McFarland laughed along with the media as production employee Joseph Chan, dressed up as a ballpark vendor, strolled through the ceremony, interrupting speeches with shouts of “Peanuts! Peanuts!” and tossing free bags to eager audience members. She stepped up to bat as pressroom supervisor Carlos Dumpit dusted off home plate, a coin press behind her surrounded by a backstop. And, she donned the Mint’s version of batting gloves before pressing the button to strike a proof of her half-dollar clad coins.
“I just think the whole thing is so fun-loving,” said McFarland, 28.
McFarland’s design, a drawing of a child’s baseball glove, will adorn the head’s side of Mint’s first-ever curved coin. She plans to donate the glove she used as a model to the Hall of Fame. Her submission beat out 177 competitors. The Mint also will issue the Hall of Fame specie as $5 gold coins and $1 silver coins.
As collectors’ coins, they will not be touched by any human hand at the Mint, and careful collectors won’t touch the coins either out of concern for smudging or leaving oils on them. McFarland’s glove design is set on the coin in a frosted matte finish, and the background field is so glossy that it’s like looking in a mirror.
The artist’s mother, Roseville resident Wendy McFarland, told me that she and her husband, Robert McFarland, will likely buy several of each denomination when they go on sale March 27 at www.usmint.gov.
Coins to die for
The U.S. Mint in San Francisco is never open for public tours, so it’s rare to get a glimpse past the security gate and into a building that resembles an ancient Greek temple.
At 155 Hermann St., they produce collector’s versions of every coin in circulation, and like McFarland’s clad half-dollar, these glitzy coins put your pocket change to shame. They use specially designed dies to impress the images on the blanks. The dies come from the Denver Mint in a rough form, and before they can be used, they are auto-polished to remove defects, scratches and nicks, and to give them a mirror finish. The design will be frosted onto them. They will be ultrasonically cleaned. And, finally, they will be put into a vacuum-sealed room where a chromium vapor will coat the dies, giving them the strength and adhesion needed to make 4,000 to 10,000 strikes.
The rims of the coin blanks are raised or up-set, as the Mint employees call it, and this step often makes collectors’ coins appear larger than those in general circulation. The blanks also go through a special refining process called annealing, in which they’re heated and cooled slowly. This toughens the metal for the stamping process. The final step is burnishing, in which oxides are scrubbed off the surfaces with a combination of gases, mild soaps, mild acids and tiny metal balls about the size of BBs.
The Mint takes all these steps to ensure perfection, but about 2 percent of the time, a coin may wind up with damage from lint or be struck by a die that needs polishing. Such tiny imperfections are not the type of mistakes that collectors feel make a coin more valuable.
“The collectors are looking for the ones that are unique,” said Paul Lewis, the San Francisco Mint’s coin division manager. “They look for coins where the dies are set improperly or something like that.”
Indeed, the so-called double dies, where a coin has a double image, are often referred to as the holy grail among collectors.
Minting a career
Someone has to strike all those coins produced by the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. Press operators there earn a starting wage of $22 an hour as apprentices, and a college degree is not required.
Certainly, Lewis told me, candidates who have had a shop class or who have worked with metal will fare better against competitors. There are typically more applicants than available positions when jobs post at www.usajobs.gov, so it’s wise for candidates to get experience.
“We have an apprenticeship program, so we do a lot of training with the employees, too,” said Lewis. “To actually change the dies on a press, you’re looking at a year’s worth of training. Then they’ll be certified. It’s also registered with the Department of Labor as an apprenticeship program, so they get a certificate from the secretary of labor as well.”
Experienced operators earn as much as $40. And some employees enter as press operators and then move to other positions within the Mint.
“They’ve worked their way into the engineering department and have become maintenance mechanics or electricians and are actually repairing the equipment and doing major overhauls and stuff like that, and they have progressed into the $40-an-hour pay range,” said David Jacobs, deputy plant manager.
Jacobs also noted that the Mint also has entry level positions in finance, human resources, quality control, engineering, maintenance and information technology. All applications must be submitted to www.usajobs.gov.