Click to return from whence you came! Mike Pezak: "Hobo Nickel" Carver

David E. Schenkman ~ August 2003

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Mike Pezak
TAMS Journal ~ Token and Medals Society, Inc. ~ Volume 43, Number 4

     My introduction to the fascinating world of hobo nickels was accidental, quite some time back, when I acquired a collection of tokens that included a couple of these carved coins. Although I was intrigued by them, and have purchased a piece or two since then, I never became a serious collector. More recently, while teaching an American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar course a few years ago, one of my students showed me a small group of nickels carved by Gallery Mint owner Ron Landis.
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  This nickel won first place in the sculpture category of an art competition. It is now on exhibit at the federal courthouse here in Las Vegas. The stone in the hatband is a Burmese ruby.
What an eye-opening experience! Ron's work was on a completely different level than that displayed on any of the old hobo nickels I had encountered, both from the standpoint of creativity and craftsmanship.

     In the past few years many carvers have emerged and offered their products to the collecting public. Some are extremely talented, while the work of others is rather crude. Of course these modern carvers are not hobos at all, so the term "hobo nickel" is a misnomer. Whatever they are called, these tiny works of art have become popular and the better carvings fetch respectable prices when offered for sale.

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  A "traditional" style hobo nickel, carved by Mike Pezak.

     Our subject carver, Mike Pezak, came to his present occupation in a rather unusual way. Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, he moved to Denver, Colorado in his early twenties. During that time he was employed in automotive shops, doing mechanical repairs and also bodywork. Mike hated that work and gradually started buying and selling reptiles, his specialty being pythons and other giant snakes. Due to a newspaper feature article and a couple of television news segments, he became somewhat of a celebrity in town.

     As a result of the publicity, Mike met a man who eventually purchased a large snake. Mike considers the moment when he delivered the snake to the man's house as "the turning point of my life." He describes it as follows:

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  Mike titled this carving "Skippy." The hat propeller, which is 14kt gold, is like the propeller beanies which were popular in the 1950s. As can be seen in the illustration, the propeller is attached to the nickel; it actually spins!
     We went in his basement where he had the cage and in a room off the main room I saw a workshop... it turns out that he was a silversmith who had just moved from San Francisco. I looked at all the tools and work places and said "this stuff is neat," and his reply was that life changing moment...he said "come on over and I will show you how to do it." Well, we hit it off right away and while I didn't have any experience with anything like making jewelry but being an opportunist that I am I went over the next day and spent twelve hours in the shop. He started out by having me make something. It was funny because I was so lost that I really had no idea what I was doing or what I was suppose to be doing. He had me solder some things and it just seemed right...while I didn't have the knowledge behind me it was obvious to him that I had a very good grasp of things and a nice touch with the torch and hand tools. Anyway, we spent many days sitting there ...he would ask me questions about snakes and I would ask him about the jewelry. Within a few weeks I made a lot of progress but at the time I didn't know it. It became harder to go to his house and work, and then come home and sit and want to be there learning more. I saw enough promise in what I was doing that I made the choice to go and buy a workbench to set up at home. I would go to his house in the day and learn, then come home and play at my bench at night making project after project. I think the most important thing I learned at that time was filing and fitting metal and proper soldering, and also that if I set my mind to a project, regardless of how challenging, I could do it with a fair degree of skill.

     Mike eventually went to work for a jewelry shop in Denver doing repairs and other related things such as resizing rings and resetting diamonds. Having no formal training, other than what his friend had shown him, he literally learned by trial and error. As Mike put it:

