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Punch, Puncheon

Punch, Puncheon.  (1) A tool made of steel containing a letter, figure, dentile, ornament or a part of a coin or medal design used to press into softer steel to make a die, or to counterstamp a numismatic item. Punches and puncheons are, in effect small hubs to transfer some design element to a die during engraving or diesinking. The terms punch and puncheon mean the same, but there are two kinds of punches: one a small hand tool used manually for adding individual characters one at a time by tapping the punch into the surface of the die; the other, a more conventional hub, contains the device or portrait which is sunk into the die by a press during hubbing.

The advantage of punches and puncheons is the elimination of the tedium of manually engraving the same design element over and over again. The first coins were made with punches (in Lydia in 640 bc) and punches are still in use today 2800 years later. Not only have punches been coinmaker's oldest tool, they are virtually indestructible – 100-year-old punches are still serviceable.

Punches are always right-reading to be pressed into the die (left-reading or

negative) so the piece struck from the die will again be right-reading or positive. Punches of letters, figures or ornaments are used to add style and uniformity to any inscription or design created by them.

How hand punches are made.  Individual manual punches are from two to five inches in length with the design character – in relief – on one end while the other end is flattened to receive the tap from the diesinker's hammer. The body of the punch is tool steel and almost always has four sides; it is made square to aid in alignment of lettering or orienting the punch to a base line or other design.

The character punch is made from a matrix, usually of brass, infrequently in steel. Some punches were made from matrix patterns supplied by type foundry houses (which made printers type). Or the matrix may have been made by the engraver himself, carving, cutting or sinking the design cavity into the brass or steel. The matrix is tempered or hardened before use.

The steel punch, cut from plate or rods, is shaped with four sides. It is annealed, softened, and pressed with force into the matrix to form the relief letter, figure or design on the end. Dead metal around the character is trimmed away and is shaped much like a pencil point by grinding or turning on a lathe.

The bevel sloping away from the relief character on the end of the punch is quite important, as this taper will be reproduced in the die. It must be such that any piece struck from that die will not hang up. A bevel of 2 1/2° (holding taper) or less will not eject, thus a draft of 5° or more is necessary. (A diagnostic for identifying a struck piece made from punches is this steep bevel and uniformity of letters; hand engraved letters would not be as uniform and dies cut on die-engraving pantographs would not have the steep bevel.)

Punches are formed in sets of uniform typeface and size; an English alphabet, of course, would have 26 characters. The ten figures, however, 1 through 9 and zero (have only nine characters, as the 6 and 9 are formed by the same punch. The sets are housed in wood blocks, each punch resting in a hole drilled into the block.

A punch has to be created for each character and for each size; these range from the smallest perhaps 1/128th inch up to 1/4-inch or more for lettering on coins and medals. In addition to letters and figures other punch characters – the dentiles for the border in the shape of dots, grains or tooth shaped; also ornaments created by a decorating tool – the stars, center dots, rosettes, crosses, and such. Many of these are in imitation of printers’ type, with colorful names as doodads, wingdings, or special characters.

Logotypes punches.   So useful were letter punches to eliminate the tedium of engraving separate letters by hand that the natural extension was to make punches with more than one letter or figures for such repetitive groups. A gang punch or logotype would have two or more such characters, as a three- or four-digit date, for example, to be applied to coinage dies.

Makers names were often made as logotypes, sometimes even with monograms, symbols, trademarks, copyright marks, and background shapes, some quite elaborate. The entire design, of course, would be cut in the matrix and the punch pressed into this, then hardened for use. Each manufacturer of silver objects prided themselves for their trademark punch design.

Punches used in diesinking.  Punches were first used in creating the first coins, but with the decline of engraving during the middle ages (800-1500 ad), the use of punches increased. Instead of engraving a modulated relief design, coin engravers made pictographs of rulers. Punches were used to make the entire design, forming linear and cartoon-like forms.

Beginning in mid 15th century engravers returned to preparing modulated relief dies by hand engraving. However they still relieved the most tedious part of die engraving – the lettering – by using punches to repeat a letter without having to engrave it over and over.  After the device was hand engraved the lettering would be sunk in the die by these punches.  (See handcut.)

