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When in… The Royal Canadian Mint

By Martha Ilboudo      

P&I goes behind-the-scenes at the Royal Canadian Mint, where precious metals become useful coins, used both as practical currency and to circulate the Canadian story.

'We love that we’re world-renowned; we love that we’re respected for the products that we make and they are stunningly beautiful and—in circulation coins—useful as well,' says Mint CEO Sandra Hanington. P&I photograph by Sam Garcia
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Every day, as the Centennial Flame burns bright against the iconic backdrop of Parliament Hill, dozens of nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, and toonies fly from their temporary dwellings in pockets and wallets into the flame’s shallow waters. Those tossing their lucky coins may not be aware that the institution that creates the diverse designs on each face is only a short walk away.

A permanent fixture on Sussex Drive, the Royal Canadian Mint has been drawing visitors to the famed street since it first opened more than 100 years ago. A well-respected Canadian institution, the Mint has been instrumental in crafting Canada’s narrative, and celebrating Canadian achievements and themes since its first bronze cent was struck on January 2, 1908.

Gold flakes scattered on the casting table, left over from a step of the refining process. P&I photograph by Sam Garcia

“Coins [are] an incredibly important part of national identity and trade and commerce [that] have been around forever—certainly been in place in Canada for well over a century,” says Sandra Hanington, president and CEO of the Royal Canadian Mint.

“Coins have this long-standing traditional elements of everyday life, that every Canadian has a chance to touch but they really also have the ability to mark important moments in our present,” she tells P&I.

First established as a branch of the British Royal Mint, the Royal Canadian Mint has grown over the years to be one of the world’s top producers of circulation, collector, and bullion investment coins and products.

Designed by the government’s then-chief architect David Ewart and built between 1905-08, the Mint’s three-storey fortress-like building has all the markings of a fortified castle: slim crenelated towers, gatehouses located on opposite ends, black wrought-iron fences, Gothic Revival architectural details, and a copper coat of arms mounted atop its main entrance.

Upon entering the building, the majesty of its exterior is subtly exemplified throughout its interior by careful detailing and artful woodwork—creating an enviable mix of Old World charm with the modern touches of a cutting-edge facility.

“We have put Canada on the map by refining the purest gold in the world and producing among the world’s most popular gold and silver bullion [investment] coins,” says Alex Reeves, Mint spokesperson.

“Our Gold and Silver Maple Leaf bullion coins are refined to 99.99 per cent purity and we also introduced the world’s first and only 99.999 per cent pure-gold bullion coin in 2007.”

This 100kg pure-gold bullion was worth $1-million, and was certified by the Guinness World Records as the largest coin in the world.

The Mint receives its gold and silver from a number of different sources, such as gold-bearing material from both Canadian and foreign mines, as well as secondary market material such as jewellery, coins, and fragments.

Rob Sargent, director of refining and inventory management at the Royal Canadian Mint holds a gold bar. P&I photograph by Sam Garcia

Inside the Mint’s high security area is the ‘ins and outs’ room; this is where mine deposits are weighed and tested.

“For each bar of a mine deposit we will take a small drill sample and we will check that drill sample for things like mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic—the deleterious elements that we don’t want to expose our workers to,” says Rob Sargent, director of refining and inventory management at the Royal Canadian Mint.

“The client will send us an advance notice of the shipment detailing bar weights, material format which we will compare to the shipment when we receive it. So nobody can just arrive here saying: ‘Here, I have some gold I want to drop off,’” says Sargent.

“If that bar list matches what they said they were going to ship us, we check it for deleterious …We can then enter these bars into our system as a deposit and send it through the refining,” he explains.

The floor slopes down towards the refinery.

Here, a bar sample is taken from a deposit to the assay lab department to determine how much gold and silver it contains. en the two-step refining process begins.

The first step is miller chlorination, explains Sargent, where a mixture of gold deposits targeting a 70 per cent gold start point is melted to liquid and injected with chlorine gas, separating the base metals such as iron, tin, and even silver. e gold is then poured into anodes, ready for electrolysis, where it is submerged in a bath of hydrochloric acid and gold chloride and then put through an electric current.

The cathode created is 99.99 per cent pure gold, which is melted and cast into requested products such as large metal ingots of roughly 800 oz. These large gold bars will be sent on skids to be put through the coining process, Sargent explains.

In addition to its numerous products and services, the Mint’s Ottawa facility holds billions of dollars-worth of allocated storage on behalf of banks, mutual funds, and private wealth.

Sitting approximately 185,000 sq. ft., the Ottawa facility produces hand-crafted collector and commemorative coins, gold bullion coins, medals, and medallions while the Winnipeg, Man. location produces all Canadian circulation coins as well as foreign circulation coins for other countries, striking approximately 90 million coins in one week.

Over the years, the Canadian Mint has produced coins for more than 60 countries.

“We love that we’re world-renowned; we love that we’re respected for the products that we make and they are stunningly beautiful and—in circulation coins—useful as well,” says Hanington.

The Canadian Mint received a record 12 nominations from the Krause Publication’s prestigious annual Coin of the Year Awards in 2016.

