Building a coin cabinet, part I

From junk cabinet to coin cabinet

When I first started collecting coins, I went through a couple different storage approaches. Eventually I settled on 3-ring binders — coins in 2×2 flips w/ ID tag, placed in album pages, placed in binders. This worked great for modern coins, but I was having problems with bronze disease in ancient coins, and decided I needed a system that allowed for better air circulation around the coins. It seemed that the flips just trapped moisture and humidity. Plus, as my collection grew, I really wanted something spiffy and "presentation" quality. There's lots of coin storage products on the market, but they're either cold, sterile plastic cases, which I hated, or lovely wood cabinets, which were prohibitively expensive, so I thought I'd take a stab at building my own. (The links at left feature some really beautiful products.)

I had this old cabinet that I'd bought at at junk shop ages ago for $10 — probably Depression-era? It was heavily coated with this gummy reddish lacquer/shellac, but it looked like mahogany underneath (turned out to be mahogany-faced plywood, but still...). I had stripped it with Formby's Furniture Refinisher, which left it with this lovely mellow patina, and then finished it simply by sealing it with some Tung oil. A relaxed, character-filled bookcase was born, perfect for oversize books.

So one day I looked at it and thought, maybe I can just mount some trays in it and turn it into a coin cabinet. My woodworking skills being rudimentary, at best, it would be easier than building a cabinet from scratch, and would be a lot more handsome. You can see the results below. I have to say, if I can do it, anyone can!


Here's the finished cabinet. Unfortunately, I didn't document it while I was building it, I just have these photos from after I finished.

I planned seven trays. At 20-inches wide, I could fit 72 coins per tray, so this would let me store just over 500 coins. At the time, this seemed endless!

If I needed more space, I could just mount more trays to the bottom. In the meantime, I could use the remaining shelves to hold coin reference books and such.



The trays, and all the other wood parts, are crafted from solid 100% mahogany. (Mahogany is typically considered the best wood for coin cabinets.)

I spent a long time trying to find an economical way to do this — solid mahogany being depressingly expensive — when I had the good fortune to stumble across a local tag sale from someone who used to build cabinets, and was selling a quantity of raw lumber. I picked up about 30 board feet of rough, solid mahogany boards for $30. A local carpenter planed them into smooth, 3/4-inch thick boards, 1 foot wide. I was in business.



As I mentioned earlier, air circulation was a big concern of mine, so I made sure that there was space between each tray. I also left a couple inches open in back, so air could circulate throughout the cabinet. The bottom plate goes all the way to the back to keep air entry to a minimum, although it's not air-tight by any means.

You can see the unfinished boards I used to mount the trays on the side of the cabinet. Those are unfinished mahogany-faced plywood, so all the interior surfaces are unfinished mahogany.



On the inside-back wall of the cabinet, I made 2 pockets for dessicant canisters. Even though it's not air-tight, the amount of air entering the cabinet should be minimal enough that two of these canisters can keep the inside air pretty dry.


The tray fronts are finished with tung oil, but the trays themselves are unfinished.

I had to search a bit to find real wool felt for the pocket bottoms, everything seemed to be artificial. The worst thing about this project turned out to be cutting out the felt inserts for the tray pockets. Couldn't for the life of me figure out any way to do it other than to cut out each one individually with scissors. Took me hours and hours to cut 500 circles. Felt is a pretty tough fabric, too.


One of the things I didn't like about the trays I saw for sale was that all the pockets tended to be the same size, and my coins are a variety of sizes. If I got trays sized for my largest coins, each tray would hold very few coins, which seemed wasteful. On the other hand, the largest coins are the most fun to display, so I don't want to store those separately. So I designed each tray with one 50mm pocket (especially for my 47mm Ptolemy II hockey puck), a couple of other larger pockets for sestertius-sized coins, and smaller pockets for the rest, to maximize the number of coins per tray.

I used Forstner bits to drill the pockets. One unintended benefit of different-sized pockets is that I could use different size bits instead of burning out one bit!

I sawed my 12-inch thick boards into 20-inch planks. Then, I cut a 1.5-inch strip off the back of each plank. The 10.5 inch board became the tray body. The 1.5 inch strip (turned over) became the tray front. I used an inexpensive router to carve out the 3/4-inch groove to fit the tray body into, as well as the beveled edges.

I have to say, mahogany is a wonderful wood to work with, much more workable than oak or maple. It's so easy to finish, all you need is a simple coat of oil and it looks gorgeous.