Click to return from whence you came! Finlay's art requires keen eye, steady hand.
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Jesse Tuel ~ November 20, 2004

The Emporia Gazette ~ Emporia, Kansas.

"Hobo nickels" sought by collectors

      Bob Finlay was 6 years old when the only hobo he's ever seen came through Harleyville, asking to dig carrots out of the family garden. It's possible that hobo was carrying hobo nickels - tiny 5-cent canvases into which hobos etched intricate designs and used as currency. Today, Finlay carries on the tradition. The rural Emporia resident is rated by Verne Walrafen, secretary of The Original Hobo Nickel Society, as one of the top dozen nickel carvers in the world.
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  Bob Finlay holds one of the many nickels he has carved using engraving tools. Finlay started carving nickels a year ago and already ranks highly with collectors.


      Amazingly, the 68-year-old Finlay has been carving nickels for only a year. He was hooked by a class at Glendo Corp., an Emporia manufacturer of engraving and stone-setting equipment. Glendo's classes draw people from around the world, and the company's products are known as the best in the business.

      In the 1980s, Finlay took on the hobby of engraving. It started with guns and later turned to knives. He said he'd spend 100 to 200 hours on one knife.

      Looking at the jewel-encrusted daggers with ornate carvings, it's easy to see why he's embraced nickels. The coins take him an average of 10 to 12 hours, and he's finished 51 so far.

      On Monday evening, Finlay was taking background metal out of a nickel, one of 10 he's carving for a collector. A hobo holding a pick ax along railroad tracks was already visible.

      Finlay's glasses were pressed up against a microscope focused on the nickel, as his thick fingers finessed what he called a "miniature jackhammer" - a small tool powered by compressed air that delivers rapid strokes into the metal. Cake crumbs rested on the table below Finlay's mouth. Working in the evenings and on weekends, it's not unusual for him to skip a meal.
Click to view an enlargement of this photograph.
  Finlay uses a microscope while carving a nickel at his home south of Emporia.


      "It's nothing if I work 10 hours straight, or 11, 12," he said.

      Finlay was surrounded by Glendo equipment - a circular vise to hold the nickels, the "jackhammer" and its control unit, numerous bits, a sharpener and more. The bits were organized in plastic holders, produced by Finlay's injection-molded plastics company, BPE, Inc.

      The carvers of yesteryear relied on primitive tools - perhaps a chisel, file and a punch (a pointed tool struck with a hammer). The canvas is the same today, about 7/8 inches in diameter.

      From 1913 to 1938, the government turned out nickels bearing a buffalo on one side - hence the name "buffalo nickels." Hobos traded the modified coins for food, clothes or a place to sleep, Finlay said.
Click to view an enlargement of this photograph.
  Bob Finlay has a wide variety of nickels he has carved, including the Indian head nickel, which is the subject he began carving nickels with.
[ The fact is that Bob's very first nickel carving was the one he carved in Sam Alfano's Glendo class... the one shown here at the top of this article. - vrw ]


      "The originals are what I would call crude by today's standards," Finlay said. "But you got to think, these guys were out with nothing to work with."

      But in the mid-1960s, Don Glaser's interest in firearms engraving led to a solution. His son, D.J. Glaser, now president of Glendo, said his father invented the Gravermeister - the predecessor to the Gravermax unit Finlay uses - to power the engraving tools. By 1977, Glendo was formed with three employees.

      Today, Glendo's engraving product line is the industry standard, D.J. Glaser said, for the traits of dependability, ease of use and the final results. Finlay knows of two other companies putting out similar products, but he's not interested.

      "I don't know any people that use (the others)," Finlay said. "Personally I think Glendo has the Cadillac of the engraving (tools)."

      The Original Hobo Nickel Society has nicknamed Finlay "The Excavator" for his propensity to dig deep into the nickel. He does it to make the subject stand out. [ It was the instructors and students at GRS who gave Bob this nickname and not OHNS or V-Dubya - vrw ]

      "One of the things that makes him unique is his ability to make those small, full-figure hobos," said Walrafen, Society secretary and Webmaster, and a 1958 Emporia High School graduate. "Nobody else has done that."

      Indeed, on Monday, Finlay spoke of adding wrinkles to the hobo's pants - pants the thickness of a pencil's lead.

      "I like to make things more 3D than 2D," Finlay said. "Most people have never seen a nickel, one that's been carved, and it's fun to carve something that they haven't seen."
Click to view an enlargement of this photograph.
  Bob Finlay has a wide variety of nickels he has carved, including the crescent moon, which is one of his favorites to produce.


      Walrafen said the market for high-quality nickels is only about 50 people strong - those willing to spend an average of $500 a nickel, and when bidding against others, up to $2,000. Others buy "quickie carvings" online for less. [ Actually I told the reporter the average was roughly $200 and could go as high as $500 - vrw ]

      Initially, Finlay didn't intend to sell his nickels, but the demand is there - those in the know are amazed at Finlay's lightning-quick ability.

      "He can do, in a day or two, what the best carvers will take four or five days to do," said Walrafen. "It comes from experience - just a lot of carving."

      D.J. Glaser has seen established carvers "just shake their heads in disbelief" at Finlay's speed and skill.

      "He's such a natural at it," Glaser said. "He's an amazing man, and this is just one example of it."

      There just might be more naturals uncovered by Glendo classes. Started in 1990, four or five sessions were offered each year. Now, 500-plus students attend more than 40 classes each year, said Kim Pember, Glendo general manager. Glaser said the classes fill 1,500 to 2,000 hotel rooms each year.

      Beginning, intermediate and advanced classes in stone setting, jewelry engraving, wood engraving, bulino (Italian engraving) and more are offered. Prices range from $725 to $1,295 for a week of classes. Said Pember, "A lot of people do this for their vacation."

      "They are for anyone that wishes to learn to engrave or set stones in the jewelry industry," Pember said.

      In 2005, Glendo will sponsor its first overseas classes in Belgium and Australia and start a grandmasters series led by two world-renowned engravers, Ron Smith and Winston Churchill. All classes are taught by the best engravers.

      "We bring in professionals in the field," Pember said. "These are the high-end engravers. We pride ourselves in bringing the best engravers."


The article photos shown above were taken by David Doemland of the Emporia Gazette staff.

  Original Article:   "Finlay's Art Requires Keen Eye, Steady Hand" - Jesse Tuel ...The Emporia Gazette, 11/20/04  
  Article Reprint:   "Steady Hands and the Hobo Sprit Mint these Rare Nickels" ...Daily Journal Online, Missouri News, 12/14/04  
  Article Reprint:   "Steady Hands, Hobo Sprit Mint Nickels" ...CJOnline, The Topeka Capital-Journal, 12/23/04  
  Article Reprint:   "Steady Hands and the Hobo Sprit Mint these Rare Nickels" ...The Hannibal Courier-Post, 12/24/04  

V-Dubya is responsible for all the photos shown below this comment so don't blame David for them please. - vrw

Bob Finlay's Nickel Carvings - October 27, 2004
Bob Finlay's Nickel Carvings - October 27, 2004
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