A long-established resident of my box of odds-and-ends is a 1942
cent whose image appears here. Its sole peculiarity is a shallow
gutter that runs alongside Lincoln’s forehead and nose.
At first I thought it was a manifestation of die fatigue, since
some coins struck by worn dies do show a form of incuse die
deterioration doubling. However, the coin doesn’t show any other signs
of die wear. I was later told that the effect is very common on cents
of this period and is somehow related to the die-making process.
Beyond that, I didn’t have a clue and didn’t pursue the investigation
Unbeknownst to me, the problem was taken up by Robert (“BJ”) Neff,
a noted researcher of die varieties and die errors. Neff has been the
driving force behind the study of trails, a hubbing-induced form of
Neff patiently accumulated a large sample of coins with guttered
design margins dating from the first half of the 20th century. Every
denomination was affected to a greater or lesser degree. The location,
width, clarity and frequency of the gutters all led Neff to conclude
that they are caused by retouching of the master hub, the working hub
or both. He calls the phenomenon “channeling” and his detailed
analysis can be found on the Error-Variety Ready Reference (error-ref.com/Retouching_of_design_elements.html).
Channels can be found on coins from the early 1920s to the late
1940s. They are most easily spotted where they outline large centrally
located design elements like busts. The illustrated 1937 Lincoln cent
shows a narrow but sharply defined channel outlining Lincoln’s
profile. The channel is narrower than the one on my 1942 cent.
Channels can also be found in the interior of the design. The
1943-D Winged Liberty Head dime pictured here shows a channel along
Liberty’s face, with additional channels outlining the forward margin
of her hairline, the lower margin of her wing and some individual
Many Washington quarter dollars from the 1940s show channeling
around Washington’s queue (“ponytail”) and bow (see photo). The
near-ubiquity of this channeling on the quarter dollars indicates to
Neff that the retouching was done on the master hub that was used to
create the master dies of this period. Other parts of Washington’s
bust are less frequent targets of channeling. The front, top and back
of the bust sometimes show added channeling, while at other times only
the face is channeled. Neff has never observed channeling along the
base of the bust.
These less frequent targets of channeling suggest to Neff that the
retouching was done on assorted working hubs. A single working hub
will create a number of working dies, but far fewer than can be traced
to a single master hub.
While most channels show no obvious signs of mechanical action, a
few do. A close-up photo of several channels outlining the rays of a
1923 Peace dollar shows the formation of a pressure ridge at the base
of each channel, right next to Liberty’s hair. Other channels (not
shown) appear to have been carved in twice.
The question now turns to why this retouching was done in the
first place. Charles Daughtrey, author of Looking Through Lincoln
Cents and creator of the website coppercoins.com, suggests that it was
an attempt to extend the useful life of the hubs. While it’s likely
that most retouching was performed on newly fabricated hubs, this
might not be the case in all circumstances.
It’s not clear why the practice was abandoned mid-century.
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