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  Uncle Sam was carved by Mike on this nickel.
     I remember the first diamond I set. I was working along on the sizings and simple repairs and Denny, the shop manager, came walking in and handed me a job envelope and said, "here do this." I looked at it and it and it said "set diamond in 6 prong drop pendant." I said "I can't do this." He said, "yes you can." I said "no I don't think so." He said, "yeah you can." I said "Denny I can't do this." He said "Mickey, do you think I would give you this to do if I didn't know you were more than capable of doing it?" I hemmed and hawed and then I opened the envelope and pulled out the stone...a three carat round diamond. I thought, "oh man you're crazy." I tried again to worm out of it and Denny, in a soft reassuring voice, said "Mickey, take all the time you need.
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  On this unusual and very detailed carving the Indian is highly polished.
I don't care if it takes you all day but that is the job you have today." Well I thought about it and took the pendant and looked at it, sweating bullets already and I hadn't even touched a tool. I looked up and said "Denny what if I crack it." He said "well then you've had it; the customer's waiting downstairs for it so you better get started." He started to walk to the office and turned and said "by the way, the stone is worth $33,000.00, don't mess it up." I wasn't sure if he was joking or not but there I was sitting with this stone, having to set it and sweating bullets at THAT thought, knowing the customer was waiting and having that pressure on top of it and holding this diamond the size of a dime, and nobody to bail me out. So I took the tool and started grinding the seats for the stone.
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  Mike carved a donkey on the reverse of this buffalo nickel.
I pressed so light on the foot pedal for the drill that I think it was going about one revolution per minute. I did one prong then the next and the next and when they were all done I put the stone in. I called Denny and said "come here and look at this to make sure it is right." He came in and took the pendant, looked at it for a few seconds and said "yep, tighten it in," and left. I took the pliers and man it had to be the slowest stone tightening in the history of jewelry. I'd push a little then check it then push a little and check. I did each prong around and the went around again and again and again, tightening a little more each time, until it was done as far as I could see. I called Denny in again to check it. He took it, looked it over, and said "great job, now polish it." So I did and put it in the cleaner for a bit and pulled it out and just looked at it.
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  When asked about this carving Mike commented, "People like toads... go figure."
I showed the bookkeeper and the office girls and said "look what I did." Man I was excited. I gave it to Denny and he took it downstairs. He came back and said "you did good." Then he sat down and had a talk with me. He said, "when I worked at home. I got into a habit of not pushing myself with my work. I stayed safely tucked in to my safety zone. I got a job outside the house so that I could learn more and what I found out was that the skills were there but I never pushed myself to use them. On the outside I didn't have the luxury of picking what I wanted to work on. I did whatever came in the door. I see that same thing in you. You are skilled, you just don't know it, and we're going to get you to stretch those skills so that you can grow." From then on I was still doing the ring sizings and chains, but every day Denny would go to the repair box after I went in and picked my work for the day, and he would pick two or three jobs that I passed up because they were too hard and he would give them to me to do also. I learned in time that he never gave me anything he knew I couldn't handle but he would give me jobs I'd have to struggle with a little.

     Eventually Mike was offered a position at a mall jewelry store. As the store's only jeweler he had nobody to fall back on, but once again he learned by doing. From there he moved to Las Vegas, to be near his aging parents. For the next eight years he worked in a jewelry store right on the strip, which provided Mike not only with plenty of work, but plenty of entertainment. He explained:

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  This is the first nickel Mike carved after purchasing a microscope.
     The place was a zoo with bookies and sports betters coming in, hookers and a wide range of people from every walk of life. The place was loose and we did a lot of joking around, and actually got some good routines down that would entertain the customers...mostly plays on words and silly banter like when a customer would come in and ask for a pair of studs....meaning stud earrings... and Al, the salesman, would yell back to me and say come here she's looking for two studs. Then I would come out and stand by Al and we would ask her if we would do. I'm 6'2" and Al was 5'5" and the sight of us standing next to each other and calling ourselves studs would always get a laugh. The customer would relax and I'd go back to the shop and work. It was fun and we met people from all over the world and got quite a following from a lot of people that would wait till they came to Vegas to bring me their work. They knew I did good work but that I was also honest with them and fair in my prices.

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  On this carving, titled "Moonlight For Two," Mike used an Australian opal for the moon. The light playing off the opal creates a great effect.

     By the time the store closed in 1999 to make room for a new casino, Mike was burned out on jewelry store work and sick of dealing with the public. He moved his tools home and contemplated his options. Engraving interested him, and several years earlier he had acquired some tools and spent time working with them. So, he got them out and thus a new era in his life began.

     Realizing that he had a lot to learn, Mike turned to the Internet with an engraving problem. "I did a search for engravers and it brought up about 40 zillion websites. Out of the whole list I picked one engraver, Steve Lindsay, and wrote to him. Steve helped me with the problem and then suggested that I go on eBay and look at hobo nickels because they would be good practice projects and looked like fun to do, and some carvers are getting pretty good money for them." The rest, as they say, is history.

     Mike had no idea what hobo nickels were, but he was intrigued with what he saw on the Internet. He studied the various nickels that were being offered for sale, and decided to give it a try. Taking a nickel from his pocket, he went into his shop and, as he put it, "proceeded to hack it up. My personal feelings about that first nickel were that it was probably one of the best if not THE best hack job in the world. I had almost managed to make it unidentifiable as a nickel or anything else for that matter."

     So back to the computer Mike went, to study more carvings and find out what had gone wrong. The next nickel he carved was better. As he put it, "at least you could see there was supposed to be a face on it....poor guy sure looked like he had been through the ringer."

