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Finish and Finishing

Finish and Finishing.  Any process that is performed to a medallic item (coins have no applied finish) after it is struck or cast; including antiquing, patinating, enameling, plating, fabricating, lacquering, edge stamping, mounting, other. At a plant that manufactures medals, other than the pressroom, the finishing department is the second largest department. Every struck piece, other than coin finish and proof surface, must pass through this finishing department for a number of processes to be applied to each piece, giving every medallic item its final color, appearance, protection and, often, its mounting.

The finishing department receives all the items in their final physical form, all the actions of the pressroom must be completed, all striking and trimming. The medals at this stage are called raw medals, they are completely struck up, all the design and all the lettering that is in the die or mold must be on every piece (some edgelettering or inscribing notwithstanding, these can be applied later). The finishing department must then perform their functions to transform those raw medals into works of medallic art with a most attractive surface that is to be protected for decades or centuries of their possible existence.

There is a very large metal finishing industry for processing most every manufactured metal object. However, the finishing procedures employed for medallic items have been adapted from this industry but occupy only a very small part of its technology, concentrating for the most part on finishes for bronze and silver objects.

Finishing department foreman.  The foreman of the finishing department must be a craftsman with knowledge of metallurgy, chemistry, electrolysis and physics. He must be able to take a raw medal – fully struck up with every step of the pressroom completed – and transform that raw medal into a completed work of medallic art. He must have artistic knowledge as well and an aesthetic sense of what he is doing. He should be able to create any finish on a medal that he is called upon to produce (except, of course, coin finish or proof surface, neither of which receive any finishing).

The foreman must oversee every possible step of that medallic item through his

department: its proper patina or other finish, its enameling (in proper color, if required), its electroplating (as goldplating or silverplating, if necessary), its fabrication (bringing several parts together if needed), its lacquering (for almost every piece) and complete the item with its suspension or mounting. Then pass this completed medallic masterpiece on to inspectors who will search for any misdeed of his department or imperfection of the piece before it is approved, packaged and prepared for shipment.

First step: abrasive blasting.  The usual first step for most every item in the finishing department is to abrasive blast the raw medal. This creates a roughness on the surface, microscopic craters, called cups, cover the entire surface. They are called cups because they can hold liquid. A number of the steps to follow will use liquid to color, to antique, or patina the metal surface.

The abrasive can be any of several kinds, sand, pumice or glass beads. Originally a fine grain sand was used and the process was called sandblasting. Modern technology is able to create glass beads in an even finer grit, so this abrasive has replaced sand. Medals are laid flat on a large rotating tray within an enclosed hood. Nozzles pelt the exposed surface of the medals with the abrasive under pressure.

Impacting the medal's surface with thousands of microscopic cups per square inch, the abrasive breaks up the smooth surface created by the die in the pressroom. The tiny grains fall off the medal and pass through holes in the rotating tray to a receptacle below where the abrasive is recycled to be used again by the nozzles above. All effort

is made to contain the abrasive within the confines of the machine as it is used over again.

The color of the medals change most dramatically in this step. Raw medals are

usually bright:  bronze is usually bright red like a shinny penny, silver a light reflective gray. The abrasive is usually matte gray, and the surface of the medals take on this matte gray appearance. The pelting affects only the exposed side only, so the medals have to be turned over by hand and allowed to rotate under the nozzles for the opposite side to be abrasive blasted as well. It is not necessary to sandblast the edge, even on a thick medal.

The treated medals are picked out by hand, the excess abrasive is shaken off, then placed in wire baskets, perhaps a dozen at a time. The medals are placed vertically in a long handle wire basket in such a way that both sides are exposed. The medals are prepared now for either an antique finish (by oxidation and relieving), or a patina finish. The surface is now suitable for treating with a liquid (in the microscopic cups).

Oxidation (actually a sulphatization).  The wire basket containing the abrasive-blasted medals are then immersed in a bucket containing the darkening chemical (as ammonium sulfide) for the next step of antiquing. The wire basket is rotated by hand holding the handle, swishing it around submerged in the liquid so it comes in contact with as much of every medal's surface as possible.

Time is quite critical. The chemical acts quickly. The medals turn black almost immediately. The sulfur from the ammonium sulfide combines with the surface molecules of the bronze or silver to form copper sulfide or silver sulfide. The metal reacts instantly with the sulfide, the process of sulphatization (unfortunately it is called oxidation, which implies oxygen, but the reactive ingredient is the sulphur, no oxygen is required). This chemical action occurs in from five to ten seconds.

The medals are again changed in color (as well as their surface changed chemically). From gray abrasive blasted, they are now black. The operator can control the blackening somewhat. In the first few seconds bronze turns dark brown, then black (silver turns black immediately). The longer the medals are left in the solution, the darker (blacker) they become, reaching a maximum blackness in the ten seconds.

