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What is Money Made Of and How is Money Made?
Updated February 9, 2023
Since 2003, new designs for denominations of $5‑$100 include security features to make these bills more difficult to counterfeit.
The production of modern U.S. paper money is a complex procedure involving highly trained and skilled craftspeople, specialized equipment and a combination of time-honored printing techniques merged with sophisticated, cutting-edge technology. Printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) in either Washington, D.C. or Fort Worth, Texas, paper currency is produced to strict quality standards with several security measures built in to deter counterfeiting.
In this guide, you'll learn what money is made of and how money is made through a seven-step process.
7 Steps to Making Paper Money
- Special Paper and Ink
Offset printing, plate/intaglio printing, currency inspection, overprinting, cutting, trimming, and packaging, what is money made of.
While most paper used for items such as newspapers and books is primarily made of wood pulp, money is made out of a special currency paper composed of 75% cotton and 25% linen. Produced by Crane Currency in Dalton, Massachusetts, this paper is made specifically for the BEP – and only for the BEP. It's illegal for anyone other than the BEP to have it in their possession.
Similarly, the BEP designs and produces their own inks. All U.S. paper money features green ink on the backs, while the faces use a combination of inks. Including black ink, color-shifting ink (in the lower right corner of $10-$100 notes) and metallic ink (for the freedom icons on $10, $20 and $50 bills). The "bell in the inkwell" freedom icon on $100 notes also uses color-shifting ink.
The visual appearance of each denomination is created by a bank note designer and, in cases like that of the current $100 bill, can take as long as 10 years to make it into circulation. Recent new designs for denominations of $5-$100 use similar portraits and historical images to previous notes, but include subtle background colors to make the bills more difficult to counterfeit. Security features include a portrait watermark visible when held up to the light, two numeric watermarks on $5 notes, enhanced security thread that glows under an ultraviolet light, micro printing, color-shifting ink that changes color when the note is tilted and a 3‑D security ribbon on the current $100 bills.
For notes of $5 and above with subtle background colors, offset printing is the first stage of production once a design is finalized. The colored background design is duplicated on a film negative and transferred to a thin steel printing plate with light-sensitive coating through exposure to ultraviolet light. This is called "burning a plate." The background colors are then printed on the BEP's Simultan presses, which are state-of-the-art, high-speed rotary presses. Ink is transferred from the printing plates to rubber "blanket" cylinders, which then transfer the ink to the paper as it passes through the blankets. The printed sheets are then dried for 72 hours before continuing.
The letters on a modern serial number from the color series represent the series year, the Federal Reserve Bank to which the note was issued, and a counting device.
The star indicates this sheet replaces one found defective.
An uncut sheet of 32 $1 bills
Intaglio printing is used for the portraits, vignettes, scrollwork, numerals and lettering unique to each denomination. From an Italian word meaning to cut or engrave, " intaglio " refers to the design being skillfully "carved" into steel dies with sharp tools and acids – which is why the process is sometimes called plate or steel plate printing. Some engravers specialize in portraits and vignettes, while others are experts in lettering and script. The images are then combined and transferred to a printing plate through the process of siderography. Engraved plates are mounted on the press and covered with ink. A wiper removes the excess ink, leaving ink only in the recessed image area. Paper is laid atop the plate, and when pressed together, ink from the recessed areas of the plate is pulled onto the paper to create the finished image.
The green engraving on the back of U.S. currency is printed on high-speed, sheet-fed rotary intaglio presses. Back-printed sheets require 72 hours to dry and cure before moving to the face intaglio press, where special cut-out ink rollers transfer different inks to specific portions of the engraved designs. Black ink is used for the border, portrait and Treasury signatures, while color-shifting ink is used for lower right portions of $10 and higher-denomination notes. The freedom icons are printed with metallic ink on $10, $20, and $50 bills and color-shifting ink for the on $100 notes.
The BEP's Offline Currency Inspection System (OCIS) integrates computers, cameras and sophisticated software to thoroughly analyze and evaluate untrimmed printed sheets. This system ensures proper color registration and ink density, and within 3/10 of a second determines whether a sheet is acceptable or must be rejected. The same equipment trims and cuts the 32-subject sheets in half to create two 16-subject sheets. The approved sheets then move to the final printing stage, which is accomplished by the BEP's Currency Overprinting Processing Equipment and Packaging (COPE-Pak).