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  "Gold Panning" was carved for a man who lives in the gold country of California and has a club for gold prospectors. The nugget in the pan is 24kt gold.
Another of Mike's mining-related is titled "Gold Miner." On one of the photos a book match has been placed on top of the carving to put the small size of the man's head in perspective.

     Nickel after nickel was sacrificed. Mike felt his technique was improving, so decided to take the plunge and try carving a buffalo nickel. He had his wife, Vesta, draw a face on the nickel, and he took it to his shop. A letter I received from Mike describes the moment as follows:

     Well, I put the nickel in the vise and looked at it and the man drawn on it, and then decided that before I started I needed to make some coffee, so I made the coffee and went back to the bench. I took a slurp of coffee and picked up a graver. I knew I was on the right track this time because I almost touched that graver to the nickel before I stopped myself and said, "I need to puff on my cigar first." So off to the patio I went. As I puffed and slurped I came up with a great self talk revelation....like a father talking to his son I said to myself, "Mickey!!! it's a nickel, not brain surgery. And you are alone in the shop. If you screw it up, throw it out and don't tell anyone." With that confidence builder I went back to the bench, ready to show this nickel who was in charge. I sat down, grabbed my graver, took a deep breath, and made the first cut, then the second and on and on. I stopped after each section and went to the patio to puff and analyze what I had done and learned, so that I could use it on the next part. I did the hat, then the hair and collar. It looked ok to me but needed finishing work (that comes from the jewelry background) to make it look smoother and done. So I went to my jewelry bench, picked up a few polishing wheels and implements of destruction, sat down and proceeded to smooth out some things. Then I sandblasted and oxidized it (this was my jewelry background coming into play) and wiped off the oxidizer to reveal what I thought was a pretty cool looking nickel for my first one. I was surprised at how easy it was to do and how many jewelry related skills could apply to the carving. Anyway I took a picture of it and sent it to Steve and said "well here is my first nickel," and waited for his reply. I'm not sure if I checked my email every 5 minutes or every 5 minutes, but it seemed like I checked it a lot. Eventually I received his reply. I opened the email and the first words were "WOW you do great hair, that's a nice looking nickel."

     Taking Steve's advice, Mike put the nickel on eBay. He had no idea what to expect, but sure enough there was soon a $10.00 bid. As the ending date neared, the bids kept coming, and it sold for $92.00. Encouraged by his success, Mike carved another nickel; it sold for $66.00.

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  On this Indian, Mike has inlaid the headband and braid tie in 24kt gold.
     Mike then decided to experiment with gold inlay. He carved a nickel, inlaid the collar with 24-kt. gold, and offered it for sale on eBay. This time the high bid was $192.00, and Mike was hooked. He started carving all the nickels he could get his hands on, eventually buying them by the roll on eBay. Even this wasn't a large enough supply so Mike purchased two bags, each of them having a thousand nickels.

     Amazing as it might seem, Mike used up an entire bag of nickels in about a year. Many of his carvings were what he referred to as "crankouts." They were done quickly on the dateless nickels, as he experimented with as many different techniques as he could think of.

     Mike recalls the many letters he received from well-meaning collectors, giving him advice on how to become a good carver. They had a common theme, suggesting that he copy the old, original nickels pictured in the hobo nickel book. This is something Mike had no intention of doing. For one thing, he didn't want to duplicate what someone else had already done. More importantly, Mike felt that with his combination of a creative mind and offbeat sense of humor he could carve nickels that would be quite a bit different from what anyone else had produced. As this article's illustrations indicate, he has accomplished his goal very well!

     Mike's carvings range from traditional to very offbeat. As I mentioned, he made a large number of "crankouts" while honing his skills. They are hardly good examples of either his expertise or his creativity. He has also carved his share of what he refers to as the "derby and beard" nickels, in the style of original hobo nickels. On some of these he has utilized his jewelry background and added gold inlay as well as an occasional gemstone or two to make his work distinctive.

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  Mike's first picture carving is titled "Man's Best Friend." Some of the detail is captured in the close-up photo.

     The reason Mike enjoys carving scenes (or "pictures" as he calls them) is because they are more challenging and rewarding than the traditional type nickels. He also considers them to be more personal. Reminiscing about his first "picture" nickel, which he carved less than two years ago, Mike writes:

