Click to return from whence you came! Nickels get face lift

Jan Hogan, View Staff Writer ~ Friday, September 20, 2002

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Local creates hobo nickels as collector's items

   Look closely at Mike Pezak's nickels. He transforms the coins into pictures reminiscent of the Depression when men wandered from town to town in search of work. These "hobo" nickels are a collector's item and worth far more than five cents.

  Mike Pezak shows off some of the tools he uses to work on the nickels. On a whim, he added a beanie propeller to one hobo nickel. It stuck out beyond the coin's edges. Pezak said it was the only nickel he knew of that had a moving part.
   Under Pezak's engraving tools, the face on an Indian nickel becomes a scraggly gent, sporting a beard, a mustache, a shawl on his shoulders. He can even give him a nose job. Or perhaps the coin shows the full figure of a smiling hobo, waving, carrying a stick on his shoulder from which a sack hangs.

   While such coins are a hot commodity with collectors, Pezak said he thinks of it more in terms of fun. He spends hours each day working on the small surfaces and the sense of accomplishment the finished coins bring appears to mean as much to him as any monetary gain.

   Though the majority of his art depicts hobos, Pezak also makes up pictures like the one he did of a boy and his dog at a swimming hole.

   Sometimes seeing Pezak's finished coins is only half the story. He delights in adding elements so tiny, they can't be seen with the naked eye. They can't even be seen with a 10-power or 15-power jeweler's loop, which only make them look like extra scratches.

   He engraves tiny scenes within the confines of, say, the hobo's hat brim or on his coat button. The miniature picture requires a 30-power microscope to be seen.

   "I practiced by doing hobo faces on the heads of pins," he said.

   Pezak works at various levels so more people can afford his creations. High-quality coins, which sell for $200 to $1,000 each, can take up to 15 hours to engrave. To date, he's made about 150 of them.

   Medium-range coins sell for $30 to $100, and low-range efforts, which Pezak calls "giveaways," are those that feature unsalvageable mistakes.

   Pezak came by his hobo nickels in a roundabout way. When he was young, a friend of his was a jeweler and when he showed him the craft, Pezak got interested and learned all that he could. He spent 24 years as a jeweler.

  One of the things Mike Pezak does is change the Indian into the face of a hobo, changing the headband to a hat brim, removing the feather and giving him a beard. Photos by GARY THOMPSON
   About two years ago, another friend showed him a couple of hobo nickels he'd bought and Pezak was hooked. Using his finesse as a jeweler, he began to engrave coins, using no sketched-out designs, just the ideas in his head. The result is a style that speaks of childlike innocence.

   Theolinda Foster, who lives in Indiana, is a collector of hobo nickels. She was raised in Britt, Iowa, home of the National Hobo Convention, which is held every August.

   "Mike's work is as close to the real feeling of being a hobo (as you can get)," she said. "I met a lot of them in Britt as a child and that is the appeal I personally find in Mike's work. There are some excellent carvers on the nickel scene, but Mike's stand out in that they almost talk to you. They can tell you a story if you just listen to them."

   Pezak admits he tends to engrave deep, a concern when an artist works both side of the coin. One time he made a mistake and "popped through." Not to worry. He latched onto an idea, expanded the hole, used it in the design and began offering coins with cutouts.

   His hobby led him to learn more about the Depression, when hobos traveled the country doing odd jobs to earn money.

   "People think of a hobo as a bum, which is kind of an insult," he said. "If there was work for them to do, they gave it their all, not like the work ethic you see now."

   He left his jewelry-making career to be self-employed soon after he was introduced to hobo nickels. Now he engraves nickels full time and sells them through his Web site at or he can be reached at 871-9293.

   "These nickels are more about the hobo culture than just carving a coin," he said. "The more I learn about the culture the more I'm seeing my work changing to reflect that culture."

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