The U.S. Mint employs a team of medallic artists to sculpt designs for coins and medals. The team is based at the Philadelphia Mint.
Coin and medal designs start as simple line drawings. The Mint gathers designs for consideration from the Mint medallic artists, Artistic Infusion Program designers, or, when law allows, public design competitions. The design choices go through reviews by the Mint, stakeholders named by law, and committees such as the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. These groups send recommended designs to the Secretary of the Treasury, who approves the final design.
Once the Secretary approves a design, a Mint medallic artist turns the line drawing into a three-dimensional sculpt. To fully flesh out the vision, they research the objects in the design. They look at photos of the landscape and people, or even visit places in person.
The artists use traditional media such as clay and plaster, as well as digital software to sculpt the coin or medal model. The engraving department provides the artist with an initial model made of plastiline modeling clay, which has the inscriptions and common design elements engraved into it.
Using this initial model, the artist’s process may follow these steps:
- The artist adds layers of clay to the model to sculpt the overall design.
- The artist makes a plaster cast of the clay model to make refinements to the details of the design.
- A high-resolution scanner scans the model to create a digital copy.
- The artist uses computer software to make additional changes.
Each artist chooses the media they feel best suit the design. An artist may use all three of the media to create a model, or they may decide to use just one or two. Some of the artists work solely with digital software when sculpting.
Watch this video to see the artists at work.
The Mint uses the final model in digital form to carve the design into a master hub, which makes the die used to stamp the coin or medal. Before the Mint starts producing the new coin or medal, the manufacturing department does a test strike. The test coin or medal is examined for any parts of the design that didn’t strike well. The Mint makes additional changes to the model until the test shows a perfect strike. Then the new coin or medal is ready for production.