With a set of letter punches the engraver could lay out a coin or medal design, scribe a base line on a blank die (or transfer the design by wax or chalk), then begin by carefully arranging the letter punches in the order to appear on the die. He would generally start – not at the beginning or end of the line of lettering – but at the center, working each letter at a time, one side of that central letter, then the other. Remembering, of course, he was using punches to make left-reading legend in the negative die. The purpose was to have a balanced or uniform length of lettering to fill a prescribed area.

The square shank of the punch had to square up with the base line to carefully align the character. A tilted letter or figure was the mark of an inexperienced diesinker. He would set the punch on the surface of the softened steel die block and with a broad-headed hammer (called a chasing hammer) tap the punch driving it into the steel. The depth of the cavity created by the punch – which would create the height of the lettering on the struck piece – was also the mark of the experienced engraver; it should be uniform!

The chasing hammer would have a broad circular head because the engraver would keep his eyes on where he placed the point of the punch and not on the end he tapped with the hammer. He could hit the punch by intuition not by aim!

Spacing between the letters was the next most important factor. Placing the punch in the correct position, aligning it with a base line, the proper distance from its neighbor, and the amount of pressure by the hammer were all critical factors facing the diesinker. Experience was very important, years of apprenticeship were necessary to learn this skill.

Some diesinkers would rig up a jig for aligning the punches. This would greatly aid in the proper positioning of each punch. These jigs could be ingenious in their method of positioning and allowing the punch to penetrate the die to the exact depth. Here, again, the diesinker's experience was critical.

For the larger punch, containing the device or portrait, this was more than could be sunk by tapping with the engraver's hammer. It had to be sunk by hubbing in a press. A device punch or portrait die could be so transferred to the die. (The device punch was usually made by cameo engraving, but it could be created by any method, reduced by pantograph – where it would be a reduction punch – or itself hubbed.)

Sources of punches.  Breen reports that an early American machinist, Henry Starr, provided letter and figure punches to the United States Mint in Philadelphia from 1816-1824. After this time it was Christian Gobrecht who furnished these punches (which was his first effort in a long campaign to be engaged as an engraver at the mint). It does point out that engravers could make their own punches, but would purchase these if suitable punches were easily available elsewhere.

While relationship between punchmaker and engraver was close, it was also close to those craftsmen who made the matrixes for printers' type. If an engraver could prepare

a die for a coin or medal he could also prepare the set of matrixes for making type. After assistant engraver John Reich left the U.S. Mint's employ, he established a type foundry for Philadelphia printers with three partners. This collapsed with the financial panic of 1819; he relocated to Pittsburgh and reestablished a type foundry there June 1820.

Continued use of punches.  When punches were first developed by hand engravers, who prepared the entire design by hand, their use carried over when die-engraving pantographs came into use. For the most part pantographs created only the portrait or device, leaving the lettering, dentiles, dates and ornamentation to be applied by hand again. (There was a technical reason for this in the development of early pantographs – the quality of cutting lettering near the border was not as good until later models, notable the Janvier, solved the problem.)  See pantograph.

Thus, coin and medal dies as late as 1900 were often times hubbed with the main device, then hand punched with lettering, dentiles and dates.

Treatment after punching.  The normal use of a punch is to sink it into metal.

This causes adjacent metal to be pushed aside, or erupted, as the punch creates the cavity

in the metal. Often it is necessary to flatten, remove, or reduce this ridge next to the cavity. (Sometimes, as in diamond scratch point inscribing, this ridge is purposefully left intact to heighten the impression of the depth of the cavity.) The metal thrown up around the cavities of edgelettering is called edge push.

If this ridge is flattened, an astute diesinker will sometimes go back and repunch the cavity to eliminate any overhang of metal that flowed back in the cavity from the flattening. All in all, the punch user must have an intimate knowledge of tool steel and the movement of surface metal. If the ridge remains and is unsightly he might want to remove it by CHASING.

Punches used in edgelettering.  Applying lettering on a struck piece can be accomplished with punches. These can be done with individual punches, but more often with a logotype punch (of several characters and symbols). Applying the maker's name is often done in this manner.

