Soft or Hard Enamel Coins: Which is Better?

In your search for a company to manufacture your customized challenge coins, you may have come across a few articles that talk about Soft Enamel coins vs. Hard Enamel coins. Well, here are the cold hard facts about the two types of enamel processing and what they mean with respect to how your coins will actually look in your hands or display case.

There are those that proclaim that a Hard Enamel coin is far superior than Soft Enamel. Let’s talk about what is commonly misrepresented as Hard Enamel first.

Hard Enamel: This process is a derivative of the Cloisonne finishing technique first used by ancient Chinese lapel pin makers. Your coin is formed from a mold, which “stamps” your design into brass or other metal alloy. This stamping actually imprints your specific design into the metal and also forms the shape of the coin. Raised and recessed areas are created by this stamping process. It is the recessed areas that receive the color (if your coins have color in the design). The hard enamel technique fills these recessed areas to a level that is flush with the raised areas. The coins are then baked at a high temperature and then “polished” with a special wheel that makes sure the colors and metal edges are flush. In the end, the challenge coin’s surface is shiny and smooth – the raised and recessed areas are no longer present.

Raised areas give it a textured feeling that makes it more appealing to many people. We create these coins by using a mold. This allows a custom design to be stamped onto the surface of the coin. We then complete the production process by baking the coins and then polishing them to perfection.

Soft Enamel: Soft enamel is not actually soft to the touch. It is simply enamel filling that has not been polished. The difference between the two is that the color used for the design lies lower than the raised areas.

This is merely an industry term referring to a technique and finishing process that greatly effects how a finished challenge coin will appear to the end user. There is nothing “soft” about a Soft Enamel coin at all. The biggest difference between the two processes is that the Soft Enamel coin is not “polished.” Also, the colors are not filled to the level of the raised metal areas. In fact, the colors are added to a level that is slightly beneath the raised areas of the coin.

Air Force Challenge Coins

Above is a close-up view of a traditional challenge coin minted for the US Air Force using the soft enamel finishing process. Note the dimension and character of the overall design made possible by the recessed colors.

So, what does this mean to you? The facts are that over 90% of the challenge coins EVER made were minted using the Soft Enamel process. SE coins add dimension, texture, and character to a personalized coin. Their surface has characteristics that you can feel with your hand and also capture light that enhance the design.

Please don’t misunderstand us, we make hard enamel coins for the very few that prefer the appearance, and they are more costly to mint. However, the fact is that many companies tout that all of their coins are made using the hard enamel process and that they are somehow superior to soft enamel. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

MYTH: Soft Enamel colors flake and peel off the coin over time. We have over a decade of experience with Soft Enamel and Hard Enamel finishes, and quite frankly, we’ve never seen a Soft Enamel coin degrade, peel, flake, etc. If this has been witnessed, the manufacturer clearly is not experienced or equipped to produce custom coins. We guarantee all of our coins to be free of these defects.

Remember that ancient Chinese method mentioned earlier called “Cloisonne?” The fact is, Hard Enamel (or Cloisonne) coins should really be termed “Imitation” Hard Enamel. True Hard Enamel finishing is limited to a specific set of colors that are actually made up of tiny color-tinted glass granules. So limited are these colors, that most of them wouldn’t be adaptable to your coin designs. HINT: If any company is using PMS colors in the design of your coins – a true hard enamel coin is simply not possible. PMS colors are not synonymous with hard enamel in any way.

So what is really going on here? Here’s what is happening when you order a Hard Enamel challenge coin: The same colored enamel that is used from a Soft Enamel coin is filled to a level even with the raised coin surface. That same enamel is then baked, polished to a high shine and presented as a true hard Enamel coin. Same enamel color – different finish – that’s it.

Confused yet? It can get complicated, we know.

It’s really a matter of preference as to how you want your coin to look. As explained earlier, the majority of custom challenge coins ever produced in the last 75+ years were NOT hard enamel…and over 75% of the coins we mint are NOT hard enamel either.

Do we like “Hard Enamel” coins?…Do we mint “Hard Enamel” coins? Sure we do. They produce a highly reflective and sleek finish and, with the right design details, can be real head-turners. The increased cost of such coins is in the 10-15% range due to the extra steps involved in the minting process. The small percentage of these coins that we do mint are usually for Corporate applications that demand a product that has the smooth finish.

In the end, we want to make your custom coins exactly how you want them – smooth surface or dimensional. However, we felt we needed to set the record straight after reading some very misleading (yet creative) sales copy over the years.

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