Cleaning, Displaying and Storing Casino Chips

Here are some related subjects which all collectors are concerned with: cleaning, repair, storage and display of chips and tokens.

It is important at the outset to distinguish between chips and tokens, because the answers are considerably different. Admittedly, because my specialty is chips rather than tokens, I will leave a more detailed discussion of these issues as they relate to tokens, to someone who specializes in them and is more knowledgeable than I am. Tokens are, essentially, to be treated as coins; chips are not the same, and may be treated differently.

To clean or not to clean?

The rule for tokens, usually, is: don’t clean. If an unused, mint-state token (one which appears just as it did when it came from the mint and has never been used in a slot machine or table game) is cleaned, the cleaning process removes tiny (sometimes microscopic) pieces of metal from the surface of the token, and its pristine condition is ruined forever. This is especially true of proof or proof-like tokens, such as those produced in sets by the Franklin Mint from 1965-1970, when it was the major producer of tokens for the Nevada gaming industry.

Any cleaning process’I repeat, any cleaning process’alters a token permanently. If you have seen 1965 Franklin Mint proof or proof-like tokens, you will notice that there is often some darkening or discoloration present. Coin collectors refer to that discoloration as ‘toning,’ and rather than diminishing the value of a mint-state piece, toning is actually desirable. It’s difficult to create artificially, for one thing, and its presence indicates a pristine, unaltered coin or token.

In fact, proof or proof-like or mint-state tokens should never even be handled without cotton gloves, if their pristine condition is to be preserved. A fingerprint on the bright field of a well-designed, high-relief token will in time result in a permanent discoloration on the surface of the token, from the etching process of the acids normally present in skin oils. You may have seen tokens or coins with fingerprint impressions on them clear enough to be read by the F.B.I.!

Once a token has been used in a slot machine, the coin acceptor, the other tokens in the machine, the metal slides and bins and counting devices will have scratched the surface of the token, and it will no longer be in its mint state. A token which has been used for an extended period may have so many of these scratches on its surface that its original design is obscured. With such tokens, the question whether to clean or polish is of relatively less importance.

Some collectors regularly polish or clean their used tokens so they make a more attractive display. Polishing a token is rather like buffing an automobile: large surface scratches are replaced with smaller scratches, but they are scratches nonetheless. Many collectors feel that once a token has been scratched from use, the smaller scratches which polishing creates cannot possibly harm the piece, but rather makes it more attractive. Similarly, dipping or using any kind of liquid cleaner will remove metal from the surface of the token. On the other hand, so does use in a slot machine, and many collectors feel that the slight harm which can be done by cleaning a proof-like token is immaterial when compared with the gross damage done by slot machine innards and coin sorting machines! 

Chips are a different matter entirely: they are far less fragile than tokens are, and may be treated differently.

We’ve all scraped off with our fingernails the gray hardened gunk on the surface of a chip. The best description I’ve heard for that substance is ‘chip munge,’ composed of equal parts of blood, sweat and tears of the gamblers who played with it! In any case, it’s unattractive and causes chips to stick together.

Similarly, the recessed portions of rim designs are natural gatherers of dirt and grime, and sometimes can even obscure the design or original color of the chip. Because chip condition is a matter of much larger defects than is token condition, and because chips are more indestructible than are tokens, cleaning chips is often more a matter of preference than it is with tokens.

Chip condition criteria are such things as whether the chip maintains its original checkered surface (some chips, of course, have never had such a surface), whether the edges are sharp or rounded, whether the center inlay is damaged or the gold hot stamping present, whether there are dings or notches in the edges of the chip, and whether the chip retains its original color. Those are things which, for the most part, a bit of careful cleaning does not alter.

Many collectors believe that cleaning the surface of the chip to eliminate the accumulated grime of use in a casino and to restore the original colors merely makes the chip more attractive, but does not alter its original condition. Others prefer to keep all but the dirtiest of chips in their collections as they took them off the tables, so that there is no alteration of any kind. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal preference. I have yet to see a chip’s value affected significantly by its ‘cleanliness factor.’ Nor have I seen a collector decline to purchase a chip which has been made more attractive because it was washed carefully. 

If you do wish to clean chips, there are some cautions and some tricks. For one thing, inlaid and hotstamped chips must be treated somewhat differently. The inlaid chips are harder to harm than are hot stamped chips. If a hot stamped chip retains little of its original gold color in the relatively shallow impression of the hot stamp, cleaning is risky: it can remove the remaining traces of the hot stamp. I would not suggest trying to clean an old hot stamped chip with any value, lest the cleaning process remove the vestiges of a readable design. Even when cleaning hot stamped chips in good condition, with most of the metallic hot stamp remaining, more caution must be exercised than is the case with inlaid chips.

