Get an Inside Look at How We Do What We Do
When a cashier hands you a handful of change, do you ever stop to think about the exact process each individual coin went through to end up in your possession? Nevermind the long life of a dime minted back in the 1960s, what about a piece of currency that’s hot off the presses? Chances are you don’t spend much time thinking about the change rattling around in your pocket or lost between couch cushions. But the challenge coins you order from Signature Coins get a little more consideration.
That’s because you play a much bigger role in the creation of your custom challenge coins than you do in the process of creating the aforementioned dime. But as involved as customers are in the design process and the approval of proofs, there’s often a lack of information about what happens to your coins in the 14 days between finalizing the order and delivery.
The good news is we’re here to shed some light on some of the finer details of the custom coin industry. For anyone who’s ever been curious about this portion of the journey, or if you’ve ever wanted to understand just why it can take 14 days to get your coins, here’s a look at the specifics of our custom challenge coin minting process.
It All Begins With Prep Work
Any automated production process has to begin with the machines being programmed to do their job properly. Making 30,000 - 60,000 pieces a day is only possible with a little automated help. The Computer Aided Design (CAD) program we use has to be setup with the design specifics for the coins being created.
The first thing the computer has to be prepared to accomplish is the creation of the mold that will be used to die strike or die cast the coins. These molds need to be cut from solid steel, and will feature all of the physical design elements from the ordered proof.
Once the mold is created, it has to be tested to make sure all of the finer details of the design will show up on the final coin as intended. Because we’re dedicated to ensuring that the final coin you receive is exactly the same as the proof you approved, we never rush the testing process. Typically this process involves taking the mold and striking a soft piece of metal to proof the impression. Only when our production team is satisfied that the coins will come out in a manner that perfectly matches the design specifications does the process proceed.
Before the process of using the molds in earnest can begin, the molds have to be tempered. For coins created by die-casting, for example, molten metal is injected into the mold and allowed to cool. With die-striking, the same mold is put under hundreds of tons of pressure hundreds, or thousands, of times to stamp the design into brass. Our production team tempers (or heat treats) the mold to ensure that it can withstand this process without deforming or cracking. This way, every coin in the order from the first one created to the last will have the exact same level of detail.
Once all of that prep work is completed, it’s time to put those tools to use creating your coins.
Pressed Into Service
When the time comes for the coins to start being made in mass, things heat up around the factory. Since the earliest days of blacksmithing, working with metal has been a hot job. Making a collection of metal coins is no different.
Coins with a base metal of zinc (primarily coins with high-relief 3D design elements) will be created through the die-casting process described above. When the coins have a base metal of brass (most popular), steel, iron, or copper (rare though that last choice may be), they will be created via a die striking method.
To get the coins ready to be die struck, blanks of the base metal must be created in the general size and shape of the final coin. This process is called blanking. The base metal of the coin will have the general shape of the final design, but these pieces will be blank on both sides. The design of the coin isn’t added until the die striking phase.
Remember the molds/dies we mentioned above? This is the phase in the process where those come into play. The design for both the front and the back of the coin is CNCed into these molds. The coin blanks are fed through a machine and then a press containing each side of the mold is smashed down with the blanks between it. Once the blanks are struck with so much force between those two molds, the design is pressed into the coin.
The overall design of the final coin is now visible on the base metal of the coins.
Plate it, Paint it, Ship it
While the final design is in place at this step, most coins aren’t fully completed yet. Since most of our orders are not for coins in their simple base material, the plating process is the next important step for almost all orders.
Whether plating your coin in one of our precious metal finishes or choosing from one of our powder-coated options, this step is completed before any of the color is added to the coin. That way, the plating can be added to the coin uniformly and the color paint can be added on top of the plated surface.
Plating is primarily a chemical process. It does not consist of dipping the coin into molten gold or silver, and it does not include the application of gold foil. Instead, a gold plated coin is one in which the base metal of the coin is added to a solution containing 24K gold and an electrical current is added. This adheres a fine, but permanent, layer of gold to the coin.
Plating is recommended for a number of reasons, but one of those reasons is to improve paint adherence. For challenge coins using color, the process of “painting” that color onto the coins begins here. Before the colors can be added, the correct colors have to be selected. If you’ve ever painted your house before, you know that any painting project is likely to feature a moment when different paints are mixed to form a specific color. Getting the exact Pantone colors specified on an order requires our highly skilled paint mixers.
The actual application of color to the coins is a process that’s split between artisan and automated machine. On orders of 300 coins or fewer, our highly skilled painters will add color to each coin using specialty syringes and a strong attention to detail. For larger orders, a color fill machine adds paint with pinpoint precision to the proper recessed sections of the coins. Once the paint is added to a batch of coins, heat is applied to them to make sure the paint can cure faster.
All coins are put through a strict QC process to make sure they exactly match the proof approved when you placed your order. Our painters check the coins to make sure the machine didn’t make any mistakes and fix any imperfections by hand.
Edge cutting and engraving is the final portion of the coin creation process. For the edge of the face of your coin (the outer border on both the front and back of the coin), we offer a number of different upgraded customization options. When you choose an oblique, cross cut or flat weave edge, those options will be cut into the coin at this stage in the process.
With numismatic coins (legal tender), you often see that the edge of coins of certain denominations have a kind of serration, or milling, on them. This is called a “reeded edge,” and that portion of your custom challenge coin makes up what we refer to as the true edge of the coin. Your coin’s true edge is treated like a third face, and special customization is available for it. Commonly, special engraving and sequential numbering is added to the true edge of the coin. This kind of engraving is likely to be the final step in the creation of your coins whether it takes place on the true edge of the coin or anywhere else on the coin face. Since all sequential numbering is done by laser engraving, it’s saved for last.
Customization can also be added to the true edge of the coin during the molding process, if you want a particularly deep impression that will be on every coin. The laser engraving allows us the freedom to customize each coin with a unique number, name or even phrase.
All that’s left from here is for your custom coins to be QC’ed, packaged and delivered along with whichever presentation option you’ve selected.
The next time you receive an order of custom challenge coins, take a close look at the fine details created by of each of these steps. In particular, pay attention to the way the colorfills cleanly meet up with the raised metal borders. And when your coworkers, employees, fellow officers or club members all compliment the exceptional craftsmanship of your coins, you’ll be able to impress them with your unique knowledge of how it all came together.