Introduction: Hobo Nickel

Picture of Hobo Nickel


Have you ever wanted to make your own coin or thought that there's just not enough funny hats and beards on coins. If you have you came to the right place. In this instructable I will show how to make a traditional hobo nickel.


I came across hobo nickels about a year ago and decided to try my hand at creating my own. My initial searching reveled that tooling can cost into the thousands of dollars. For something that I wasn't sure I was going to stick with that's a bit much. After more searching I found out that old-time engravers would use nails, old files, drills and whatever else they had lying around. Now that was something I could handle, so I tried it and it worked. Well my first attempts were less than spectacular but they are getting better.

So far my total cost for dedicated tools and materials is around $20. You can probably do it for almost nothing if you are good at scrounging.

Talent disclaimer:

I'll be straight with you, I am a complete hack at best. If you want to see what can really be done search "hobo nickel" in your favorite search engine and see what comes up.

If I haven't scared you away yet keep reading.

Step 1: What's a Hobo Nickel?

Picture of What's a Hobo Nickel?

The term hobo nickel is used generically for any engraved or carved coin. Nickels are commonly used but just about every coin has been carved at some point or another.

The origin of the term hobo nickel as I understand it goes something like this: Back when there were actual real hobos around you could make about $1 a day for unskilled labor. To make this last longer hobos would take coins, usually nickels and modify them by adding funny faces or designs. These could then be traded for a meal of a place to stay. In this way the hobo could stretch his dollar to last a week or more. I don't know if this is true but it makes for a good story.

Hobo nickels have since become an art in their own right.

Why nickels?

Nickels were used because of their somewhat large size and low relative value. Quarters offer a much larger area but are five times the face value. For a hobo trying to stretch is money this is a lot. Modern day carvers use any and all coins usually based on personal preference.

Step 2: But Isn't That Illegal?

Picture of But Isn't That Illegal?

Before I get every arm chair lawyer telling me how illegal this, because it happens in every instructable that involves coins, I want to establish that this is legal.

For all ye non-believers (everyone else just skip ahead):


Whoever fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens any of the coins coined at the mints of the United States, or any foreign coins which are by law made current or are in actual use or circulation as money within the united states; or

Whoever fraudulently possesses, passes, utters, publishes, or sells, or attempts to pass, utter, publish, or sell, or brings into the United States, any such coin, knowing the same to be altered, defaced, mutilated, impaired, diminished, falsified, scaled or lightened -

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

The key word is fraudulently.

The coins are altered for artistic purposes with no intent for fraud so it is not illegal.

You can also sell the finished coin for any price the market will bear. Again the key word here is fraudulent. The coin is not being made to look like another coin or being represented as such so it is perfectly legal to sell the final product.

And lastly, for those that still think it is illegal, how is it that you see those penny squashing machines everywhere if it is so illegal.

Now back to defacing money.

Step 3: Get Yourself a Nickel

Picture of Get Yourself a Nickel

When it comes to making a hobo nickel the first thing you will need, you guessed it, a nickel.

Traditionally buffalo nickels (sometimes referred to as Indian head nickels) would be used. When you are just starting out I would recommend using any nickel you can get your hands on. You probably have a couple in your pocket right now.

If you do want to try on a buffalo nickel get your hands on some no date nickels. They can be picked up on ebay for cheep because they are relatively worthless from a collecting standpoint. I'm still not comfortable with the prospect of ruining a valuable coin so, for now at least, I am sticking with no date coins and Jefferson nickels.

What are nickels made of anyway?

I'm glad you asked. Except for a couple of years around WWII the composition of nickels has not changed since 1866. They are an alloy of 25% nickel and 75% copper.

Step 4: Make Some Gravers

Picture of Make Some Gravers

The next thing you will need is some gravers. Gravers are basically small chisels used for cutting metal.

Any reasonably hard, small-ish diameter, steel will work for your gravers. This includes old files, drills or, like I have used, concrete nails.

Concrete nails are a good choice because they are an appropriate size, pre-hardened and cheep. A one pound box is around $5 and has enough to keep you busy for years. Comparatively you'll pay $5 for a cheep premade graver.

To start off you really only need two gravers, a V graver and a flat graver. The V graver will be used for making lines and the flat graver to add depth and flatten the background.

I ground my gravers by eye using a bench grinder. There are some clever fixtures that people have made to get the geometry perfect every time. I have found that for my purposes the geometry is not all that critical.

