the fee even if your card is upgraded or not.


Safe Handling

Proper handling and storage of your cards is key to preserve condition before grading:

  • Prepare your cards for storage. Use a masking tape to dab the edges. This removes loose debris that will damage your cards and wipe with a high-quality lens or microfiber cloth prior to inserting into sleeves.

  • After preparing your cards, use or replace all of your raw cards with clean penny sleeves and top loaders.

  • Store them in a cool and dry environment away from the direct sunlight.

  • Keep your cards in a stable compartment, at least a foot or higher off the ground to mitigate water damage.

  • Purchase collector’s insurance.

  • When mailing, always err on the side of caution and package accordingly and purchase adequate insurance.

Improper storage leading up to grading will undermine your chances of earning those high grades.


Before & After Grading

Here is an amazing example of how professional grading can redefine a card’s value:


Checklist For Assessing Card Condition

Here is a quick checklist to reference for evaluating cards before submitting for grading:

  • Scan for 60/40 or better centering using tools

  • Inspect corners for any flaws or blunting

  • Check edges for nicks, roughness or chipping

  • Examine all surfaces for any scratches or residue

  • Verify fonts, logos, measurements for authenticity

  • Look up comparable sales for the exact card graded

  • Declare fair market value for grading service insurance

  • Pack with care using the proper sleeves and top loaders for protection.


Following this methodology helps ensure you only submit cards truly worthy of high grades. Patience and an observant eye are required to detect minute details that make all the difference.


As card grading expert Gary Moser notes: “Looking at tens of thousands of cards over the years trains your eye to pick up on subtleties the average collector overlooks. Grading is part science, part art.”


The Final Grade on Trading Cards

Having a sharp eye for condition and understanding grading standards allows you to boost the value of your prized trading card collection. While grading involves some subjectivity between assessors, the criteria explained in this guide encompass all the key areas evaluators analyze.


Do your due diligence inspecting every attribute of your cards’ condition before submitting them for slabbing.


With experience and careful examination, you’ll submit only top-tier candidates for grades that maximize appeal and marketability.


Happy collecting and may you uncover plenty of Gem Mint 10s. See our gallery of Final Grades here.




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