The wire basket containing the medals is removed from the bucket containing the darkener and immediately immersed in water. This stops the chemical action. Then fresh water is run over the medals to wash away any remaining darkening chemical, and any residual abrasive.  The wet medals are removed from the wire basket, placed in a tote box and moved to the relieving station.

Relieving and highlighting.  Dry ground pumice in very fine grain size is mixed with water until it has the consistency of thick soup. The operator douses a slurry of this

mixture on the surface of a darkened medal while he holds it in his hand. It is then buffed by hand on a motorized muslin buffing wheel by lifting the dripping medal upwards under the rotating wheel. (The wheel is rotating counterclockwise, otherwise the operator would get a face full of slurry. A splash guard behind the buffing wheel collects the spun off slurry instead.) It is certainly understandable why this equipment is called wet wheel and the process wet-coloring.

The operator rotates the medal by hand then makes a couple of passes under the buffing wheel. The buffing action heats up the medal. By adding more pumice slurry he lowers the temperature so his fingers can control the medal. He repeats the slurry and buffing process as often as necessary for each side of the medal. Then he will buff the edge, rotating it while the revolving buffing wheel is in motion. Skill comes in handling the slippery moist medal, and not dropping it, while making an even two-tone color on both sides, with an edge to match.

The buffing wheel removes the darkened surface in areas where it can reach – flat surfaces and high areas of the detail. Since it does not touch the surface in the crevices and the corner areas it does not remove the darkened surface there. Thus the completely relieved medal would be light (the color of the original bronze or silver) on the flat and high surfaces, and the contrasting dark color in the crevices and corners.

This total process creates the light-and-dark, two-toned effect to give it its highlighted appearance. The optical effect is to make the object's relief in greatest contrast for the human eye to perceive. Highlighting accomplishes this.

Drying and lacquering.  After their treatment under the wet wheel, the medals are

washed under running water of all the pumice slurry. They are then laid on a flat rack accommodating a dozen or so medals to be dried. The rack is then placed under ultraviolet lights (or in an oven) to completely remove all moisture.

Moisture is the enemy of the next step – lacquering. A wet spot, the tiniest

bit of water, or a person sneezing on the medal's dry surface, will, in time, cause dark spots to form on the medal's surface under the lacquer (it is even called water spot). Every effort is made to dry the medals thoroughly, both sides, then get them in the lacquer spray booth at once.

The rack is laid on a turntable in the spray booth. A spray gun – the best method

For applying lacquer – is passed over the medals once back and forth. The rack is rotated one quarter turn. The medals are sprayed again, once. Thus the medals have received the minimum amount of lacquer but in two directions, once horizontal, once vertically.

This thin coating of lacquer is perfect. It is so thin (less than a few thousandths of an inch) it cannot be seen with the naked eye. With any additional spraying the lacquer would build up in the corners and be unsightly. Dipping causes this more so, and brushing (the only other ways of applying lacquer) leaves brush marks. Spraying is ideal.

Applying the light lacquer coating while the medals are still warm from their heat lamp drying treatment will give a matte appearance to their surface. If a glossy finish is desired additional passes of the spray gun with a heavier coating will increase the reflectiveness to give the surface a shinny appearance.

The lacquer is usually clear. However, the lacquer can be colored, by adding metal powders (bronze powders), dyes or tints. Thus the spraying can keep the color of previous metal coloring (with transparent lacquer), or change it drastically, or only slightly.

With one side of the medals sprayed both directions, an empty rack is placed over the medals, and by holding the two racks tightly together, the operator can flip this over, to lay the second rack on the turntable and spray the second side of the medals. The lacquer drys almost instantly, the finishing of the medals are now complete and need only

to be carried to the next workstation for any mounting, fabricating, edge lettering or numbering, or for inspection and packaging.

Imitating gold and silver.  Not surprising, a lot of the activity in the finishing department is to make metal objects appear more attractive or desirable. Base metal items are often desired to be colored gold or silver. Undoubtedly this is a carry over from the jewelry field where so many of these processes were developed. Objects are struck or cast in base metals for the lower metal cost and given a surface, or coating, or finish, to appear as the more expensive noble metals.

While some metal compositions are chosen to imitate goldbrass, goldene,

oroide – several methods imitate gold with layering (as rolled gold), clad, or electroplating with the outer layer actually gold. nickel silver is a composition in imitation of fine silver. But silver can even be imitated with silver wash, silvered, silverclad, and silverplate. The finishing department must be able to work with all of these, but most often utilizes gold and silver plating.