V graver

A V-graver is shaped just like it sounds. Start by taking a nail and grind down the end to a tapered point. Use a shallow angle similar to the tip of a pencil.

It is important to keep the nail cool by dipping your nail in water periodically while grinding. If you over heat it you will ruin the temper.

Once you have created a new point grid three flats to make it triangle shaped. The angle between two of the sides that will become your cutting edge should be around 90° (I think mine is closer to 80°).

Next carefully grind a flat on the end of the graver. This flat should be approximately 45° from the point of the graver.

Finely polish the faces with emery paper. Keep the faces as flat as possible. This gives your graver a sharp edge and will smooth it so it leaves a better finish.

Flat graver

A flat graver is made essentially the same as the V-graver. The difference is to make it square rather than triangle shaped.

Step 5: Hold on to Your Nickel

Picture of Hold on to Your Nickel

In order to do anything you need to have a way of holding your nickel. You can purchase vices that are specially for nickels but they can get pricy. I use a short length of dowel and some hot glue. The bond is enough to keep the nickel from moving but not enough to prevent it from being removed easily. It is also reusable. All you need to do is reheat the hot glue and stick your next coin on.

Hold your holder

I have done a couple of nickels using just the dowel held in my hand but found it too easy to slip. To make things easier I picked up a small vice from Harbor Freight Tools for about $20 that does the job fine.

Step 6: Do a Little Bit of Practice

Picture of Do a Little Bit of Practice

Now that you have all your tools and supplies together do a little practice and see how a nickel cuts. If you need to, adjust your tools to cut better. Try making some straight lines and curved lines. Erase features from the coin and add others.

Step 7: Hobo Nickel: Get Your Nickel Ready

Picture of Hobo Nickel: Get Your Nickel Ready

The classic style hobo nickel is pretty easy and it is great for practice. Once you master that the sky is the limit.

Starting your Hobo Nickel:

It's best to start by lightly drawing my design on the coin so you know what will need to be removed. Once you have done a few you'll get to know what will need to go without an sketching.

You can start with two areas that don't have any use: the feathers behind the neck and the feathers that are draped down the side of the neck. Start by removing these with a flat graver. Try to keep these areas as smooth as possible. Any gouges you end up with will need to be removed later so if you avoid them now you will save time later.

Once you have most of the material removed you can move on. You will come back and finish these areas at the end.

Step 8: Hobo Nickel: Give That Man a Hat

Picture of Hobo Nickel: Give That Man a Hat

Traditional hobo nickels usually featured a hat. The most common is the bowler hat but other hats can be used.

I usually start with the hat first since it is the largest feature of the coin and it requires the most modification.

Making the hat:

To make the hat you will need to create a brim and remove the remaining feathers from the back of the head. You may need to remove the definition in the feathers on the top of the head. On warn nickel there will not be much definition left on the top of the head. If you have a coin that is in better shape you will need to smooth this out for the top of the hat.

Once you have your hat sketched make two cuts across the top and bottom of the brim with your V graver.

Next take your flat graver and remove some material from above and below the brim. This gives your hat a more 3D look.

The hardest part is the front brim. Because of the way the forehead is shaped you will end up with a crease in the front of the brim. If you look at original examples you will notice this. Unfortunately this is hard to avoid and must be lived with.

If you have a coin that still has "Liberty" and the date legible, be extra careful in these areas. It is easy mung up the letters and once you do there is very little hope fixing them.

Step 9: Hobo Nickel: Can You Ear Me Now?

Picture of Hobo Nickel: Can You Ear Me Now?

Ears are a bugger for me. It is worth it to take some time and look up a ear drawing tutorial. My ears usually end up kind of cartoon-ish looking.

I usually make the ear after the hat but have done the ear first also. The actual order doesn't really matter. In fact I will jump around the coin working on different features as I go.

Making an ear:

I start my ears by lightly drawing or scribing an outline. I then use a V graver to cut the outline.

Next using a flat graver relieve the edge to make it look more 3D.

Cut another line inside the first with a v graver then relive the edge to the inside.

Step 10: Hobo Nickel: Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

Picture of Hobo Nickel: Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits

The last feature I add is hair. This part is fun because it transforms a large area of the coin relatively quickly.

Making hair:

Using a V graver make short but relatively deep cuts in the area you want your hair. Keep going until you get a even coverage.

You can also add a collar by making a couple of straight lines with a V-graver. It helps to relieve the top edge slightly with a flat graver to make the collar stand out a little more.

