Archive for the ‘Die Engraving’ Category

EVERY die-struck item – coin or medal – has two important hard and fast rules. I call these “undeniable truths.” They cannot be overlooked at any step of modeling, pattern-making or die-making in the medallic field.

Dies need to strike and withdraw. They must be made to insure that ability to withdraw from the struck piece. Otherwise the struck piece clings to the die. Pressmen call this a “hang-up.”

In a coining press a hang-up with a struck piece attached strikes the next blank that comes into position with two blanks between the two dies. The struck pieces have no design on one side and a mangled surface on the other, what mint error collectors call a “brockage.”

If it continues to hang on to the die and the coining press continues to feed blanks that first struck piece will wrap around the die. Mint error collectors call this “capping” or “cupping.” It is one of the worst situations for a coining press operator to experience.

Even if the die isn’t damaged by all this, it should be rejected anyway. It wasn’t made properly in the first place. It provides a devil of a time for the pressman. Reject that die. Its problem was an improper bevel.

The problem with the die started with the modeling of the design. Two rules govern here – two undeniable truths – no undercuts and proper bevel of all lettering and devices. The two rules are so closely related we discuss them here both at the same time.

An undercut is modeling of relief between the design and its background; the carving of overhang of design relief; a negative slope of relief. Metalworkers call it back draft. Relief sculptors call it under bevel. Everyone calls it undercutting and everyone connected with medal making attempts to avoid it right from the beginning for any die-struck or electroformed reproduction..

[Undercutting is a sculpture technique of full-round sculpture even though it can be attached to its background; it intensifies a contour line or relief by casting a shadow behind the relief. In the medallic field undercut designs can only be reproduced on bas-relief cast plaques, and then only made by rubber or flexible molds.]

For new artists who want to model coins and medals, I recommend hanging a sign above their workbench: “No Undercuts. Bevel All Relief.” Hopefully they would see it every day and burn it into their memory.

All relief requires a proper bevel. The sides of all relief and lettering must have a slight bevel. Each medal making process has its own requirement. It is ideal to model a bevel (also called draft or taper) to accommodate any process used.

Four boundaries must be considered here:

  • Vertical relief from 0° to 2½° is called holding taper. Not only is that taper impossible to cut into a die, or strike, it would be impossible for the die to withdraw from the struck piece after striking.
  • Hand engraved dies can accommodate a 5° to 10° bevel where the dies can strike and the struck piece release from the die.
  • Reduction on the die-engraving pantograph, as the Janvier, requires a minimum 15° bevel. This is required for the shape of the cutting point that mills the design into the face of the die.
  • Reduction by computer generated models, requires a minimum 20° to 25° bevel, draft or taper. This also is determined by the shape of the cutting point that mills the design into the face of the die.

Early in the modeling career of every medallic artist it would be wise to create the sides of all relief and lettering with a minimum 20° bevel and maintain this throughout their career. A 20° bevel on relief or lettering is about the slope of a sharpened wood pencil.

Here’s a tip for all medallic modelers: check the bevel of relief by holding a pencil upright next to your modeled relief. Light will show at the base of the relief if the relief is too steep.

The slope in which the relief rises from the background has the proper bevel of at least 20° it will carry forward in all the die-making steps. Anything less than 5° draft will cause a formed piece to “hang up” or freeze in the die or mold.

While steep vertical relief without any bevel is impossible to strike, relief with minimum bevel creates stress in the dies. The displacement of surface metal of the blank is greater at that point and the wear to the dies is at its maximum (which leads to diecracks and diebreaks).

Humans like the sharp, crisp detail in their medallic designs. Unfortunately they also like sharp rises and falls of the modulated relief to give emphasis to the design. So the designer and modeler must balance the need for a superior design with the requirements of the medallic technology.

As the artist shapes the sides of the relief in his design during modeling he must be aware of this angle or bevel at all time.


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This is the first of several reports on the basic information, the basic knowledge, of minting coins and medals. These facts are so important they should be embedded in the repertoire of everyone associated with the medallic field and, certainly, everyone within the firms which make these.

EVERY coin and medal struck for the last 2,650 years – since the first coin was struck in 640 BC – exists because of one technique:  engraving. Creating the lines and cavities in a die to reproduce a design in objects struck from that die is the result of engraving.

The surface containing the relief design rises and falls from a background is a special form of three dimensions called bas-relief (the “s” is silent, its pronounced baa-relief). I prefer the term modulated relief for the images of devices and lettering of varying height shown on that surface.

Medallic Art Dies

Medallic Art Dies

Three stages.
Die engraving over time has evolved through three stages.  For the first 2500 years the only method to create those dies was for a skilled craftsman to hand engrave them — to carve away little portions of the surface of iron to form a completed die. By the use of hand tools he crafted a die with cavities the exact size of the object to be struck from that die.

Because this work was tedious, mechanically inclined craftsmen sought a method to mechanize the hand work. A progression of instruments were developed, the most successful were those that cut a die from an oversize pattern, in effect a die-engraving pantograph which cut the surface of the die from a much larger pattern.

The large pattern from which the die is engraved was created by a sculptor, who in effect, replaced the hand engraver. The pattern was mounted in a reducing pantograph by a craftsman who set the machine to operate. With an electric motor it operated unattended cutting a die any size desired. Also the pattern could be used again so several size dies could be made from a single pattern. Or it could cut a hub or master die from which many dies could be made.

At first it was the central design, the device alone, which was  modeled as the pattern to cut into a die. Lettering and stars or ornamentation was added later, by hand punches. It was not until 1899 that a French inventor, Victor Janvier, patented his die-engravng pantograph that could cut the die entire, lettering and all. His “Janvier” machine dominated die engraving for the entire 20th century.

With the 21st century we see the rise of computer engraving. The image is entered in a computer as X and Y coordinates for height by width. The depth of the image is the Z factor. Three factors at each point of the image, and as many points as the resolution of the image requires. This data is then fed into a controlled milling machine which cuts the entire surface image into the die in the size die required.

  1. Hand Engraving Only method of engraving for 2500 years, still used infrequently at present.
  2. Die-engraving Dominated all die making 1900-2000; cutting Pantograph devices alone at first, then entire sides, everything at once.
  3. Computer Engraving Increasingly used to cut dies to be major technique following year 2000.

Engraving Terms.
Cutting a die by hand is called hand engraving. Engraving dies to be used in striking is called diesinking. Engraving dies by use of master punches is called hubbing. Engraving by various mechanical implements is called machine engraving. And now we have COMPUTER ENGRAVING.

Engraving an existing item – a medal say – to personalize it after it is struck or cast (as name of a recipient) is called inscribing. One “engraves” a die, but “inscribes” a medal.

Die engraving is different from “engraving” found in most reference works, which refer to the preparation of printing plates for prints or paper money; we call this flat engraving (as for line or surface engraving). This engraving has no relief. It creates two levels of surface: one surface that prints and one that does not.

During the 19th century “engraving of dies” and “diesinking” were considered the same, synonymous (and listed as such in trade directories). Later in that century diesinking came to mean hubbing of dies. These terms now all have more explicit meanings, all within the required duties of the engraver and the overall concept of die-making.

Die Engraving Overview.
Engraving of dies was always done in iron before the development of steel (and always in steel afterwards). Iron and steel have the amazing property of being hardened and softened at will by heat treating. Thus the engraver can cut the design in soft iron, it can then be hardened and thousands of impressions can be made from that iron die.

Engraving of dies is considered a form of carving, cutting away small bits of metal to form the relief design. More often than not, this is negative carving to strike positive objects. But some hand engravers are so skilled they can carve positive – called CAMEO ENRAVING – or negative with incised cavities.

The engraver must know his tools (see list). These implements are also made of steel, but obviously are harder than the iron DIE BLANK the engraver is cutting. These tools create the lines and cavities that reproduce the relief design and lettering by creating modulated relief surface.

Burin.  An engraving tool with a diamond or lozenge shaped cutting edge, often used for engraving lines, lettering or fine detail in dies.


Burnisher.  The tool for polishing the surface of metal; made of metal or stone, a burnisher smooths a metallic surface to effect its polish.



Chisel.  A tool, flat and pointed at the end, used by engravers to handcut a die, or by chasers in their work.

Engravers’ Ball, Engravers’ Block.  A vise to hold a die or medallic item while some form of hand work is performed on it – engraving, chasing, inscribing, proof polishing or such.

Graver.  A cutting or shaving tool used by an engraver to handcut metal (as a die or flat engraving).

Milgrain Tool.  A beading tool with a wheel of hemispherical cavities that leaves a trail of precisely and uniformly formed beads.

Oil Stone.  An abrasive stone for sharpening engraving tools, a whetstone.

Punch, Puncheon.  A tool made of steel containing a letter, figure, dentile, ornament or a part of a coin or medal design used to press into softer steel to make a die, or to counterstamp a numismatic item.

Spitz, Spitzstick.  A pointed graver; an engraving tool with a long sharp pointed end.

