How were dies made

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Basileus Antialcidas, Apr 11, 2021.

  1. I know exactly the way that a coin was struck but I am a bit confused on how an ancient roman or greek coin die would be engraved. What kind of tools would be used on hard iron to produce such detailed masterpieces? Would these techniques apply also for intaglio curving? Would it be possible for a coin engraver also to make jewelry?
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  3. paddyman98

    paddyman98 Let me burst your bubble! Supporter

    CoinWeek Ancient Coins Series: How Ancient Coins Were Made

    oh sorry.. But not enough info on how the Die was made. I'm sure someone will know!

    Info from Wiki -
    Quote - "Prior to the modern era, coin dies were manufactured individually by hand by artisans known as engravers. In demanding times, such as the crisis of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, dies were still used even when they became very worn or even when they cracked. The die that was on the hammer side, usually the reverse (back), tended to wear out first. The planchets were usually hot prior to striking. On some Roman provincial coins, some believe the tongs used to move the heated planchet left permanent center indentations on the finished coins. Others attribute these marks to surfacing tools used as a part of planchet preparation." closed quote
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2021
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  4. Ed Snible

    Ed Snible Well-Known Member

    It is believed that the same artists who carved gems also sunk dies.

    Here is a video showing how gems were carved:
  5. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

    I don’t believe there are any extent original dies today. There are plenty of counterfeiter dies though. They tend to be clay. This leads me to believe that the clay mold was used to cast an iron or steel die which was used to strike coins.
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  6. Ocatarinetabellatchitchix

    Ocatarinetabellatchitchix Supporter! Supporter

    It is believed that dies were generally carved into bronze using hardened sharp iron tools like chisels, scrapers, etc. Annealing techniques (common in metallurgy) could then be used to harden the bronze dies after engraving but before use - this process is performed by substantially heating the material (generally until glowing) for a while and allowing it to cool. The resultant harder annealed bronze die would then stand up better to use in striking softer bronze, silver and gold coins. Iron dies were used to strike the largest Greek silver coins, tetradrachms and dekadrachms, many of which show traces of die rust. Iron dies also had to be used to strike some large bronze coins, because their flans were harder than those of gold and silver coins.
  7. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    See Jones, John Melville, A Dictionary of Ancient Roman Coins (London, Seaby, 1999) at pp. 194-195 [entry for "Minting"}:

    "The dies from which the coins were struck were made of bronze or of iron. Only a very few have survived and it is natural to suppose that if a die was still in usable condition when it was decided to cease striking coins with it, it would be deliberately defaced, or destroyed by melting it down, as a protection against misuse and to produce metal for another die. For this reason it may be suspected that those which are known today were stolen from the mints to which they belonged, or are the work of counterfeiters.

    The engraving of dies was done with a burin*, a punch and a drill. Diamonds were sometimes used by gem engravers in the ancient world and may therefore also have been used to engrave the metal from which dies were made. In some cases a hub may have been used to make a preliminary impression of a coin type on a die, but although one ancient hub for a Roman coin survives, it does not appear that the practice was common."

    (Emphasis added.)

    *From Wikipedia: "A burin is a steel cutting tool used in engraving, from the French burin (cold chisel). Its older English name and synonym is graver."

    See also Jones, supra, entry for "Hub" at pp. 140-141:

    "A matrix in relief, produced by striking, or perhaps by casting, followed by further working, from which a number of dies could be struck. A process of this kind would save a great deal of time when many dies needed to be made. At present only one hub for a Roman coin is known, for a victoriate, now in Madrid. No surviving coins can be shown to have been struck from it, and it has also been suggested that it is . . . the work of a counterfeiter."

    Also, @dougsmit had a very interesting comment at about the compass circles used in die preparation, sometimes reflected in the compass dots visible on a lot of flans:

    "Every die started with a compass circle drawn around a central dot that provided a reference line for the dotted border. Coins that had a detail of some sort in the middle had that dot erased but some that had things right and left as the letters here [a coin of Galba], allowed the dot to remain and show on the coin. Some dies, probably by accident, missed the dot while other of the same design hit it. This is easiest to see on the obverse of Provincials that showed the emperor and his wife face to face . . . ." (See thread for further discussion.)