Coining a Canadian story

The Ottawa facility receives raw material from the refinery, typically gold or silver, and can also process other precious and non-precious metals, as well as gold and silver alloys, explains Steven Papais, director of the Ottawa facility’s production operations.

The first step on the coining side is continuous casting where bars are transformed. The casting area has two furnaces: one for silver, one for gold. The bars are put through a ceramic container—called a crucible—inside the furnace, melting the metals at approximately 1200 C, explains Papais. The molten metal pours out from a side orifice, and is pressed into a die—essentially a mold—which gives it the desired shape, Papais explains.

“The Mint casts bars 125 mm-wide by 15 mm-thick. The die has a cooling jacket that brings the material down to about 400 C and it is subsequently quenched with water,” says Papais.

Once it comes through, the silver is then wound up in a cup coiler to 19,000 oz. cut, weighed and sent to the rolling process. The cast coil goes from 15 mm to approximately 2.5 mm-3 mm.

Through the annealing process, the material can be further reduced to a thickness of less than one millimetre.

Collectible maple leaf-shaped coins on display at the Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa. P&I photograph by Sam Garcia

“We run a dynamic business in a competitive marketplace that really is global, so when we’re vying to produce circulation coins for countries around the world, there are other mints and providers that are going head-to-head, toe-to-toe with us,” says Hanington.

When it comes to numismatics, or the world of coin-collection, “it’s a discretionary purchase and there’s lots of other people looking for that part of people’s discretionary wallet,” says Hanington.

“The bullion business is a very competitive one, so making sure that we’ve got the best offer, with the best people, at the right time and the right place, and providing outstanding customer service I think that’s going to be our ongoing challenge and we’re committed to meeting it,” she adds.

In an effort to stay competitive, the Mint has to continuously come up with new and inventive ways to do business, creating lasting pieces that will impress. Whether it’s changing the shape of traditional coins, or using a new glow-in- the-dark technology, in a highly competitive market re-imagining a product is a necessity.

The science of coin engineering

“The Mint is constantly advancing the science of coin manufacturing and process engineering to offer customers the best possible coins (for circulation, collecting and investing)” says Mint spokesperson Reeves.

“We maintain a significant annual [research and development] budget to continue to innovate in areas such as coin security—which is especially important for circulation and bullion coins—new plating technologies which benefit circulation coin users world-wide, and technologies/techniques which enhance the originality and appeal of our collector coins, which compete directly with other mints as they are sold on the international market as well as domestically,” he says.

One example of the Mint’s innovation was the Remembrance commemorative coin produced in 2004, which featured a red, coloured poppy on it, making it the first coloured circulation coin in the world. In fact, it was such a novelty that U.S. defence contractors suspected it as a ‘spy coin,’ investigating a (incorrect) theory that the protective coating was hiding a minuscule camera.

Liquid gold: A Mint employee carefully pours gold into a pre-heated mold in the Mint’s refinery. P&I photograph by Sam Garcia

In the Ottawa institution, after the coins-in-the-making are rolled and annealed, they’re burnished. Blanks are added in a large ‘washing machine’ with stainless-steel ball bearings, soap and water for half an hour. The bearings are separated before the blanks are taken to the coining press area, where they are fed through and brought into the striking area. An automatic packing system carries 250 pieces per minute and strikes up to 300 tons of force.

Workers inspect the coins according to thickness, diameter, and visuals.

The engraving process comes next, and takes place in a HEPA-filtered environment to remove any contaminants. Coins in manual presses are struck one by one. Such coins, according to Papais, require a high service, similar to that of a high-quality image. The coin will go through multiple strikes, which allows to better fill the images. This process can involve up to four or five strikes.

Art boards are created, using illustrations procured from artists—all of whom have been Canadian in the past 80 years. Once images are approved from the minister of Finance, the engraving process begins, based on engineering details that include coin size.

A fun historical fact: when the one-dollar currency changed from paper money to coins, the first design for the loonie portrayed the voyageurs, Canadian explorers. However, in a still-unsolved mystery, the designed mold went missing during transportation between Ottawa and Winnipeg, and was never found. In order to prevent counterfeit money from being produced, the Mint was forced to change the design to the now-iconic loon on the loonie.

The ‘Proudly Canadian’ glow-in-the-dark coin, recently released by the Mint to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. Image courtesy of the Canadian Mint

Using advanced sculpting technology, the engraving department makes specific adjustments using an interactive tablet.

A computer numerical control (CNC) machine carves the inverted and backwards image from a block of steel. Next comes a series of polishing, heat-treating, and hobbing—which transfers the image to the working die.

Not only does the Mint create Canada’s coins, but it was also tasked with creating all 615 gold, silver, and bronze medals used in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.

“We think of ourselves as an important part of Canada, a Canadian—and a certainly an Ottawa— institution,” says Hanington.

“We have the privilege of being right in the center of things in this beautiful heritage building, making stunning products, and we’re just delighted to be such an important part of celebrating Canada’s 150th,” she says.

When asked what her favourite coin produced by the Mint is, Hanington responds that the recently released ‘Proudly Canadian’ glow-in-the-dark coin takes the cake.

Released to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial, the piece—emblazoned with an engraved rippling Canadian flag superimposed over colourful fireworks—illuminates in the dark after being exposed to light and is 99.99 per cent pure silver.

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