What the heck is a "Hobo Nickel"?

     Artists express themselves on everything. You can name it and you can bet somebody has made it into a work of art. (We all have our own opinions...We can define "art" later.) Many an artist has laid claims to their personal choice of "canvas". We see it everywhere. From custom paint jobs on cars to graffitti in the subway, we are exposed to the creative minds of the talented and not so talented. Some actually still use canvas!

Coin art, or coin carving, has been going on since coins were invented.

     When the Great Depression hit, the nickel carving artform began to peek. Many men were forced to hit the road in search of work. Some carved nickels to pass the time. Others had no skills or source of income and carving a nickel for one's dinner or a warm place to sleep was an acceptable form of trade.

     The Buffalo nickel, introduced in 1913, became a very popular coin for carving. It was extremely available. It was larger than a dime, making it easier to handle and work on. It was a copper-nickel alloy that made it the hardest coin in U.S. circulation and made it perfect for carving.

     The tools used were rather crude. Anything that would make a scratch or some sort of punch to move, remove and displace the metal was probably as high-tech as it got. Most were probably even lucky just to have a nickle in those days.

     The Indian head on the one side was often morphed to look completely different, imparting a unique and often amusing twist to the common ordinary nickel. Since these coins were being created by those unfortunate depression era drifters, you now understand why they are called "Hobo nickels".

hobonickel1Today, there is an entire community of artists creating their own individual Hobo nickels using the most modern tooling available. The work being done is absolutely mind boggling and there is a nice little market being created by those artists too. Collectors are popping up everywhere looking for the next "Rembrandt" or the next creation from their favorite nickel carver.

    Those nickel carvers even have their own little corner of the world called The Original Hobo Nickel Society. www.hobonickels.org

I urge you to take a little time and explore their world. It is fascinating and unique.

 armstrongnickel1  hobonickel2     hobonickel3      hobonickel4      hobonickel5


I've asked my good friend Amy Armstrong, who is also a jeweler and a top notch engraver, to give us a little story that reveals her passion for Nickel Carving. 


Who Do I see?

Carving a Modern Hobo Nickel

By Amy Armstrong


As an Engraver I work on many different items.  Jewelry, trophies, knives and custom fly rod parts all cross my workbench. One of my favorite items to engrave is the Buffalo Nickel. Gangsters, clowns, soldiers and of course Hobos have all appeared on the obverse and sometimes reverse on my nickel carvings. Because Hobo Nickels are not as well-known as the other items I engrave, I am often asked a lot of questions. The question I am asked most frequently is “How do you carve a Hobo Nickel?”

To demonstrate, I have carved a nickel in Traditional Style. By traditional style I am carving my new Hobo Profile using the existing features of the Indian. I am not carving outside the original Indian profile border and I am leaving the coin field clean. The finished affect I am trying to achieve, is a Hobo Nickel carved so well that it appears it was made by the mint. It is this challenge that drives me to improve with every carving I do.

 I have selected a 1929 Buffalo Nickel. The nickel is in very good condition with the liberty, date and buffalo horn showing little wear.

                                                                        Nickel1Front nickel1back


 I start by carving the hat. I have chosen a bowler style hat with a hatband and bow.

After I carve the hat I can visualize the way I want my Hobo to look.



 I now move to the face. I carve away at the existing features transforming the nose, mouth and eye to create my new profile. I add ear, jaw and hairline. I finish the neck and add shirt and jacket collar.


 My Hobo is just about finished. Now it’s time to give him some character and bring him to life. I add strands of hair, texture the hatband and bottom of collar. I remove any scratches from the carving and coin field and tone for contrast. The finished result is a young, clean shaved Hobo. I named my Hobo carving “Billy Boy”.


This style is just one way to carve a Hobo Nickel. The possibilities are countless with all the different subjects and carving techniques.

So although I answer many questions about Hobo Nickels, there is really only one question I ask myself. When I hold a nickel in my hand, I ask myself “Who do I see?”