As a die pounds away at hundreds of thousands of planchets, the
working face undergoes slow deformation that is referred to as die
wear or die deterioration. Formerly crisp numbers and letters
frequently become bloated and irregular, as seen on the reverse of a
1983-P Jefferson 5-cent coin featured in the Sept. 17, 2012, column.
The once-smooth field often develops an “orange-peel” texture and
radial flow lines.
Yet not all cases of die deterioration result in the same general
appearance. A very different look characterizes an Uncirculated 2012-P
Denali National Park quarter dollar.
Both faces are heavily affected by die wear. Disappearing and
illegible letters are found on both faces. That’s quite unusual. While
die wear often leaves a mushy design, the individual elements almost
always remain recognizable. Other familiar causes of design weakness,
such as a weak strike, a thin planchet or a “grease” accumulation on
the dies can be dismissed on this coin.
A fine matte texture appears on both faces of this coin. I have
seen similar matte textures stemming from die deterioration on Lincoln
cents and other denominations.
On the obverse face every part of the design is softened and shows
lowered relief. While the mottoes and legends are still mostly
recognizable, their outlines are indistinct and merge gradually with
the field. Die deterioration has progressed to such an extent that the
Mint mark and the outer portions of IN GOD WE TRUST have almost vanished.
One interesting feature of the obverse lettering is that it is
narrower than normal and the gaps between the letters are widened.
This effect is best seen in the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. When one
encounters attenuated letters and numbers the usual suspect is
overzealous intentional die abrasion. When a die is abraded the field
is lowered and the more superficial (and widest) parts of the letter
recesses are removed. What is left are the narrower depths of the
incuse letters. In this case, however, all evidence points to die wear
as the cause.
I suspect that the entire field portion of the obverse die
retreated or was worn down almost to the level of the deepest recesses
of the die face. The narrow, widely spaced letters would seem to
indicate that metal atoms were actually lost from the die face instead
of simply being rearranged. If that’s the case, then the term “die
wear” gains a level of accuracy that was not originally anticipated.
On the reverse the incuse letters that encircle the central design
are largely or completely illegible. E PLURIBUS UNUM, DENALI and
ALASKA have been reduced to vague smudges. The date is still
recognizable, however. The elevated ring that houses these incuse
elements shows abnormally low relief. It is only slightly higher than
the part of the field that lies above Mount McKinley. On the die face
it would seem that the central portion of the design retreated almost
to the level of the floor of the recess that harbored the raised,
mirror-image letters that generated the encircling design.
We can look to copper-plated zinc cents for additional examples of
die deterioration that result in thin, widely spaced and partly
effaced letters. A representative example is seen here in a 1988
Lincoln cent. The letters of IN GOD WE TRUST have been partly
swallowed up by a “ridge ring” — a swelling that formed just inside
and parallel to the design rim. Zinc cents are prone to develop such
swellings. Other, broader swellings may form within the interior of
the coin. A close relationship exists between such swellings and the
thinning and disappearance of peripheral letters.
On the cent die itself, only the field portion of the die sinks
in; the letter recesses do not. This causes the sinking field to reach
the same depth as the letter recesses. As with the Denali National
Park quarter dollar, it’s not entirely clear if the retreat of the die
face is caused by deformation alone or by a combination of deformation
and metal loss. In either case, the wider, more superficial portions
of each letter recess are lost.
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