US Coins

Medal collecting and adding your own patina

I collect medals from the 19th and 20th centuries, admiring the different hues that develop naturally over time and highlight the devices by reflecting light in ways that coins typically do not.

I also purchase medals from the U.S. Mint. I’m particularly fond of the Code Talker series celebrating American Indians who served in World Wars I and II.

Designs typically show military action on the obverse and tribal seals on the reverse of 1½- and 3-inch planchets. (The 3-inch medal is the preferred size to appreciate the artistry.)

These medals are not only beautiful, but also historical in that they relate how these brave soldiers helped win those global conflicts for the Allies.

Depending on how these newly struck medals are stored, they could take years to develop patina naturally from contact with the air and environment.

Often pocket pieces develop luxurious patinas from the oils of hands and the texture of cloth interacting with the air.

Patina gives definition to medals. Medals have high relief, or raised devices, that may develop a particular sheen that makes the design leap out toward the viewer.

However, new medals made of bronze (90 percent copper, 10 percent zinc) seem flat. High relief blends into fields because of the uniformity of the new metal.

I’m going to demonstrate how I make my own patina to prove a point, disclosed later.

For the moment, let’s pause here with some disclaimers. First: Don’t try it, especially on coins. That’s doctoring.

We’re talking about medals. Artists routinely add their own patina artificially using chemicals or heat — potentially dangerous processes (so again, do not attempt!).

To show the difference in a new and home-patinated medal, I used the Kiowa Code Talker example from the U.S. Mint, one of the handsomest in the series.

A light acid can create patina, usually within a month. Some use white wine. I use 5 percent distilled white vinegar (about two cups) in a plastic bowl.

I let the medal bathe in the bowl for a month, flipping it over weekly, until the vinegar develops a faint green color. That indicates the chemical reaction is coming to fruition. Then I take a synthetic fiber scouring pad and gently buff the high points (helmet, rifle, knee on obverse and horse and rider on reverse), further showcasing and adding depth to the devices.

Producers of raw medals can easily apply a patina in a manufacturing process and offer both versions. In my view, raw medals without patinas are akin to unfinished wood furniture that needs a varnish!

What is your view?

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