Step 11: Hobo Nickel: Finishing Things Up

Picture of Hobo Nickel: Finishing Things Up

The coin is almost done. Now it's time to finish the background removing tool marks. If you are careful you can get a reasonably good finish with your flat graver. Another option is to use some very fine grit sand paper to smooth the background.

Apply a finish:

To get a better contrast add some color to the low spots on the coin. This will make the features stand out more. An easy way to color the coin is with a permanent marker. Color the surface and wipe it off again before it dries completely. The marker will wipe off the high spots and stay in the lows. The down side is that it is not all that durable. If the coin is going to be handled a lot you will likely need to reapply periodically.

I have read of people using cold bluing solution or paint. I have not used either but I'm sure the would work.

Sign your work:

The last thing I do is put my initials on the back of the coin. I'm not all that good at lettering yet so they usually don't turn out too good so i put it on the back. When I get better I'll put them on the front in the background somewhere.

Step 12: Done!

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After all that it's finely done. Sit back and admire your work.

The one I did for this instructable has its share of problems but I'm happy with it. The background needs more work and that ear is just bad. There is always the next one.

Hobo nickels are a lot of fun. I hope I've inspired at least someone to try to make one.

Thanks for sticking with me.


JOEYS CARVED ART (author)2016-05-02

Her are the pics.

JOEYS CARVED ART (author)2016-05-02

Hello, nice carvings, keep up the great work!! Here are a couple of my carvings. I carve under the name JOEYS CARVED ART!!

thegrendel (author)2016-03-17

Marvelous. Doing it by hand with hand-made gravers is the classic way, but a Dremel tool could be helpful.

JacobK13 (author)2015-07-13

Perhaps hold the nickel in your palm with a piece of thick leather (like a welding glove) to protect yourself from slips?

jackowens (author)2015-06-29

Love it!

jeanluc83 (author)jackowens2015-06-30


I really haven't don anything new in a while. The weather is too nice right now to spend it inside playing with nickels. I'm hoping to get going again once the weather turns nasty this fall. Stay tuned I may try to post some more nickel carving instructables.

jeanluc83 (author)2015-04-03

Wow, I managed to win a prize in the Guerilla Design contest. Thanks for a great contest and thanks to everyone who voted.

PopsicleGhoul (author)2015-03-17

Wow, that is really cool! I love your hobo nickel designs! I think I will have to try this soon. Also, wher did you get Indian Head nickels?

jeanluc83 (author)PopsicleGhoul2015-03-17

Thanks. Search ebay for no date Indian head nickels. If I remember right I got about 20 for $4 or so shipped. You could also try local coin dealers.

PopsicleGhoul (author)jeanluc832015-03-31

Awesome! I'll have to check ebay and make some cool hobo designs!

jeanluc83 (author)PopsicleGhoul2015-04-03

If you do make sure you post some pics.

YPF (author)2015-03-28

Impressive job!

TrollFaceTheMan (author)2015-03-27

That's something I never seen before XD

That was my thought when I first discovered these. For some reason I'm drawn to rather obscure hobbies.

Ray from RI (author)2015-03-17

Great post traditionally they use to use regular chisels to do the cutting but often would slip and cut their own hand and damage nerves and or tendons... Your methods are much safer...!

jeanluc83 (author)Ray from RI2015-03-17


That is a case to use the right tool for the job.

If you are holding the piece in such a way that you will stab yourself if you slip you are holding it wrong. Stop, think and figure out a new way of holding it.

charliewinters (author)jeanluc832015-03-18

Take a block of hardwood, and route out a circular depression that will snugly hold your coin.

Cut a slot that will allow you to put a pick, wire, paperclip, etc under the coin to dislodge it when finished.

You can put a few drops of hot glue into the depression before setting the coin in to further secure it. To remove, just put your pick in the slot made, and pry up. The not glue should peel right out, and off.

Ray from RI (author)jeanluc832015-03-18

Agreed 100%.... They usually did not have a lot of tools available to them so they held the nickels in their hands while carving it with a hand wood chisel.... The right tools and methods make ALL the difference...!

philpp (author)2015-03-18

:) lovely, I have seen coin cutters pierce and cut with a jewelers saw to make beautiful ones too.

mjenk20236 (author)2015-03-17

How do you drive the graver?

jeanluc83 (author)mjenk202362015-03-17

I mostly push the graver by hand. Adding a handle would probably make this easier. I've just been too lazy to make some.

mjenk20236 (author)jeanluc832015-03-17

With your skill set you might want to look into making a tiny hammer. It may be less fatiguing. See:

jeanluc83 (author)mjenk202362015-03-18

Thanks that is a great video. As I get more skilled I'm sure my tools and my techniques will evolve.

