The Making Of A Medieval Style Club Coin, Part V: Making The Coins!
Background: Ever since the Legacy Knights Numismatic Society began, as their coordinator I wanted our club to have its own medieval style club coin. Parts I through IV of this blog series dealt with the process from initial ideas to finalizing the design. Now it's time to describe how that design was turned into an actual coin!
In Part II of this series I described "old school minting", or the Medieval minting process of turning raw materials into workable materials, and from there into blanks, and from blanks into coins. It was a laborious process and now it was time to engage in that process ourselves.
But first, we had to come to an agreement with our moneyer, Mr. Carson Engle, on terms and cost.
To make a die set you need two pieces of steel bar stock. Commissioning your own dies, instead of using some the moneyer already has on hand, incurs a cost for the material for new dies, for the labor involved in cutting them to length, and for preparing them for both engraving and then for striking. That is about the same for any 2-die set of a given size.
Next, the engraving takes both time and skill, the required amount of both depending on the design. Mr. Engle and I passed our design ideas back and forth for awhile, with him explaining the process to me along the way, and the effects my design choices would have on our project. We got the basic idea done, and then tweaked a few things here and there until we were both satisfied. Now that the design was agreed upon, our moneyer was able to estimate how much of his time would be involved.
The cross design on the reverse was simple enough to engrave on a die. Lettering and beading can be put into a die using a punch set, and with little risk; and straight lines like crosses are pretty simple to engrave. But the obverse was a different story. Three-dimensional images such as a bust portrait of a ruler, or as in our case a knight on a horse, require intricate carving and removing metal in a process called relieving. It takes a lot more time, and you have to be very careful: one slip and you either have a lot of polishing to do, or you start over. Keep in mind, the medieval moneyer would use push tools to cut the image into the die, not a CNC machine or a rotary engraving tool; and the "canvas" for this design, called the die face, is the size of a modern US cent! Mr. Engle uses traditional push tools. He calculated that the obverse, due to its complexity, would require about 5 times as much labor as the reverse. Compare the finished obverse and reverse die photos. All the lettering and beading is punchwork. On the reverse only the cross and fleur-de-lis at the ends are engraved. On the obverse, 95% of the knight and horse are engraved.
Next, we had to determine what metal we wanted to use for our coins. Mr. Engle suggested aluminum, as it is both economical and easier to strike than harder metals. Both aspects were important, because another goal of this project was to have the moneying process demonstrated to our students in person, and even let them try hammering a few coins themselves. I agreed to aluminum, but I also wanted some coins with a more period look and feel. Our moneyer suggested copper, pewter, or silver. I chose copper and silver, and asked if he could also mix the two to make sterling silver.
Aluminum and copper require a little less preparation, because blanks can be punched out of sheet metal readily available through metal suppliers. Mr. Engle has a disc cutting guide that allows him to insert a sheet of metal into a slot, then use a punch and hammer to knock a blank out of the sheet (as opposed to using shears, or giant scissors, like medieval moneyers did).
Silver typically doesn't come in sheets, so Mr. Engle would have to process silver before he could cut blanks. 99.9% pure silver ("fine silver") can be bought in one-ounce bars and rounds that can be put through a rolling mill over and over until they are flattened to the desired thickness. Annealing is required along the way to make the metal soft enough to work. [See the photo of a 1 oz. silver bullion bar, next to another one that has been annealed and run through a rolling mill multiple times.] Then these flattened pieces can be punched like the aluminum or copper sheets. Using the rolling mill requires a little extra work and time, so this is factored into the cost for silver.
Cutting round holes out of a sheet of metal leaves scraps, and you don't leave unused scraps of silver! The scraps get melted in a crucible, which heats the metal until it liquefies. This liquefied silver then gets poured into an ingot-shaped mold and allowed to cool. The ingot is removed from the mold and then put through a rolling mill to flatten it to the desired thickness, getting annealed along the way, then punched into more blanks. Even though our moneyer employed some modern technologies-- a propane torch instead of a forge for melting metal, and a rolling mill instead of manual hammering to flatten it-- this is still a time-consuming process requiring more equipment and caution. More labor charges must be added. [See the numbered image of the progression of blank cutting: 1) The disc cutting guide. 2) Disc punch. 3) Silver round after rolling to needed thickness. 4) Annealed and punched silver. 5) Fine silver blanks. Photo: Carson Engle.]
Two things about using pure silver as a coin: 1) it's fairly soft as metals go, so it will wear down more easily when being circulated; and 2) it's a more expensive commodity than other metals. Both of these issues can be addressed by cutting the purity of the silver, by melting it down and adding a little bit of another metal to the mix. Typically the other metal would be copper; mixing 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper creates an alloy called sterling silver, which became a standard for English coinage in medieval times. This alloy was harder than pure silver and didn't wear down as fast; and the king's treasury got to make a little profit on "stretching" the silver by making extra coins! Once again, this requires the crucible, in order to melt and mix the two pure metals into an alloy; followed by casting ingots, flattening them, annealing, and finally cutting blanks.
