Splits vs. Tears: What's the Difference?

Read about the difference between splits and tears and how to detect them in this article that originally ran in June, 2010.

Have you ever received a note with the comment “Split” or “Tear” and didn’t understand exactly what it meant? Many have. In this article, I’ll explain the difference between these two similar terms and how to identify them. They have very different causes and appearances, so it’s important to know the distinction.

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Let’s start with splits. Splits are created over time by repeated folding along the same line. Splits gradually move along the fold, separating the paper as it weakens. Each edge of the split usually has the same amount of wear due to this gradual effect. Splits are most commonly seen in the margins or body of notes grading VF and below. However, it is not uncommon for a note of a higher grade to have splits if heavy folds are present. On notes grading higher than VF, graders believe that a comment may be necessary, depending on the severity of the split.

Unlike splits, tears are created quickly as a result of mishandling. One side of the tear will show a paper pull and the separation will be rough. As mentioned before, splits appear smoother because they occur as the paper is slowly broken down. Like splits, tears can occur on notes of all grades but are most commonly seen on notes of lower grades. Notes with heavier circulation have weaker paper that is more susceptible to damage than notes with less circulation and therefore stronger paper.

click image to enlarge

One of the best ways to see splits or tears is by backlighting. Hold a note in front of a light so it appears translucent. This method will show dark areas where a split or tear has occurred. With additional magnification, you can determine the type of separation. If repaired, the split or repair will be closed with a visible bonding agent. It does not take much glue to secure a split or tear, so it is important to review any areas of speculation with magnification. These areas are detectable using basic 10x magnification.

Splits and tears are most commonly seen on early Legal Tender Notes, Treasury Notes, Interest Bearing Notes, Obsoletes and Confederate Issues due to the paper used for those types. Now that these features have been explained, you can hopefully distinguish between a split and a tear more easily.


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