Coins have been collected for centuries. In fact, the first coin collection dates back to 63 BC. While technology has changed the available coin collection tools, the basics are the same as ever. Each tool is essential to starting and managing a coin collection.
The 15 essential tools you must have to start collecting coins are:
- Magnifying glass
- Viewing pad
- Coin books
- Coin holders
- Display boxes and cases
- Digital scale
- Digital caliper
- High end or digital microscope
- High quality digital camera
- Coin cataloging software
Each of these tools is an asset for any collection. However, if you are on a budget, start with the cheaper items at the beginning and work your way down. As your coin collection grows and becomes more sophisticated you can purchase more technical tools. Below, we discuss the uses of these tools.
What Do You Need To Start Coin Collecting?
There is no set answer to that question, because every coin collector has a different purpose.
To a child, coins are fun things to collect and interesting to look at. Experienced collectors admire coins, and preserve them and present them in various forms for others to enjoy. A dealer, on the other hand, might do all a collector does to preserve and present coins and more, because the coins are a source of income.
Each of these approaches require different things. Each is also part of a natural progression. A dealer probably started off admiring or collecting coins as a child, and that interest grew into a hobby, which led them to start buying and selling coins. Eventually they ended up as a dealer, skilled in the art of negotiation, coin assessment and pricing.
It all likely started, however, with a child’s interest in coins, which required very little in terms of tools or equipment.
The same concept holds true for adults who are just starting out coin collecting. At first, unless the adult inherited a coin collection, there is not much in the way of coin collecting equipment they need. As the interest takes hold, however, the need for tools starts to grow.
At its most basic level, coin collecting requires:
- The ability to get coins for your collection
- Being able to understand what coins you are collecting
- Strategies and tools for handling and preserving coins
- A method to safely store or present the coins
If you can get the coins, understand what you’ve got, and preserve, present and showcase your collection, then you have everything you need! However, having the proper tools makes each of those requirements more manageable for a serious collector.
The following is a rundown of some essential tools for any coin collector, and some tools that can be of use if your collection grows beyond the hobby stage.
15 Essential Coin Collecting Tools
The first tool is basic, but essential. This is because the way to procure coins varies, especially depending on the value of the coin in question. There are several ways to get access to collectible coins:
- Inspect all the coins you have in your possession for rare variants
- Ask family members for collectible coins they may have (suggest a loan if they do not want to part with them permanently)
- Ask family to be on the lookout for collectible coins when they receive change
- Attend coin shows and visit dealer shops
- Purchase coins online
Once you have your coins you need to identify them and assign them a value. If they’re in circulation, the chances are that they’re not worth much more than face value. However, if you have special coins, you want to document them and assign them accurate values. This is why every coin collection needs the following lists, ideally kept in a digital file:
- List of reputable vendors
- List of coins on loan to help get your collection started
- List of coins in your collection
- Schedule of any coin shows you want to attend
- Reference materials for pricing and authentication
The easiest way to set up a tool for quickly assessing the information on each of those lists is to set up a spreadsheet and use tabs for each list. This way you can quickly access any of the lists, and as your collection becomes more sophisticated you can add other categories as needed.
The next part of the essentials is lighting. You need lighting to ensure you can see your coins clearly. Unless all you buy are uncirculated coins in mint condition, you will have to verify what you have in your possession.
Depending on the coin, identification can be hindered by:
- Dirt and grime obscuring dates and other features
- Damage to coins from wear and tear (e.g. the dates are faint because they have been worn off)
- Damage to coins from trauma (the coins is scratched, dented, gouged, etc.)
- Tiny features that are hard to discern with the naked eye
- Shadows caused by poor lighting
In each case, the only way to accurately identify what it is you have is with ample lighting.
Specifications For The Light Source
Fluorescent lighting is usually too soft and can mask imperfections or smaller features on a coin. The same holds true for lighting that is labeled as “natural.” The best lighting to have is halogen, specifically a 75 watt incandescent bulb. This gives you enough lighting to see blemishes, ridges, mint characteristics and any damage on the coin.
3. Magnifying Glass
As important as lighting is, a magnifying glass is equally vital. It helps authenticate coin condition and grade, and identify features not easily seen with the naked eye.
You should have three types of magnifiers. When just starting out with your collection you do not need them all, but keep in mind that if your collection grows you will eventually need to purchase the more expensive options.