Polishing the blanks is an option before minting them into coins. The aluminum and copper didn't really need it. (We tried a few just to see if there was a significant difference. You might notice it on the aluminum; on the copper, not so much, since the sheets from the supplier already had a shine.) The sterling silver, however, really shone nicely after polishing, as did the fine silver. Polishing also helped remove the fire scale that accumulated during the annealing process.
Next came actually hammering our coins. A tree stump was used for a working surface. the obverse die was held in place atop that, face up. A blank would be placed atop the obverse die face, and the reverse die face would be placed against that and held in place. Next the uncarved end of the reverse die would be struck with a four pound hammer. Voila! A coin is made. A number of aluminum coins, and all the copper, sterling, and fine silver coins would be hammered by Mr. Engle and brought to the demonstration. Another batch of aluminum blanks would be brought so that anyone in attendance would have the opportunity to hammer some coins.
Here we ran into a minor issue. Remember how sterling is a harder metal than pure silver so that the coins don't wear out as fast? Well, it also makes them harder to strike! Mr. Engle noticed this early that some of the sterling coins were coming out weakly struck. Hammering harder with a bigger hammer got some nice strikes, but it caused more wear and tear on the die, which started mushrooming and developing a small crack on the end that was being hit. This is normal for dies, and is remedied by cutting the "mushroom cap" off; but it was happening a little too quickly. So he decided to anneal the rest of the sterling blanks some more. This helped! He offered to remelt and remake the handful of weakly struck ones.
You can check out the pictures of single coins attached to see the results of Mr. Engle's die-cutting and striking skills. We were thrilled to receive them!
One of the normal features of hammered coinage is the fact that they don't all come out perfectly centered. In fact, few do! This is normal for medieval coins. And since our coins were made in a medieval manner, they feature this look also! Most have about the same centeredness on both sides: if they're 10% off on the obverse, they're about that on the reverse. A few are quite centered on one side, but off-center on the other. Several people to whom I've shown these coins have commented that they like the off-center ones, maybe even better than the more-centered ones, because they're interesting! It also tells the story of how the coins were made.
So how much should you budget for a project like this? It depends on several things.
1. Do you want both the obverse and reverse to be your own unique design? Then you will need to pay to have both dies made, engraved, and prepared for striking, like we did. You could save some money if you are willing to use a common design the moneyer already has in stock for one or both sides. If you plan to have thousands of coins struck, you may have to pay to replace at least one of the dies at least once, since they do wear out from striking. (Historically, a typical obverse die averaged around 36,000 strikes; while a typical reverse die only lasted around 17,000 strikes since it was taking the direct abuse from the hammer.)
2. From what metal do you want your coins to be made? You save money using less expensive metals that are sold in sheets and require less work, such as aluminum or copper. Anything requiring melting in the crucible, casting into ingots, and rolling into flat sheets will raise the price significantly due to the labor, risk, and fuel costs for heating the crucible. Additional tooling, or molds for casting small amounts instead of stamping, will also incur charges. Creating historic alloys such as sterling silver or bronze will require melting in the crucible. Even if you were able to find bronze sheeting from a metal supplier, it would probably require annealing at the least due to its hardness.
3. How complex is your design? Relief work takes a lot more time than punch work. You can save money if the design you want used is more punched than relieved. Fortunately, there are some attractive early medieval designs you can use for inspiration that are nearly all punch work. Check out an Æthelred penny for inspiration. Even if you create a complicated design for your obverse, a simple reverse is strongly suggested, since that die is most likely to need replacing if it gets worn out.
4. How many coins do you want? To a certain point, one coin will cost practically as much as a few dozen, depending on the metal. Melting enough silver, gold, or an alloy of metals for one coin would require more than one coin's worth of metal, if the blank has to be stamped from a sheet. You could cast one coin blank with less metal than blank cutting would require; but then you have to pay for a mold in which to cast it; and the moneyer might need you to pay for a special, separate crucible pot for melting small amounts of a new metal he doesn't typically use. If you are going to fire up the crucible to make silver coins, you might as well buy a few ounces' worth. Once it's been made into an ingot and rolled flat, punching the blanks is the least expensive part of the process; if you cut one blank you might as well cut a dozen. If you need more coins for less money, aluminum is currently the most economical choice, followed by pure copper.
So how much would a project like this cost? You could spend thousands... But with careful planning and design, you could easily keep it in the hundreds. It is affordable to the point that the costs could be covered by one person who has saved up for it. A handful of club donors could do it. A moderately successful fundraiser could cover it. It is not nearly as out of reach as some might think!
Our club members had a fantastic time striking their own coins under the moneyer's guidance. We all learned quite a bit about the minting process, history, and hammered coinage. We intend to use this experience as a base for our continued learning, as there are so many valuable lessons relating to many aspects of numismatics. Thanks again go to our moneyer "Rüdiger", a.k.a. Carson Engle, for working with us to make this happen, and giving us a wonderful presentation at our meeting. If you would like to contact him about making a presentation or commissioning your own hammered coinage, email him at email@example.com.