Collecting Copper Pennies

by Michael on May 10, 2013 · 2 comments

Photo of Copper Pennies

As a quick followup to my earlier post on searching for silver coins, I wanted to briefly address the situation with pennies.

As you’re likely aware, pennies used to be primarily composed of copper, though nowadays they’re largely made of zinc.

With the high value of copper, recent years have seen an increasing number of people hoarding not just silver nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars, but also copper pennies.

So what should you be looking for? As it turns out, all pennies minted prior to 1982 were 95% copper and 5% zinc. This includes Indian head pennies (1864-1909), wheat pennies (1909-1958), and older Lincoln pennies (1959-1981).

Note: Pennies from 1943 were made of steel for much the same reason that the composition of “war nickels” was altered — to conserve metals with military value and more limited availability.

During 1982, when the Mint transitioned to producing pennies that are 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper, the situation is less clear. Some pennies minted that year are the old, copper-rich composition. Others are the newer, primarily zinc composition.

Since they look pretty much the same, the surest way to distinguish between copper and zinc pennies from 1982 is based on weight, with copper-based pennies weighing 3.11 grams and zinc-based pennies weighing 2.5 grams.

Unfortunately, since both of these values round to 3 grams, you’ll need a scale that reports to the tenth of a gram to tell them apart. Many kitchen scales (ours included) don’t give that level of resolution, though some do.

Anyway, based on current (as of this writing) metal prices, the older, copper-based pennies have a melt value of around 2.2 cents. In contrast, the zinc-based pennies are worth less than half a cent.

As was the case with silver coins, I’m ignoring the numismatic value here. Of course, many older pennies will have a much higher value in the eyes of collectors.

For what it’s worth, I sifted through a few hundred pennies and found 45 copper pennies. So yes, they’re still out there in circulation, though you’ll need to collect (literally) tons of them to amass much value in terms of metal content.

1 krantcents May 10, 2013 at 6:56 pm

My Dad gave me his Indian Head Penny collection. The pennies are worth far more than the copper content. I don’t know if I will ever sell it.

2 Michael May 10, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Yeah, you’d be insane to scrap something like that for the copper content. I have a couple of old books of pennies and nickels from back when I used to collect them as a kid.

To the extent possible, I was collecting one from each year/mint. I was obviously missing some of the more valuable pieces — e.g., I never managed to snag that 1909 S Vdb wheat penny that I dreamt of. But still…

It would be fun to find them and look back at what I managed to collect. They’re somewhere in my parents’ basement. I really need to try to dig them out next time I’m there.

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