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Grading Jefferson Nickels – the Steps Determine the Value

Grading Jefferson Nickels – the Steps Determine the Value

Perhaps you have some Jefferson nickels to buy or sell, or perhaps you are considering entering the hobby of coin collecting. A key question to answer is, “What is this coin worth?” The correct answer can result in a very profitable transaction, while an incorrect answer can lead to a financial catastrophe. The method coin dealers and collectors use to determine the answer is called coin grading, and a beginner’s understanding of the subject can help you learn more as you develop your collecting skills. This article won’t make you an expert, but it will show some of the points the experts look for.

Background of Coin Grading Standards

The coin collecting hobby has been popular in the United States for well over a century, but it took many years to develop a systematic description of coins, and coin quality, which could be used as a method for assigning and describing coin values. The modern system of coin grading which we have today developed over a period of decades of refinement, and is the result of evolution over time, rather than invention from whole cloth.

William Sheldon, an expert in early American large pennies, offered a grading scale in his 1949 book, Early American Cents. Sheldon, in discussing his coins, used a numerical scale, running from 1 to 70, as a description of the condition. A rating of 1 described a coin so worn as to be nearly unrecognizable, while a rating of 70 described a hypothetical coin, completely unblemished, uncirculated and unmarked.

Sheldon also proposed that the coins could be scientifically valued through multiplication, so that if a coin with a rating of “1” was worth $1, then the same type of coin, but with a rating of 70 would be worth 70 times as much. This effort at statistical analysis quickly fell by the wayside.

Other writers proposed grading standards for U.S. coins. In the 1970s, the American Numismatic Association consolidated these standards into one over-all publication, covering all U.S. coins. This book, Grading Standards for United States Coins, gained acceptance among coin dealers and collectors, and remains the basis for American coin grading to this day.

The ANA continued Sheldon’s numerical system, and tied to it a standard series of verbal descriptions, ranging from “Poor” to “Mint-State.” Individual grading standards for specific series of coins, like Jefferson nickels, have been developed, both in text and through representative pictures to enable coin dealers, buyers, and sellers to discuss individual specimens in a coherent, systematic way.

Definitions of Circulated, Uncirculated, and Proof Jefferson Nickels

The crucial distinction in evaluating Jefferson nickels, as with any other coin, is to distinguish between coins which are “proof,” “uncirculated,” or “circulated.” This borderline assessment is fundamental to any grade and any assignment of coin value.

Proof coins are the least common coins encountered. They are coins created specially by the U.S. Mint for special presentations, or for sale to collectors. Today, modern proof coins are struck using specially made dies, which are created using a different process from that used to create ordinary coins.

Proof coins are expected to have an almost mirror-like surface in modern minting. At different times in the Mint’s history, different techniques were used to strike proof coins, and some of those methods gave an appearance which seems unusual to our eyes. Knowing a bit about the history of proof coins and which techniques were used by the Mint at given points is an important aspect of evaluating proof coins, but one beyond the purpose of this essay.

At all times in the creation of proof coins, the striking technique differs from ordinary coins. A proof coin is thus always a proof coin, even if it is subsequently mishandled or otherwise deteriorates. Many early proof coin issues were shipped from the U.S. Mint in chemically reactive paper, which damaged the finish. Such damaged proof coins are called “impaired proofs.” While proof coins can thus theoretically be evaluated using the same 1 to 70 scale as regular coins, collectors aren’t usually interested in impaired proofs, and they aren’t often discussed. The abbreviation “PF” together with a number denotes the grade of a proof coin.

Uncirculated coins, also called “mint state” coins are coins which have been struck by the Mint as ordinary coins, but which have never actually been used in business. The technical term, “Mint State” abbreviated MS, together with a number between 60 and 70 is used to describe an uncirculated coin’s grade. Some older sources may use the term “unc.” for uncirculated coins.

The lack of circulation doesn’t mean that the coin is flawless. The Mint handles such coins exactly like any other coins intended for use. Coins are shipped from the Mint in bags, in bulk, and can rub or bump against one another. At banks, coins can also be packed in rolls, where they can rub against one another. An uncirculated coin may thus develop nicks, scratches and dents, all of which can affect the grade of an uncirculated coin. An older uncirculated coin may also be exposed to air, and show signs of “toning” or oxidation or other chemical reactions as a result.

Because the nickel is made predominantly of copper, it can be subject to some of the same types of oxidation as pennies. This may affect the grade of an uncirculated coin, but the detail remains the same. The crucial determining factor for an uncirculated coin is the lack of human contact.

Circulated coins are the coins we use every day in business and commerce, and are the coins most often met with. A circulated coin can be of any quality, practically speaking, and might be almost worn smooth, or almost showing no wear at all. There are a variety of grading terms which are used to describe circulated coin grades. These terms have been standardized by the American Numismatic Association, and have come into general use with generally understood meanings.

