Last Updated On: October 12th, 2023
Let’s start off with a fun little game. Remember those “spot the difference” tests you’d see in elementary school or the backs of cereal boxes? This is sort of like that, but instead of spotting the difference, you’re spotting the surface issue with the MJ card above (and with a subgrade of 6.5, rest assured this card’s surface is far from perfect).
Can you spot the issue?
Jump down to the answer or keep reading to learn more.
It’s often tricky catching surface issues, especially when you don’t have the card in your hand. But if you’re interested in buying, flipping, or crossing over cards, you need to be aware of and able to spot surface issues like the ones on that card.
In this post, we’ll walk through 10 common surface issues, how to spot them, and how these issues affect a card’s grade. By the end, you’ll be ready to spot defects on your own, making your life in the sports card world much easier.
Table of Contents
In an online world, it’s hard to catch many surface issues like dimples, dents, light scratches, some bubbling, and even wrinkles or creases. But there are many that are obvious to the trained eye: print defects such as fish eye or snow effect, greening, and refractor lines are a few.
Some services like PWCC’s partnership with MBA for raw cards help identify some flaws:
MBA also provides a “heat map” identifying condition issues on the surface, edges, and corners of the card. The report identifies dents, scratches, creases, wear, and other issues using color-coded highlights for minor, moderate, or severe condition issues. The MBA condition report is included in the item description when an MBA Authenticated asset is listed on PWCC Marketplace
The MBA heat map is a convenient tool if you’re buying cards that have already been reviewed like the Giannis, but how do you detect surface issues on other cards? To that end, you’ll have to rely on humankind’s original detection software: your eyes.
Common Surface Issues to Avoid
Before jumping into the 10 most common surface issues to avoid, check out this video from Little Victories Sports Cards, which provides some great visuals for the topics we’re discussing below.
Creases and Wrinkles
The first of the surface issues we’re tackling are creases and wrinkles. These tend to be extremely common, especially for vintage cards. Think about it: did anyone with a 1948 George Mikan really think the card in their pocket would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars one day?
Also, consider who the clientele for these cards was back in the day: children. There’s a reason my parents taught toddler me to “touch with one finger” when we went out shopping, and it’s not because my index finger has the Midas Touch. Kids are far from gentle, and if that glass bowl from Pottery Barn didn’t stand a chance, neither do small pieces of cardboard.
Many creases and wrinkles are easy to spot, even online. Some products, like Kurt’s Card Care, claim to be able to smooth out wrinkles from cards, as advertised in this video:
A cousin to the wrinkle surface issue is the scratch. Scratches are common on cards and generally come about by some sharp edge cutting (or literally scratching) against the card’s surface.
But here’s the thing with scratches: they tend to be tough to see online and far more challenging than a wrinkle or crease to identify without being in person. Some are easy catches – long, white streaks from that time your cat accidentally mistook your Derek Jeter foil card for a mouse.
But lighter, more minor scratches require a bit more detective work. These can often be caught by holding up a light to the card that washes out the color, leaving nothing but scratches on a white backdrop.
Pro tip: when buying a raw card, don’t be afraid to ask for additional pictures or a short video with the card tilted back and forth (especially if it’s pricey). Or simply ask the seller if they notice any scratches on the card as many will be forthcoming when asked (just don’t be a PITA).
Slabs are supposed to protect cards, right? Today, that’s essentially the case. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when “screw-down holders” were all the rage, a regular error continued popping up: indentations and “pressings.” According to Beckett, here’s how the problem arose:
If you have ever seen a vintage card with what looks like something had smashed an impression into the surface? That is when a card is in a screw-down and a foreign object, such as dust, becomes trapped between the holder and the card’s surface.
Here’s what they might look like:
Indentations run the gamut: they can resemble a pressed edge to the card, like the one above. Or they can more closely look like a pressed fingernail into the card’s surface. Again, these can be tricky to see absent some light.
And if you’re still a fan of the old school screw down, try the more modern version instead: magnetic ONE-TOUCH cases.
The next surface issue we’ll tackle is dimples. These are far from the sweet facial features made famous by Mario Lopez and Jennifer Garner. No, these dimples are more like pimples, crushing your card’s value (and chances of landing a prom date).
The dimples look a bit like small Beebee scars on the card’s surface. And be warned: dimples tend to be small and very difficult to spot on a computer screen.
Think of bubbles as larger dimples, making them a bit easier to spot, even in an online format. Bubbling comes from a few different sources, but one of the most common is moisture. The moisture can seep just up under the card’s fragile and filmy surface, leaving, well, a bubble up underneath.
Another example of bubbling actually comes from graded cards. It’s the same problem – moisture gets underneath the card’s slab, causing actual bubbles to form on the surface or in the slab itself. While it’s a rare occurrence, it could happen in the event a slab is cracked or damaged. In this instance, it might be time to reholder the card.
