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Build your own grading set of coins

Specialists in the Buffalo nickel series know how tricky grading can be.  Why not expand your set to include a grading set, one specimen in each grade?

So, your Buffalo nickel collection is shaping up. Each coin was selected for its condition, eye appeal and a strong strike whenever possible. With each new addition, you became more interested in Buffalo nickels, and you enjoy your set to the point where you are purchasing detailed books and guides to the series.


Specialists in the Buffalo nickel series know how tricky grading can be. Why not expand your set to include a grading set, one specimen in each grade? Building such a set can be fun and challenging, as well as helpful to the collector. Photos in a book are fine, but there is nothing like seeing the real coins in front of you. In fact, seeing real coins is critically important.

Collectors from the circulation finds era tended to build grading sets of their own from the many coins they took from circulation. It was not their intent. They were simply searching to fill holes in their albums, but every collector of the time noticed the wear patterns on the various series still in circulation.

Silver coins were particularly susceptible to wear (more on that in a bit) and it was easy to mentally note 10 years’ wear, 20 years’ wear, 30 years’ wear, etc. Collectors on limited budgets simply worked with what they had.

Building a grading set for your favorite series may be tougher than it seems. Finding the right coin in perfect Fine-12 condition, or Very Fine-20, can take some looking. Sharpness of strike is an issue with many specimens, especially certain San Francisco issues of the1920s. Finding well struck coins is always a challenge, but a collector may want to acquire a softly struck, or “average,” specimen for comparison.

Studying these coins can teach a lesson that cannot be learned by reading a reference book. Look at your coins with the naked eye and through a magnifier. Check out the details on the sharp coin that are flat, or entirely missing, on the average coin. You can learn a lot about striking this way. This kind of study can also enable you to quickly spot the high points on a sharply struck coin.


You will know to check the buffalo’s head, its horn, its shoulder, and the details on the Indian’s braid. If you can do this, you will be ahead of the game, and have an advantage over collectors who don’t know, or don’t care, about sharply struck coins. A personal, hands-on grading set will be helpful in ways that photos in a book cannot.

Any series, not just Buffalo nickels, can be collected as a grading set. After you have completed your set of beautiful, Mint State Morgan silver dollars, a grading set showing the coins in lesser grades can be interesting to see. Building such a set may be fun; ask your favorite dealer for a few Morgans in Fine-12 or Very Fine-20 condition, following a search for a high grade Carson City issue. Looking through junk boxes can help you find common coins in each grade for your grading set.

Fans of the Standing Liberty quarter series can keep busy for a long time, as this coin came in Type I and Type II varieties. There were also different grading standards for the Type II coins of 1917-1924 and 1925-1930. The dates wore off quickly in the early years of this quarter, resulting in the date being recessed in 1925. If you should decide to build a grading set or sets for this series, you may find coins that would otherwise grade Fine-12, or even a little better, with the dates completely worn off!

Mercury dimes can form an interesting grading set. The reverse design, with the bundle of sticks, or fasces, showed wear, and some coins were not fully struck, resulting in “split bands” and “full split bands” distinctions made for these coins to denote the best possible strikes. This is a favorite coin with collectors, in all grades, from worn Good-4 to Mint State and proof. One Mercury dime in each state of preservation can be a great addition to a date and mintmark set.


The Washington quarter, a coin used today, can form a grading set. Save one of each grade, maybe even including an “About Good-3” specimen, from the silver years of 1932-1964. Just finding one is such a grade can be a challenge because certainly there was no financial incentive to keep such a low-grade coin. To find you you probably have to look at bags of coins that are sold simply for their silver value.
Compare these silver Washington coins with the clad quarters made from 1965 to date. Copper-nickel is harder than silver and wears better in consequence. See how well the early clad coins have held up over 40-45 years in circulation. You probably will not find a clad coin graded “About Good-3,” with the lettering worn into the rim.

Some coin types are graded by “Liberty” on a headband can be saved as a grading set. If you like Indian cents, you can pick coins that show no letters, a few letters, or all letters; all are different grades, and all can be saved as part of a grading set. The same is true of its contemporary, the Liberty nickel. Barber coins, too, are graded by the number of letters on Miss Liberty’s headband, and can be hard to find in higher grade circulated grades. Finding the right coins in the right condition may take as long as it took you to build most of your date and mintmark set.

Specialists in almost any series can collect their favorite coins as a grading set. Fans of early coins can do so, too. Many Seated Liberty coins were struck from 1837-1891, and they have their own specialty club of devotees. Any one of the denominations can be saved as a grading set, and can prove quite helpful to the serious Seated Liberty collector, whether he specializes in one denomination, any, or all of them.

The John Reich Collectors Society is composed of collectors who enjoy the early Capped Bust coins designed by John Reich. These coins, in any denomination, would form a good grading set. The large- sized quarters of the Capped Bust design are tough to grade, with great differences in value for each higher grade. It’s always interesting to study early coins, their wear patterns, and look at the old coins that went out into circulation and did the job they were made to do.

Large cent collectors can do this, too, saving grading sets for middle or later years; the early years would prove too challenging to find. Large cents of the “fillet head” design were made from inferior copper, and show the wear more quickly. Wouldn’t that make an interesting grading set, worthy of study? These cents, also, show great differences in value with each higher grade, so a grading set of these coins can be financially rewarding as well as interesting.


A grading set, one of each grade coin in your favorite series, can prove to be challenging, fun, and helpful to the serious specialist.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition