It's always very helpful to have seen hundreds if not thousands of coins and take little notes on what is good and bad when grading a coin. This exercise helps builds your knowledge base in discerning what you will reasonably expect from each date within every coin series. Almost to the point of being able to tell what a coin's date is by just looking at the reverse side. Collecting any kind of coin with this mindset can be that adventurous, believe me. Also, one does need to see a great many coins before that special one shows. But coin literacy can't be taught in three hours neither do I make any attempt here to do so.
Let me say, I'm a full fledged collector first of many things and the seller in me comes second. It really bothers me to part with something I've worked so hard to acquire/find. Coins that I have collected, I buy so knowing that someday, they will eventually need to find another home. Whether by me, my wife or children.......who knows? So......when buying a coin, I like the idea that someone else won't mind owning as much as I have. So for this reason, all my coins must have complete detailed strikes, minimal marks away from the focal areas, plenty of luster and perhaps some intriguing toning. But there are collectors for every grade and value of collectible coins including pocket change. There is an art to collecting coins but one must develop a discerning eye to find the higher grade coins. Don't just take someone's word for it.
in my younger years I developed grading systems I understood by noting the number of qualities a coin may have. A quality is something specific about a coin such as its luster or strike, how it's measured against other coins. A coin's condition and toning are two other qualities. Proof-like (PL), early die state (EDS) are two more qualities but while rarely used, they are actually extensions of the luster quality and strike quality of the coin. And there's a 7th, frost, which can appear on a business strike but it's rarely seen. I have a 51-S and 64-D that shows this quality. But don't be fooled by coins that have been cleaned with a harsh chemical. They can appear to have frost but it's more of a dullness affect contrasting with the fields.
Early on, I have also used a Q1 thru Q4 notation, Q standing for "Quality" a quality about the coin, whether a coin has 1, 2, 3 or 4 qualities about it. Other systems, I have used letters, such as a S for Strike, a C for the Condition, L for luster and T for toning if it were special. I also may have added a Y for Yes or a N for No on the steps. Each of these four quality components must meet a gratifying level of acceptance/eye appeal within the grading standards but usually within your level of experience, that is.
Look at coin grading like a horse race with 4 to 7 horses each representing a quality. Of course, the rare qualities, horse PL, horse EDS and horse Frost will always seem to be lagging behind. But horses, strike, luster, condition and toning will be almost always leading the pack but by how far? More on this later but I think the reader knows where I'm going with this. :)
So when viewing a coin, any combination of those letters may be noted for a coin and whether the steps were acceptable. A SCLTY coin will have it all. A CLTY without the S will indicate the coin is not fully struck or not all details are present on the coin but the condition, luster and toning are at a satisfying level and an added Y for yes, indicates, there are 5 full steps. A SLN because the C and T are omitted, will indicate the condition is low, a MS63 or MS64 grade type coin and the toning is not all that special but has a nice strike and luster but the steps are not acceptable.
Do not be alarmed when you see that there are very few coins noted with all four qualities, the reason being, they are rare finds, seldom seen and not always available. The lack of luster or outstanding toning are the major culprits for this as most coins lack full toning or luster but yet have very strong strikes. And fewer have eye appealing toning.
From personal experience, many collectors will dip rinse a coin that has scant or unwelcome toning to get a higher grade. This action, IMO, ruins the originality of the coin. The luster is damaged to a degree as well and over time, a coin will re-tone, get dipped again further destroying the coin's lustrous eye appeal. Fact, every time a coin is dipped into a chemical to clean it, a layer of the original surface is striped away/off, removed and lost forever. The coin becomes slightly less brilliant and duller to the eye. Toning is corrosion.
Original toning takes a long time to develop on a coin. It's not a topical layer that can be easily separated/removed. Long term toning sinks into the molecules of the surface metal. Toning, corrosion will eat into the surface of a coin. And a chemical will changed that, for the worse, to get rid of the colors along with some metal that became brittle during the decades long toning process. One Christmas, I bought my sons a science kit and in one of the experiments there was a chemical in the set that could restore color water back to a clear liquid again. Imagine if this chemical is used to change the colors on a coin. That's right, the corrosion is still there on the coin but you can't see it.
Also keep in mind, not all dates can be easily located with perfect mark free or bridge-less steps. So I'm lenient in calling what has full steps especially on the tougher dates because I consider a fully detailed/struck coin far rarer than a coin with a mushy strike that details only the steps. Coins with mushy, worn out details are the pits, the dog do-do of coins and shouldn't have any place in anyone's coin collection but unfortunately, most don't have much of a choice monetarily. The usual plan is, a coin can eventually be upgraded...... maybe.
A scuffed-up coin is usually a coin from pocket change. Tilt the coin back to 45 degrees where it will reflect your light source right back into your eyes. A scuffy coin will have many flecks of nicks on it's surfaces. A scuffed-up coin should not grade above MS64 unless there is pleasing toning to help it.
Also, don't be alarmed when you see a higher price on a coin that does not show in other price guides. That coin may have been upgraded 3-4 times and may have higher qualities than your average milled coin. The boldness of details usually plays a major role for such coins.
There are a few great books out there on grading coins including the The Guidebook of United States Coins by R. S. Yeoman, also known as The Official Red Book. Another is Photograde by James F. Ruddy.
The book, The "Jefferson Nickel Analyst" by Bern Nagengast is a very good one.
And there are more modern books out there.
Drop me an email if you have any questions, at firstname.lastname@example.org
A little about myself, I collected coins by accident or incidence. Let me explain......because I'm deaf in one ear, nobody wanted me around. So.....I had few confiding friends growing up, the military wouldn't take me. College was a failure but than it wasn't, did graduate in an apprentice course but couldn't make a career out of it unless I started a business and was the owner. Worked many jobs, never working more than 5 years in any of them. I eventually needed quad by-pass heart surgery because I was a smoking fool. I basically have given up on work after that not knowing what I was capable of with my health problems. I now mow lawns for my cardio exercise to earn some cash, $3000/year. Believe me, it was hell out there. But anyways, in between all those times when I wasn't working, I would visit the coin shops in the area, travel to others, go to coin auctions. Than the internet came in the 1990's and I actually started a mail-coin list and had 70 members who bought coins from me and I'd buy coins from them. But the thing was, if I was working, I didn't have time to send out coin lists and work plus I had 4 kids to raise. But I tried. So for now, it's this website. Those coin shops, when I showed up, I'd yell, "guess what?" And the owner would say, "you're out of work" or "you got fired again". So this is how I unintentionally ended up with some great Jefferson nickels......by killing time.