A special kind of punch die is created to effect lettering on the narrow rounded edge of a coin or medal, the roller die. Tiny raised punch letters appear at the apex of a double beveled disk. The medal to be edgelettered is laid in the pan of a special hand press, the roller die is impressed under pressure against the edge of the medal and the roller die rotated imparting the letters.  See roller die.

Punches used in hallmarking.  With the rise of hallmarking fine silver in England in the 15th century it was natural for this mark of fineness to be applied to an object with a punch. The punchmark of three characters – sovereign, maker and date – could easily be applied by separate punches and easily changed as date or sovereign changed. The guilds of goldsmiths would chose a typeface and usually run through 25 characters – a different one for each year – alternating between capital letters and lower case.  See hallmark and hallmarking.

For those houses with a large production, a gangpunch could be made for applying all three characters at one time. Such gangpunch would be discarded March 30th of each year after the new gangpunch was prepared; it contained the symbol for the new year, the old one would then be obsolete.

Punches used in counterstamping.  Most counterstamping is surreptitious and

never intended by the designer of the original numismatic piece. A single punch, logotype or more than one punch were used to impart letters or characters to the host piece. Mostly the counterstamping is done by someone inexperienced in diesinking and the lettering does not have a uniform base line, the characters are not well spaced and are tilted to give a quite amateurish look. Counterstamping is done to the struck piece, to the existing host coin or medal, never to the die (it would be diesinking if so performed).

Special punches.  Some punches are employed to create texture, as a background punch or dapple tool. When applied to a surface in multiple locations this will create a textured field. A matting tool, also use to make texture,

is a punch used in chasing.

Also some special punches are those that have a wheel at the end that are rolled

over soft metal to create a line of some ornaments. These are called beading tool, beading roulette or milgrain tool.

Punch anomalies.  Incorrect punches or those used upside down or even sideways create anomalies. Overpunching, or using the correct punch a second time to correct a wrong position or wrong punch, will correct these errors somewhat. However this requires sinking the punch slightly deeper into the die creating varieties of great interest to numismatists in the pieces struck from such a die.

Overdates are created by using a punch to change a date to perhaps a later year, adding additional life to a once used die. Such overdating is done by punches.

Cataloging punches. Studying individual punches is like studying individual fingerprints, each has it’s own individuality, though this may be very slight. Recognizing that two different coins with exactly the same punch used for each diesinking proves – generally – they came from the same source: perhaps, from the same period, the same mint or even, from the same engraver.

It is a very advanced stage of numismatic science to study punchmark linkage – identifying the same punch used on different dies. This has occurred for American colonial and early U.S. coins. It ceases importance when punches were no longer used in preparation of dies (basically after 1900 with the introduction of the die-engraving pantographs which cut the entire die at once without adding lettering afterwards).


NC12 {1988} Breen, p 202.

C67  {1988} Cooper, p 19.

                    [[ Illustration 1887 Medal ]]]             


                 How Punches Aided In Making

                      The Die For This Medal   


      Peter L. Krider proved his superior diesinking skill

  by creating this United States Constitution Centennial  

  Medal in 1887. He engraved a scroll (without the letter-

  ing) as the device, adding the subsidiary devices of    

  flags and the eagle with arrows on a shield around the  

  scroll with rays above in exact size to fit on a 2-inch 

  medal. This device punch was sunk into a die by

  hubbing with a screw press.                                      


      He then added the lettering on the scroll with the  

  use of punches, one letter at a time. He then added the 

  letters forming the legend probably starting the second 

  T in constitution at the top of the design. Then I on   

  one side and U on the other, continuing until he spell- 

  ed the entire word. The sequence would continue down    

  the sides until he spelled out the entire legend. The   

  reason for this is to have the first letter and the     

  last letter end on the same plane. He then added the    

  motto e pluribus unum above, and his signature below.   


      For the reverse he first did the name as legend at  

  the top, and the legend at the bottom. This gave him    

  the exact space he needed to fill with the seven lines  

  of names and titles. Note he used larger size letter    

  punches for the names, smaller for the titles. The      

  last to be punched was the two dates on a bowed base    

  line inside the legend at the bottom.                   


      A modeled design would have been more attractive – 

  too much lettering is boring – but this is an excellent

  nineteenth century example of skilful use of punches and

  craftsmanlike diesinking.                               

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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