NGC Signer Spotlight: Ron Harrigal

Posted on 9/12/2023

A Q&A with the US Mint's former Acting Chief Designer and Director of Design and Engraving is the latest installment in a series highlighting NGC’s many illustrious signers.

For this month’s Signer Spotlight, Numismatic Guaranty Company® (NGC®) spent some time chatting with former US Mint Director of Design and Engraving Ron Harrigal. We talked about how he got his start in the industry, and what the process is like for developing new coins.

During his 35-year career at the US Mint, Harrigal applied his technical expertise to innovations involving the structural integrity of coins, which ultimately led to him serving as the US Mint Director of Design and Engraving from 2015 until his retirement in 2021. Among his contributions, Harrigal worked on modern edge lettering; planchet specifications for many coin programs; and alloy, dimensions and die specifications for large-format coins.

A Q&A with Ron Harrigal

Ron Harrigal

How did you get your start at the US Mint?

I relocated to DC from Pittsburgh in 1985 so my wife could continue her professional education at Georgetown University. I applied for jobs of interest inside and outside the federal government.

I had an interest in coins as a young collector, which led me to apply for a position in the Engineering Department at the United States Mint. It was a golden opportunity because they were just starting to modernize the facilities and coin-making processes. I benchmarked other Mints and manufacturing facilities around the world and was able to apply new technologies for making dies and coins.

My first involvement in coin alloy design was as part of the Golden Dollar Development Team in the late 1990s and I subsequently led other efforts for precious metal coins thereafter.

You developed the alloy and planchet specifications for several coins of lasting impact. What is the process like for this kind of development?

I could write a book on this subject but below are the main points of the process.

The Mint stopped making planchets a long time ago, so it is important to have reliable suppliers that can provide high-volume quality planchets to our specifications. There was a good chance that these suppliers had made various alloys for other Mints. In many cases, they already knew the production processes needed to achieve the right specifications, so it was just a matter of dialing in the right diameter, thickness and upset profile to achieve a quality coin.

The United States Mint is somewhat unique in that we have much higher production requirements than most other Mints, so die life is extremely important. Dies that crack prematurely for a large or multi-year program can put a heavy burden on the die shop. Initial design specifications for a coin consider any limitations that may be established in coin legislation (i.e., weight, diameter) and the physical properties of the target alloy. Targets were established for height of relief, basin curvature, planchet gage thickness and upset parameters based on experience with other alloys of similar properties.

Once the coin design is modeled and test dies made (generally directly milled), progression strikes are done, starting at low tonnage and increasing until there is a point of concern. That could be that the edge filled long before the design or that some particular area of the design is not filling with increased tonnage. Adjustments are then made to the design or planchet to address the areas of concern. New dies and/or planchets are made and the progression strike process is repeated.

Once acceptable coins are made, a limited pre-production run is done with hubbed dies to predict die life expectancy. The planchet design process generally takes 18 months, more or less, if no major issues arise. If it involves a new alloy, the lead time can extend to beyond two years.

Production lead times of a year for new coin size or planchet material are extremely risky as the design and/or alloy may not be fully developed when production needs to commence, requiring extra effort to keep up with the production schedule.

What was it like to serve as Acting Chief Engraver?

In many ways, the role of the Chief Engraver has evolved from a time when the engraver was the expert in steel die engraving. The Chief Engraver was the “go-to” resource for hand cutting designs into steel, punching mintmarks with precision and hand finishing dies to achieve the right coin finish.

Today, it is an artistic role for overall design composition and balance in both 2-D and 3-D. I was honored but nervous at first since my background was in engineering and physical coin design/manufacturing, so I relied heavily on the design artists and sculptors for advice. The Mint has some of the top experts in the world, so I had strong faith in the advice I received.

In many ways, balancing artistic beauty and high-volume production is like walking a tightrope, so compromises may have to be made.

How did you pioneer laser-engraved die-making, and how did that change the artistic design process?

Laser engraving first became experimental in the Mint with the Fish and Wildlife program. We determined that the frosted finish on Proof coins could be simulated with a laser versus bead blasting. The laser altered the surface of the coin to diffract light, similar to sand or bead blasting.

