How I Spent Four Days Of My Vacation or, Do You Have 11,966 Pennies That You Don’t Know What To Do With?

I want to share a project that I did at my little cottage in the Kawartha Lakes.  I have had the place for four summers and was never really happy with the wall treatment behind the fireplace.  It was very popular in the 1960’s when the place was built but personally I just did not like the faux stone look.

The wall behind the fireplace with the original faux-stone treatment

The stone is not really stone, it is faux-stone made in some factory and it is very clear that it is not real stone, it even had glitter on the surface:

The only problem was, what to replace the faux-stone with?  I did some web surfing and found a few posts about “penny tile” and thought, huh, sounds interesting.  Of course, they were talking about ceramic tiles the size of pennies, not actual currency penny tiles.  But I was thinking actual pennies from the start.  I then saw pictures of the Standard Hotel in NYC, which tiled the floor in its new restaurant with currency penny tiles and I was sold.  So, I had my new wall treatment and only (HA!) needed to do the fabrication, installation and finishing.

On the first day I bought rolls of pennies, lots of rolls of pennies.

$53.50 in pennies, I eventually used just shy of $120.00 worth.

 

When the teller at the bank in Fenelon Falls asked me what I was going to do with them I explained the concept to her and showed her a photo of the 12″ X 12″ sample that I had made (in order to calculate the total number of pennies that I would need).  She called over her colleagues and all agreed that it was an interesting, if somewhat unusual, idea.

I set-up a pair of saw horses in my garage and set the first panel on them to start the gluing process.  I quickly figured out a method that worked for me, and the pennies started getting glued in place.

Weldbond Glue, a small paint roller and finding a method that worked for me.

Taking the time to place them all in the same orientation – heads up, year, patina or whatever – would have been incredibly time consuming.

The randomness of the penny orientation adds to the look. Note 12″ X 12″ sample tile on right.

If I accidentally spied an interesting penny during my rapid-fire gluing I would put it aside for special placement.  For example, I found a few Canadian Centennial pennies.  I also spied what I think is the oldest on the wall, a 1919 US penny.

1919 US penny, the “S” under the year denotes that it was minted in San Francisco.

By the end of the first day I had completed the first panel. Time spent — about 8 hours of planning, buying material, assembling saw horses, trimming the plywood, figuring out what I was doing and gluing pennies.

The first panel of pennies complete, the base is a piece of 1/4″ plywood trimmed to 4′ X 6′.

The next day I encountered a small hurdle.  In order for the finished wall to look seamless I would have to have a row of pennies that straddled the seam between the first and the second panel.  This would mean gluing down a few 6′ wide rows of pennies knowing that one row would then be removed so I could move the panels separately.  I determined that I would have to do this on the floor of the garage in order to accurately line up the two panels.  Yesterday was easy compared to this.  Yesterday I was standing up, gluing away, today would start with me on my knees bending over and gluing on pennies that I knew would be coming up and need to be glued on again once the panels were installed.  Plus, I have a bad back so this was tough work.  Second small hurdle was that the first panel slightly curled up at the edges, due I think to the large amount of glue on the surface, necessitating some weight on the seam to get it flat for a good line-up.

I weighted down the edge of the first panel in order to line it up with the second and then began the back breaking task of hands and knees gluing to get the seam correct.

It was with a slight amount of trepidation that I lifted the first panel off the saw horses to lay it flat on the floor, I knew that if the 1/4″ ply bent too much then pennies would come flying off; copper does not bend like 1/4″ plywood does.  To my delight only about 20 pennies fell off in the transfer and I could deal with that easily.

By the end of the second day both panels were complete and I was ready to prep the wall behind the fireplace.  You never know what you are going to get when you go into the walls of an older house so I popped off a stone to see what was under.

As suspected, the faux stones had been glued to a substrate of plywood.

My first thought was to remove all the faux stones and then scrape the glue off and I would then be able to attach my new penny wall right onto the existing plywood.  Alas, it was not to be.  When I had removed all the faux stones the glue proved impossible to scrape off.  That meant that the old plywood would have to come off.  It proved to be a lot of work.

The old glue, cement really, proved impossible to scrape off.

Outlines of the faux stones and the spots of glue that held them on.

If  you have ever tried to remove plywood without access to an edge you know it is not an easy task.  I do not have any pictures of this part because I just went at it with various tools to pry that old plywood off and then get the  2″ nails that held it on out without cutting myself on any of them.  A trip for a tetanus shot was not in the plans.