ArticAkita (author)2015-03-18

Check out hobo nickels on ebay, there are some really talented coin carvers out there!

jeanluc83 (author)ArticAkita2015-03-18

I have thought of trying to sell on ebay but have not so far. There are coins that get a good price but there are also coins that I would consider top notch work going for very low. The classic style coins do not go for much unless they are originals. When I consider the time I spend I'd rather just hang on to them and enjoy the hobby at least for now.

I do agree that there is some fantastic work listed. It is a good source of inspiration.

jgrebennikov (author)2015-03-18

Awesome man :D :D

kasssa (author)2015-03-17

My understanding is that during the Great Depression, the hobos would carve / engrave them, and then try to sell them for a few cents more than their face value. I recently visited a coin store in Winchester, IN that does a pretty large mail order business. They had a display of modern Hobo Nickles, which I had never seen before. I regret not having bought a few while I was there. Maybe next time they offer free shipping I'll buy a few!

The company's website gives a bit more history about these nickles, and can be found at: (I am in no way, shape or form affiliated with the company - other than being a customer of theirs.)

GpaSteve (author)2015-03-17

Never heard of these before, may have to give it a try.

WavyDave (author)2015-03-17

Most Buffalo Nickels are worth less than a dollar without a date. With a fairly legible date they run about $1-2 and there are only about 4 worth big money and 20 or so worth between $20-500 with most of them being on the lower end. So really not really a big thing, you can check prices here just remember to click on the 1-20 so it shows coins graded less than 20 and a coin w/o a date scores at best a 3. And this is for coins that are graded so they're worth more, that being said most buffalo nickels are worth about .25, so if you can sell the finished product for $5 then you are making a hefty profit, just check before you carve lol

lbrewer42 (author)2015-03-17

This is a great job! Thanks for this. I have been hoping to do some of these after I finish a large project I am on. Your 'ible just went to the top of my go to list for info when I need it.

jeanluc83 (author)lbrewer422015-03-17

I'm glad to hear I inspired you. When you get one done post some pictures.

RayJN (author)2015-03-17

The ear is too high normally on horizontal alinement with top of ear and eye brow and bottom of ear with bottom of nose.

jeanluc83 (author)RayJN2015-03-17

Thanks. I actually knew that one it just went out the window when I did this coin. Another useful ratio is the height should be roughly twice the width.
Ears are surprisingly difficult to draw. It is the smallest feature on the coin and it is made from scratch. At some point I need to make a reference card to keep on hand to make things easier.

philocirapt0r (author)2015-03-17

awesome ible!

nickelcbg (author)2015-03-17

Great job! This is an almost extinct art. Definitely endangered. I've contacted a few people trying to find a modestly priced source for placing in guitar builds, but not many out there. They are worth far past their weight.

jca245 (author)2015-03-17

It was a Turbo-carver air tool, not a Paragraver. I checked it out. They are still selling them for around $200 + and it is called the Turbo carver 2.


spark master (author)2015-03-17


jca245 (author)spark master2015-03-17

It has been so long since I used it but I do believe it was a Paragrave. A tiny black plastic pen shaped thing with push on diamond bits. A plastic plunger in the back ejected the bits.The foot control was a device that sat on the floor and pinched the plastic air tube and let up when you pressed your foot down. I did not believe I paid much more than $100 for it when it first came out. A few years later the price took a huge rise. It came with a special oil too. Thinking about it Ill have to dig it out of storage and see how it is doing. The new high end rotary tools can go around 500 to 600 K rpm using brushless electric motors. I guess that is what made the air engravers take a jump.

jca245 (author)2015-03-17

I met a gentleman on line named Bob Shamey who's fame started out with cherry pit carvings. There is an article about him in Ripley's believe it or not. After speaking with him on the phone and talking about my wood carving experiences he introduced me to hobo nickel carving. I dabbled in it but like others but could not bring myself to deface an old coin. Researching the origin, I realized that since it started by using what was available at the time, the Indian head nickel; I tool a leap ( for me LOL ) in logic and decided to use newer nickels which are more readily available and had ( for now) no historic significance. Like it was mentioned, you can cut deep enough to produce any design over another and it will work. I even tried a couple of newer penny's ( cheapskate that I am) though they are mostly zinc. Although I decided that I prefer carving in wood better, I do not see what you cannot use any circular piece of metal softer than the tools you are using to engrave what you want and not deface coins if so inclined.