COPE-Pak adds the two serial numbers, black Federal Reserve seal, green Treasury seal, and Federal Reserve identification numbers to each note. Modern serial numbers consist of two prefix letters, eight numerals and one suffix letter. The first prefix number indicates the series (for example, Series 1999 is designated by the letter B). The second prefix letter indicates the Federal Reserve Bank to which the note was issued. The suffix letter changes every 99,999,999 notes, so the serial number DG99999999A is followed by DG00000001B.
As sheets pass through the process, they are inspected by the COPE Vision Inspection System (CVIS). If a sheet is identified as defective, it is replaced with a "star" sheet. Serial numbers of notes on star sheets are identical to the notes they replaced, except that a star appears after the serial number in place of the suffix number. Notes from these sheets are called Star Notes , and are highly sought after by collectors.
Completed currency sheets are stacked and pass through two guillotine cutters. The first horizontal cut leaves the notes in pairs, while the second vertical cut produces individual finished notes. From there, a machine creates and shrink wraps bundles of 1,000 notes. Four bundles are then combined into bricks of 4,000 notes, and four bricks are combined into a group of 16,000 notes. These are shrink wrapped again and stored in the BEP's vault until they are picked up by the Federal Reserve.
Collecting Paper Money
While dollar bills are made of basic materials like cotton and linen at their core, it's the intricate design and production process – as well as the ties to our nation's history – that make paper money so collectible. If you're new to the hobby, browse our selection of Federal Reserve notes to see some of the most popular choices among collectors. You'll find single notes and sets in different denominations, including prized Star Notes . And if you have any questions, our team of experts will be happy to help!
Want to learn more about the coin creation process? Read Part 2, which covers how coins are made !
- Washington, DC. "Visiting the U.S. Bureau of Engraving & Printing in Washington, DC." https://washington.org/ . Accessed 26 September 2022.
- Crane Currency. "Dalton." https://www.cranecurrency.com/ . Accessed 26 September 2022.
- Frost, Natasha. "The incredibly secretive process of designing the next US banknote." Quartz. https://qz.com/ . 13 March 2019.
- Britannica. "intaglio printing." https://www.britannica.com/ . Accessed 26 September 2022.
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What Material Is Used To Print Currency?
The history of paper money, building the dollar bill, the next generation.
First and foremost, paper money isn’t actually paper at all, but a substrate composed of cotton fiber and linen. The specific ratios of materials may differ between national mints and independent producers
As the old saying goes, “Money makes the world go round,” so whether you’re a capitalist robber baron or a minimum-wage workingman, it’s hard to keep cash off your mind. All around the world, human beings earn, spend and seek money in all of its various forms.
When you open your wallet, it’s always nice to see a thick stack of crisp bills ready to be spent on whatever your heart desires, but at first glance, paper bills don’t seem like the best choice as currency. Normal paper can be easily ripped, spilled on, crumpled, worn down etc., yet around the world, paper money is the popular choice!
This leads to an obvious question…. what kind of material is actually used to make currency?
Short answer: Cotton and linen, but the story doesn’t end there…
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Like so many modern inventions that we take for granted, the first form of paper currency actually originated in China more than 1,000 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty. Folded banknotes were widely used for more than 500 years in that ancient nation, centuries before the trend ever caught on in Europe. Most of these early banknotes were exchange notes or private bills denoting a certain amount of credit, but the purpose was generally the same.
In the United States, paper money first appears in the late 17th century, and the first “dollar bills” were printed about 70 years later.
However, there was very limited regulation or consistency between many of these paper bills, making counterfeiting a rather common problem. Furthermore, the American Revolution was a very uncertain time, and this led to huge fluctuations in the buying power of this currency.
Following that tumultuous time in American history, the government stopped printing paper currency, but banks, individuals and merchants began using the technique and printing their own versions of currency, resulting in hundreds of different forms of currency in the United States by the time the Civil War began.