Greening (or Hulking)
Did you know that the Statue of Liberty wasn’t originally green? True story: it was a shiny reddish-brown copper that turned green over time thanks to the metal’s reaction with New York City air. It’s chemistry in action!
A similar problem is to blame for the next of the ten surface issues we’ll discuss: greening, aka hulking. This problem predominately affects ‘90s chrome cards, once shiny and cutting edge, now a radioactive green color.
The reason these cards have turned green is because the ink used on the card has reacted with the chromium materials also on the card, which over time causes the card to turn green. Thankfully, the process changed after 1998, so chrome cards made after that should be in the clear.
Refractor and Factory Lines
So far, we’ve discussed surface issues that predominantly occur after purchasing the card. But the next few are known as “print defects” because, unfortunately, they rolled off the assembly line with some flaws.
First up, we have refractor and factory lines. These are so named because they’re commonly found among refractor and X-fractor cards. In many cases, two lines will crisscross the card’s surface, one horizontal and one vertical.
In some cases, they’re incredibly light and barely noticeable. In other cases, like the Eli Manning card below, they’re thick lines that are pretty easy to spot.
Fish eye Print Defect
This is one of the most apparent surface issues to the trained eye. In fact, it’s precisely the problem with the Jordan card we led this post with.
As you can see, the card has three dots, each with a white border and black interior. These are known as “fish eyes” and are considered a print defect. Also common in painting, fish eyes are typically caused by issues in the card’s printing process where the printing is not connected (usually because dust or particulate is on the printing plate), thus leaving a small void where the fish eye is created.
Snow Print Defect
Bing Crosby might have dreamed of a white Christmas, but a snowy sports card would have felt more like a nightmare. The last of the print defects we’ll discuss is something called “snowing.” This surface issue is so named because it’s characterized by white specks forming on the card’s surface. The specks form because of incomplete inking on the card during the production process.
This is especially common with older cards, like the 1987 Fleer Michael Jordan.
The last of the surface issues we’ll cover is one of the most common and self-explanatory for unprotected cards: the stain.
Like spilling tomato sauce on white trousers, coffee on the carpet, or barbecue sauce on a white t-shirt (looking at you, Tim McGraw), stains are brutal for a card’s condition. Even worse – they come in all shapes and sizes – stains from crayons, markers, wax, glue, bubble gum (as with 1986 Fleer Basketball), and tape are common. Fingerprints or natural hand oil can make it onto a card’s surface as well, but normally these can be wiped away without damage to a card’s surface.
Let this be a reminder never to use a sports card as a coaster. And always use some form of protection when storing your cards.
How Surface Issues Impact Grades
The good news is that “surface” is only 25% of a card’s entire condition (along with centering, corners, and edges). The bad news? 25% is a pretty sizable chunk of a card’s grade. As you might expect, surface areas affect a card’s value by negatively affecting its grading.
As such, it may be hard to quantify the exact damage done by a fish eye defect or an indentation, but it is much easier to do so for a Mint versus Excellent-Mint card. Fingerprints alone can knock the surface down a few points, so do your best to control what you can by wiping away dust, thumbprints, and the like.
Keep in mind each grading company is a bit different in how they judge surface issues. That said, there’s one unifying factor: the more issues, the lower the grade.
Let’s start by looking at how PSA handles surface issues.
How PSA Judges Surface Issues
You may be thinking that a card with surface issues of any kind is an automatic disqualifier for a Gem Mint grade from PSA. Not so fast.
According to PSA, a Gem Mint card “must be free of staining of any kind, but an allowance may be made for a slight printing imperfection, if it doesn’t impair the overall appeal of the card.” This is fairly abstract language with plenty of room for negotiation but could be good news for someone with a minor printing blemish on their card.
Moving on down the line, a Mint card is allowed only one of a minor wax stain, printing imperfection, or coloring issue. There’s more leniency with an 8, as multiple stains or imperfections may be permitted. Scratches are only allowed up to a 6 grade (EX-MT), while a light crease “may be visible” for a PSA 4 (VG-EX).
In the Mantle cards above, we see a few clear markers for each card’s grade. First, note how the Mint card on the left is not free of blemishes — there appears to be a fish eye on the left side near the border. This is actually not uncommon among Type 2 Mantle cards from this set, one of several subtle design differences we alluded to in our Mantle value analysis. Given the fact that this error is common, it’s probably not going to crush a grade, hence why it earned a Mint grade. And otherwise, the card is free from any staining, creases, or the like.
The Excellent-Mint card on the right (also a Type 2), however, reveals multiple surface issues. The fish eye is present, as is a more significant blemish next to Mantle’s left ear (middle-right of the card). We also see a possible stain on the bottom left near the Yankees logo. These factors contribute to the difference in final grading.
Potential for PSA Qualifiers
Once upon a time, PSA would write a “qualifier” on its label for cards that demonstrate a specific type of imperfection. These would appear on the label next to the grade; a “Miscut” Excellent card would thus be denoted as 5(MC). These qualifiers are reserved for a card that “meets all the criteria for a particular grade, but fails the standard in one area.”
