Tools of the Trade
Coin collecting actually requires very little in the way of tools when compared to some other pastimes. However there are a few tools that are necessary to best enjoy coin collecting and to handle coins without damaging them.
Every collector will want to have some type of magnifying device, and many will own several. There are features of a coin that cannot be discerned with the naked eye. For purposes of grading, proper magnification is essential for examining the strike and spotting damage. Magnification is also useful in the hunt for die variations, elusive mint marks, as well as detecting alterations and counterfeits. For the average hobbyist and collector, a simple handheld magnifier or jeweler’s loop with a magnification level of between 5x and 10x will be sufficient.
The more serious will also own a quality microscope. A good microscope will have a wide field of view and several levels of magnification; 10x, 15x and 20x being a common spread. With practice, a microscope will help to catch damage with more certainty than a hand-held, lower power device and will enable a much more thorough study of a coin. You should also consider that digital scanners and cameras when properly configured can serve as excellent tools in the study of a coin, enabling a coin image to be frozen and zoomed to very high magnification levels.
A nice workspace with appropriate lighting is important to being able to make a thorough study of your coins. For a basic light source an incandescent bulb of about 75-100 watts should provide about the right level and type of light. When examining the coloration and eye appeal of a particular coin, it is desirable to have the most natural lighting spectrum possible. For this reason, many collectors avoid fluorescent lighting. Full spectrum lights are available from craft stores as well as coin supply houses. Some specially manufactured coin lights even include a built in magnifier.
Having the proper tools to handle coins without damaging is an obvious need. Although the requirement is more absolute with proof and mint state coins, even circulated coins can see their value unnecessarily eroded with avoidable scratches and exposure to dirt and oils. Coin tongs with plastic tips let you easily and confidently handle coins by the rim. They are available in a range of prices. A basic pair of tongs should do the trick, but nicer ones are easier and more comfortable to use. Collectors who regularly handle proof and mint coins out of their holders will often keep cotton coin gloves, and a velvet pad is handy to have around for when you need to set a coin down.
A basic but accurate digital scale is useful for a number of slightly more advanced numismatic activities. A coin’s weight can be used to detect a counterfeit if the counterfeit is made from different metals than the genuine coin. Scales are also used in identifying and cataloging older and ancient coins, and determining the metal content of tokens, medals and other exonumia. A pair a calipers is also useful in indentifying and cataloging unusual coins and exonumia.
Lastly, don’t overlook the role that computer software can play in helping you get the most from the hobby. There is a nice variety of database software available. A good database will come preloaded with pictures, pricing and other information about coins while enabling you to add your own pictures, notes and updates. It will also enable you to produce reports on your coin holdings and want lists. United States collectors have a slight advantage in available software, but the better products will have multiple country databases available as add-ons, and there are ancient coin databases as well. In addition to database software there are programs to assist with grading and an ever-growing library of digital reference works to aid in identification.