I used a skill saw to cut the plywood to get an edge.  The skill saw was so old that I burned it out and resorted to a hand saw.  I also used a pry bar, at one point a shovel jammed in behind the plywood, a hammer, and lots of brute force to get that old plywood removed.  But I did it.

Behind the old plywood was cedar planks.

Some of you might wonder why I did not just leave the beautiful cedar wall as it was behind the fireplace.  I have a LOT of cedar in my place, many walls are cedar, so I did not feel the need to leave this patch exposed.  The penny wall was always intended as a feature wall.  Plus, the heat generated by the fireplace necessitates something that insulates between the cedar and the fireplace.

Next was yet another trip to town for some 1″ X 4″ pine to make a frame to attach the penny panels securely to the cedar.

Then the installation of the first panel could begin.  I realized at this point that I had made a small mistake in the fabrication of the panels.  I should have made the larger piece of plywood the bottom panel, it would have been much easier that way, less heavy lifting.  Oh well, it was too late to change so I went ahead and installed the first panel and screwed it to the 1″ X 4″ frame.

It was a bit daunting carrying it from the garage, but it fit perfectly and was starting to shape up.

Getting the top panel in place required the temporary installation of some brackets along the top of the bottom panel and along the side of where the top panel would sit, in order to hold it in place while I lined them up and screwed it in place.  Also, again, I had to muscle a 4′ X 6′ piece of plywood with about 8,500 pennies on it from the garage. It was quite heavy, as you would expect.

I then glued the pennies along the seam back into place, it worked well.  I used a hot glue gun for this part, the instant hold of hot glue was better than using white glue to fix a penny to a vertical surface.  I then glued on the few pennies that had fallen off in transport and was ready for the grout.  I had never grouted before so was a bit unsure but went ahead and did it, washing it down and then letting it dry overnight.

I then noticed for the first time how much the look changed as the light on it changed, from sunlight to artificial and thought it looked very interesting.

Trim not yet installed, the evening light playing off the wall.

I then trimmed the whole thing to frame it and applied a spray finish.

Here is the finished penny wall.

Finished wall, all trimmed, sealed and DONE!

As for the 1919 US and some other interesting pennies that I put aside?

Some interesting and old pennies, note the Canadian Centennial, 1941,1952 and others.  The grout works well too.

What else?  Final stats:

2 sheets of 1/4″ plywood

4 containers of Weldbond white glue

a small paint roller

a bunch of 1″ X 4″ Pine

assorted #8 robertson screws

hot glue gun and about ten glue sticks

pine trim painted brown

one bag of grout

two cans of spray sealant

oh yeah, and 11,966 pennies, mostly Canadian but also some US, plus one foreign copper coin that I put in just for fun.

Finally, a photo that did not get into the post.

Random shot as shadows and sunlight play on the first panel as it lays on the garage floor.

9 comments

  1. Jo-Anne Wallace · · Reply

    What a wonderful post Jim! The penny backdrop is stunning – what a unique & inspiring project. Can’t wait to read more of your posts. Congrats.

  2. Patrick mohan · · Reply

    That is the coolest thing I have see in a long time! Way to go Jimmy… now, since you are so creative and industrious, when are you coming to my place?

  3. GORGEOUS!

  4. Absolutely Beautiful Jim. I can’t help but wonder though..is it up to code?, and how has it stood up to the enormous amount of heat given off by the stove? Let us know.

    1. Thanks Sal. There is no reason for the wall to not be up to code. The pennies and grout are both fire proof and therefore can be placed in that proximity to the fireplace. And the plywood underneath is completely covered so no code violation there either. As for when the fire is going, you raise a good point. It was not until AFTER I installed it that I thought “Hmmm will all those pennies expand with the heat from the fire and start popping of the wall?”. It was with a bit of trepidation that I lit the first fire in October 2012 but I am happy to report that after many fires over the last months the wall is intact, no pennies have popped off and the look has not changed at all.
      Thanks for your interest,
      Best,
      Jim

  5. incredible!!!!

  6. […] Blogger Jproe spent four days and used nearly 12, 000 pennies to make this amazing feature wall in his […]

  7. We are currently working on a penny wall of our own and, sadly, after we grouted we are left with a really awful haze on all of our pennies :( Did you run into this problem? And if so, what did you do to fix it? Thanks in advance!

    Katie

    1. Katie, I did not have that issue and am not sure what caused it, except if maybe you did not do the wash down of the wall quickly enough and the grout dried? I used a typical bathroom/kitchen grout for ceramic tiles and scrubbed it off as soon as I could. Sorry, not much help. Good luck and send me a pic!! Jim.

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