The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 11, Number 29, July 20, 2008, Article 18


Dick Johnson submitted the following item on the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between various types of items produced in order to test coin and medal dies. -Editor
I received an inquiry this week from Rich Jewell that boiled down to: What is the difference between splasher, die trial and lead proof? Rich also tossed in another term that made me pause for a second. "What is a medal proof?" he asked.

The best answer I could give for the last term was a first strike or early strike, fresh off the press, to be approved by some authority to continue the press run. I had not encountered this term before, but it certainly could have been employed by some pressman somewhere at some time. Perhaps it depends upon the size of the medal maker and how many employees are involved as to who would grant that permission. A pressroom foreman could make that decision, or a director of production, or the art director, or even the owner of the plant. If the client was on hand, even he could give the "go ahead." What you don't want to do, especially, is delay getting that approval. Idle time on the press is expensive.

A splasher is a term used only by hand engravers. While hand engraving of dies was employed for making dies for 2,000 years it was generally replaced about 1900 by pantographic reduction of oversize models. However even in our age of computer engraving now, hand engraving can still be employed to make dies. (Ron Landis in Arkansas, among others, is still hand engraving dies, keeping alive this technology.)

The hand engraver works at a bench. He can test the die he is engraving -- at any stage -- right at his bench by making a splasher. He has a small melting pot heated by a Bunsen burner where he melts soft metal, tin or lead. He places a piece of newspaper on his bench and pours a small puddle of this metal on the newspaper. While the metal is somewhat molten he presses the die into the metal by hand.

The metal hardens. The newspaper sticks to the back of the splasher (and is a diagnostic of a true splasher, even decades later). The engraver examines the metal splasher. He looks at the high points (to see that he has captured all the relief), then examins the most recent area of his engraving.

The die, of course is negative, the splasher is positive and is exactly what a struck piece would look like from that die. He either continues engraving, or if the die is satisfactory in every way, the die can then be hardened by heat treating -- tempering -- and be ready to be put on the press for striking.

A die trial is not the same as that medal proof, above mentioned. Dies are "proved" -- that is, give evidence they are complete and ready to be used for striking -- by making a lead proof. These are struck on a press using a soft metal blank, usually lead, with care not to damage the die with too heavy an impression with this first blow.

Lead proofs can be two-sided but more often only one side to exhibit all the relief on that one die (often the two dies are made at different times and not available to make a two-sided strike). Therefore, a pair of lead proofs are shown to the client for approval, one obverse, one reverse. This can be days before the dies are set up in a press, so any delay is not intolerable.

Splashers can only be made from one die. When no longer needed the splasher is tossed into the melting pot for the metal to be used over and over. The newspaper backing burns away. Single-sided lead proofs can be used twice (once for each side of the lead blank). Virgin lead proofs are usually made for clients (who usually keep them). Thus lead proofs are rather common, even though only one pair are made. On the other hand, true splashers are rarely found in the numismatic field but some still exist from the 19th century (with a tiny piece of newspaper stuck to the back!).

Wayne Homren, Editor

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