Introduction: Hobo Nickel

About: 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 a while I get a little time to work on a project. As long as I live to be 1,000 y…


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?

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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

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

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!

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.

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