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Designing Coins - How Hard Could it Be?

I think the first time I designed a coin was when I was 12 years old in 1992, when there was a contest to design a $1 coin for Canada's quasquicentennial (125th anniversary). My submission, as I recall, was every provincial and territorial flag flowing over Niagara Falls. I never heard back from the mint.

I've doodled coin designs occasionally since then, but I had never taken a serious stab at it. That is until I took a look at Whitman Publishing's new book American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the US Bullion Coin Program by John Mercanti, 12th Chief Engraver for the US Mint, and Miles Standish, PCGS's own senior grader. In the book Mercanti reveals some fascinating tidbits about the whole process of creating coin designs, including photographs of coin models and Mercanti himself at work.

I thought to myself that rather than pencil out a design, I'd try my hand at making an actual clay model of a coin design like I saw in the book. How hard could it be? Very hard as it turns out.

The first step is to prepare a design. I had a couple of ideas floating around my head that I scrawled very crudely on a couple of pieces of paper. Of course a professional would make a more refined design. Much, much more refined. But I really, really wanted to start digging into the clay.

My inspiration for the look I was going for was the Buffalo Nickel. The model for the Buffalo Nickel according to the book was only 4" in diameter, which I found incredible. But the model's size explains the coin's sculpted appearance. I've never been one to hide my brushstrokes, and I want to see personal style and the handiwork of the engraver, rather than something that looks too sterile or too digital. The design I made might be impractical, perhaps a bit too medallic, but the important thing was to have fun doing it.

My model is about 6" in diameter, and the objective was to make a nickel, or perhaps a $5 gold piece. I wanted a mottled surface like the Buffalo Nickel, or wavy surfaces of a Walking Liberty Half, not something completely flat like a modern proof coin. Besides, I couldn't find the rolling pin to flatten it out. I made the circle by squishing the clay with a small pot. At that point I was thinking about the vast amount of tools that must go into simply designing a coin in its initial stages.

I haven't sculpted with clay since I was 14 years old, so I'm not exactly proficient at it, but digging and gouging and manipulating the stuff was blast, and immensely satisfying. The eagle design was based from a photograph by Saffron Blaze that I got from the Wikimedia Commons. Working from a live model, or original photograph would have been preferable however. I wanted a proud eagle, defiantly gazing into the distance, but as the design progressed I started thinking, "I'm thinking bald eagle... but I'm seeing a raven."

Old 11th grade art lessons started coming back to me; mainly to not bother drawing or defining every strand of hair, fur or feathers unless your extremely patient or extremely skilled. Otherwise it'll usually turn out a mess. I also constantly check the progress of any artwork I do in a mirror. If you do, you see flaws in the design immediately.

Finally I got to a point where I was OK with my obverse. I figured that I couldn't produce any more fine details, and the attempt might destroy what I already had. I also ended up liking the design at a different angle than intended. The next day I decided to get started on my reverse.

My intention with the reverse was a star emanating thirteen rays. The Roman Numeral 5, V, would be on top of that. A ribbon containing the motto would be intertwined at the bottom of this motif. Arched at the top would be United States of America, and the unit at the bottom (either cents or dollars).

The reverse was very difficult to do, especially at the scale I was working at. Oh, a quick and dirty style is all fine and dandy. But you don't want a star looking like that. You don't want a V looking like that. And how does one sculpt a ray anyway?

I managed to sketch out a star, and attempted to cut away and build it up, but the result was an utter mess. I tried to soften some of the clay to make it more pliable by heating it up with a hair drier, but this just made things worse. Soon I started getting weird ideas, like making a swirly star with rays at the top of the coin. But that just ended up looking like an exploding pinwheel starfish.

I conceded the reverse. My design idea required precision that I frankly lack. I needed a larger surface, better tools, a better surface, and above all the knowhow to execute it.

I decided to proceed to the next step for my obverse. I took my photo of it, and cropped it out on my computer in order to make refinements. When the mint makes refinements in the computer, I sincerely doubt they use Adobe Photoshop. However, it's all I had.

My refinements essentially amount to airbrushing; particularly around the eyes. The pupil is essentially a giant hole, which probably wouldn't actually be conducive to being struck, but how does one render a pupil anyway?

I didn't want to overdo it with the airbrushing, lest I take away from the original spirit of what I was going for, or make it look too much like a sketch.

My original intention was the create an original type to go with the design. If you look at the Walking Liberty Half, or the St Gaudens Double Eagle, the type isn't a font (of course), nor were the letters punched in either. They were created by the artists and almost organically reside in the design. I'd like to see more of this from the US Mint (or any number of mints for that matter), because it almost feels like the typography is an afterthought in modern coins. Just a font on the designer's hard drive that was just tossed in there. Like I said before, I want to see something that's more hand-made.

However, doing this is hard work. Even digitally. If I had the time, sure, but I'll stick with the fonts I have for the time being. This one was called Perpetua Titling. I wanted to keep things very stoic and simple, and also have the Roman Numerals for the date since I was doing the same for the denomination.

My idea for this design was to make the letters incuse; however, I now realize that wasn't my intention with the reverse. This further illustrates the flaw of my original design idea; it wasn't exactly as cohesive as I thought it was going to be.

You can read about how to make coins, you can watch a video on it, too. I don't think I even scratched the surface of what it happens in the coin making process, but this experiment gave me a new appreciation for what's involved. Particularly of the technical skill and talent of the designers and engravers at the U.S. Mint.

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