Transfer Wax.  Wax in ball or sheet form used by engravers to transfer a drawing, design or lettering to the surface of a die to be hand or machine engraved, or to the surface of a medal to be inscribed.

Basic die engraving techniques.
The engraver is responsible for the steel he must use and the preparation of a blank die he must make into a suitable die. The choice of the steel is most critical. The best iron or steel available must be employed, otherwise in use the image will sink during prolonged striking, or worse of all break, starting at an edge.

Prior to 1756 all dies were made of iron; in that year an English manufacturer, Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776), invented a method of making crucible steel that proved most useful for dies. Matthew Boulton used Huntsman’s steel for the dies at his 1790 Soho Mint and the mints throughout the world used Huntsman steel for a century and a half – until 1950!

Steel for dies is ordered from steel manufacturers by type of steel, diameter, hardness, and whether oil or water hardened. It usually is supplied in long rods called bar stock, although other shaped stock has been used for dies, as square or hexagonal. (Round is ideal for many steps in making and using a die, turning on a lathe, locking in the press, and as a final point, orientation of the obverse and reverse properly.)

The bar stock is cut on a band saw to approximate height of the finished die. Next it is milled smoothed and both ends made exactly parallel. The working end where the design is to be cut is polished. If the engraver does not do this, then it is done by a tool and die worker, a separate person in a large mint or medal plant. At this point it is a die blank, ready to be engraved by any method, hand or machine engraved.

Laying out the design for hand engraving.
The surface of the polished die blank is next coated with Chinese white, a watercolor paint. An engraver will wet the tip of his finger and spread an even coat over the entire surface to be engraved. It dries quickly and the design can be drawn with a pencil right on this white surface. (Or the engraver may use dye blue if he wishes, but in this case he must inscribe the design with a sharp pointed spitzstick or scriber.)

What the engraver draws is an outline of the intended design. This is called a cartoon. (One might think this word was named after comic cartoons but it’s the other way round – die engraving cartoons came first.)

The engraver can actually draw an original design right on the die. He will include lettering in its proper place in addition to the main device and all subsidiary devices – stars, dentiles and whatever else. Including too much detail at this point is not necessary as this surface will be removed for the most part before he gets to these.

Or, if the engraver has an exact size cartoon on paper, he can transfer this pencil drawing to the white coated die surface, called design transfer. This is accomplished by coating the back of the paper with graphite, laying this on the coated die and tracing the design. (This technology was used before carbon paper was invented, which, of course, could be used.)

If the engraver wishes to transfer an incuse image, say from another die, to an uncoated fresh die he fills all cavities with precipitated chalk, wipes off the excess, lays on this a thin sheet of transfer wax, places this on the bare die, and burnishes the back of the wax sheet with a burnisher.

Removing metal.
At this stage occurs what everyone typically attributes to an engraver – removing tiny bits of metal to form the design in modulated relief. The cartoon indicates where most of the unwanted dead metal is to be removed, mostly background cutaway. Formerly this was done with hammer and chisel, modern engravers now have pneumatic gravers that remove gross metal from the die surface in quick time with less muscle power.

At this point the engraver does not worry about the ridges left from the chisel or graver, however it is quite critical how deep he carves. The depth of this cutting will ultimately be the background or field of the piece struck from this die. The tool marks are removed by later lapping or stoning.

Then he turns his full attention to the main device. Here is where he cuts the modulated relief of the design with burin or graver. Each tiny bit of metal removed is called a bite. His skill and talent come into play in carving the portrait or feature of the design. The engraver must be an artist at this stage employing all his artistic ability. He is creating a miniature relief by sculptural carving, often in the negative.

He holds the burin or graver in the palm of his hand with his index finger lying along the shank of the tool. He points with this finger to where he wants to cut. He pushes with his hand down into the metal and scoops out a tiny bit of metal. This action is called palm push because the palm of the hand pushes on the handle forcing the point of the tool into and up out of the metal die surface.

We have assumed here the artist is cutting intaglio, carving the relief design in the negative for all the above. However, the artist can cut cameo, in the positive. Cutting a positive cameo die eliminates the need for frequent proving. The image is always in view. The cameo die has another advantage, it can serve as a device punch to hub into the working die.

Carving and using punches.
Before 1950 there were commercial punches of letters and figures engravers could obtain from typographic houses (which made type for letterpress printers – the rise of lithographic printing however made all letterpress obsolete and type houses went out of business). For most engravers the desired type, style and size, it seemed, was never available. Thus the engraver had to carve new punches for the correct lettering style and size he was seeking.

Imagine a letter on the end of a pencil point. In a sense, this is what the engraver must carve, exact size, and a different one for each different letter. (Thank goodness he can use the same “E” punch or any other repeated letter over and over – he only needs one for each letter.) It is “carve away” engraving to make a letter or figure punch and the final punch must have a sloping contour with a proper bevel, often turned on a lathe.

The layout for lettering will have a guide line or base line drawn or lightly inscribed on the face of the die where the bottom of each letter must appear. He may also inscribe a second guideline for the top of the letters. He does not punch the letters in order they appear on the die; instead the engraver most likely will choose a letter with a flat base, as an “E” to start (where top and bottom must line up with the two guide lines). Each letter is punched into the die individually.

When punching the lettering the engraver must be aware of four things at once: (1) the letter must rest on that base line, or fit precisely between the two if there are two  guide lines, (2) he must not tilt the letter, it must be upright, exactly perpendicular to the base line, (3) he must be aware of interletter spacing [“IE” should be further apart than say “OO”], (4) he must sink the punch to the same depth as all other letters. The last is most important because an “M” requires more pressure to sink than an “I” for example.

To insure correct positioning the engraver lightly taps the letter punch to get a faint image on the surface of the die. If it is correct in all respects, he replaces the punch – it must “seat” in that same impression – and taps the punch to the proper depth. If it doesn’t seat properly, or he moves the punch between blows, he will create a double image for that letter. Punching letters and figures requires experience; lettering by an amateur engraver, who perhaps cannot control all four requirements at once, is very obvious on the struck piece.

Diesinking and hubbing.
The engraver does not have to engrave every element on the face of that one die blank (although he can if he so desires). He can carve separate elements and bring them together by sinking them into that master die blank. He can engrave the device separately (even in cameo) making it a device punch. By diesinking he can get that image into that die; obviously it is too much to sink it by hammer blow, he must hub it by using a press, a screw press – or for even greater pressure a hydraulic powered hubbing press – to impress the device punch into the die.

The device punch must be hard and the die blank must be soft, thus heat treating is important at this stage. The two – punch and die – are positioned in the press and are squeezed to drive the punch into the die. Often a retaining ring is necessary to hold the punch in position during hubbing (creating this tube-like collar is the responsibility of the engraver or tool and diemaker). This is the hubbing function of diesinkning.

Hubbing always changes polarity. A positive punch creates a negative element in the die. The device punch carved cameo is ideal for pressing into the negative die. The negative die, then, can be used for striking. Or, instead it can become the master die and a hub can be sunk from it. Then working dies can be made from that hub. By the process of hubbing the engraver can go back and forth with a change of polarity each time. Multiple working dies are necessary for long production runs. A master die is “insurance” that another die can be easily sunk if the one in use breaks or deteriorates.

At any step along this process the engraver can examine the state of his work by proving. He can push soft material, clay or wax, into the die cavity or the surface of the die to give a quick look. For more detail, which is usually the case because the engraver is working on tiny areas of carving, he will want to make a metal proof. These can be a hot tin impression, called a splasher, which he can do right at his workbench; or a lead proof if he places the die in a press and softly impresses the lead.

The closer the engraver gets to the finished die, the more proofs he will make. He seldom makes any proof until well into the process. He usually does extensive carving in the die, then he makes a proof to check on his progress. This continues until he is completely satisfied with the total image. He will then harden the die and it will be ready to be placed into production.

Use of Sculptured Patterns in Engraving.
In an attempt to relieve the tedium of hand engraving, engravers and mint workers looked to the pantograph, the die-engraving pantograph, to aid in cutting dies. In constant development from its early crude form for nearly 150 years, these machines were in use at mints in Belgium, France and England. It required, however, a pattern in hard material to reduce the image while it cut the relief.

Engravers and mint officials turned to sculptors and wax modelers to create these patterns. It was not, as some believe, a model for the engraver to handcut the image in reduced size, but rather a three-dimensional surface that could be reduced by stylus tracing and mechanical pantographic reduction.

What the sculptor created was a bas-relief – a design of modulated relief attached to a solid background. Sculpture in wax was ideal, as well as those in clay and other media (the use of plaster of Paris came later). However, this had to be converted to a hard surface of the image for the stylus to trace over. These were cast in metal, iron was the first to be used, later copper was found to be more ideal for the stylus to ride over.

