Friday, May 26, 2006

Coins and Coin Dies

I recently had a inquiry about creating a set of replica Viking Age coin dies. The questioner was wanting to use the dies as part of a living history presentation, and wanted to be able to hand out the coins produced free. This is a general interest version of my reply...

There are two elements to this project - the dies and the disk blanks

On the dies:

I should warn you right up front that I have been ACID ETCHING the patterns in - rather than engraving them. I've tried engraving a couple of times (and did make one set of simple dies that way) - but truthfully have NOT had a lot of luck with the technique. Engraving is its own specialized skill, and requires special tools to undertake correctly.

On my own dies (for the coins seen on the web site) I quite purposely reversed the impressions. I have raised letters and lines - which cut into the disk surface. This was done to create an obvious point of difference between the replicas and the artifacts. (concern over counterfeit) Note that with the acid etch method, it is easily possible to create the more correct incised lines. The etched dies do have a physical action a bit different than engraved ones. Engraved lines are triangular in cross section, so the metal is forced into a sharp peak. Etched lines are somewhat circular in cross section, so do not produce quite the crisp lines as would have been on artifact coins when new.
I have also mirror imaged the patterns for the same reason (thus two points of difference).

Second part of the dies is the physical shape of the metal itself. I have two sets of dies I use for the two different coins seen on the web site. The first (for the York coins) was made as a 'production' die. It is constructed from a blank of 1045 tool steel. This means the dies are quite durable, my own set has made several thousand impressions in the 12 plus years since I created them. But these are straight polished cylinders of clean steel.
My second set of dies are replicas of the actual dies found at Coppergate. (Mind you - they do have a different pattern on them). These are forged from mild steel. The artifact dies have been upset to one end then forged down to a square tapered peg. Before the etching, I water hardened the mild steel - with sequential hardness towards the base / striking end. So these copy the FORM of the period dies.

I will (and have) created dies both as production and reproduction level of detail, for individuals and museum programs. If anyone out there is seriously interested, please contact me directly. Price is in the hundreds - not thousands (!). I would prefer NOT to duplicate the patterns that I have selected for my own replica silver coins. Note that my customers for the replicas are mainly museum gift shops, as wholesale. I figure my past work in this field and a certain reputation gives me a leg up on any potential competition in that market.

Your second problem is the cost of the disk blanks

When I initially got involved in the coin project, it was primarily to provide a good physical demo at a community medieval festival (back in 92). I knew from my own work with living history, that coins were an ideal teaching tool. Once you have dies - the actual process is quick, and the other tools required are minimal. A wood block, a heavy hammer. Round out the presentation with a pan balance with weights (also available from the Wareham Forge) and a set of cutters. Lots of pop culture references here! A very solid 5 minute public presentation.

My problem, like yours, was were to get the metal disks. I did consider cutting all my own, and made up a couple of test stamps to cut 3/4 inch circles. I found that in copper the cut disks still had ragged edges, so had to be laboriously filed smooth. With a machine press, this step could be avoided - but this is an expensive tool I don't have. I also tried aluminum and sheet pewter (the tin alloy). Lead sheet worked extremely well - but although I did have a quantity of this as scrap - I certainly did NOT want to be handing out toxic materials to children!
I contacted a couple of small machine shops, and the cost per unit for disks in copper ran in the $1 each range - on a 500 to 1000 minimum order. You might see if there is a Tandys that still sells copper enamel supplies. Pre-made copper disks used to be widely available for this reason, I remember paying about .25 each for this size way back when. You might be able to hand cut 22 or 20 ga copper, but its a small circle and this would be slow (maybe ok as a demo however).

I figured at that price I'd look at real silver. I was looking for 3/4 inch size, and 22 gage thickness. This is almost exactly the size and weight of the original coins. The range of cost on this was amazing. The cheapest I could get silver disks made from a Canadian manufacturer was $2.25 each. This on an order of 50 ounces of silver (about 1500 disks)! Curiously, I did some web searching, and found an American supplier with a wholesale price considerably less. The last order I placed (about two years ago) for 10 ounces (there's a price break there) still had the disks at a price that allows me to keep my 'finished coin' price at $5 CDN loose / $7.50 CDN packaged.

As a trade token, I only get at best one out of every 100 coins returned. Most everyone wants to keep the coins as a cool thing on its own. It only happens at the rare SCA event, and even then only the same few people. I tried to introduce the coins as trade tokens 10 years back. I offered to bankroll any area merchant who would accept the coins in trade. Although a couple agreed - none of the SCA community itself bothered with it.

And truth be told, I attend few SCA events these days, and those mainly teaching events. I rarely bother with attempting to sell anything there any more. That community does not support historically accurate replicas in the only way that counts to a skilled artisan - with purchases. You get what you pay for...


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February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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