Coins take a lot of abuse. They're shoved in pockets, stashed in piggy banks, thrown in fountains, flipped, dropped, and sometimes squashed.
But they're used to it.
Before they even arrive at your local bank they've been punched, heated, washed, dried, riddled, upset, struck, inspected, and bagged.
After treatment like that, everything else is a breeze!
The United States Mint in Philadelphia is where a coin begins - on the drawing board in a special studio where six sculptor-engravers work.
These artists do all the coin-design work - from creating new commemorative coins and medals to updating existing designs (George Washington's hairdo was touched up on the 1998 quarter).
Jim Ferrell has been an engraver for the US Mint for 20 years. "I was always interested in drawing and creating art work. But I know more about coins now than I ever wanted to!" he jokes.
When Mr. Ferrell designs a new coin, he sits down with a pencil and paper first. "We generate hundreds of designs [in a year]," he says of the Mint's team of engravers. For a specific project, they might create three or four designs each. But they don't make the final decision on a design. The Fine Arts Commission and the Treasury Department make the choice.
Right now, the engravers are extra busy. Last December, President Clinton signed a law authorizing a new look for the quarter. Over the next 10 years, the "tails" side or "reverse" of the quarter will sport 50 new designs. Why so many? Congress decided it would be a good way to honor the 50 states - by commemorating each of them on the quarter. (Washington will remain on the front or "obverse.")
All 50 quarters will be issued nationwide, and US Mint representative Michael White says the Mint will increase production of quarters from 1 to 2 billion to 2.5 to 3.5 billion to meet demand. The chart at right shows which quarters will be issued first.
How a coin is born
Though you won't see the new quarters until 1999, the process of creating them has already begun. Delaware's design was chosen last month. (Contact your governor's office if you're interested in suggesting a design idea for your state.)
After new designs are chosen, the engravers go back to the studio, where they transform the pencil drawings into the image you see on your coins. "What's cool about coins is that they're a mini-bas-relief," says Mr. White. "It begins as a large sculpture, and then the process creates these little sculptures."
A coin starts as a clay sculpture three to 12 times larger than the finished product. This is a "positive" image the engravers craft entirely by hand.
"Positive" and "negative" are two important terms in understanding how a coin is created. Rub your finger over the top of a penny. See how the surface is raised and Abraham Lincoln is facing right? That's a positive image. Negative is the opposite - the image is sunken and Lincoln would face the other way.
The engravers pour plaster over the clay model to form a negative model. Then they etch the lettering. Remember, it's negative, so they etch in reverse!
Once they've perfected the design in plaster, they make a negative rubber mold and pour epoxy into it to make a really sturdy model. Now it's ready to be "reduced." The finalized model is attached to a "transfer-engraver," which traces the large model, reduces the design, and cuts the reduced image into a steel blank.
The result is a positive replica or "hub." From the hub, the Mint manufactures "dies" (more negative images). The dies are attached to the coin presses and stamp the image you see onto blanks.
Now it's time to make the money! The metal comes from suppliers in big rolls. When the Mint was established in 1792, it is said that George Washington donated some of his own silver to make the first coins. Coins aren't made from precious metals anymore. They're now a mixture of copper and nickel (the penny is mostly zinc and copper).
The Mint punches out coin "blanks" that are sent through an "annealing furnace" about 50 yards long. Here, the blanks are heated to make the metal pliable. They're washed, dried, and the misshapen ones are removed. Then the coins are "upset." That's when a rim is raised around the edge of the coin. Rub your finger over the coin again. Without the rims, coins couldn't be stacked!
The coins aren't done yet. Now they head to the coining press where they're "struck" with the image by the dies. "When you stand next to a press, the dies come down from on top and below and they hit the coin at the same time," says White. "The whole floor shakes!" The high-speed presses can pump out 700-800 coins per minute!
Shaving for a rainy day
Maybe you've noticed that the dime, quarter, and half-dollar have grooves around their sides and the nickel and penny don't. Well, it's because historically, these three coins were made out of precious metals such as silver or gold and were worth their weight in that metal. People thought they could get more for their money if they shaved a little off the sides and kept the shavings for future use. So, the Mint added the grooves or "reeding" to prevent cheating. Things like this still happen when a coin's metal becomes more valuable than the coin.
Even though the quarter's look is changing, don't expect the Mint to start producing all sorts of wild-looking coins. White says Americans are pretty conservative when it comes to money design. But that's OK, says Ferrell. "A successful design is a popular consensus," he says. "There's a patriotic aspect to it."
If you want to find out more about the US Mint or the new quarter, check out www.usmint.gov.
Schedule for Issuing Commemorative Quarters
The schedule is based on the year of statehood. Delaware residents chose Caesar Rodney, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Year State Date
1999 Delaware 1787
New Jersey 1787
2000 Massachusetts 1788
South Carolina 1788
New Hampshire 1788
2001 New York 1788
North Carolina 1789
Rhode Island 1790
State quarters will be issued at 10-week intervals starting in 1999. All 50 states will be represented by the end of 2008.