The first sculptor to prepare a bas-relief for medals in America was Ferdinand Pettrich (1798-1872). In 1841 he created a relief portrait of President John Tyler in wax for the Indian Peace Medal Series. At the U.S. Mint Franklin Peale (1795-1870) cast this in iron and used it to cut three size DEVICE PUNCHES of the 1842 Indian Peace Medal (on the Philadelphia Mint’s newly acquired Contamin pantograph, well suited for cutting multiple size hubs from the same pattern).  Each of these device punches was sunk into an appropriate size die blank and lettering added by punches.

Sculptor Pettrich’s presidential portrait was followed by John Gadsby Chapman (1808-1889) who furnished President James K. Polk’s portrait in 1846 for the same series. In 1849 Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) created Zachary Taylor’s portrait, but these portraits were surpassed by Millard Fillmore’s, Franklin Pierce’s and Abraham Lincoln’s portraits by Salathiel Ellis (1803-1879) both in quantity and quality. It is believed the Philadelphia Mint replaced iron cast patterns with copper ELECTROFORMED patterns (GALVANOS) from Ellis’ models.

Rise of electroformed patterns.
Using iron patterns proved unsatisfactory, not only for the stylus drag, but also for the lack of finite detail. Models cast in iron could not reproduce the fine detail in the sculptor’s models. Reason for this was the meniscus formed at the juncture of all angular corners and, on coin and medal models in particular, where relief meets the field (called corner radius). This rounding of angles and corners occurs in all metal casting. It cannot reproduce sharp detail, notably the pointed junctures at the edges of relief and corner radii.

Fortunately an event occurred in 1837 to affect this. A German physicist and engineer, Moritz Herman Jacobi (1801-1874), developed an electro chemicalprocess he called “galvanoplasty” which today is known as electrolysis. This is the process by which electroplating takes place. But it can also be employed for forming objects from a mantel, core or pattern.

The technology was rapidly employed in England, for the silverware industry, but in France it was employed in the art field. Before long it was in use at the Paris Mint for making patterns for use on the die-engraving pantograph from sculptors’ models. Here it was ideal because all the detail in the sculptors’ models were reproduced in a copper pattern in far greater fidelity (in micron width!).

The metal pattern was called a galvano (from Jacobi’s “electrogalvanic” process). If the newly created pattern was positive to cut a die, it was also called a dieshell, if it was negative to cut a hub, it was a hubshell. (Electroforming changes polarity.)

This technology was in use for cutting dies on the die-engraving panotograph for the remainder of the 19th century and all the 20th century. It was replaced, only partially at first, by the use of epoxy for creating coin and medal patterns following World War II when it was developed.

Engraver’s use of engraving machines.
Because sculptors were asked to furnish relief models of portraits, more than any other subject to be made into patterns for dies, the first die-engraving pantographs were called portrait lathes.The engraver would make a hard surface cast of the sculptor’s portrait model and place this on the reducing machine.

In all instances these early engravers would utilize the sculptor’s bas-relief pattern to cut a positive image in steel. This reduction punch would then be hubbed into the master die. Lettering, subsidiary devices and rim elements would be added afterwards by punches and hand engraving.

In America, use of the die-engraving pantograph continued for 80 years to make reduction punches. This technique continued through the 19th century. It wasn’t until the invention of the Janvier pantograph that the entire die could be reduced and cut from the sculptor’s model of the entire design, lettering and all.

Tracer controlled pantographs.
In the last decade of the 19th century engravers and machinists devised pantographs to aid diesinking. One type of these was a tracer controlled pantograph where an oversize template model and template letters controlled a router that removed all the dead metal. It could carve out letters and leave the design as a flat undisturbed surface that required further diecutting.

The pantograph operator would have to manually control the router to mill away not only the background cutaway but also the surface metal to create the design. In effect this made this craftsman controlling this machine by hand as the engraver of the die. While this was quite satisfactory for letters, logos, architectural and other flat designs, it was left to the skill of the operator to create portraits, scenes and designs of highly modulated relief. Gorton was the major manufacturer of this style of pantograph.

Modern improvements of this machine, even computer control, have made this a quick and low-cost method of die engraving. Ideal for most dies, medal manufacturers use this in contrast to sculptured models. However, it produces less artistic, somewhat flat, mechanical images, particularly of portraits.

Computer engraving.
The computer will not design a coin or medal, but, like a burin in the hand of the engraver, it will aid the engraver to enter the design and determine the amount of depth each point should cut into the die or matrix.

Mints and medalmakers around the world were eager to accept the new technology, the most recent step in replacing the tedious act of hand engraving dies. The success of computer engraving may yet be proved to be limited, much like the use of the tracer-controlled pantograph introduced a century earlier. Both technologies have their place and will continue to be employed by the minting industry. They will not, however, replace the artist who must create the design nor the sculptor-medallist who creates more advanced designs.

The advantages of computer engraving is not only “fast and cheap” but also its versatility to alter a design, to modify it, to test a new concept, to hone the relief to a satisfactory image. As such it is ideal for simple images, as graphic designs, most trademarks and buildings. Where it falls short are very complex or highly detailed designs, but most notably, portraits!

One word describes what a sculptor working in clay or wax can accomplish that a computer cannot: vivify. In art it means “give life to.”  A sculptor can give life to a portrait, make an image of a real person, so it seems the person is staring back at the viewer. He is alive in sight of the relief. In contrast, computer generated portraits are stiff, frozen and lifeless.

Computer Technique.
The computer engraver can start with a flat drawing, a cartoon, or create this on the screen. At each point on the design, called a pixol, X and Y coordinates are determined by the computer. The operator chooses the depth at this point, the Z coordinate, to fix the sculptural or dimensional effect, creating a bitmap. All these coordinates are stored in the software. A visual image is shown on the screen of the CPR. The operator moves through the design indicating the modulated relief.

When finished, the accepted digital design will then be transferred to a milling machine which does the cutting as controlled by the digital file. Afterwards, burrs and rough corners from the milling tool must be worked as with any other touchup of dies.

Is it possible to look at a coin or medal and tell how it was made, by hand engraving, die-engraved reduction, or by computer design?

Diagnostics: How A Coin or Medal Was Made

No hard and fast rules differentiate a hand engraved die from one made from sculptor’s models and dies cut on the die-engraving pantograph  or by computer design by looking at any coin or  medal. The difference, if any, is quite subtle and often difficult to detect.

Technically the only difference is where the rise of relief meets the background or field (called corner radius). and, perhaps, the crevices. Because of the rounded point of the stylus and cutting point on the pantograph and computer milling machine, which cannot enter these areas, these appear less distinct, less angular and more rounded. Also sculptors tend to fill up the model with detail more so than hand engravers, and occasionally vignette the surface (detail covers more of the model with less clean field) or with texture in the field.

  • Generally, a hand engraved die will appear with sharper detail, steeper rise of relief, deeper crevices and a greater background area (smooth field).
  • Generally, a die cut on a die-engraving reducing  pantograph will appear with smoother, softer detail, slightly more sloping sides of relief, and less field area.
  • Generally, a die cut on milling machine from a computer design will appear similar to that of a pantograph, depending upon the shape of the cutting tool.

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The Field of  MEDALLIC ART – small M, small A,  is a French art. The first practitioners were French artists, as the leading medallic artists today are French.

Medallic Art  – capitol M, capitol A, the company – was founded by two French brothers working in New York City. Despite the fact Henri Weil, the oldest, was born here in America, Felix Weil, the youngest, was born back in France as the parents traveled back and forth in a ceramic business.

In studying and handling medals of the world for fifty years, I have developed a sense of nationalistic traits common to all medals of one country. Italy, for example, has the most talented medallic artists. Design of medals by Italian artists rise above all others.

At a speech given at a memorial service for Italian-born Marcel Jovine, I repeated that statement that I felt Italy produced the finest medallic artists. “There must be something in the drinking water in Italy to produce such superb artists,” I said. The audience broke out in thunderous applause as I realized most were Italian descendents or supporters.

Certainly some credit can be given to the national mint in Rome, the Zecca Mint. It maintains a school for coin and medal designers. Artists who wish to advance a career in the field, travel to Rome to study at the Zecca. American Elizabeth Jones, ultimately to be Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, was just such student at the Zecca.

While student work is often set aside for most artists in their own possession, Elizabeth tells me the Zecca school retains all the models by all the students at the Zecca. I wonder if these are used as study models by later students. They are trained to recognize good medallic art – study what has been created in the past – and to emulate only the best techniques in their own work.

German artists are technical machinists. Long noted for producing the best hand engravers, German artists continued to embrace hand engraving. Even after the French developed oversize modeling and pantographic reduction to cut dies, Germans still continued to cut their dies by hand.

One hand engraver, Fritz Eue, immigrated to America in 1926 after a successful career in his native Germany, cutting dies for four medal maker firms. It is said he could cut a die in two hours, complete. Further he could cut a die in cameo, in raised relief as well as incised, in negative relief.  He could hand engrave a die, or a hub, positive or negative, whatever was needed.

