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Understanding Full Steps
Step count grading, using the four quarter step count, was introduced by the F.S.N.C. in 2000. In this short time it has made a great change in the grading of full step Jefferson nickels. This system serves as a protection for collectors and dealers alike. It is a very simple grading system that will give all the gem quality Jefferson nickels a fair rating, equality, and advanced collectability.
Many rare date gem nickels, not in 5 full steps, that are known with weak strikes and poor step count get over looked and misgraded. This grading and number system will give each coin and step pattern its fair designation. Also, in this method, one can read the four digit number and basically know what the steps on the coin look like without actually seeing it.
The step count is performed by mentally dividing the step area vertically into four quarters, between the pillars of the porch. Take a look at the sample:
Click to enlarge
Many questions arise when asked "What is a full step nickel and how do you count the steps?"
In 1938 the die engraver's first attempt at producing steps on the Jefferson nickel was far from successful. The steps were weak and wavy and the dies would wear quickly resulting in the steps 'bridging' together and going flat.
A redesign in late 1939 was a much better attempt. The steps were cut in a straight and deeper line. The new Type-II die would last much longer, but with such fine detail, the steps would eventually bridge together and go flat. Not a perfect design but that's what makes our hobby fun!
Another problem with the die design was with the obverse die. The high point on the obverse is Jefferson's head and hair details. It is exactly opposite the lower steps under pillar number three.
Click to enlarge
This is why you see many almost full step nickels missing a very small part of the fifth step under the third pillar (5-5-4-5). Also, the die materials in the earlier years of the Jefferson nickel's production was much inferior to today's super alloy, resulting in broken dies and chipping (die cracks and CUDS).
The die is designed to strike six steps, five CUT lines, the sixth step being the bottom of the fifth cut line. With the problem of the alignment of the obverse die stealing metal flow, the sixth step is rare or non existent on many dates. Many proof nickels do not have the sixth full step either. The early collectors and the first Full Step Nickel Club (P.A.K.) determined that five full steps would be the standard for the "Full Step Nickel".
The answer to how you count the steps starts with the die engraver. By cutting the five deep straight lines it gives the appearance of steps (tread and riser). A 10x+ loupe or 10x30x microscope should be used for examination. When viewing the steps, slowly tilt the coin back and fourth. This will let the light find it's way into the cut area and highlight the steps. The SHINY line being the tread and the DARK line being the riser.
Imagine walking up the steps of Monticello. To climb the steps you first must step up to step number six. The next step up would be number five, then four, three, two, and the last would be the top, number one step. Once at the top you would be standing next to one of the four pillars.
When counting the steps on your Jefferson nickels start with the top, number one, step and work your way down the remaining five. Starting with step number one your count must be completed from the side cut line on the left to the side cut line on the right. If the line breaks or flattens into the step above this will stop the step count. Severe bag marks and deep cuts will also stop the count. Rarity will determine the problem of bag marks in the steps.
There are many types of problems that happen in the step area, from very small to very large. These problems may be caused by poor or rough planchets or can be caused by production and shipping techniques. Many of the nickels in the Jefferson series are rare to very rare in full steps. Because of this we believe a full step nickel with a nick, tick, cut, or bridge should be graded accordingly and given a full step designation with the problem listed. This method tends to 'level the playing field' and provide more precise value to your full step nickels. To date, S.E.G.S is the only third party grading service that utilizes the 'four quarter' step grading system as well as noting any flaws on their holders. A description of each step flaw follows:
A very small indentation ON or ACROSS the steps. This could be caused by light scuff during striking, bagging, or rolling. It also could have been in the planchet before striking. I believe rough planchets are the cause of the majority of ticks. Almost every full step nickel has a tick somewhere. Generally, ticks cannot be seen with the naked eye so 10x or stronger magnification will be needed to spot this small infraction.
A small indentation or light nick ON or ACROSS the step area. This is also caused by rough planchets and the striking or bagging process. A magnifying device will be needed to spot the majority of nicks. We do not believe a nick should stop a full step nickel from receiving it's fair full step designation. It's a full step nickel WITH a nick, and, in many dates and Mints, it's a rare coin.
A very large or deep cut ON or ACROSS the steps. A cut can usually be seen without the aid of magnification. A low powered magnifying glass will spot them easily. Cuts happen after the coin has been struck and will usually stop the nickel from receiving a full step designation.
Two or more steps run together in a small area. This problem usually occurs under pillar number two on the third and fourth steps. The problem was on the master die and occurs many times on 50's and 60's nickels. The SMS nickels of 1965, 1966, and 1967 show a good example of this. Frosted nickels also show a lot of bridging due to the beading process of the die. It should be said that depending on the grading service bridged coins are sent to they may or may not come back as full steps.
NGC and PCGS both have different guidelines for grading FS nickels. To learn more about those see here:
NGC Guidelines | PCGS Guidelines
*Pic's used with permission, per the old Varietynickels.com "Image Policy"*