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So you've recovered a jar full of coins during the course of the season, but they look like they've been through the Boer War. They're filthy dirty and encrusted with years of accumulated grime.
The bank where I do business will not accept dirty or discolored coins. It really isn't them so much as their customers, who expect and demand shiny clean coins distributed from their bank.
When I bring in coins, I do not want to be conspicuous by dumping a load of tarnished money in the teller's lap. It leads to questions that I'd rather not answer. I understand that even the most minute amount of dirt on them can raise havoc with the bank's coin-counting machine.
I am a rock-hound as well as a coin shooter and during the years, my hobby has developed into something more than just picking up pretty rocks. I purchased a rock tumbler somewhere along the way, and discovered that it would do double duty. A simple, inexpensive one will do the job nicely.
Clean the pennies separately from the nickels and clad coins. The electrolysis action between pennies and the other coins causes the nickels to turn a rosy pink color if cleaned together.
Once you've located a tumbler, place the coins in the container along with a handful of wood chips or sawdust, a squirt of liquid dishwashing detergent, a couple tablespoons of vinegar and some fine polishing grit, available at the hobby store where you bought the tumbler. The amount of fine grit you use dictates the cleaning time. I use about four tablespoons in my small barrel. If you don't have, or can't get fine polishing grit, a handful of cat litter or fine sifted sand will do in a pinch. I prefer the commercial grit. It does a much better, quicker job.
Add a small amount of water, enough to cover the coins and make a slurry. Do not overload the tumbler barrel. A general rule is to put no more than half a container full, including the coins. The tumbling process goes better this way. Seal the barrel and start tumbling.
The amount of time required to clean the coins, depends upon many factors, and as a rule, do not let the tumbler run more than 30 minutes before opening the barrel to check the coins. Take only a few coins off the surface when checking to avoid making a mess around the barrel opening, which will cause a peer seal. Rinse these test coins off over a container, and it'll soon tell you if they're clean enough. If they show signs of the need for more tumbling, return them to the barrel and continue for another half hour or so. I've run a batch for as long as an hour and a half, but that's stretching it. One thing we don't want to do is tumble them so long that they begin to deteriorate the surface.
After the first half-hour run, most coins come out rather clean -- not sparkling and shiny as when they came from the mint, but clean and passable. Some will not come clean no matter what you do.
Once the coins are cleaned to your satisfaction, remove them from the barrel by pouring the contents into a large kitchen sieve or similar device, over an eight quart or larger water pail. A 5-gallon empty driveway sealer pail works like a charm. I always do this outside near my garden hose.
Do not pour the contents of the slurry down the drain. It's not only wasteful, but it can plug up your system if done repeatedly. The slurry can be used again and again.
Just let the contents settle in the pail, decant the water and add a little more fresh grit, some more sawdust, vinegar and detergent for your next batch.
Rinse the coins in the sieve over the pail until most of the residue is washed away. There will be wads of sawdust to contend with and some hand sorting and picking is necessary at this point. Place the cleaned coins on a towel in a sunny place and let them dry. Patting them with a towel helps dry them faster.
Here's ingenuity for you: I read of a guy who devised a tumbler out of nothing more than a discarded glass bottle and a few belts. He drilled holes in a hubcap of his pickup to match the three in his bottle cap. Then he belted the cover to the cap, just a little off center. When he wanted to clean some coins, he put them in the bottle along with his ingredients and put it all together, and snapped the hubcap in place and away he went. Once at his destination, he removed the tumbler and washed his coins, and they were ready for immediate use. He got so good at it, that he could just about judge when the coins would be cleaned by how many miles he drove.
Of course, you should never perform this kind of cleaning procedure with a potentially valuable coin. You could rub away a small fortune. If it's improperly cleaned, the sale price can plummet, reducing its value.
If I should be so lucky as to find an old, valuable coin, and I must remove some of the dirt to determine the date, I'll simply soak it in a small dish of liquid Woolite and a teaspoon of baking soda for a few minutes. After soaking, rinse off the residue under a faucet and pat it dry with a soft cloth or towel. Again, do not rub the coin if you suspect that it's valuable. I cleaned a nice silver war nickel this way, and it came out marvelous.