By Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald
BAKER CITY Push those two green buttons,'' Terry Karp urges the visitor. The visitor pushes. Immediately the machine to which the buttons are attached rumbles, hisses, groans. Then it thumps.
A few seconds later Karp slips his hand beneath a steel cylinder that looks heavy and stout enough to crush granite. He pulls his hand back, twists his wrist and displays, magician-like, a shiny bronze medallion.
Here,'' Karp says, flipping it to his visitor. You made a coin.''
Karp himself has made thousands of them. The owner of Baker Gold and Silver, Karp also operates one of the few mints in the Northwest. The bronze piece he tossed to his visitor is a $2 commemorative coin made for the Miners Jubilee celebration in Baker City.
Although this was Karp's first Miners Jubilee medallion, he has minted many other coins commemorating local events. Many of those involved the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Karp said, the most recent being a coin celebrating the center's 10th anniversary in May.
Karp also produces coins for gift shops at several tourist attractions, including Multnomah Falls, the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center at The Dalles, and the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, home of Howard Hughes' famous Spruce Goose.
Even the world's biggest airplane, though, fails to entice visitors the way Oregon's most famous killer whale did. When Keiko was still swimming at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Karp minted 30,000 coins featuring the orca.
Keiko now that was a good account,'' he said.
The whale's much publicized move to Iceland was not, Karp laments, good for business.
But then Karp wouldn't have much of a business at all without his 300-ton Italian helper.
The helper is a hydraulic press, to be more specific, and although it's not the sort of thing a person could shove out of the way while dusting, it doesn't actually weigh 300 tons (it's closer to a ton and a half, Karp figures). The 300-ton measure refers to the amount of pressure the $40,000 machine can generate from its 10-horsepower electric motor and tank of hydraulic fluid. That's enough to impress a design onto a bronze or silver blank the smooth circles of metal destined to become coins.
But there are several steps between the insertion of a blank into the machine and the pressing of those two green buttons.
First, Karp said, you need a picture.
The quaint version of the tale describes a solitary engraver toiling beneath the glare of a single harsh light, carving minute details on his tiny canvas of steel. But the truth today, Karp said, is that many coin designs are created not in a craftsman's shop, but amid the megabytes of 0's and 1's in a computer hard drive.
Either way, he sends the designs to a company in Mississippi, and there, at least, the traditional work of engravers actually occurs. They transfer the artist's vision to the cold, hard steel face of a die the round piece that actually imprints the design onto a coin. After the die is engraved, it is heated, which further hardens it, Karp said.
But even then the dies aren't ready to press coins. The first thing Karp does when the engraved dies arrive in the mail is polish them, using polishing compound and several sheets of sandpaper of progressively finer grit.
Polishing, which takes about a day, leaves the surface of a die shiny, which means the finished coin will shine as well, Karp said. When the dies are ready Karp fits them into the press one facing down, the other up. He fires up the machine (another sequence of button-pushing), and a few seconds later a freshly minted coin is ready.
Sometimes that's where the process ends.
But occasionally a customer prefers a coin that looks as though it had been stored in a forgotten treasure chest for a few centuries. Karp can speed up the aging process considerably for customers who just don't have the time. The method is called antiquing. Karp soaks newly minted coins in a chemical, then buffs them to remove some of the luster and improve the contrast between the design and the surrounding unmarked parts of the coin surface.
Karp can antique about 400 coins per day. When Karp explains this progression from drawing to engraved die to antiqued coin it sounds simple. Hire someone to sketch your profile and you could have your own currency (it wouldn't be legal tender, of course, but you could at least pretend).
So how much would it cost?
Karp likes to say that the first coin costs $700.
Don't panic that gilt-edged total for the first coin, Karp explains, includes the bill for two engraved dies, which typically cost $400 to $800 for the pair.
Shiny bronze coins, like the Miners Jubilee medallions, usually retail for $2 each, Karp said. Antiqued coins in a flip-top, air-tight holder retail for about $7, and silver coins, also in a display case, for about $20. Wholesale costs are lower, of course.
One way to cut the cost is to buy only one die.
Karp can use one of his existing generic dies for the other side of the coin a wreath, for example, or the state seal of Oregon.
The Italian-made press has been quite reliable given its heavy-duty duties, Karp said. It can mint a couple hundred bronze coins per hour.
Producing silver coins is slower, Karp said, because with silver he has to clean the surfaces of the dies after ever five coins or so.