In addition, the older Sheldon numerical scale has been adopted as part of the grading description, and circulated coins will have a numerical designation as well as a verbal term describing the quality. This number can be anything from 1 to 59, with 1 being a coin worn nearly smooth, and 59 being a coin with such detail as to seem almost uncirculated. At the higher grades, some circulated nickels may have a bit of their original luster or shine, but quite often, there is nothing left of the shiny new coin appearance on a circulated coin.

Factors Which Determine Jefferson Nickel Grades

Several factors besides wear and the surface appearance of the coin can determine the grade of a Jefferson nickel.

Corrosion can affect the luster or tone of a nickel. Many nickels in circulation can sometimes be so brown with corrosion as to seem almost black. At other times, atmospheric exposure can give an almost rainbow-like appearance to the surface of a nickel. Because this can happen with exposure to air, human handling isn’t required for the coin to deterioirate.

The quality of the die used to make the nickel can also affect its value.

A coin die is a stamp used to make a coin. Dies come in two pieces, a “hammer” die, which is brought down on the coin blank in the coin press, and an “anvil” die, which remains stationary.

Each pair of dies is individually created by engravers employed by the U.S. Mint in a difficult and complex process. Each die is unique and has its own subtle attributes, some of which can be determined by careful examination of the coins made with that die. Some dies produce a high quality image with a sharp definition, called a “sharp strike.” Other dies produce a weaker image, which can variously be described as “blurry” or “mushy.” Some designs, like the Jefferson nickel, tend to have spots which are prone to weak strikes, such as the center of Jefferson’s portrait, or the center of Monticello on the reverse.

Over time, all dies tend to deteriorate, and in many cases, the Mint will continue to use a pair of dies long after they should have been retired.

Collectors favor, and both the grading system, and the market price prefer, stronger strikes from a set of good dies to weaker strikes from a set of poor dies, as a general rule. On the other hand, some years, some designs, and some dies are so notoriously bad, that poor strikes are the rule rather than the exception, and specialists collecting in that range of coins simply take the problem into account.

For uncirculated coins, damage in shipping can affect the grade. The Mint isn’t especially interested in creating uncirculated coins for collectors, but rather, in supplying the need of the United States for coins with which to do business. Most coins are expected to be circulated and treated accordingly. Newly minted coins run through bins, hoppers, counters and machines, after which they are bagged for shipment. Nearly every coin comes out of the Mint with bag marks, a series of little abrasions gained as the coin jostles its way from its creation into the coin drawer of a bank.

Bag marks are expected on all coins, including nickels, in all uncirculated grades except for the nearly-mythical MS-70, which is technically perfect. The presence or absence of bag marks is a determining factor for all other uncirculated grades.

Grades of Jefferson Nickels

1942 5C Type 1, FS

While official grading standards for Jefferson nickels seem quite exacting, this summary can help beginning collectors focus on the key features that serious collectors and individuals in the coin trade examine to determine the buying or selling price for a particular specimen. This article focuses only on the key grades routinely covered by this site, and not on all of the different grades which may be encountered. In evaluating a Jefferson nickel, whether circulated or uncirculated, look at the portrait of Jefferson on the front, and on the detail of Monticello on the back. In evaluating an uncirculated coin (only) the state and number of the steps on the front porch are particularly important, even though they are so fine as to be nearly invisible to many unaided eyes.

Circulated Jefferson Nickels

Circulated Jefferson nickels are rarely collected in the lower grades of “Good” or “Fine,” unlike wheat pennies. The Jefferson nickel is common enough, and survives in enough numbers and in a good enough state of preservation to make such collections of little financial value. Otherwise, uncollectible coins might serve as a good introduction for a child to work with a blue nickel holder, as an introduction to coin collecting, or to have the joy of picking through change and rolls of nickels to search for coins to “fill in the blanks” of a collection.

The serious collection of Jefferson nickels, however, begins with specimens graded Very Fine or higher. The articles on this site cover coins of the grade Extremely Fine and above.

Very Fine, VF-20

Jefferson Nickel VF20

Most of the hair detail on Jefferson’s portrait is worn smooth, except for the very back of the head or the lower area. The cheekbone of the portrait is also worn down, and almost smooth with the hairline to the right. Some of the detail of the collar remain. On the reverse, the shallow items of relief on Monticello are badly worn. However, the windows and the columns remain quite distinctly visible.

Extremely Fine, XF-45

Jefferson Nickel XF45

“Extremely Fine” Jefferson nickels have more wear visible on the cheekbone than would be seen on About-Uncirculated coins. The higher points of Jefferson’s hair may have lost some detail, but larger features remain visible. On the reverse, the image of Monticello shows some overall wear, but the details remain generally distinct. The bottom edge of the triangle of the portico in the center may show some signs of wear.