Brass core and diecut metal inlay chips often benefit from polishing with brass or copper polish (again, unless they are in completely mint condition). A small bit of polish on a very soft rag, or just between your fingers will shine the metal quite nicely, and again the tiny scratches added to the surface of the metal by the polish are substantially smaller than the scratches resulting from use of the chips on gaming tables. A chip cleaned this way will have to be washed afterwards (see below) to remove traces of the polish and the blackened residue left from removal of the metal tarnish.

No matter what the type of chip, however, there are several generalizations that can be made. I have not used the liquid chip cleaner which some chip dealers sell, and I cannot discuss its effectiveness or potential for damage. Perhaps a reader who is more familiar with the substance will be willing to share his or her experiences by writing to me. My own method of cleaning chips, and probably the most widespread, is simple washing.

If chips are going to be washed, the process should be done with tepid (not hot) water and a mild soap (not detergent). If the chip is especially dirty, a soft-bristled toothbrush can be used, but never a stiff brush of any kind, which can damage the surface of the chip. Chips should never be allowed to sit or soak in water or other liquid, or they can warp. I prefer to wash them under running water, doing a few at a time, placing them on a paper towel as soon as they are clean, and drying them thoroughly as soon as possible.

If there is stubborn dirt in the recesses of a chip mold design that this kind of washing cannot remove, a small, pointed instrument like a dental tool or wooden toothpick can be used to remove more of the dirt. Extreme care must be taken, however, not to allow such a tool to slip, or the result will be a badly scratched chip. And it is important to be sure that the mold design itself is not damaged by the cleaning process.

Hot stamped chips can be cleaned in the same way, although extra caution must be taken not to scrape or wash out the metallic design.

If you have ever washed chips in this manner, you may have noticed that dark blue and red chips seem to fade after they are washed. The reason is that the surface oils which keep the color dense and bright have been removed in the cleaning process. Replacing that oil (if in fact the fading is due to washing and not light damage) is not a difficult process. I recommend using plain, light mineral oil, available in any drugstore. Merely dampen your thumb and index finger (notice the word ‘dampen’: very little oil is needed) and rub the chip (being careful not to forget the edges of the chip as well as the surface) between your fingers. The color will return as bright and dense as ever.

Too much oil will pool on the surface of the chip, and that is something to be avoided! Use only as much oil as can readily be absorbed by the surface of the chip. Excess oil will attract dirt, making the chip gummy, and may damage whatever container the chip is later stored in.

After washing (whether or not oil is used to restore color), be sure that the chips are allowed to air-dry thoroughly before they are stored.

Chip repair

Most of us have experienced the disappointment of finding that a chip has been damaged somehow: it may be missing a center inlay on one side, the inlay may have fallen out in the drawer or tube or album we store the chips in, a coin inlay may have fallen out of the chip; the diecut metal inlay in an old chip may have become dislodged, a chip may have been broken in two in shipping, or we may have the temptation to remove a hot stamped cancellation from a chip to reveal the original design. 

The fact of the matter is that no matter what a collector does to repair such a chip, it will never look as it did when it was manufactured. The process of inserting the center inlay in a chip during its manufacture is complicated and precise, and no matter what a collector may do, s/he will not be able to restore the flush surface of the chip with the center inlay in its proper position.

If a collector desires to attempt a repair for his own collection, there is no reason not to try. The value of the chip has already been substantially diminished by virtue of the defect, and it is unlikely that it can be harmed by repair. I have no secrets or tricks to impart, but care and caution are always in order.

One thing, however, that cannot ethically be done is the representation (even tacit) that a repaired chip is in its original condition. All collectors are entitled to assume that unless otherwise stated, a chip is in its original as-manufactured condition. If a chip has been damaged in some way, whether it has been repaired or not, its condition must be disclosed before sale or trade of the item. Chips sitting in an album at a trade session or on a dealer’s table are always assumed to be in their original condition, and collectors have a right to make that assumption. It is incumbent upon the owner of a chip which has been repaired or altered (by removing or filling in a cancellation, for example) to disclose clearly and in advance of any transaction, that the chip has been repaired in some way.

Not to disclose, by means of a label or slip of paper in the album, that a chip has been repaired or altered violates the collectors’ Code of Ethics and borders on fraud, especially if the chip is priced in such a way that a potential trader or purchaser would have the right to believe that the chip was in its original condition. 

The storage and display of one’s collection is a subject that every collector deals with at some point. When my own collection was small, I kept my chips in an ashtray that I’d “liberated” from one of the casinos I’d visited. Fairly soon, though, my collection grew to the point that ashtrays were no longer the answer for storage and display!

There are several ways that collectors store the chips in their collection, the most common way being in albums in photographic slide pages, or flexible plastic pages made for coins. The three-ring binder/plastic pages method has several advantages: in clear pages, both sides of each chip are visible, a definite plus these days because many chips have different obverse and reverse designs. Three-ring binders are common, easy to obtain, and inexpensive. A collection can easily be categorized by keeping chips grouped in binders, each labeled with its specific category.