Electroplating.  A well equipped finishing department for medal manufacturing will require both gold and silver electroplating tanks. These are used for finishing medallic items with the required surface color by plating. Usually, because the finishing foreman has the knowledge of electrolysis, he is also in charge of making galvanos by electrolysis even though this is a production of the item, not just the finishing (unless the galvano is required in a further production step, as a dieshell, in which case it is not required to be finished).

Medallic items to be plated are placed on racks which are immersed in the electrolyte solution. Anodes of the pure medalgold or silver – are also in the solution. The items to be plated are the cathode. Electric current is turned on and, by the process of electrolysis, the metal is leached from the anodes and deposits on the cathode (the medallic items). A further description of this process is given under the entry on electroplating.

Patina finishes.  While oxidizing (sulphatization) with a darkening chemical and highlighting (by relieving) is but one method of finishing a medal, a medal can also be finished with a patina. Patina finishes offer a range of surface protection – in a spectrum of possible colors! With a quantity of browns and greens for bronze items and grays and blacks for silver.  The choice of a patina is an artistic one, it should be made to harmonize with the design or amplify the theme. It is often made in consultation between the sculptor or creator of the design and the finishing department foreman.

Each patina finish has its own methodology, and these techniques of application may range across a broad spectrum of activities.  The variables concern: (1) the temperature of the medal, (2) the temperature of the patina solution, (3) how a solution is applied, (4) how long a solution is applied, (5) the type of applicator (if any), (6) any wet wheel application, (7) how a medal is supported while work is performed on it, (8) how the solution is allowed to set or dry, (9) pH of an acid solution, others.

There are, perhaps, forty or more commonly used patina formulas for medals. This despite the 1,126 different patinas listed in Hughes and Rowe, the standard work on patinas for the field of metal coloring. The authors recommended only 344 of these formulas and techniques.

The Society of Medalists issues, created by Medallic Art Company, all have different patina finishes up to about issue #96.  Although some are slight modifications the attempt of the Society was to issue a different patina for each issue. This medal series exhibits, therefore, examples of what can be done in a modern finishing department. An even more dramatic series was the Religions of the World, issued by Presidential Art Medals in which 15 different medals, each a different religion, each with a different patina.

The entry under patina lists the colors, chemicals, and names of the more popular patinas. The reader is directed there for these specific patinas.

Enameling adds color.  The finishing department must also be able to do enameling as well as other finishing processes. Enamel adds color by applying tiny colored glass beads in an enclosed area on the surface of a medallic item. The cloisonné process requires fences or sides of relief to contain these loose beads, but an astute designer can work these raised surfaces into the overall design. Separate color beads are added for each different color.

With the medal laying flat and all areas to be colored with enamel filled with loose glass beads the piece is then fired. It is placed in an oven which melts the beads which become hardened and fixed in position. Enamel is essentially colored glass applied to a metal object. It is the most ideal way to add different colors to a medallic item, the colors are permanent and solid. However, since the enamel is glass it is susceptible to breaking, particularly near the edges.

Fabricating and mounting.  To complete a medallic item the finishing department is required to do any final steps in its manufacture by fabricating – bringing together any additional assembly, like placing a ribbon drape on a medal – or mounting the item, as on some other object. Further details on these can be found in the entries on fabricated and mounting.

Thus we have observed that in contrast to coins, which require no finish (that's why it's called coin finish), medals require and can be adorned with a great variety of finishes. It is the finishing department that accomplishes all these functions.

Word List  #19

Terms of Finishes, Finishing and Patinas

abrasive blasting                   jewelry finish

acid patina                       lacquered

aerugo nobilis                           Light brown

antique bronze              Light bronze

antique finish                 luster

antique green                mahogany finiah

Antique silverplate                 mat, matte surface

applied finish                  matte-ground

appressed finish                        Medium brown

artistic green                            Metallic bronze

blacking                           Old English

Blue (turquoise)                      organic coating

bluish-green                  Overcolor

bright dip                          oxidation

bright finish                   Pale brown

bronzing                           Pale red-brown

Brown-gray                             pearl essence

Brown-green                           Red bronze

brush finish                     Red mahogany

Chocolate brown                     relieved

coin finish                        Roman gold

colorized                         Rose gold

color sample                              Russet brown

Copper antique                       satin finish

Dark brown                             scratch brush

Deep yellow goldplate            sgraffotp

fire-bronzed                   silverplate

French finish                 Steel gray silverplate

French-gray finish                  stipple

Glossy light bronze                 tinted lacquer

goldplate                        torch finish

gold tint                           undercolor

Gray-bronze                            vapor finish

Green patina                           varnished

Green-blue                              Verde antique green

Green-brown                           verdigris

highlighted                     wet colored

immersion finish                       White brown

incrusted patina                      yellow-bronze finish

The terms in SMALL CAPS have entries in this encyclopedia; those terms not in small caps have meaning the same as every-day language.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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