Realizing the need to standardize the nation’s currency, the government once again stepped in and began printing money in varying denominations, and linked the value of the money to a certain weight in gold, according to the Coinage Act of 1873.
The nation returned to a silver standard in 1934, and then abandoned it in 1963. Many countries around the world have had similarly complicated relationships with paper money and its “actual value”. However, while the history of paper money is interesting, the manufacturing process to produce such incredibly durable bills is even more intriguing.
Also Read: Who Makes Bills And Coins For An Economy, And How Do They Decide The Value Of Each?
While every national currency looks slightly different, the standards for production are relatively similar. First and foremost, paper money isn’t actually paper at all, but a substrate composed of cotton fiber and linen. The specific ratios of materials may differ between national mints and independent producers, but most currencies contain roughly 70-95% cotton.
Some of the less common materials in currency are wood fiber, animal glue, aluminum chloride, and melamine formaldehyde resin, among others. This composition gives currency the unique “feel” of paper, while also making it extremely durable and strong.
For example, a normal sheet of paper, made from the cellulose of wood pulp, will break down and begin to tear relatively quickly when it is handled roughly, folded or exposed to the elements.
However, most forms of currency around the world are designed to take a beating without being compromised. Considering that the paper substrate for the currency of more than 100 nations comes from the same company (De La Rue plc from the UK), it is safe to assume that all currency has a bit of toughness to it.
However, the main producer of the “paper” for US currency is the Crane Paper Company, who watermarks and security marks the paper before delivering it to the Treasury Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
More specifically, colored fibers are inserted into the pulp before it is pressed, in order to make counterfeiting even more difficult. You can hold the bills up to light (in the US, every bill except $1) and see these fibers to determine if a bill is legitimate. The bills below do not pass this test…
After arriving in stacks of 20,000 sheets, the paper is recorded and then put through the printing process. Black, green, metallic and color-shifting ink is used during the intaglio printing process to firmly stamp the images on the bill.
The combination of inks in various layers has made counterfeiting these bills an incredibly difficult process, and most other nations in the world have similar anti-counterfeiting measures in place.
The exact “recipe” of most currency is actually a very well-guarded secret, for obvious reasons, since counterfeit currency remains a real problem in many parts of the world.
Clearly, the government spent a lot of time and money coming up with a stain-resistant, tear-resistant and weather-resistant blend of paper and ink in order to ensure that the bills don’t need to be replaced every few years.
In fact, US currency can be folded approximately 4,000 times before it will tear, meaning that most bills can stay in circulation for 4-10 years. $100 bills, which don’t get used quite as often, can have a lifespan of 15 years or more!
Also Read: What Happens To Currency Notes Once They’re Damaged?
The United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have taken currency production to the next level by recently releasing rip-proof currency that is made of plastic polymer, instead of cotton fiber. This super-durable currency can be wiped clean, go through a laundry wash cycle or be completely soaked in sweat without showing any signs of wear. These bills are projected to last for far longer and significantly minimize the need for destroying damaged or unusable notes.
So, the next time you come back from an international jaunt and open your wallet, pay close attention to the different colors, designs and sizes of the currency you’re carrying. Also, be happy that paper is made of such tough stuff, making it a lot easier to keep your cash safe! If you’re still struggling to avoid ripping up your bills or lighting them on fire, just move to Australia. Good luck trying to destroy those bills!
Test how well do you know about the material used in printing currency
SHARE YOUR RESULTS
- Robertson, F. (2005). The Aesthetics of Authenticity: Printed Banknotes as Industrial Currency. Technology and Culture, 46(1), 31–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40060794 - JSTOR
- The First Printed Currency - 1690. The University of Notre Dame du Lac
- The History of American Currency | U.S. Currency Education Program - www.uscurrency.gov
- Currency | Engraving & Printing. This result comes from www.moneyfactory.gov
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John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, an arts nonprofit based in Denver. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.
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Crane and Co., a Massachusetts-based company, has been providing the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing with paper for U.S. currency since 1879.
Federal Reserve notes are a blend of 25 percent linen and 75 percent cotton. Currency paper has tiny red and blue synthetic fibers of various lengths evenly distributed throughout the paper.
It would take 4,000 double folds, forwards and backwards, to tear a banknote.