     After I carved this nickel I realized that it was actually a scene from my life when I was about 18 years old in Buffalo, New York where I grew up. I was working at an all night gas station and it was about 4 in the morning. No cars had come by for a while and pretty much the city was sleeping as I sat there looking at the intersection. There were no cars, and the stop lights changing from green to red then back again almost like they needed some traffic to come by to give purpose to the their hanging there. I saw this dog come from behind the fence and wander across the lot, sniffing and looking. When I saw him I tried to find something to give him, but there was really nothing there to give him except candy from the machine, so I went outside and he saw me and stopped. He was timid, of course, so I started talking to him and trying to get him to come over to me. I guess he was curious because he didn't run off. He just stood there inching closer and closer, but just out of reach. I kept talking to him and holding my hand out to show him I meant him no harm. I stood there for about 20 minutes calling him over. He would inch closer but still kept that safe distance. A car pulled up for gas and I filled the tank, washed the window, checked the oil, etc., and exchanged pleasantries with the driver before he went on his way. The dog was patiently waiting for me to finish so we could continue where we left off. It took about an hour that night to get him to come close enough to me for him to sniff my hand. He wouldn't let me pet him but he stayed there the whole night until the morning traffic started and then he went off on his merry way. The next night I worked, after things quieted down and I was again alone in the station and the cars stopped coming, he appeared again, less timid this time but still keeping himself at a safe distance. He kept me company until the morning traffic began. That dog came back every night for about 4 months and in that time we became friends. I would bring in treats for him and over time we played fetch and every day he would keep me company until the morning, then he would disappear. He never let anyone pet him but me and he would never come by on my days off as if he knew I wouldn't be there. I'm not sure what happened to him. I gave notice to my boss that I would be leaving for another job, and at night I told Buddy (that's what I had named the dog), that I would be leaving. I'm not sure if he understood but I would stop by the station to visit after I left and Buddy never came back after my last day there, almost, as if he knew the time we had was over. I'm sure he found other things to do in the wee hours of the morning but for the time I was there he became my friend. He would come around the fence and his tail would wag when he saw me like he just found a new friend. I called the nickel "Mans best friend."

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  Mike's favorite character is "Hobo Harry". Here we have four carvings showing Harry in various activities. 1) "Harry goes downhill", 2) "Harry in the Hammock", 3) "Harry's Big Catch, aka Filet of sole" and 4) "Harry's Grand Ole Opry".

     "Hobo Harry" is a character Mike created to give personality to his nickels. He started carving Harry in "different situations that people could relate to." So, the character just sort of evolved over time. He plans to carve more nickels featuring Harry in various everyday situations. Mike remarked that "when I really sit back and look at Harry I realize how much of me is in Harry and I think it's therapeutic for me. Harry can get away with doing things and saying things that I can't. I want Harry to be a positive character, with good morals匢 plan on getting Harry smaller so that I can have him interacting with other people in the pictures. I'm not quite sure where Harry goes from here. In the next Harry nickel, Harry shows us his musical talent when we discover he is quite the banjo picker, a side of Harry we never knew." (Mike's most recent carving, "Harry's Grand Ole Opry," is pictured on the cover.)

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  This unusual piece is used as a golf ball marker. The owner had Mike carve it on a half dollar dated the year of his birth.

     Occasionally Mike will engrave something so minute on a nickel that it can't even be seen without the aid of a powerful magnifying glass. For example, there might be a tiny scene on the hobo's coat button or on his hat brim. Mike practices this fine work by carving hobo faces on the heads of pins.

     Mike believes in using his talent to help others. After the September 11th tragedy, he carved fireman and policeman nickels which he sold on eBay to raise money for the New York firefighters and policemen. He also donates carvings to the Hobo Foundation. They are sold in the Hobo Museum gift shop and also at the Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. The proceeds from these sales go towards maintenance of the hobo cemetery and the fund for a new building. Other projects Mike donates to include the American Numismatic Association's Young Numismatist programs, and a church mission committee auction.

     Included with this article are illustrations of many of Mike's carvings. Hopefully they will give readers a good feel for the diversity of his work. However, since Mike is a fairly new carver with a very creative mind, it would not surprise me if his future carvings go in different directions. I will be watching with interest.

     TAMS members interested in nickel carving may contact Mike Pezak by email at Thehobonickelguy@aol.com.

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  About this carving, Mike commented, "when I started carving that nickel, I carved it in deep relief. Unfortunately I went a little too deep and popped through the coin to the other side. Rather than lose all the work on the carving I simply cut out the background, leaving the man attached at the bottom where the date is. It looked good until I turned the coin over and saw this poor buffalo that looked like it was hit by a semi truck. So, I came up with the idea of carving a face on the buffalo side. I tried it and it came out pretty good so I named the coin `Twoface.' It sold for $250.00 so evidently someone thought it was a good idea too. It was a nice way to salvage all the work on the first face. I love making mistakes like that. I keep telling my wife I'm not as dumb as I look. She disputed that, and told me not to sell myself short and that my looks are pretty accurate. I'm not quite sure what she meant by that but I think it was something good because she was smiling as she walked away."


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