Coin Finishes

Aren’t all coins made the same way? Actually, they’re not. Different steps can produce different results. There are three types of coin finishes: circulating, uncirculated, and proof. Here’s the story of how these finishes differ from each other and why they’re made the way they are.

Circulating

2017 Lincoln Penny Circulating Obverse Philadelphia
A circulating penny.

Circulating coins are coins used every day as money. The coins “circulate” among people, who use them to buy, sell, save, or collect. If you receive change back from buying something, you receive circulating coins.

These coins ship in large bags and rub against each other. Some get small dings before people even see them. Most people don’t mind if the coins they spend have scratches or are dull from use. But for coin collectors, condition is important!

Uncirculated

2017 Lincoln Penny Uncirculated Obverse Philadelphia
An uncirculated penny.

The United States Mint makes uncirculated coins for coin collectors. Uncirculated coins have the same designs as circulating coins, but they are not meant for everyday use. Since they are for collectors, they are in better condition than coins handled every day.

Uncirculated coins are made with a special die. A die is a piece of metal that stamps the design onto the coin. Uncirculated coins have a beautiful satin finish that is smooth, but not as shiny as proof coins.

Proof

2017 Lincoln Penny Proof Obverse San Francisco
A proof penny.

The Mint also makes proof coins for coin collectors. Proof coins are made from specifically polished dies. The coins are struck more than once to bring out the small design details. Proof coins are made as carefully as pieces of expensive jewelry and are sealed in special packaging. Coins that do not pass inspection are melted down.

Proof coins look different from circulating and uncirculating coins. Their fields (backgrounds) are smooth and shiny like a mirror. The raised parts of the designs look “frosted” to stand out from the background.