Now, the only mandatory qualifiers on a label are for atypically “miscut” cards (MC) and those featuring marks from a pen, marker, or some other indication the card has been written on (Marks – MK).
One can also opt for qualifiers for other imperfections like stains (ST) and print defects (PD).
BGS Surface Subgrade
With BGS’ subgrades, it’s a bit easier to tell which particular area a card is dinged in. And keep in mind that a card can only receive a total grade one point higher than its lowest subgrade. This means that if a card has perfect edges, centering, and corners but a knife cut through its middle, the grade is going to be low.
Here’s what Beckett requires at each grade point when it considers a card’s surface condition, starting with BGS Pristine:
|BGS Grade||Surface Imperfections Allowed|
|No print spots. Flawless color, devoid of registration or focus imperfections. Perfect gloss, devoid of scratches and metallic print lines.|
|A few extremely minor print spots, detectable only under intense scrutiny. Deep color, devoid of registration or focus imperfections. Perfect gloss, devoid of scratches and metallic print lines.|
|A handful of printing specks or one minor spot. Very minor focus or color imperfections. Clean gloss with one or two tiny scratches barely noticeable to the naked eye. One faint, unobtrusive metallic print line is allowed.|
|A few minor print spots. Very minor color or focus imperfections. Solid gloss with very minor scratches detectable only upon close inspection. Or a subtle metallic print line.|
|A few noticeable print spots or minor speckling is allowed. Minor color or focus imperfections. Very minor border discoloration. A very minor wax stain on back. Solid gloss with a few minor scratches detectable upon close inspection. A few metallic print lines.|
|Noticeable print spots. Minor color or focus imperfections. Minor border discoloration and color or focus imperfections. Minor wax stains or extremely subtle ink marks. Relatively solid gloss with minor scratches, but devoid of scuffing. Noticeable metallic print lines.|
|Noticeable print spots. Minor color or focus imperfections. Minor border discoloration. Minor wax stains or very light ink mark. Some gloss lost from surface with minor scratches, but devoid of scuffing.|
|Heavy print spots. Hairline creases. Moderate color or focus imperfections. Moderate border discoloration. Moderate wax stains. Very light ink mark or tape stain. A good deal of gloss lost from surface. Very minor scuffing or an extremely subtle tear in the form of a touch of broken surface paper.|
|Heavy print spots. Very minor creases. Noticeable color or focus imperfections. Noticeable border discoloration. Noticeable wax stains. Light ink mark or tape stain. Very little surface gloss. Minor scuffing or a very minor tear.|
|Severe print spots. Noticeable creases. Noticeable color or focus imperfections. Noticeable border discoloration. Heavy wax stains. Moderate ink mark or tape stain. A surface devoid of gloss. Noticeable scuffing or a noticeable tear.|
|Severe print spots. Heavy creases. Severe color or focus imperfections. Heavy border discoloration. Severe stains. No original gloss. Heavy scuffing or a severe tear.|
You don’t need me to tell you that the higher a card’s grade is, the more valuable it is. By extension, the fewer surface issues a card presents, the more valuable it is. The same goes for qualifier cards, as well. Unfortunately, there’s no “honestly bump” when it comes to electing to denote a card with a qualifier.
Let’s take this PSA 9 Mint 1987 Fleer Michael Jordan (MJ’s 2nd year card referenced earlier), for instance. According to CardLadder, this Jordan card is valued between $1,200 and $1,600. But that same card as a PSA 9 (PD) — for Print Defect — sold for $630 at REA recently.
Imagine you were buying the MJ card raw and hadn’t noticed the print defect – you’d be looking at a difference of $600-900 in value between a PSA 9 and PSA 9 (PD) grade. Being mindful of these surface issues will save you heartache down the road. The more surface issues a card has, the lower its grade. And the lower the grade, the lower the value, which will hurt your wallet.
Can Card Cleaning Help?
Okay, it’s time for the controversy. Some claim a card suffering from surface issues cannot be successfully rehabilitated. That said, it’s worth mentioning that others, like the folks at Kurt’s Card Care (also mentioned above), beg to differ.
And in truth, some minor issues can be alleviated. But print defects like fisheyes, snowing, or the refractor lines won’t be coming out via card cleaning.
We still recommend following Kurt’s Card Care, as they’ll post live cleanings and demos so you can determine if it’s right for you!
When you’re hunting for the best deals on your cards, it helps to have a trained eye that can spot surface issues. At the very least, you know that the pros at PSA, BGS, or SGC will give your card a thorough inspection during the grading process, so you should, too!
You may not be able to catch every surface issue, but you can use this guide as a primer for familiarizing yourself with some of the most common defects out there. As we’ve seen, it could be the difference between a Mint and Near-Mint grade, which is a massive difference as far as the hobby is concerned.
Encounter any other surface issues? Had success with cleaning services? Let us know in the comments.