The first form is a traditional, handheld magnifying glass. The glass should be 1.5 to 4 inches in diameter and have a second, stronger lens embedded in the main lens. The base lens power should be between 2x to 4x. The secondary lens should be between 5x to 7x.
If you can, you should also have a sewer’s magnifier with foundation clamps so you can set up a hands-free way of looking at your coins. This also lets you use both your hands to inspect the coin.
Eventually, if your collection grows enough, you will want to invest in a jeweler’s loupe that has a magnification power between 10x to 15x.
While they are made of metal, coin surfaces are extremely susceptible to dirt and the oils and acids on your hands. Gloves help protect your coins. You should always be wearing them whenever you are handling coins that:
- Are in Mint Condition
- Are uncirculated
- Have any type of commemorative image or insignia
- Have a particularly clean or polished face
There are a few types of gloves or finger protections that are recommended. In order of suitability, they are:
- Soft cotton gloves (white)
- Powder-free latex gloves
- Nitrile gloves
- Finger cots
Soft cotton gloves are self-explanatory, as are powder-free latex gloves – a non-reactive covering for your fingers that is easily washable or disposable.
Nitrile gloves are a form of rubber that is highly flexible and sensitive, as well as resistant to chemicals. They are typically blue in color.
Finger cots coverone or more fingers and are made from latex, nitrile rubber or vinyl. You should only use finger cots if you have no other choice, as you cannot let the coin touch uncovered parts of your hands.
Why This Matters
Many people might understand the need for hand protection for mint condition or uncirculated coins, but will not understand why it is also best practice to take these precautions with less valuable coins too.
However, the oils and acids on your hands leave deposits on the surface of anything they touch, regardless of value. These deposits can discolor and even damage coin faces. They also make it easier for dirt and debris to accumulate on coins and build up.
5. Viewing Pad
A coin is tough, but not invulnerable to damage. If it is dropped on a hard surface, it can scratch or dull. While that does not matter so much with coins in circulation, it matters a great deal with coins that are no longer produced.
Uncirculated and mint edition coins have such polished face plates that something as simple as dropping it on a table can diminish its value and sliding it across a table could scar it.
Whenever you are examining coins, it is best to place it flat on a soft surface, like a cotton pad or soft washcloth. The cushioning will ensure that the coin is protected and prevent the coin from rolling or sliding on a hard surface. This is particularly important if you are showing the coins outside of any casing to multiple people.
6. Coin Books
Two types of books are invaluable resources for a new coin collector. First is the ‘US Coins Red Book,’ which is a comprehensive guide to coins minted by the US government. The other is the ‘Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards’ (also known as an ANA Grading Guide).
The Red Book provides information on and values of all American coins. It is the official pricing guide for US coin mintages. Each entry also covers a coin’s history and a description of its physical characteristics.
The ANA Grading Guide describes how a coin’s grade is determined. It possesses a detailed description of every US coin ever minted. You can use it to assess your collection – or a coin you are thinking about selling or buying – and get an idea of what you can expect in terms of value.
7. Coin Holders
Most coin collectors start off with a box or drawer and put their valued coins in one container for safe-keeping. Obviously, as their collection grows and becomes more valuable, they will want to store their coins in a way that protects the coins, provides information about them and allows them to be displayed and reviewed.
The most important function a holder plays is to protect a coin from impacts, sliding, scraping, rubbing against other coins or being dropped and dented. Another benefit of a coin holder is that it makes it easy to locate coins you want to present. There are many different types of coin holders.
Different types of coin holders include:
- Paper envelopes
- Plastic coin pouches
- 2 x 2 cardboard or vinyl sleeves
- Plastic tubes
- Coin collecting booklets
- Plastic coin capsule
Any of these are adequate to protect your coins. Many collectors develop preferences for one over the others, so the best approach is to sample each type and see what you like. Most collectors and dealers use coin tubes to store circulated, ungraded coins. Coin booklets typically display one side of the coin and a bit of information about the coin underneath.
Air Tite coin capsules are round, clear plastic cases that a coin is put into. Once in position the front of the capsule snaps shut with the back of the capsule. There are several different versions of these types of coin holders.
When your coin collection gets very valuable or you have rare coins that are part of it, you will likely migrate valuable coins into a coin ‘slab.’ A coin is put in a slab by a third-party grading service. The slab has information about the coin and its grade. If you ever sell expensive coins, most collectors or dealers will expect to see them in slabs.