Eue’s work was typical of German medallic artists. While immensely satisfactory it didn’t rise to the artistic quality of Italian artists’ work.

Also Germans are noted for their medal making equipment. They invented the knuckle-joint press, now used for coining press technology employed throughout the world. German firms today produce the finest coining and medal making equipment.

British medallic artists’ work is stiff, prim and proper, somewhat like the British people themselves. Yet some of the greatest coin and medal artists are British. Thomas Simon (1618-1665) is an early example. In 1663 he engraved a pair of dies whose struck piece became known as the “Petition Crown.”

Simon was in competition with a Dutch artist, Jean Roettier, for the position of engraver at the Royal Mint. To prove his competence for the position he created a large silver crown with two lines of lettering on the edge of the piece pleading for the king, who was to make the decision, to appoint him over a Dutchman.

Despite a stunning portrait of the king on the obverse, the king made a political decision and Roettier got the job. But Simon’s work rose above anything Roettier ever produced.

St. George slaying the dragon on 1911 British Sovereign.

St. George slaying the dragon on 1911 British Sovereign.

While trained in Italy, the greatest British coin and medal artist of all time was Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855).  He created the iconic image of Saint George slaying the dragon, which became symbolic on British coins.

Pistrucci is also known as the engraver of the Waterloo Medal. Commissioned in 1815, he completed it thirty years later in 1845. It was so large – four and a half inches – they couldn’t strike it for fear of breaking the die. (It was issued as an electroform cast, and later struck in a reduced size).

British artists are also known for their family of coin and medal artists, the Pingos and the Wyons are examples. All of which held positions at the Royal Mint in London, but who also had family members who created medallic work outside the Mint.

The French artists, however, made medallic art a genre equal to painting and sculpture, and traced, as early as 1825, to the work of David d’Andres (1788-1856). His portraits were in relief in a size larger than any medal, eight to ten inches. Originally replicated by foundry casts, they were readily made as galvano casts when this technology became available, mid-century.

David d’Andes was followed by Herbert Ponsdcarme (1827-1903) who is considered the Father of the Modern Art Medal. His 1863 medal for the Academy of Inspiration for Beaux-Letters bearing the portrait of Joseph Nadet earned this title.

In the 1880s came a flood of French artists who not only practiced the art of large size medallic models (a la David d’Andres), but also adopted the new technology of pantographic reduction machines to reduce their models to a size that could be struck as medals.

The names of the French artists who became active in this period are legion: Jules Chaplin, Alexandre Charpentier, Pierre Dautel, Georges Dupre, Jean Daniel-Dupis, Rene Gregoire, Henry Nocq, Victor Peter, Georges Prud’Homme, Louis Oscar Roty, Ernest Tasset, Emile Vernier, Frederic Vernon, Ovide Yencesse.

Many of these artists embraced the technique of modeling oversize, having their models made into a hard metal pattern (by electrogalvanic casting), then mounting in a die-engraving pantograph cutting a die to be used for striking their images in medallic form.

Also at this time these artists experimented with applying a patina to their art medals. They used the same chemicals and techniques employed for their large size sculpture in-the-round. Worked just as well for for small size medals.

Here are the reasons therefore why medallic art is considered a French art:

  • The Paris Mint has struck coins and medals since the 1400s. It has been a leader in advancing minting technology and attracting the best engravers noted for their talent.
  • Indeed, the Paris Mint has a training program – not like the school at the Zecca Mint in Rome – but more of on-the-job training program that has been in progress since 1866.
  • The Paris Mint has encouraged medallists of the world to submit their models for possible striking; during its heyday in this program, administered by Piere De Hay was buying one new model a day to place into production.
  • The French artists invented the technique of modeling oversize and having these models pantograhically reduced to cut dies for striking.
  • Victor Janvier, a Frenchman, began improving the reducing machine and patents his machine 1899; became the industry standard.
  • Louis Oscar Roty trains medalists in this technique of oversize modeling; his most notable student is Victor Brenner, from New York, who travels to Paris twice in a four-year period to learn from French masters.
  • A French art critic, Roger Marx created the Societe des Amis de la Medaille francaise (the Society of French Medallic Art) in 1899, the first art medal series. It was copied by similar groups in Europe and America (the Circle of Friends of the Medallion).
  • The French created Federation International des la Medaille (FIDEM) immediately after World War II. This international organization of medallic artists sponsors exhibitions at their biannual conventions.
  • An small number of private minters, notably, Artrus Bertrand, and others, prosper in Paris striking medals for private customers.
  • At the exhibition of international contemporary medallic art at the American Numismatic Society in 1910 (IECM), 49 French artists sent exhibits almost equaling the number of Americans (56) where the exhibition was held. Frenchman Louis Oscar Roty had more items on exhibit (82) than any other artist. Five of the top ten exhibitors were French.
French Head, Medallic Art Company Logo

French Head, Medallic Art Company Logo

In an unusual conflux of words and names, the French Head, symbol adopted for Medallic Art Company by Clyde C. Trees in 1934 – but named for its creator, Daniel Chester French – continues the French Connection.

Thus the art the company produces is French and the symbol for the company is – French.

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For its first fifty years, Medallic Art Company had no need for a sculptor to be on hand at the firm. The founders, Henri and Felix Weil, were themselves sculptors. All models were prepared by outside sculptors, as clients or commissioned by the firm.

Any touchup work could be done by one of the Weils. Their knowledge of needs of a model for the required process of reduction and cutting a die to be struck into metal was extensive. They knew, perhaps intuitively, that a model could be made into a die. Or what needed to be done to accomplish that magical transaction. They could do it.

With the sale of the firm to Clyde Curlee Trees in 1927, one of the Weils had agreed to be on hand at all times. This policy continued in place until Henri, the oldest of the two, was unable to work and ultimately died in 1949.

Clyde Trees often made the statement that the firm had no stock dies, that all medals were made by new models from outside, commissioned sculptors. But those models occasionally needed tweaking – the preferred sculptural term is “touchup” – irrespective of how competent or reputable the sculptor was who prepared them.

With the death of Henri Weil, Trees realized he needed a sculptor at the plant full time. In 1951 he hired a young talented Puerto Rican, Ramon Gordils, and, under the tutelage of Felix Weil, trained him in the special needs and techniques of medallic modeling.

Ramon Gordils was Medallic Art Company’s first factory artist.

He became so competent that, later on, he was able to pass on those skills to anyone who needed them, even to some top-name sculptor. A problem in plaster casting? Ask Ramon. Height of relief? Ramon knew. Trick of the trade? Ramon would pass it along. In other words, Ramon could backstop every artist, no matter who.

By having such a talented craftsman on hand, any client of Medallic Art could choose any bas-relief sculptor, no matter who, and know for certain their model could end up a competent and outstanding medal. Ramon Gordils would see to that.

Lettering on modals was the weakness of many sculptors. How many times have we heard requests from first-time medal sculptors who desired to obtain form letters. They wanted to buy already formed letters to add to their clay models. Doesn’t happen. You have to form the letters yourself in clay – or carve in reverse in plaster – then let this be the mold for clay letters.

A second problem was hair. Too often hair could not be made fine enough on a clay model. When cast it looked like a bowl of spaghetti dumped on top of the head.  Ramon knew all these problems and how to overcome them, with his deft touchup.

Years later, after Medallic Art Company had changed ownership and moved to Danbury, Connecticut, Ramon Gordils had been replaced by, not one, but three sculptors working in the art department. And that was the beginning of the problem of factory artists at Medallic Art.

It is a human trait that several artists working nearby will slowly evolve into mediocrity. They talk to each other, they look over each other’s shoulder. Subconsciously they tend to copy each other.

David Castruccio, one of those three Medallic Art sculptors in Danbury recognized this trait more than anyone else. He once told me a very succinct and perceptive observation:

“Our work became homogenized.”

Irrespective of who did the actual modeling, it could have been done by any of the three.

When the manufacturing plant has one such artist the work is his style alone. With more than one factory artist, a shortcoming develops, however, in that all the work soon looks similar, and the total product has too little diversity.

Such artists tend to produce designs of like style, as they consciously or unconsciously influence each other. They become homogenized – to use Dave’s term – in their creative effort and output (as if they are from the same school of art).

Outside artists, on the other hand, do not have these influences. These artists have a fresh – or different – style, and have the opportunity to produce somewhat more distinctive and creative designs.

I have viewed the work of other medal plants with more than one artist or craftsman charged with the creative design of the factory’s products. The problem of factory artists is universal. It existed in every one of those medal companies!

Engravers at the Philadelphia Mint have faced the same problem since William Barber hired his son Charles as an assistant engraver in 1869. Ultimately a third engraver was hired, George T. Morgan, in 1876. All three were British engravers. Soon all three had a similar style.

This was noticed by Treasury officials, who, in 1890, sent out a call for new engravers, someone who could design new American coins. Nothing became of that call in that decade or the next. By then the National Sculpture Society had been formed, and the organization encouraged their members to respond for new coin designs.