    Compass dots are not to be confused with the lathe dimples often found on Provincial coins, which are a feature of the flans, not the dies. See @Roman Collector's explanation at, and the article at .
  8. Ryan McVay

    Ryan McVay Supporter! Supporter

    Having done lapidary and silver smithing work as a kid (i'm talking 8-15 yrs old)- and being pretty good at it too- it really would be interesting to see someone attempt to make some of these dies today using technology from those periods. Honestly, I think we have lost a lot technological methods over time! For example look at the details you get in the tiny Greek fractions or even small bronze dies- it's amazing. Then look at the royal portraits and do overlays from mint to mint. The portraits are so amazingly close. The difference you find will be in the fields and legends.
    I fall in line with the "matrix" process. If they were working with iron then maybe they were using creating base molds, filling the molds and then the portrait was an insert into the die. That could provide for the repeatablity of the portraits. You would need to do some final finishing and polishing and then then do the regional legends and borders into the rest of the die. I honestly, can't believe that someone is actaully making the engravings in reverse into iron to make bronze coins. You would have to use bronze for bronze coins.
    Oh, and while bronze is a hard material (yes harder than cast iron) it is also very brittle. I had the lapidary tools at my grandparents house across the yard. Then we had dad's weld shop in the garage. He was a Master Welder (Nuke plants and military work) and he was also a metal sculptor. His stuff was mainly plate steel and large park scultures. Be he also did a lot of work with artist in bronze, brass and other materials. He hated bronze. It could be hard for the first millimeter or so and then go really soft after that. So, if you are trying to engrave it..well you have to get past that harness layer and if you did it usually flaked and broke off..things like that make it difficult material to work with.
    Some people talk about annealing and tempering..but those process require serious, serious heating that is controlled.
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  9. Ed Snible

    Ed Snible Well-Known Member

    I posted the gem cutting video because I have never been able to find pictures of video of the cutting of a coin die.

    There are plenty of guys cutting ancient-style dies today. I believe they all start with a flat surface, sketch on the steel like the gem cutter did, then start hammering with various tools.

    Here is replica struck from dies Becker made in 1825:
    Becker cut one of those dies in just 18 hours! CNG auctioned off this specimen, as a Becker, with hammer price $1600.
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  10. hotwheelsearl

    hotwheelsearl Well-Known Member

  11. serafino

    serafino Well-Known Member

    There's not much the Romans couldn't when they put their mind to it.
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  12. ancient coin hunter

    ancient coin hunter Basileus Megalos

    I've often wondered about die preparation and engraving. Definitely it is a lost art. Considering the tiny tools which must have been used to carve out the intaglio portraits and lettering it's pretty amazing. I also see how once a portrait was engraved that it could be used to make another die through a casting process, saving time.

    I hope the die-cutters were well paid along with the blokes who prepared and weighed the planchets. This process would have involved exposure to high levels of heat and toxic gases...
  13. Rudy1198

    Rudy1198 Member

    This is actually what I do for my hobby, other than coin collecting. Mostly using hand-push gravers and handmade punches, I try to do it like they did back in the day ;] A few modern conveniences of course, like a ball vise.

    I don't believe we have any written sources on roman dies from the time, but there was a set of dies in an auction a few years back, described as "bronze faced" with an iron shank. Which makes sense - its easier to engrave the bronze, and it lets you replace the bronze face on the iron shank to get as much use out of the more expensive iron. Theoretically you could even cast the bronze face, but I have no way to substantiate that claim. I imagine it was a mix of both, a moneyer is definitely needed to cut dies and clean up imperfections or add details as needed. Jobs were very specialized, it wouldn't be uncommon to have an engraver who ONLY cuts potraits, one who ONLY cuts animals, one who only does lettering, etc. I absolutely use the central compass dot explained above in my dies.