For example, a collector who specializes in collecting chips by denomination, might use one binder for 10′ chips, another for 25′ chips, another for 50′ chips, and yet another for $1 chips. A collector who collects geographically might use a separate binder for each town, city or state. A large collection might be broken down by casino name, with chips from casinos whose names begin with A, B, or C in one binder, D, E, or F in the next.

In addition to using flexible plastic pages for chips, some collectors go a step further, also using white cardboard foldover holders lined with clear Mylar, then inserting the chip in the page pocket. This method affords the advantage of being able to write notes (details about the casino which issued the chip, how the chip was obtained, its cost, etc.) on the foldover, and also providing a white background against which the chip can be viewed. Regular-size coin or photo slide pages will accept foldovers (commonly known among coin collectors as “u-do-its”), which are made to fit silver dollars. Unfortunately, that size is just a bit too small for the standard casino chip. There is a larger size holder, called a “crown-size” holder, however, which is a perfect fit for casino chips and which is carried in stock by many coin dealers and some chip dealers as well. Although the display features of the crown-size holder and its fit for casino chips are definite pluses, there is also a disadvantage: special pages are required, because the pockets in standard slide pages/coin pages are too small to hold the crown-size holders.

While the crown-size pages hold fewer chips than do slide or regular size coin pages, some collectors see that as an advantage. We have all experienced the problem of album rings coming apart or albums themselves being dropped simply because slide pages crammed with chips can become extremely heavy. Crown-size pages tend to force collectors to put fewer chips between the covers of a looseleaf album, thereby reducing the weight of each album.

The album method is used by more collectors than any other single means of storing one’s collection. There are others, however. Some collectors, for example, keep their chips in chip boxes, either the cardboard kind in which the chips are shipped originally or in clear plastic, covered boxes made specifically for the purpose of storing chips. There are advantages to this method as well. It’s far easier, for example, to insert a new chip from a casino, and to move succeeding chips down, even into a new box if necessary, than it is to do the same thing with an album in which every space is already taken by a chip.

For that reason, collectors who use plastic pages in albums often leave blank spaces ever three or four pages, or after each category (three or four spaces between casinos, for example), so that expansion can be absorbed without having to move a vast number of chips.

The main disadvantage to the chip box storage method, of course, is that it’s virtually impossible to view one’s collection without removing the chips from the box. That, in turn, makes it fairly easy to replace chips in the wrong order, to drop chips, and potentially to lose them.

Another method of storage is to use coin boxes, which are specifically made of heavy cardboard, to the measurements of the individual cardboard “u-do-it” holders. Chips are placed in the white cardboard Mylar-lined holders, labeled, then filed in coin boxes. Although the ability to label the chips reduces the chance that disaster will occur if a stack is dropped, the disadvantage still exists that the collector is dealing with individual pieces rather than pages from which chips don’t fall so easily. And of course, viewing one’s collection is difficult.

Many collectors like to be able to see at least parts of their collections without the trouble of hauling out albums or unpacking boxes full of chips. Displaying of chips is something that many collectors want to do, not only for themselves, but for friends who are interested in seeing what the hobby is about without having to look through 20 chips from the same casino in an album or in a stack of chips.

Chip displays are as varied as collectors who create them, and I’m quite sure that I haven’t seen all the various kinds of displays that members have put together. The simplest kind of display, of course, is to fill one of the various chip frames advertised here in Gaming Times. There are a number of different styles and sizes of frames available, and each has mats with diecut holes to fit casino chips.

There are also a number of ways to display chips with homemade or custom-made frames. Shadowbox-type frames, for example, which hold chips as well as other casino memorabilia are available at framing shops, for example. There are also manufacturers of custom-made thick Plexiglas or acrylic paperweights and holders, most of which market to coin collectors, but which will just as easily make display frames for chip collectors.

One thing to keep in mind with any chip display, however, is that sunlight (and to a lesser degree, fluorescent light) can severely fade chips and destroy their value. Dark colors are especially vulnerable to light-fading. If you’d like to perform an experiment, take a common chip you don’t want for your collection and leave it sitting on your automobile dashboard in the sunlight for a week. At the end of the week, the side exposed to the sun will be a significantly different color from the side that was shaded from direct sunlight, even through the car’s windshield.

Unlike the fading resulting from washing chips, which can be reversed with the application of a small amount of mineral oil, fading from sunlight or fluorescent light is irreversible. It permanently damages the chip, to the extent that its value is reduced measurably. There are frames advertised here in Gaming Times and other casino collectibles publications that claim to have ultraviolet-screen clear coverings instead of plain glass or Lucite covers for the chips. I have not had sufficient personal experience with such frames and prolonged exposure to light to know whether the claims of color protection are borne out over time. (I’ll be glad to conduct some experiments if someone is willing to donate the chips!) In the meantime, I’d strongly suggest not relying on such claims. Instead, I would recommend rotating chips in a display that is exposed to ultraviolet light sources. If displayed chips are changed every month or so, and care is taken not to expose the display to direct sunlight, my own experience indicates that the chips will not be damaged.

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