How To Determine Silver Content In Coins

Some coins in circulation today contain silver. But how do you determine which ones do or how much they contain? There are some ways that are easier than others, some that are cheaper than others, and some that are more destructive than others. Overall, however, it’s not a very difficult process.

You can determine your coins’ silver content through a variety of tests, acquiring expensive equipment, or by looking at the date and texture of your coins. The government had strict rules for how much silver was in a coin, so the amount of silver in a real silver coin should be easy to calculate.  

With a few handy principles to keep in mind, you can evaluate your coins to get some sense of worth, or at least know when it might be worth it to get a professional appraisal. Let’s take a look at a few things you should know.

History Of Silver Coins

No country in the world backs their currency by the gold standard anymore, but for a long time it was considered unthinkable not to. There were long debates for decades on the value of a free-floating currency versus one backed by gold or silver. In the end, free-floating currencies won.

When the transition happened varied from country to country. So too did the time that common coins stopped being made of silver. In the United States, the year to keep in mind is 1965. Coins made in 1965 and later almost certainly don’t contain silver. Coins made up to 1964 from dimes and up will. Other countries have different dates, so check specifications.

These coins are still in legal circulation and may end up in a handful of change,so keep your eyes peeled and make sure to check your money. Silver is a soft metal, so a silver coin in circulation will show more wear than a typical coin will. But what are these coins worth?

How Much Is A Silver Coin Worth?

A silver coin is worth different things, because, like all coins, silver coins have three values. These are the face value (its worth as everyday currency), numismatic value (how much it’s worth to a collector), and material value (the worth of the metal when melted down and purified).

The face value of a coin, even a silver one, is determined by what kind of coin it is. A silver quarter will be worth 25 cents, because it is a quarter. A silver dime will be worth 10 cents, and so on. If you thought your silver quarter could be worth more than 25 cents, it isn’t. At least, not according to its face value.

The numismatic, or collectable value, is how much a collector would pay for it. A cashier at the store may not care what condition your dime is in or what year it was made, but a collector will. This is where we start looking into grades of condition, date, scarcity, and many other factors. Unlike the other two values, numismatic value is unique to each coin.

Then there is the value of the material. If you were to melt down and purify a coin, how much would the metal be worth? Silver coins that aren’t rare or in very good condition are often considered to be junk silver. Not because they are worthless, but because the coin is considered to be worth less than the silver that made it. This value is often desired by survivalists rather than collectors.

How To Tell If Your Coins Are Silver

Even if you forget the cut-off date for silver coins, these coins tend to look slightly different. A silver dime or quarter that has been in circulation will show more signs of wear and a slightly different coloration. But the easiest way to tell is to look at the side. A silver coin will have a completely silver edge. A clad coin will usually show wear on the side, revealing a bronze inside.

There are also the years. As mentioned earlier, in general, the cut-off for American silver coins is 1965. But there are exceptions. During World War II, nickel was in high demand, causing nickels made from much of 1942 to 1945 to be made with up to 35 percent silver. If there is a mint mark over Monticello, it is a wartime nickel. Unless in very good condition, these coins are junk silver.

Another exception is the Kennedy Half Dollar, made from 1965-1970. This contains 40 percent silver, but all other U.S. silver coins have 90 percent silver. After 1965, with the previous exception, only certain proof coins were made of silver. These proof coins will probably have the S or W mint mark. Both of these mints almost exclusively make special coins like commemorative or proof sets.

How Do You Test For Silver Content In Coins?

You test for silver content in coins in many ways. These tests won’t tell you the exact amount and may be best for coins that are 90 percent silver. It’s best if you have a real silver coin as a control. Note that these tests should only be used on junk silver, because they can damage the coin.

Ice Test

Take an ice cube and put it on top of your coin. If your coin is true silver, the ice should melt rapidly. Even a non-silver coin will melt ice faster than a metal pan, so this test is best done with a control coin. This should not damage the coin.

Magnetism Test

While silver is a metal, it actually repels magnets. If a coin sticks to a magnet, it is definitely not silver. If you hover a magnet over a silver coin, the magnet should face some resistance. A better way to test this is to build or buy a magnetic slide.

Silver coins will travel slower than standard ones. Be aware, though, that copper and lead also repel magnets, although not as strongly, so they will also travel slower. This test will not hurt the coin, but it also will not detect silver if it is cladding partway through.