    The trick is the face of the die is not hardened until after the work is done. I cant say for ancient, but in medieval times it was very common to have moneyers who also worked in jewelry or other precious metals. I have attached a video of me engraving a die for a fantasy medieval group, just to give you an idea of my tools. It's not the best video, but I plan to reshoot it so you don't see so much of my hands.

  14. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    Fascinating! A question: I assume that your goggles have some kind of magnifier. Do you believe that the engravers of ancient coins managed entirely without artificial magnification (given that the magnifying glass wouldn't be invented until very much later), or do you think that they made use of some form of magnification such as crystals, water, etc.? It's almost impossible for me to believe that some of the incredibly tiny details on ancient coins -- only 1 or 2 mm. across -- were achievable with the naked eye alone. Nobody has vision that good!
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  15. Rudy1198

    Rudy1198 Member

    Personally, I doubt it was done without magnification. Humans always want to make things easier, and magnification helps in many applications. There are references to using "younger men with sharper eyes" for detailed work, but I'd have to pull the reference. I can definitely make it work without my goggles, but it is indeed much easier to be more accurate with magnification. A lot of it is getting used to the scale, I often work with punches smaller than 1mm at the tip, or making tiny corrections with a graver. It is possible with the naked eye, but I would use lenses whenever I can for my own sanity.

    However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Romans did have lenses and may have used them in engraving, two such lenses have been found in workshops of artists, one from an 1854 excavation of a supposed engraver in Pompeii. The technology was there, but rare, and depending on how you interpret it, may have been used for vision correction instead of craftwork.

    We have descriptions of lenses and crystal balls used to start fires, and crystals polished to magnify or focus the sun's rays dating back to at least 1550 BC. So, we can't definitively say yes, they had lenses for magnification, but we can take a good guess and say that the lenses were there and MAY have been used to magnify engraving work.
  16. dougsmit

    dougsmit Member Supporter

    ...or BAD?
    There are few things that are ALWAYS true but one is that it is a mistake to expect any one answer to apply ALWAYS. When I was young, my eyeglass prescription was much, much stronger than it is now. Without glasses, my eyes focused sharply on things a couple inches from my face. Were it not for glasses, about all I could have been trained to do would be very close work like die engraving (with or without the aid of lenses). Today, without glasses, I focus well on things about a foot from my face (a great improvement). My career as a die engraver would be shot! Some engravers may have used lenses, gems, water beads or whatever. Others may have been very nearsighted and needed help walking across the room. If you can prove the answer for one does not prove the answer for all. Did ALL coin dies start with a layout circle around a central dot? Certainly not. We can prove some used these aids but there are coins with uneven alignments. Were they done without aids or were those aids just used poorly so the results were poor?
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  17. Rudy1198

    Rudy1198 Member

    Nothing you say is off base here, and nothing I put forth was to prove something for all dies. It's fascinating history and a great conversation to have as coin collectors, and one I enjoy immensely. I wouldn't say all of this is proof of any one method, just postulation of one possible method at the time. We do have the benefit of looking back at history and seeing things like center marks evolve as best practices that get followed a lot, but of course not in all situations. It's also tough to sort what's an an anachronism or something we assume from a modern
    perspective that is not aligned with a classical one.

    Naturally other methods appear or fall out of use, but yea, in no way was I asserting the mint in Rome was using lenses across the board. Our findings don't support they were common enough. And nothing is to say that they didn't use any magnification and did it all by naked eye. Its totally possible.

    Things like center dots, even if they're hidden by the design, are common enough that a coin without perfectly concentric circles is more unusual than one with perfect circles. They're also easy to buff out. But you are right, not in all situations, and it should just be viewed as a best practice.

    If I can place a center dot, you bet I'll do it. If I were a moneyer in Rome, you bet I'd try the fancy crystal too. Both make the job more manageable.
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