jeanluc83 (author)jca2452015-03-17

Take a look at what people are doing with the newer quarters. Since they are a "sandwich" coin you can carve through into the copper center for some interesting affects.

spark master (author)jeanluc832015-03-17

do you have any url's for the coin carvers? I would love to see them. I have exploded/crushed quarters, (think electro shock therapy on steroids... actually it is induced magnetism/induction heating all at once. When you have a quarter that can be covered with a dime.... and people do not believe you until you hand them a magnifing glass and they read the date!!! Absolutely awesome. I sent the gent who does it some NYC subway tokens and Japanese coins with holes in them...Awesome

bert hickman made mine , here is his site and anther of a video of the process

spark master (author)jca2452015-03-17

Hi, I carve walking sticks from time to time, so this looks reasonable enough. Were the new nickles doable? If I could find a cupronickle sheet as thick or even slightly thicker I would buy it, then you have a tabula rasa waiting for art to spontaneously ignite!

A dremel type tool wold be handy as well as the hand tools. Handles are a must and easy to make.

One could make commemorative coin badges for the walking stick each time you say, did a scout trip/hike.

jca245 (author)spark master2015-03-17

I own 5 Dremel rotary tools and a couple of Proxxon types. I even have a small air turbine hand piece that reaches 500,000 rpm for fine details. I have used them to "carve" metal for custom tools and knives. I lost count as to how many hand carving tools I have ranging from micro sized made from sewing needle or spring steel wire, to larger ones about 3 inches across, not counting the knives and axe's.I have tried my hand at egg shell carving once and the air turbine one works great for that. That being said, I am a casual carver, not a pro but have been doing it on and off since I was 8 years old, 43 years ago. I even have a nasty scar on my left hand knuckle to show my inexperience with an exacto knife at that age. I have picked up more scars as time went on. Since I got a wood holding vice and a Kevlar glove, the blood letting has slowed down somewhat, LOL. I have some home made gravers that I use to carve Netsuke type pieces. Look for some nice examples on "The Carving Path" forum. Many of the ideas there work towards Hobo Nickel carving. One of our members, Tom Sterling, was kind enough to put a free how to E- book on line to download that talks extensively on small carving tool making and the techniques to use them. Here is the link: HTTP://


jeanluc83 (author)jca2452015-03-17

Thanks for the link. I think I remember coming across that at one point or another. One of my other hobbies is bonsai. Nesuke is popular within that circle as well.

jeanluc83 (author)spark master2015-03-17

New nickels work fine. They are the same alloy as old nickels. The depth that the coins were stamped varies. The new new nickels are not stamped as deep as older ones. If you are going to scrub all of the original design this can be used to your advantage.

I have used a dremel tool to smooth a coin when I'm going to replace all or most of the original design. They work but the application is limited. When you are working on an area so small it is easy to take off too much too quickly.

If you try making you own make sure you post a picture.

The Green Gentleman (author)2015-03-16

Nice hobo nickel! I found out about these a few years back. I'm a coin collector too, or I was. I probably won't try my skill on an actual Buffalo Nickel, but Jefferson seems like fair game. There are quite a few collectors of hobo nickels out there. Some of the artistry is amazing! Thanks for posting!

Jefferson nickels work fine. Buffalo nickels are a little easier because the features are larger.

Like I said I'm a hack at best. In my defense I'm not using any magnification. If you compare mine to original hobo nickels they are very similar. I actually had someone accuse me of making fakes.

That makes sense. I mean the bit about the features. I think you did a really nice job. When the haters come at you, just tell them it's an homage.

spark master (author)2015-03-17

A note on safety, wear gloves and glasses. Some steels can snap, and fly in an eye, or if you free hold a nicle doped on a stick, you can stab yourself. I have done both. I do wear glasses so the snapped steel tip was no problem, but I forget to always wear gloves, bad bad bad. Finger cuts take long time to heal, back of hand cuts take longer.. great instructable

jeanluc83 (author)spark master2015-03-17

Always use proper safety equipment. I don't recommend using gloves though. This kind of work requires fine control that gloves don't afford.

I'll also point out that if you are pushing hard enough to stab yourself you are pushing too hard to get fine control you need. You will probably slip and ruin your work. Also if you need to push that hard your tool is likely too dull.

About This Instructable




Bio: My full time job is being a husband and a father to my three children. My paying job is a mechanical engineer. Every once in ... More »
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