About Uncirculated, AU-55

Jefferson Nickel AU55

The cheekbones of the portrait of Jefferson and the high points of the hair show very light signs of wear. It is quite possible that some of the mint luster will remain on some specimens graded AU-55 and more mint luster is expected on specimens graded at AU-58. On the reverse, the central part of Monticello may suffer from light wear. This evaluation can be tricky, because the Jefferson nickel series also suffers from a wildly uneven quality of strikes, and many poorly struck specimens show the same lack of detail/apparent wear on the reverse.

Mint-State or Uncirculated Jefferson Nickels

By the ordinary use of the word uncirculated, it is apparent such coins have no wear from ever having been used in commerce. Nickels might show some signs of oxidation or corrosion, especially if they are old. Uncirculated coins might also have bag marks or other nicks gained from rattling loose in bags with other nickels during shipping. The more marks, the lower the grade.

An additional wrinkle in the grading of Jefferson nickels comes through the evaluation of the number of steps visible on the front of Monticello. This is, in part, a function of the quality of the die used for striking the coin. Ideally, there should be six, or five, and these coins are referred to as “Full Steps” or “Full Strikes.” There should also be a set of side steps, but these often don’t appear at all in coins intended for circulation.

A pretty good magnifying glass, and decent vision is indispensable for determining the number of steps present. The detail quickly wears smooth on most circulated coins.

Coins graded MS-63, or more usually MS-64 or higher, thus often have the designation “FS” appended after the grade to indicate the number of steps found.


Jefferson Nickel MS63

This grade is sometimes described as “select uncirculated” in coin literature. Such a nickel has good tone or luster, or is otherwise eye-catching and pleasant to look at, but suffers from visible bag marks or other minor flaws.


Jefferson Nickel MS65

This grade is sometimes described as “choice uncirculated” in coin literature. Such a nickel is not quite so ideal as one graded as MS-67. There may be slight imperfections, weaknesses, or blemishes. There must be no trace of wear, and any bag marks or nicks should be almost unnoticeable.


Jefferson Nickel MS67

This grade is also sometimes described as “gem uncirculated” in coin literature. The term describes a nearly flawless nickel, with imperfections so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. Such coins are usually uncommon.


An “MS-70” coin is sometimes described as “perfect uncirculated” in coin literature. Such a coin looks exactly as it does immediately after it was struck and should have no wear or bag marks. It has all the original mint luster, or, for older coins, perhaps some very light toning from age. If there are any irregularities involving the die or the planchet, these must be listed in the grading notes.

Methods for Grading Jefferson Nickels

Always handle any coin you wish to grade, purchase, sell, or inspect carefully, especially if the coin in question isn’t yours (yet). Nothing will upset a coin dealer more certainly or more quickly than damaging one of his coins by simply grabbing it. The coins aren’t just the stock of his business; most good, serious dealers have a genuine love of coins, and for the numismatic hobby. Always hold coins by the rim, never by the surface.

A good magnifying glass is useful, especially for evaluating uncirculated Jefferson nickels, where the number of stairs on the portico of Monticello is a key consideration. On the other hand, an extremely powerful magnifying glass will overstate flaws which are otherwise actually minor or even imperceptible, and lead to a lower grading of the coin. A 4x to 8x magnifying glass is more than enough for most purposes in evaluating a coin. Occasionally, a more powerful lens is needed to evaluate die varieties and other tiny factors. Having a more powerful lens available is useful, but not indispensable.

Good light is also crucial for evaluating a coin. Fluorescent overhead lights, like those of commercial buildings or display halls for coin shows, can hide defects by giving a soft, diffused light. A high-intensity direct light source, like a desk lamp, can often be better. Many coin dealers use such light sources themselves when grading coins, and so often have them instantly at hand for customers considering a coin.

Uncirculated and proof coins often have grades which turn upon tiny details, and a point or two on the grading scale can often lead to significant differences in value. Good light and good magnification are crucial for such coins. Circulated coins depend less upon such fine distinctions and so light and magnification, while helpful, are less important.

Hold the coin by the rim and let the light strike the surface and reflect back into your eyes. Look at the coin from several different angles, rotating it so that those various angles show details from different points of view. Examine the rim of the coin for nicks and dents. Look at the characteristic details, the portrait of Jefferson, or the details of Monticello, and compare the coin to the grading standards. Look for wear patterns, nicks and scratches.


By developing, and improving skills in coin grading, you will not only develop a financial appreciation for your investment, you will also develop an aesthetic taste in selecting coins, which will help you separate out better coins from worse ones, and that will serve you well in your numismatic experience, by both increasing your joy and increasing your potential profits down the road.