You will not need a ruler when you first start coin collecting, but it comes in handy as your collection becomes more sophisticated, particularly if you collect foreign coins. With foreign coins and some American coins, verifying that the size is correct is one way of avoiding buying counterfeits. Use a plastic ruler as a metal ruler can scratch the coins.
9. Display Boxes And Cases
Display boxes or cases also come in many different forms. The simplest are smaller boxes that can be sealed so that you can store your coins in a secure location. The most extravagant are wooden boxes with a glass viewing pane, lighting, and a presentation platform that is used for displaying the coin where anyone interested can see it.
The type you need, or if you need both, depends on what your plans are for your coin collection. If you plan on only bringing it out selectively, boxes are probably the best bet. If you want to present your coin collection to anyone that visits, a display case is the better choice.
As your coin collection accumulates value, you will want to consider putting it in a safe. At the very least, you will want to deposit your most valuable coins in a safe or lockbox. If you use a safe, shelving is a requirement if you want to keep your collection organized. If you aren’t concerned about organization, a standard security safe will do.
If you have a lot of valuable coins, you may want to consider larger safes. One option is to use a gun safe with shelving. These are difficult to break into and have several shelves large enough to store boxes, capsules or booklets. They also are usually accompanied by a warranty, as long as they are used correctly.
11. Digital Scale
If you are planning on buying or selling coins, you need a digital scale to verify that the coins you are buying are legitimate. A scale can also help identify an error coin or clad coin, which is helpful for coins from years that had both clad and solid metal coins.
When the US moved on from silver quarters, for the year leading up to the changeover and at the beginning of the changeover, some quarters were minted that were solid metal coins with a high silver content, and others were silver clad. Clearly it’s important to know the difference if you’re planning to buy or sell these specific coins.
12. Digital Caliper
This tool is a vital sizing gauge. It helps measure the diameter of a coin. Coins that are not the right diameter are likely one of a few options:
- Minted from a collar
- Had a broad strike
- Minted from an improper planchette
The value of these types of coins depends on the type of issue the coin possesses. Some will make coins worth their face value only. Others can increase the value of a coin.
13. High End Or Digital Microscope
You’ll need a sophisticated microscope for assessing a coin’s grade. Typically, the zoom range is 10x to 45x, which lets you examine the coin at virtually any level of magnification you’ll ever need. These types of microscopes can also be used to verify mint condition status, evidence of circulation, or to look for distinguishing characteristics of a specific coin.
14. High Quality Digital Camera
This is important for insurance reasons if your coin collection is worth a lot of money. It can also help you if you decide to sell coins online. Some people use their smartphones to photograph their coin collection, but that might not capture the level of detail or documentation you want.
Every coin that is photographed should have the following information:
- Date and time stamp of when the photo was taken
- Photo of the front and back of the coin
- Photo of any details pertaining to the coin
- Digital watermark to prevent tampering with the photo
You should also have three copies of each photo:
- One for your safe
- One for the insurance company
- One general set of photos for quick reference
15. Coin Cataloging Software
Another way to authenticate and verify the extent of your collection is to use software designed for that purpose. Coin cataloguing software lets you capture the identification information of each coin and photos of the coin. It comes in handy for insurance purposes as well if your coin collection is very large.
It also comes in handy if you ever want to sell your collection. Having all the documentation in one place, with photos, is worth money to a sophisticated buyer as it saves them a lot of work if they purchase your collection. It is also a way to verify everything in your collection if they dispute it after taking custody of your collection.
This type of software also records all purchases, sales and profit from any coin sale. It will also have a reference database to allow for accurate identification of a specific coin. Some coin cataloguing software will also track pricing and sales information from prominent dealers or auctions.
Smartphones have revolutionized just about every aspect of our lives, so it makes sense that they would do the same for collectors. Apps can not only help a coin collector stay organized, but they can also help manage a coin collection or ensure that coin pricing for any purchase is accurate.
The best coin collecting apps:
- Allow for coin documentation and cataloguing (compatible with some coin cataloguing software)
- Provide coin facts, including minted totals per year, error coin information, etc.
- Give you coin prices as per several major markets and grades
- Help with coin identification
The tools on this list will be useful to every collector. The basics you need are reference materials, magnification tools and good lighting. While every collector needs these, the other tools will make it easier to manage, present, safeguard and sell your coins, and will mean you get the most out of your collection.