Die deterioration (also known as “die wear” and “die fatigue”) is
the normal consequence of pounding away at hundreds of thousands of planchets.
A die that is near the end of its useful life exhibits a “late die
state” characterized by such features as puffy letters, radial flow
lines and an orange-peel texture. If it is not replaced in a timely
fashion, the die will produce unacceptably degraded designs.
Shown here is a 1983-P Jefferson 5-cent coin struck by dies that
should have been retired long before. Severe die deterioration is not
a die error per se, since it will eventually affect any die that’s
left in service long enough.
However, some forms of die deterioration and deformation are
legitimate errors because the pattern, rate and scale of deterioration
are quite abnormal. Previous columns have dealt with die subsidence
(sunken die) errors, in which the die face caves in as the result of
plastic deformation. This column is devoted to a related anomaly, the
soft die error.
A soft die error can be defined as a pattern of deterioration or
deformation that is exaggerated, premature, peculiar and often
localized. Instead of the die sinking in, the metal moves around more
or less within the plane defined by the original die face. Admittedly,
many die errors combine the characteristics of both die subsidence and
soft die errors.
Possibly the best known, and certainly the most venerable soft die
error coin, is the “goiter neck” 1943-S Washington quarter dollar, an
example of which is shown here. A bulge beneath Washington’s throat
(the “goiter”) represents a spot where the die face sank in slightly.
Elsewhere on that coin the deformation is more broadly
distributed, although it doesn’t extend to the right side of the
obverse face. The letters of IN GOD WE TRUST appear in italics and a
low ridge runs through the LIB of LIBERTY. The design rim has
disappeared from 6:00 to 10:00. The reverse face is normal.
As to why the left side of the obverse die deformed in this
fashion is a matter of speculation. The wrong type of steel may have
been used in the rod from which the working die was cut. Or perhaps
the steel was improperly forged, leaving it with impurities or the
wrong ratio of carbon to iron.
Since only one die was affected, I suspect that improper die
preparation is responsible. Improper annealing, tempering or quenching
can certainly alter the hardness of die steel.
All quarter dollars struck by this die show the same degree of
deformation. This suggests that the deformation occurred shortly after
installation and then stabilized.
A much more recent soft die error is seen in a 2000-P New
Hampshire quarter dollar. The peripheral letters on the obverse face
are grossly deformed, although the distortion is slight between 11:00
and 1:00. A low, broad, irregular ridge runs through the peripheral
letters, extending clockwise from 2:00 to 8:00. The reverse face is
affected with a similar pattern of deformation, although it is far
This pattern of deformation is not typical of even Very Late Die
State quarter dollars, although the ridge itself does bear a passing
resemblance to the “ridge rings” that often develop on copper-plated
zinc cents. The central portion of the obverse face shows only subtle
signs of microscopic die wear. The localized nature of the distortion
I have seen a similar pattern of deformation on the obverse face
of some New York quarter dollars, but nothing else similar in the
State quarter series.
Soft die errors can closely resemble other die errors such as a
shallow die dent with softly defined margins. Overzealous intentional
die abrasion concentrated in a small area can produce concave or
undulating outlines in raised design elements.
Accelerated die deterioration also can develop when you crank up
the striking pressure to handle excessively hard planchets. This is
the likely explanation for 1954-S Jefferson 5-cent coins that
frequently developed a bulbous mushroom shape on the reverse face.
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