Sculptor Shapes Coins for U.S. Mint

Odd Jobs, People
on January 15, 2006

Donna Weaver sits huddled over a table in a windowless cubicle at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. With an artist’s eye, she painstakingly brings an Oregon landscape to life on a dinner plate-size disk covered with a smooth surface of wax.

"Trying to sculpt within 60,000ths of an inch is a challenge," says Weaver, whose tools include crochet hooks and sewing needles pounded flat. "So you use whatever tools work."

When Weaver finishes the sculpture weeks later, her creation becomes the template for Oregon’s 2005 commemorative state quarter, joining her previous designs on the reverse sides of quarters for Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee.

Weaver, who earned a degree in fine arts from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1965, joined the U.S. Mint in July 2000. Previously, she lived in Vevay, Ind. (pop. 1,735), and spent 14 years sculpting designs for Kenner Toys. But a job at the U.S. Mint—which she found while searching an online job bank—was too good to pass up.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Weaver, one of only five U.S. Mint sculptors/engravers.

Every coin design begins when a sculptor/engraver is provided the details of a project: whether it’s a particular monument, person or commemorative event.

"It almost always starts out with research," Weaver says. "Looking through books on the subject, traveling to museums or monuments—it depends on how much time we have. Sometimes we might have six months, other times only two weeks. . . Every project is different and has its own problems to solve. That keeps it interesting."

After the research is finished, it’s up to each sculptor/engraver to sketch their own interpretation of the assignment.

Once all of the designs are complete, two are chosen—one for each side of the coin. That’s when the sculpting begins. Despite Weaver’s title as an "engraver," true hands-on engraving at the U.S. Mint hasn’t been done since the 1800s. Instead, a very thin, detailed relief sculpture is created on a design plate, which can be up to 12 times the size of the finished coin. While Weaver’s colleagues work with clay as their medium, she prefers working in wax.

After each sculpture is completed, molds are created, producing a final model that is mounted on a machine that scales down the image and engraves it onto a steel blank. Eventually, this engraving is struck onto coins.

To date, Weaver has designed more than two dozen coins and medals, including the artwork for the First Flight Centennial $10 gold coin. Among her most collectible designs is the reverse side of the 2001 American Buffalo Commemorative Silver dollar, adapted from the original artwork of the Buffalo nickel, minted between 1913 and 1938.

"Many collectors appreciated the Buffalo Silver dollar. It rekindled in the hearts of a lot of collectors a time when they could get a Buffalo nickel," says Anthony C. LaVerghetta, a buyer for Main Line Coin & Stamp Inc. in Ardmore, Pa. (pop. 12,616). "And everything I’ve seen from her [Weaver] demonstrates that she’s not just doing a job. The detail she puts into her designs shows love and dedication to the art."

Weaver realizes that even the coins and medals she has a hand in creating may not last forever, but taking part in creating a little piece of monetary history has its rewards.

"Most of what I created as a toy sculptor ended up in a landfill or under a bed," says Weaver, whose initials are hidden within each of her coin designs. "My work at the Mint is something durable and lasting."

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