It took a U.S. President to get involved, Theodore Roosevelt, who, with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, introduced the first American coin designed by a qualified American sculptor. This was followed with new coin designs by Victor Brenner, James E. Fraser, Adolph Weinman, Hermon MacNeil, and Anthony diFrancisci – all National Sculpture Society members – who all created new circulating coins trumping the designs of the entrenched engravers at the Mint.

Why were outside sculptor designs so superior to the coin designs offered up by Mint engravers?

They were unburdened by Mint bureaucracy and fellow mint engravers. They were free to create without restrictions and undue peer influences. They did not have the pressures of time and space of working in a controlled environment. They allowed their creative juices to experiment, try something new, to fail and yet move on, to try something else. They had free reign.

Conditions at the Mint’s Engraving Department deteriorated and the problem of factory artists continued intact even into the 21st century. When an active new coin design program – five new reverses honoring each state on the quarter — was introduced in 1999, a large number of coin models were required in quick time.

The Mint attempted to solve this need with the Artist Infusion Program with mixed success. Meanwhile, Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones, resigned and was not replaced.

The engraving room where five engravers work has been described as a “rabbit warren.” Work tables are chuck-a-block next to each other. It is impossible for an engraver NOT to see what his neighbor is working on. It is next to impossible for them NOT to talk to each other.  Mediocrity can only flourish in such an atmosphere.

In my previous post on Future Coins I mentioned I had suggestions for managing the Engraving Department at the Mint to overcome some of these recurring problems and place the management of the department and the creation of new coin models under better control. Here are my suggestions:

Create A New Position: “Chief of Engraving Department, United States Mint” which would require this person to have a knowledge of engraving, art, bas-relief sculpture, coining technology, be an art critic, a proof-reader, but most of all, be an art administrator. This executive would be the chief official with responsibility for all the Mint’s coin and medal design, creation of all the models for these and other engraving department duties. Formerly called the Chief Engraver.

This person is more of an administrator than an engraver; an artist more than a sculptor, an art critic more than an art creator. His duties and responsibilities include:

  • Maintain an “Invitation List” of American sculptors who can perform coin and medal designs with the capability to render their design into satisfactory bas-relief models. These artists are not graphic artists who prepare 2-dimension designs, but glyptic artists who prepare their designs into relief models.
  • He should set the standards for the inclusion of the artists on this invitation list.
  • Thus for every new coin or medal required of this department he would mail an invitation to every artist on the invitation list to submit sketches – either pencil or plaster – of obverse and reverse for the new design.
  • These invited artists can submit only one pair of designs. They are limited to their one best design concept and sketch. (Staff Engravers are not limited to one, but may submit any reasonable number of proposed designs.)
  • He alone would make the decision (with only one or two advisors from the Treasury or Art field, NOT a committee) for the choice of the artist to further develop the design into a satisfactory model.
  • He would be responsible and be required to edit all models that are submitted, for accuracy of all elements of the design, both pictorial and historical, plus correct spelling of all lettering. He would be required to challenge the artist to document the accuracy or source of all design elements.
  • He would oversee the Senior Staff Engraver to ensure these models are rendered into the most attractive, suitable models while meeting all the requirements of die making and minting technology.
  • Conduct monthly inspirational sessions for all Staff Engravers to improve their coin and medal designs and keep them current with new innovations and technology. This is not a review time for these artists’ work, which should be done in private, but a time to inspire and introduce staff engravers to new technology and to encourage design creativity.
  • As chief art administrator for both coins and medals he should also have a knowledge and appreciation of medallic art and medallic objects. He should be forward thinking in these creations and encourage their production at the U.S. Mint. He should also have knowledge of patina finishes for these art objects.

Senior Staff Engraver.  Put one mint engraver in that engraving room at the Philadelphia Mint. The title for this position would be “Senior Staff Engraver.” This person must be an all-round designer-sculptor. He (or she) must be familiar with all aspects of the Mint’s requirements and all modeling techniques.

This person’s duties would be to “backstop” all other sculptors where their submitted models could be improved, insuring all detail is sharp and crisp. Most modelers are weak in lettering for example; this person must be a specialist and expert in modeled lettering and be able to improve other artist’s lettering.

The Senior Staff Engraver would work closely with the Chief, Engraving Department. All outside models would be brought to the Senior Staff Engraver who would – in agreement with the Chief – edit and make necessary corrections to conform to the technical requirements of the diemaking process at the Mint.

The Senior Staff Engraver would also be required to make the final epoxy pattern required for processing into proper dies and tooling. He would work with the die-engraving pantograph operator to convert these patterns into the sharpest, most attractive and most technically accurate master dies, retaining all the detail and fidelity of the artist’s final pattern.

The Senior Staff Engraver would be permitted to submit new coin and medal designs in the competition for the most artistic of these. He would have a rare insight into what is appropriate because of his handling every one of the successful models that are selected. His workload, and his own volition, would be the only limiting factors to his entering as many of these competitions as he wishes.

Current Engraver Status.  Keep the existing engravers on salary, their title would be “Staff Engraver.” But send them home to work in their own studios, without contact with each other or other engraver-sculptors (except for those monthly inspirational sessions conducted by the Chief Engraving Department).

The most creative designs are the effort of one mind of a talented artist working independently from others. Granted this artistic effort is lonely work but this would result in heightened creativity.

These artists need to let their individual creative spirits soar. They should spend more time engaging in and experiencing inspiration, and less time at the drawing board and modeling table. These artists should visit fine art exhibitions and closely examine coin and medal archives and literature illustrating these to determine in their own mind what is good and bad glyptic art (and certainly learn the difference).

The study of classic coin and medal designs of the past should sharpen their knowledge that they can improve their own work. They should keep up with the new technology in the coin and medal field and be able to apply new technologies to their own coin and medal designs and models.

Like factory artists everywhere, when artists work together their creations tend to become similar, their work becomes homogenized and pedestrian. Undoubtedly this is from looking over each other’s shoulder while work is in progress. A human trait, this will continue to occur if all Staff Engravers are required to work next to each other in the present engraving room. What is needed is independent, stimulated, purposeful study away from each other to achieve inspired, innovative coin and medal creations.

Staff engravers must recognize their creative work will be in competition – not only with other staff engravers – but also with outside artists. In effect, the goal is to obtain the most artistic design for every coin and medal. However, staff engravers have somewhat of an advantage in that they posses experience in this field and have a more intimate knowledge of the technical requirements for a new design or model.

Criteria For Hiring Future Staff Engravers.  While the technical requirements for a new design or model can be learned, the desire for creating the most attractive glyptic art must come from within an artist. The staff engraver must be able to design a concept he originates and render this into an acceptable bas-relief model.

Thus he must be multi-talented.

By maintaining an invitation list of American sculptors who can create coin and medal designs, the Chief of the Engraving Department will have a pool of prospects for staff engravers. When he feels it is an appropriate time to increase the number of staff engravers, or to replace a departing artist, he can offer a staff position to the best candidate on that invitation list.

This would have an appeal to the artist in that he would not have to relocate to Philadelphia, but can continue to work in his home studio. He would have to travel to Philadelphia, however, for that monthly meeting held by the Chief of the Engraving Department.

Create a new position and hire a Design Researcher. This person (most are female) is a picture and illustration researcher. She should have a working knowledge of picture archives everywhere and know how to dig for an illustration that would be helpful for the design of a new coin. She should work with all sculptors and fill their requests for illustrations. While her office would be in the engraving room at the Philadelphia Mint she would often be found searching archives in person elsewhere.

All Engravers To Prepare New Designs.  Staff Engravers – and the Senior Staff Engraver (but NOT the Chief of the Engraving department) – would be encouraged to submit sketches for every new required coin or medal design. Also they could submit as many designs as they wish (in contrast to outside freelance artists who are limited to their one best obverse and reverse design). Because this would place new coin and medal designs on a competitive basis, this would help improve their quality. Only the best deserve to be made into the coins and medals of the United States!

Since the Chief of the Engraving Department is to make the final choice of any coin or medal design, he is not permitted to furnish any of his own designs (but can certainly express his opinion to an artist how to improve their design).

Multiple Function Artists.  Two artistic functions are required to create a new coin or medal. One is design, the other is modeling. It is preferable to have both of these functions performed by the same person (and this is a requirement of the Staff Engravers).  However, some successful designer-modeler teams have created outstanding medallic art. Such a combination would only be permitted by artists outside the U.S. Mint. For those Staff Engravers employed by the Mint they must perform both art functions.

Postscript. While the above recommendations for the U.S. Mint were written before they set aside their Janvier machines, and decided to make all models henceforth by computer engraving. My opinion is that computer engraving may not yet be proven as the best artistic tool and computer engraved dies add to the mediocrity of coin designs.

I would be more than willing to change my opinion of computer engraving when I can be shown that it can produce artistic designs of great merit by a talented artist.