At that time, controlling depth of the laser focus over the artwork was difficult and therefore not fully applicable to engrave the entire surface of a coin, but over the years, with software improvements and laser developments, it became viable for low volume programs and coins of low relief. For actual coining dies, it is a time-consuming process, so it was only economical for low-volume programs. However, it did show promise for laser machining of a master die.

The master die would then be used to make work hubs which, in turn, would make work dies. The actual prototype laser to make work hubs that did not require heat treating was not yet delivered when I retired. We did, however, engrave micro details on master dies in the form of privy marks that would not reproduce well through traditional engraving techniques.

It didn’t change the traditional artistic design process but did give the Mint more flexibility incorporating security features and detailed privy marks.

You oversaw the creation of the first concave coins for the US Mint. What prompted the concave coins, and how was the minting of these coins different from traditional coins?

Congress passed legislation enabling the first curved coins for the US Mint with the 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coins. The design was inspired by coins made by the Royal Australian Mint. The coin design of a baseball and a fielder’s mitt was a perfect match for curved coins.

Outside of the domed and concave dies, the planchet and collar were standard. We had to start with our normal coin-making process and curve the planchets while forming the artwork in one operation. Artwork relief had to be lowered to accommodate the curving process.

Our initial assessment was that gold and silver were soft enough to flex over a domed die but it would be a challenge for the 50-cent clad alloy. As a compromise, we opted to curve the clad to half the planchet thickness, still achieving curvature but not as much as the gold and silver.

We thought the Apollo program would be easy by adding the 3-inch coin but found out later that the design created unforeseen issues.

The lettering near the border, especially on clad, proved problematic. What looked like doubling, was more of a smearing effect from the die lettering contacting the flat planchet while forming it over the die to the finished curvature. It is virtually impossible to iron out the smear mark on clad as the alloy had hardened through the forming process.

How were you selected as the Director of Design and Engraving?

It was always my dream job, but I was unable to relocate to Philadelphia for family reasons. When the opportunity arose to manage the Design and Engraving Division, I had greater flexibility to relocate and was able to accept the position.

After temporarily managing the division for a year, I was permanently transferred, and the position title was changed to match the position.

You managed the American Gold Eagle and American Silver Eagle redesigns in 2021. Can you talk about some of the challenges involved in that? What was the process to implement new security features?

This was an amazing journey and challenge that was set by Director Ryder.

Production requirements alone would be a challenge but changing the reverse designs and restoring the obverses to the original was even riskier. Meeting the production efficiency and die life for the new coins was extremely difficult as the original design was in service for 30 years with yearly refinements made with the date changes.

We first scanned original obverse 3D artwork from the original obverse designs and coined with the new reverses. Initially, we did not understand the scope of how sensitive the obverse and reverse artwork were to metal flow and filling the design artwork fully. It took multiple iterations of both the obverse and reverse design and curvature to get the coin tonnage to an acceptable level. Additionally, the pre-production run was very limited due to the increased demand for the first American Eagle designs.

As such, we struggled early in production to achieve production efficiency to meet the on-sale production targets. Much of our focus was on addressing die cracking issues without visibly altering the design. As for the security features, the overt or visible ones did not cause any coinage issues, however, some tooling and press modifications were required.

Among the coins you are associated with are the 2021 Morgan and Peace Dollars. Can you tell us a little bit about the creation of these coins based on the original designs?

This was a really fun project.

Again, we used archived resources (hubs, plaster/epoxy models and dies) to scan for 3-D relief. The change in alloy from the original Morgan and Peace Dollars to pure silver was a bit of a concern but proved no problem for reproducing the coins.

What do you think makes a coin design truly exceptional, and how did you strive to achieve that level of quality in your work?

I believe simple designs are superior to designs that have multiple elements. A simple design, however, requires great effort to truly be exceptional. Exceptional coin designs do not rely on text to convey the theme. The singular element should convey the story.

Also, the importance of a simple or singular element design is higher as the planchet size decreases. Some designs can be scaled up or down with ease, like the American Buffalo gold coins. These type of iconic designs are most exceptional. With respect to the physical characteristics of the coin, having a planchet too thin will destroy the potential of an otherwise excellent design.

I believe the palladium coin has the right balance of physical dimensions to design and, in my opinion, is one of the most striking design reproductions in recent years.

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