Getting focused

Magnification possibilities plenty
Published : 03/17/11
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This is the second in a three-part series discussing important factors in setting up a safe work area for your numismatic collection.

Prior suggestions included choosing a quiet, low-traffic part of your house for your work space.


Even with the best lighting, magnification is crucial to properly examining your collection. Many magnifying options are available.

A good magnifying glass will serve much of the time, but I like a magnifier that leaves both hands free.

Given enough resources, a low-power stereo binocular microscope is by far my preferred way to examine numismatic collections.

A stereo binocular microscope is better than a monocular scope because it allows you to see the coin just as you would with eyes, but at a higher magnification. The level of magnification is also important.

I recommend going no higher than 40 times (40X) magnification. The microscope I use allows me to examine objects magnified either 20X or 40X.

Of the two, I use the 20X option more. The higher the magnification, the less of the coin you see and the smaller your working distance.

A decent stereo binocular microscope is not cheap, but is certainly worth putting on your wish list.

Optics important

The most important component of a microscope is the optics. Poor quality lenses will not be as sharp and will cause your eyes to fatigue.

When shopping for a microscope, it is important that you find one that is easy and comfortable for you to use.

If you are going to buy a microscope via mail order, I suggest that you test a few before making your choice.

Ask your friends and colleagues what kinds of microscopes they have. Ask them what they like and do not like about their microscopes.


When testing a microscope, take the time to sit down with it and see if it suits you.

There are a few things that you should check. First, make sure that you can adjust the eyepieces to fit your eyes.

You should be able to easily look through both eyepieces without squinting or closing one eye. If you wear glasses and like to leave them on while using the microscope, check to see that your glasses are accommodated by the eyepieces.

Remember that you will probably be using your microscope for extended periods of time so it is important that you can do so comfortably.

Also, the controls — the knobs that move the microscope up and down — should be easy to reach and use. Put a coin under the microscope and zoom in and out on certain areas.

Collectors may also be interested in the new hand-held digital microscopes now readily available.

These devices plug into the USB (Universal Serial Bus) port in your computer or laptop and have built in LED lights making illumination easy.

Magnification ranges from 20X to 400X. Many come with software that allows one to take snapshots or video of the area being magnified.

Although I do not think these devices will replace a good stereo binocular microscope, it is my feeling that their portability, ease of use and capability of instant imaging will make them a popular item with numismatists.

Susan L. Maltby, Toronto, is a private conservation consultant, with an interest in numismatic preservation.

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