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A collector asks me how his 1935 medal was made at Medallic Art Company that year. The answer rests in the technology of the time, which was similar for the period post World War I until post World War II, from about 1920 to 1946.

Note: the vintage video “The Medalmaker” illustrates many of the steps outlined below.

How a medal starts and lead times needed.

Anyone can have the idea for a new medal. If it is an anniversary medal, the design depends upon the type of organization and who is in charge. If the new medal is a municipality, educational institution, or an organization with a lot of committees, ideally the medal idea is known at least two years in advance of the anniversary year. For a private organization run by management who can make decisions quickly, a year in advance is adequate lead time.

For an award medal, lead time can be somewhat less, in the range of six months. For all others it is about four months to obtain a fine art medal. This allows for time to select an artist whose style is acceptable to the client and for the artist to have sufficient time to create an acceptable design.

For all other medals – or for medals to be designed by an artist the medal firm selects – this advance time can be as short as six to eight weeks. I know some competitors can create a medal in less time, where they use their own factory artists but the resulting product shows it, a quickly-made mediocre design.

(I know of one instance where Medallic Art Company produced a medal in less than a week’s time, an extreme case, certainly not the rule. It was the week of the Moon Landing. An entrepreneur in Cleveland sold K-Mart on marketing a medal in all their stores. He contacted us on a Friday. Could we ship medals in less than a week?

We had open time on two die cutting machines. Press time was not a problem. If we could find a sculptor who could do a pair of models over the weekend, it could happen. We commissioned Joseph DiLorenzo, who stopped all other modeling; he worked around the clock and brought two models in Monday morning. The plasters were still wet and had to be baked in an oven to dry. But we cut dies Monday and Tuesday and had it on the press by Wednesday. We started shipping medals on Friday!)

No stock dies.

Medallic Art Company stated in all its advertising that they had no stock dies, all medals were made from custom models. An artist had to create the models from which to strike all medals. Any medal working firm could bang out stock medals. Medallic Art’s niche was the rule that all medals were created by artists. Medallic Art had a following of fine artists who could create those models. Over the years that group of medallic artists rose to over 250 at any one time.

The medal the collector is inquiring about was one that the sculptor brought to Medallic Art. This was reflective of conditions when the firm was established thirty years before. The founders, Henri and Felix Weil were sculptors’ assistants. They became a “service industry” to sculptors by providing those chores that required special equipment or special talents. The Weils had both. They could take a sculptor’s original model and make copies, enlarge or reduce, or make metal patterns for some further process, or even make molds or dies for a production of many sculptural items. Making medals was just one of those chores.

What a sculptor does.

Normally, a sculptor would be selected from his previous work. The client liked his style. A commission would be issued by Medallic Art to that sculptor for designing and modeling a pair of models. It would spell out the size model required and any special instructions. Frequently it would mention the final product, as “for a struck medal,” and the fee for the work. Design suggestions could be made to the sculptor, what the client wanted in his medal. The sculptor would sign and return a copy of the commission indicating his acceptance of the work and terms.

It was the sculptors responsibility to prepare a design in the form of sketches. He could make several sets of sketches to show the client. Once one set is approved he would proceed with the modeling.

Here is where the medal comes to life. The sketch is only the “blueprint.” The sculptor works in wax or clay. The form of modeling clay usually favored by most medallic sculptors is plastecine. It comes in several grades, for medallic models, the firmest or hardest clay is desired. Finer detail can be modeled in such a clay. (Softer clay is used for larger sculpture work.)

The artist prepares a background plate. This could be wood, plastic or plaster. It should be four or five inches larger than the size of the intended model.  It has to be firm not to distort during casting. If his design has a border he creates the border first by the use of a template or a device for modeling multiple images of a repeated element. Often this is done on both obverse and reverse background plates.

The modeler shapes the form of device and symbols by placing pellets of clay on the background plate, building up the design a little at a time, then with sculptors tools shaping the clay to the form he wants.

He adds the lettering by molding each letter. Some artists carve the letters reverse in plaster and press clay into these letter cavities. Then place the formed letter into position on the background plate. Or the artist makes tiny “ropes” of clay to place in position, then shaping these into the letter forms.

The modeler continues by adding detail to his base forms. Detail adds charm and realism to the design. He shapes these with wire tools and boasters, modeling tools. He sharpens up the clay to make crisp, sharp edges, and deepens relief where necessary (as to make finer strands of hair in a portrait).

In modeling it is important to recognize no undercuts are allowed in the model (these cannot be reproduced). Interspatial relationship of all elements is important as well a height of relief (coin models cannot have a relief higher than the border).

The modeler will then make a plaster cast of his clay or wax model. He prepares the model by coating it with a release agent, building a fence around the model (with thin medal strips higher than the model). He mixes his plaster with water until it has a soupy consistency. He places a little of this on the prepared clay surface and spreads it around, making certain it gets in every nook and cranny.

He tips the background plate and taps it to work out any air bubbles captured in the plaster. Once he is certain no bubbles exist he continues pouring in plaster to a height of about one inch above the highest relief. He has to work quickly as the plaster of Paris begins hardening immediately. It gives off heat as it hardens. Once it is cool to the touch the fence is removed, and it can be separated from the clay mold.

Working in clay and plaster gives the modeler great flexibility. It changes polarity with each casting. But the artist can carve in each or add clay relief to each.

The plaster is always subject to additional touchup. Again sharpening detail and deepening relief. Polish design and detail. And polish some more.

A positive clay model will make a negative plaster cast. Once this is touched up a positive plaster cast can be made from this negative. Same method. Coat with release agent, build a fence, pour in a little freshly mixed plaster, tip and tap to remove bubbles, pour in rest of the plaster.

How medallic patterns are made.

A positive plaster cast is usually what is brought to Medallic Art. If approved it can be made into a hub if that is required, or a negative plaster is made (to be made into a die).

The negative plaster cast is coated with bronze powder. Two wires are attached to the cast making sure they come in contact with the surface with the bronze powder. A stop off is coated on the back and edges of the plaster – all areas where no plating must take place.

The prepared ensemble of coated plaster model is immersed tank containing a prepared electrolyte solution containing ions of copper. In the tank are copper anodes which supplies the copper to be deposited on the surface of the pattern. The anodes are sacrificial, they wear away like a bar of soap, as the ions of copper leach off the anode, enter the solution, and when the current is tuned on deposit on the pattern, the cathode.

The wires hang on a bus bar above the tank. The bus bar is connected to a rectifier. When the current is turned on, alternating current is converted to direct current at the rectifier, directed to the bars on which the anodes are hung. Thus the current enters the electrolyte solution, deposits on the cathode, up the wires to the bus bar and back to the rectifier.  Circuit completed.

The process is allowed to continue for hours until a sufficient amount of metal is deposited. A 1/16-inch thickness occurs in two to three day’s time, around the clock.

The ensemble is removed. The electrolytic cast – now called a galvano is separated from the pattern, by a screwdriver inserted between the two or compressed air blow in at some point of separation.

The galvano has reproduced the plaster model down to the width of a micron. Medal makers say, “if it is in the model, it is in the medal.” The fidelity of this electrogalvanic process is one reason for that statement.

[This is the technique that was in use in 1935. It was not replaced until the 1960s when an epoxy – developed during World War II – became widely available and was used to replace the galvano. An epoxy cast was made from the sculptor’s model in hours instead of days.]

How dies are made.

From that galvano a die can be made. The galvano is mounted in a die-cutting pantograph. A stylus is placed to trace over its surface as the galvano is rotated. That movement is carried by a bar to a second axis where a blank steel die is housed. A cutting point, guided by the movement of the bar mills out tiny bits of surface metal.

The die rotates at the same speed as the galvano pattern in synchronous motion. The distance between the two chariots determines the ratio of reduction. As the stylus travels inward at the pattern, the cutting point travels inward cutting into the die a proportional depth.

Ideally two or three passes are require to capture all the detail from the galvano into the die. A finer tracing point and a finer cutting point is used for successive passes.

Separate dies are made from separate galvanos. At this stage the dies are proved. The die is pressed into soft metal, lead or tin. Or the dies can be mounted in a press and a two-sided medal can be struck in lead.

How medals are struck.

Two dies are setup in a press. The diameter and thickness determine the type of press. Medals of say 3½-inch or more require 1,000-ton press capacity or more (measured in tons per square inch).

Blanks are cut out separately on separate presses much like a cookie cutter. The blanks are fed by hand in the setup press one at a time. The press is actuated and delivers its blow. Only a portion of the design emerges in that first blow.

The metal has become work hardened. It must be relieved by heat treating. Then the partially struck metal goes back on the press for another blow. This continues, alternating between striking and heat treating, until the full relief is fully struck up.

The pressman looks at the high points of the design and the design near the edges. Infrequently the metal flows into a die cavity, then back out again. The pressman must know the remedy to alleviate this condition.