Measurement Test

Coins have extremely specific dimensions they are required to adhere to. All of these dimensions are thoroughly documented. You will need a very accurate scale and ruler, like calipers, as well as the regulation measurements for the coin in question. After you have gotten that, you may wish to test for specific gravity.

The cheap way to do this requires a very accurate scale, a cup of water, a string, something to suspend the string on, your coin, and some math. Weigh the coin and write down the weight. Then tie the string around the coin and suspend it in the water so it isn’t touching any of the sides. Weigh that and write it down. Weigh the apparatus without the coin, and write that down.

Subtract the weight of the apparatus from the weight of the apparatus with the coin. Divide the dry weight by the submerged weight. If this coin is 90 percent silver, the total should be very close to 10.49, the specific gravity of silver. This can be faked, so use in conjunction with other tests. It will not damage the coin.

Ping Test

This one should be done with a control. Drop the coin on the table, and it should make a very distinctive ping sound. This is extremely difficult to replicate with a fake. It can also cause micro-abrasions on the coin, so do not do this on a coin you suspect to have numismatic value.

Acid Test

There are specific silver-testing kits for sale that work with great accuracy. Pour one drop of acid on the coin. If it is true silver, the drop will turn one color. If it’s fake, it will turn other colors depending on the composition of the coin. If you suspect silver plating, you may need to drill a small hole in the coin to test.

Bleach will also almost instantly tarnish silver and is much easier to get a hold of. Both of these tests involve dangerous chemicals that should be used with caution and will absolutely damage the coin. Only use this test on junk silver.

Equipment for Testing

While almost all of the above are simple tests that require things you may have at home, there are also pieces of specialty equipment that can be used to test for silver. While these may or may not be worth it to you unless you have a great deal of silver to test, here are some things on the market. Even if you don’t have them, your local appraiser might.

An Ultrasonic Thickness Gauge will send soundwaves through the object in question to gauge thickness. This tool is very good for evaluating ingots and bars, but not as accurate for coins.Cost is pretty reasonable, but still probably not worth it for most casual coin collectors.

More accurate and far more expensive, an XRF analyzer uses x-ray fluorescence to detect precious metals, or you can use metalytics to send electromagnetic waves to find exact metal composition. If you have a lot of silver coins or wish to specialize in silver coins, one of these might be worth it. Otherwise, you have an expensive toy.

How Do You Calculate The Silver Content Of A Coin?

You calculate the silver content of a coin by looking at how much silver is in the coin. Since coins are heavily regulated by the government, they must fit certain standards of weight and composition of silver. This means that the silver content of every coin is uniform.

For example, a silver dollar has .7736 of an ounce of silver. A half dollar has .3618 ounces of silver. A quarter will have .1809 ounces and a dime has .0724 ounces of silver. Remember that this applies specifically to silver coins.

Also keep in mind that this measurement will be in troy ounces, which is equal to 31.1 grams, as opposed to regular ounces which are 28.35 grams. There are also 12 troy ounces to a pound as opposed to 16 regular ounces to a pound. Precious metals and gemstones are usually measured in troy ounces.

You can divide the weight of the coin by the percentage of silver, but it is probably easier and faster to use the documentation already provided. If you really want to do math, then you can calculate how much the silver is worth.

How To Determine The Value Of Your Silver Coin

If you want the numismatic value of a coin, you need to do a lot of research and probably need a professional appraisal. This will depend on the grading, or condition, of the coin, the scarcity, any misprints, mistakes, etc. As mentioned earlier, this will be individual to each coin.

If you want the silver value, you need two figures. The amount of silver in your coin, which is easy to find, and the current value of silver, sometimes referred to as the spot price. Remember that this number changes on a frequent basis.

Multiply the amount of silver by the silver spot price. This will tell you how much your coin is worth in silver. This can even be done with a large collection of coins. Keep in mind that silver dollar coins can be worth a little bit more than this, so you may wish to keep them separate.

For a 90-percent-silver coin, the other 10 percent of the total material is copper. Copper isn’t worth as much as silver, but it is still a valuable metal. If you are selling junk silver in large batches, it might be worth trying to get some compensation for the copper as well.

Final Thoughts

You can determine if your coins are made of silver through a variety of tests, expensive equipment, or by looking at the date and texture of your coins. The amount of silver in coins was standardized by the government, so it’s easy to calculate how much silver is in them.

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