Metal detection inspires Mitchell artist to turn old US coins into artwork dubbed “hobo nickels” – Mitchell Republic | Candle Made Easy

MITCHELL — Tommy McKibben has unearthed many fascinating items surrounding Mitchell with his metal detector.

Memorable finds include old US coins from the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were still made of silver and copper. While many people view 100- to 200-year-old coins as valuable collectibles worth preserving, McKibben sees them as a canvas on which his unique art can take shape.

The Mitchell native carves a variety of portraits into old coins where the head of a former US President is transformed into a highly detailed figure, a skull or whatever McKibben thinks of. Once he’s done, his artwork, which he refers to as “hobo nickels,” will be sold online.

“The love I have for coins and making hobo nickel comes straight from metal detection,” McKibben said as he unveiled his latest finds on a table. “This is the coolest kind of art I’ve ever made.”

Tommy McKibben Metal discovers a section of soil on Dry Run Creek Trail in Mitchell. Local artist digs up old US coins and carves art into them.

Sam Fosness / Republic

What began eight years ago as a hobby and creative outlet for McKibben has grown into a business. Etched on old $1 coins and depicting popular cartoon characters Scooby Doo and Shaggy, his latest masterpieces have garnered bids in excess of $200 and counting.

McKibben sells his hobo nickels primarily on ebay, which allows interested buyers to bid on his art. His work can also be seen on social media platforms under the name Deadhead Hobo Coins.

Considering that the coins he turns into art are either excavated by metal detection or bought in pawnshops at a price close to the true value of the coins themselves, selling a coin for $50 to $300 has as he does , means a nice win. But money isn’t what motivates McKibben to continue perfecting his craft.

“I love it. It’s become a lost art that I feel like I’m helping to keep alive,” he said.

Old nickels are far from the only coins on which McKibben carves his creations. He classifies his coins as hobo nickels because that is the term used to describe the art form of coin carving, which has been around for more than a century.

The hobo nickel art movement began in the early 1900s when the Buffalo nickel was manufactured in the United States and served as the 5 cent coin from 1913 to 1938. McKibben said the buffalo nickel — which featured a Native American head on one side and a man riding a buffalo on the other side — was a rare coin compared to others because the Native American head had much more room on one side the surface of the nickel.

Hobo nickels were typically made by traveling tramps – hence the name, to increase the coin’s value in the midst of the Great Depression to help them buy a meal or trade them for train rides across the country. Just like dealers in the 1920s and 1930s, McKibben said it’s “so cool” that people today still see such artistic value in handcrafted hobo nickels.

“Hobo nickels remain very collectible to this day. The tramps found a way to use their art to increase the value of a coin. I look at what I’m doing with my hobo coin business 100 years later, and it’s the same concept in a different era,” McKibben said. “You would turn the Native American head into a tramp. The large head of the coin gave them a lot more room to carve.”

Special connection to the designer of buffalo nickel

When McKibben began producing hobo nickel nearly a decade ago, he learned about the history of the buffalo coin, which revealed a special connection to the ephemeral nickel. The man behind the design of the US Buffalo Nickel, James Earle Fraser, grew up in Mitchell.

After McKibben learned that he and Fraser grew up in the same South Dakota town and shared a love of sculpting from raw materials, McKibben said it brought “even more meaning” to his hobo nickel work.

“James Earle Fraser started sculpting his art on limestone here in town. It’s so cool for me and gives my work even more meaning to be from the same town as the guy who made the first coin that really created hobo nickel,” McKibben said of Fraser, who went on to become a famous sculptor and created statues, some of which can be seen at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC

The self-taught artist uses what he calls “simple” old-school tools to create his hobo nickels. With new metal carving technologies such as engraving machines, McKibben has chosen to stick with the same tools that many hobo nickel artists used when the movement emerged in the early 20th century.

And that helped him to develop his own original style, he thinks.


Here are some of Tommy McKibben’s hobo nickels that he created on old US coins.

Photo courtesy of Tommy McKibben

“When I started about eight years ago, I had the cheapest and worst tools. When I was looking for new tools, an old artist told me: ‘It’s not your tools that make the art, it’s you.’ That stuck with me,” McKibben said. “So I started really learning the tools I had, and every coin I make just gets better and better.”

The challenges of finding silver coins make metal detection essential

While Mckibben carves art into a variety of ancient coins, he is very particular about the types of coins he takes his tools to. Silver and copper coins are McKibben’s preferred material to work with, but he said finding them has become more difficult since the US switched the material composition of coins from silver to a mixture of copper and nickel in the 1960s and ’70s .

“I really like carving on the John F. Kennedy silver half dollar because the material is easier to work with. They were 90% silver until 1964, and then 40% silver. They’re not easy to find, but I find them,” said McKibben, who spends hours metal detecting in hopes of unearthing silver coins like the half dollar.

As part of the Coinage Act of 1965, silver was eliminated from use in making quarters and dimes and the half dollar coin was reduced to a 40% silver composition.

The change in material is making it increasingly difficult for mint artists like McKibben to find silver coins that are more malleable to carve. The coin shortages that swept the nation during the COVID-19 pandemic added more challenges to getting your hands on silver coins.

But through his metal detection, McKibben manages to unearth centuries-old silver coins. The first coin he discovered with his metal detector was a rare Morgan dollar coin, first minted as a US silver dollar coin in 1878.

“Some people spend their whole lives prospecting for metals without finding a Morgan dollar. It captivated me forever,” said McKibben, staring at the coin’s design, which featured a woman’s head on one side and the US Sealed Eagle on the other.

While he has yet to dig up another Morgan dollar, he’s optimistic some may be lurking underground in the plethora of untapped parts of Mitchell he has yet to discover.


Tommy McKibben combs the Dry Run Creek area of ​​Mitchell with his metal detector.

Sam Fosness / Republic

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