Most art medals are struck in open face dies – without collars. This causes flash, an excess amount of metal to flow out between the dies from the edge. It’s the only place for it to go. The flash is removed by turning the medals on lathes.  This leaves the minute parallel ridges on the edge.

How a medal is finished.

The raw medal as it comes from the pressroom is a bright hue. A first step in the finishing department is a sandblasting to break up that smooth surface. Originally fine grains of sand were use, replaced ultimately by even finer grains of glass beads.

The medal is doused for seconds in a chemical to darken its entire surface. Then it is relieved with a slury mixture of pumice and water and buffed under a wet wheel. This gives it a two-toned, highlighted, oxidized and relieved finish, also called French finish since the French invented it.

After drying the medal is coated with a light clear lacquer on both sides for protection.

What starts with an artists’ model ends up with a metal work of art. What’s in the model is in the medal. It will last forever!

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Janvier Die Engraving Pantograph

Janvier Die Engraving Pantograph

The computer might possibly be the “magic machine” for die engraving in the 21st century, much like the Janvier die-engraving pantograph was the magic machine of the 20th century. Computer engraving has come such a long way the Philadelphia Mint has mothballed all their Janvier machines and now rely entirely on the technology of computer engraving for all their needs in our national mint’s engraving department.

What’s more, they are phasing out all the “clay and plaster” modeling of coin and medal models. Two of the engraving staff now work, they tell me, exclusively on the computer. The other three clay and plaster modelers will continue, but will not be replaced by such artists in the future. All will model on the computer.

This hasn’t improved design or beauty of our coins and medals – they can just be produced faster is all. (I wrote of the U.S. Mint’s inherent design mediocrity here.) Design by computer only is certain to continue this trend.

Nevertheless, existing mint engravers encourage me not to sell computer engraving short – it is a major tool in their engraving toolbox.  Not all engravers use it; not all understand it yet. That is but one reason I would like to propose a convention with the theme of computer engraving so more people – including myself – can learn more about the technique, its strengths and weaknesses, and how it can benefit future die engraving.

Here are some suggestions:

General chairman.  John M Mercanti, former U.S. Mint Chief Engraver, resigned from the Mint December 31, 2010. He would make an ideal general chairman. He has stated he wants to stay in the field and is writing a book. We assume he has time now in his retirement to take on this responsibility.

An excellent co-chairman would be Donald Scarinci, who is also qualified and strongly involved in the art medal field. John has the contacts in the engraving field, Don has contacts in the art medal field.

Both gentlemen have administrative ability for this project.

Convention location. Both of these gentlemen live in New Jersey, which would make an ideal location for such a convention. Northern New Jersey has a number of venues, some near Newark airport, ideal for those who fly in. Also that location would be close to the international airports in New York City for those who come from other countries.

Length of convention.  Three or four days. The days of the week would be determined by availability of the site.

Time of convention.  Also determined by the availability of the site. Ideally Spring or Fall.

Dual concepts of the convention.  Computer engraving is somewhat new, less than two decades old. But the technology has progressed from use at mints and medalmakers around the world. A major shortcoming is that the beauty or attractiveness of the designs being created has not increased, but mints are benefiting from the savings in time it affords. But not every medallic artist is using computer technology.

Combining an art medal show with computer engraving would instill in the minds of engravers, would be engravers, the artists who attend, that beauty should become more of a goal than time-saving. These craftsmen would be exposed to the best of the past, and learn what is currently being produced around the world.

Dual audience appeal of the convention.  The target audience for the convention is likewise two fold – artists who create the coins and medals and those who collect and sell art medals. By bringing the two groups together, attendees learn the full scope of the field. Artists should learn what collectors want. Collectors should become appreciative of the effort that goes into creating coins and medals.

Workshops. These are mandatory to allow artists to get hands-on exposure to using the computer – and the software available for this technology – and would be a major function of the convention. Workshops would be conducted both by representatives of the software companies and by artists who are actively using this technology, who are experienced and qualified.

Two names come to my mind. Daniel Carr of Colorado is an independent medallist who has a decade of experience in using computer engraving for the medallic items he has created. The other is Joseph Menna of the U.S. Mint who has been using this technology even before he joined the Mint in 2005. Others would be added until at least two days of workshops would be filled.

Artists should bring their own laptops, software would be furnished, for some hands-on training in computer engraving design in the workshops.

Lectures.  Obviously lectures and workshops would cover computer engraving technology and the art medal field. I think it important that both the “how to” use the technology be combined with “what has been created.” Experts from both fields would participate. In addition, art authorities should be invited to discuss what is good medallic art and how to achieve it in designs currently being created.

Also important is to have a sufficient number of lectures to fill every day of the convention.

Some Proposed Lecture Topics.

How to Add Charm and Beauty to Your Coin and Medal Designs.
How Computer Engraving Differs from Clay and Plaster Designs.
It’s Still Bas-Relief!
Ten Tips to Improve Your Coin and Medal Designs.
Taboos and Restrictions on Coin and Medal Designs: You Can’t Say
That! You Can’t Show That!
What Art Styles Are Appropriate to Medallic Art.
Why Graphic Artists Don’t Make Good Medallic Artists.
How To Think in Two-and-a-half Dimensions.
21 Things to Consider for Your Next Medallic Design
Add Texture, Contrast and Detail to Your Next Coin and Medal Design.
The Importance of Allegory and Symbolism.
Perfect Your Portrait Ability – You’ll Do Lots of Portraits.
Study Calligraphy To Improve Your Lettering.
Modern Art in Medals – Medallic Objects.

Potential Sponsors.

The Engravers Journal.
American Medallic Sculpture Association.
British Art Medal Society.
And similar medallic art organizations in Canada, Europe and Japan.
National Sculpture Society.
Token And Medal Society and its publication, TAMS Journal.
Medal Collectors of America and its publication, MCA Advisory.
American Numismatic Association and its publication The Numismatist.
American Numismatic Society and its many publications.
KR Publications, and its many publications.
Whitman Publishing.
National Mints around the World.
Private Mints in America.
Computer Companies.

Cooperation of World Mints.  We can assume mints of the world would want to send their engravers and die making technicians. The scope of the convention for them would be more symposium where the attendees would learn the new technology and be exposed to beautiful medals of the past, as incentive to create more beautiful coins and medals in the future for their own country.

Perhaps the Mint Directors’ national meeting could be persuaded to meet at this same time and place. It would be to their benefit to know of this aspect of their mint activity. Also this would increase the number of exhibitors and booth rentals.

Booth rentals.  Vendors of computer engraving software are obvious exhibitors (for booth rentals). Among art medals would be art medal dealers. This would be a first as there has never been a separate art medal convention with dealers vending their wares.

Financial considerations.  Cost of the convention would be covered by booth rentals and registration of attendees of all kinds and classes.

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When we read about Renaissance medalists and the earliest examples of art medals, we encountered the term “school of art.” Many of these early medallic artists were said to be a member of a certain “school of art.”

This was an attempt to bring together the medalists who had a similar style. The term was created by art historians and writers who grouped artists by their style and techniques used in the creation of their medallic works of art.

No “school” was involved. If any training was involved, it was not in a formal academic setting. Instead the artists talked to each other and shared methods and techniques about how they accomplish their tasks. This interchange of methods resulted in similar appearances of their final work. The work of two or more artists all began to look alike.

Often the style is the result of a technique of modeling or production which is intentionally passed along – or copied – among friendly artists, often repeating desired mannerisms. Art historians recognize this similarity and class these artists as members of a “school of art.”

Early Italian medals were studied, for example, by British Museum curator George Frances Hill who coined the name of a dozen schools of Renaissance medalists. Hill’s Corpus includes medallic works up to 1530. Later work by Alfred Armand continued to use some of Hill’s designated names of Renaissance schools of art. These were: Mantuan, Neopolitan, Venetian, Bolognese, Milanese, Roman, Florentine, Paduan and Emilian.

The name of the school as evidence here is a geographical name, the artists must exist close to one another at the same time and place to be able to exchange methodology. Infrequently they are named after a founder or leader of the artist group.

Schools of art do not last for more than a generation or two, but their influence may last longer or be more widespread, as succeeding artists emulate a favored style. The common denominator, of course, among members’ work is its similar appearance, a result of using a common style or technique in the creation of their art works.

Such was the case in America where a beaux-arts school of art existed near the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. With Augustus Saint-Gaudens as the forerunner, it included a dozen American medalists, including John Flanagan, Chester Beach, Daniel Chester French, Adolph Weinman, Victor David Brenner, James Earle Fraser, and ultimately Paul Manship.

These American medalists’ work were all characterized by an idealism and naturalism of their subjects rendered in a softer modeled technique. It took the French name and was influenced – if not in direct imitation of French medallic art of a previous generation. The style was greatly influenced by French medalists David d’Angers, Henri Chapu, Jules Clement Chaplain, Alexandre Charpenter and particularly Louis Oscar Roty.

This United States school of art has been documented by two numismatic writers in the field. Cornelius Vermeule, a classical curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who had a fondness  for American medallic art, wrote a book Numismatic Art in America  (1977),* where he traced the development of styles in all our coins and medals. These ranged from what he called “Federalist style” of our earliest coins, to the 20th century medals of the above mentioned beaux-arts style.

The other work was by Barbara Baxter, a graduate art history student, entitled The Beaux-Arts Medal in America [see citations at end]. This was a catalog published in conjunction with an exhibit of this class of art medals she helped prepare at the American Numismatic Society in 1988.

What has not been published anywhere before is that another native school of art preceded the American beaux-arts movement. While the author was cataloging consigned lots for his auction sales when he was a medal dealer (1977-89) he noticed the similarity of a large group of American medals. These were all from a period following the Civil War until the end of the 19th century.

Ironically, the artists of these medals were hand engravers all located in Philadelphia! Since that was where the U.S. Mint was located I wondered if there was any connection.

Private engravers had always existed in Philadelphia in a consistent if not vibrant trade ever since the Mint was founded in 1792. These were the diesinkers whose work was always of smaller size, and, perhaps of less importance than what was produced at the Mint.

After all, any organization or private individual could petition the engravers at the Mint to create a private medal for them and the Mint would strike the desired quantity. The reason for this was the Philadelphia Mint had a press in America capable of striking a medal larger than two inches. (Although Scovill Manufacturing in Waterbury, Connecticut, had such press equipment as well.)

Mint engravers faced some restrictions, however. This outside work could not interfere with required Mint duties. Also, the Mint could not strike any medals of political nature, no medals for any person running for any political campaign.

Philadelphia Mint in mid 1800s

Philadelphia Mint in mid 1800s

Thus the private diesinkers in Philadelphia created, on the small screw presses they possessed, the small items – tokens for merchants and medals for political candidates – among others. At the time, the custom for candidates was to issue medals, often with their portrait, always with some campaign slogan, prior to any elections. News of who was running in elections was not all that widespread in 19th century America. Distributing small inexpensive medals was an ideal way to do this.

Philadelphia engravers received a consistent flow of medallic work that was not directed to the diesinkers in Boston or New York City. If any of these medallic artists received an order for a large medal, they could engrave the dies themselves and have the Mint strike it. (If not, they had to order large medals made in Europe.)

The author’s opinion is that some technology of preparing dies was exchanged between the private hand engravers of Philadelphia and the engravers at the Mint. It was inevitable that artisans of similar craft in the same city were apt to meet and talk, to exchange ideas, to pass along tips and tasks, methods were shared.

Thus I noticed the style of private Philadelphia engravers was similar to that used by Mint engravers. I suspect their technology for creating that style was similar and shared as well.

As a result, I determined a Philadelphia school of art existed for certain engravers which were active in that city in the later third of the 19th century.

The typical style of Philadelphia School of Art medalists was most evident with a single device. Their medallic work lacked subsidiary devices; no lesser design elements supported the main device. No attributes accompanied the main device. There were no, what British numismatists call, “accessory symbols.”

No seals or logos were associated with the issuing organization and none appeared on the same side as the device. The obverse design was a bare minimum occupied by a single device only accompanied by only the necessary lettering, almost always as legend around the periphery of the medal’s edge.

The technology to produce these medals was to engrave a device punch, sink this in a fresh diestock, then add the lettering a single letter at a time with letter punches. This was all done at the exact size of the intended medal, no reduction involved.

The staid, unadorned obverse design usually accompanied a reverse of all letters. In total, it was a simple style and its execution was devoid of all unnecessary elements. In art style terms it would be called minimalist.

Perhaps the popularity of this style among Philadelphia engravers, and members of this school of art, was exemplified by the small size of the medals they created.

If I had to characterize this Philadelphia style I would say: it was the least amount of work the engraver felt he could get by with. As such the style was the opposite, the antithesis, of Great Medallic Art of larger medals, which embraced the luxury of design, highly detailed relief, strong subject matter, often extra ornamentation and full use medallic format and principles.

For the hand engravers in 19th century Philadelphia this would not come – and their style would not be replaced until the introduction of the die-engraving pantograph, notably the Janvier, was introduced to American medalists early in the following century. Highly detailed relief and luxurious designs were easily obtained by oversize models reduced on this engraving machine, replacing these artists’ simplistic medallic style.

Members of this School of Art are listed below, but this list is not all the hand engravers which could be placed within this group, all living and working in Philadelphia in the last third of the 19th century.

DIEHL, John H.  (active 1869-83) medalist, Philadelphia.
Also struck many medals engraved by William H. Key.
Diel signed his dies J.H.D.

FRANK, August Conrad  (1864-1946) German-American
engraver, diesinker.
Born Germany, 1864.  Came to America 1893.
Founded August C. Frank Company, Philadelphia, 1894.
He was probably the only engraver for the firm in early
years, later he accepted dies engraved by others that his
firm would strike. After he died the firm was operated by
his sons but ultimately sold to Medallic Art Company,
15 September 1972.
Died Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 31 October 1946.
Signed Dewey Medal A.C.F.

JACOBUS, Peter H.  (c1836-c1904) German-American engraver,
diesinker, Philadelphia.
Born in Prussia about 1836.
Came to America and Philadelphia before 1852.
Partner in engraving firm Jacobus & Schell (1856-59)
with John J. Schell. On his own after 1860. He engraved
a crossbelt plate for several military organizations for
Civil War and after.  He was captain in 2nd Regiment,
Pennsylvania National Guard. Philip Jacobus (q.v.)
also an engraver, was a younger brother of Peter’s.
Listed in city directories until at least 1904, but his
date of death still remains unknown.
Signed some dies with initials PHJ.

KEY, William H.  (c1820-c1902) diesinker, engraver,
Philadelphia (c1844-50); U.S. Mint (1864-1885).
Born Brooklyn, New York (circa 1820).
Learned engraving from his father, Frederick C. Key
and in business with him (1854-60) as F.C. Key & Son,
then in partnership with John C. Odling, as Key & Odling
(1863-67). Employed at Philadelphia Mint after Civil War
(1864) as assistant engraver to William Barber; he was
dismissed in 1885. Listed as engraver in city directories
until 1885, but afterwards as engineer, until 1902.
William Key signed dies with full initials WHK (and
one die KEY F, later often misattributed to his father,
Frederick). Many uniform diameter dies were often
muled, frequently with their own F.C. Key & Son
storecard die; other mules of William Key and George
Hampton Lovett (q.v.) dies. Key may have engraved
the dies for Lingg & Brother’s American Centennial
1876 medalets.
Philadelphia medalist William Warner acquired many of
Key’s dies produced privately (no Mint dies) and struck
these on his own. Key was one of the most productive
American engravers (and possibly some unsigned dies
of the U.S. Mint and of Warner were his creations).

KRIDER, Peter L. (1821-1903?) engraver, diesinker, medalist, silversmith,
Philadelphia (active 1873-1903).
Established 1850 as silversmith, first with R. & W. Wilson,
later in partnership as Krider & Biddle with John W. Biddle
(1867-72) but whose only major numismatic work was the
Cincinnati Industrial Exposition Medal of 1872 (engraved
by Anthony C. Paquet). Later in business by himself as
Peter L. Krider Company, until 1903, during which he
executed many medals.
Because of his location in Philadelphia and relationship
with Mint personnel he did medallic work that came to
the Mint but they could not do (as political, campaign
medals), he also struck private medals by Mint engravers
(Paquet, Charles Barber) and perhaps did their overflow
work as well.
Died 1903 or later.

MORIN, Anthony C.  (fl 1849-60, died 1873) Early American
engraver, diesinker, chaser, seal engraver, Philadelphia.
Signed dies A.C.M. initials.

QUINT, Silas H.  (1849-?) engraver, Philadelphia, founder
Quint firm.  Silas was the son of Louis H. Quint, an
engraver from Maine (ca1824- ), but Silas was born in Philadelphia.

WARNER, William H. (fl 1868-1899) engraver, medalist, Philadelphia.
William formed a firm, Wm. H. Warner & Brother (1868)
with brother Charles K. Warner.


* A15  {1971}  Vermeule (Cornelius C.)  Numismatic Art in America; Aesthetics of the United States Coinage.  Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (1971) 266 pages, 249 illus. Reprinted (2010) Whitman Publishing Co.
Major work on art and style in American coins and medals.
[94 artists cited]
Cataloger’s Note: Before he died, Vermeule wrote the Preface to a printed version of the Dick Johnson’s Artists Databank in which he called the compiler “the American Forrer” in comparison to Leonard Forrer, the British numismatist who compiled the six-volume work of all the world’s medalists.

M42  {1987}  Baxter (Barbara A.)  The Beaux-Arts Medal in America. New York: American Numismatic Society. For Exhibition Sept 26, 1987 to April 16, 1988. 92 pages, illus.
[112 artists listed, 368 medallic items]

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