No matter the denomination, a banknote weighs approximately 1 gram. Because there are 454 grams in one pound, this means there are 454 notes in one pound of currency.
Want to measure your notes in a different way? A stack of currency one mile high would contain more than 14.5 million banknotes.
It is estimated that between one-half to two-thirds of the value of all U.S. currency in circulation is outside of the U.S.
In 1934, the $100,000 Gold Certificate became the highest denomination ever issued. It was never intended for public use. Instead, it was meant solely for official transactions between Federal Reserve Banks.
The existence of money as a means of buying or selling goods and services dates back to at least 3000 B.C. , when the Sumerians began using metal coins in place of bartering with barley. The use of paper money began in China during the seventh century, but its uncertain value, as opposed to the more universally accepted value of gold or silver coins, led to widespread inflation and state bankruptcy. It was not until 1658, when Swedish financier Johann Palmstruck introduced a paper bank note for the Swedish State Bank, that paper money again entered circulation.
The first paper money in what is now the United States was issued by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1690. It was valued in British pounds. The first dollar bills were issued in Maryland in the 1760s. During the American Revolution, the fledgling Continental Congress issued Continental Currency to finance the war, but widespread counterfeiting by the British and general uncertainty as to the outcome of the revolution led to massive devaluation of the new paper money.
Stung by this failure, the United States government did not issue paper money again until the mid 1800s. In the interim, numerous banks, utilities, merchants, and even individuals issued their own bank notes and paper currency. By the outbreak of the Civil War there were as many as 1,600 different kinds of paper money in circulation in the United States—as much as a third of it counterfeit or otherwise worthless.
Realizing the need for a universal and stable currency, the United States Congress authorized the issue of paper money in 1861. In 1865, President Lincoln established the Secret Service, whose principal task was to track down and arrest counterfeiters. This early paper currency came in several different types, designs, and denominations, but had the common characteristic of being somewhat larger in size than today's money. It was not until 1929 that the current-sized bills went into circulation. In 1945, the government stopped printing bills in denominations greater than $100, and in 1963, they stopped printing silver certificate bills with the assurance that the dollar amount was available "…in silver payable to the bearer on demand."
With paper money, the materials are as important as the manufacturing process in producing the final product. The paper, also known as the substrate, is a special blend of 75% cotton and 25% linen to give it the proper feel. It contains small segments of red and blue fibers scattered throughout for visual identification. Starting in 1990, the paper for $10 bills and higher denominations was made of two plies with a polymer security thread laminated between them. The thread was added to $5 bills in 1993. This thread is visible only when the bill is held up to a light and cannot be duplicated in photocopiers or printers.
The design of the front and back of each denomination bill is hand tooled by engravers working from a drawing or photograph. Each engraver is responsible for a single portion of the design—one doing the portrait, another the numerals, and so on.
The portrait on the face of each bill varies by the denomination. George Washington appears on the $1 bill, Abraham Lincoln on the $5, up to Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill. These persons were selected because of their importance in history and the fact that their images are generally well known to the public. By law, no portrait of a living person may appear on paper money.
In 1955, Congress passed a law requiring that the words "In God We Trust" appear on all U.S. currency and coins. The first bills with this inscription were printed in 1957, and it now appears on the back of all paper money.
Starting in 1990, very small printing, called microprinting, was added around the outside of the portrait. This printing, which measures only 0.006-0.007 inches (0.15-0.18 mm) high, repeats the words "The United States of America." It appears on all paper money except the $1 bill.
The Manufacturing Process
In the United States, all paper money is engraved and printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is part of the Department of the Treasury of the federal government. The Bureau also prints postage stamps, savings bonds, treasury notes, and many other items. The main production facility is located in Washington, D.C., and there is a smaller facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Every day, the Bureau prints approximately 38 million pieces of paper money. About 45% of this production are $1 bills and 25% are $20 bills. The rest of the production is divided between $5, $10, $50, and $100 bills. Although the $2 bill is still in circulation, it is rarely used, and therefore is rarely printed. Each bill, regardless of its denomination, costs the government about 3.8 cents to produce.
There are 65 separate operations in the production of paper money. Here are the major steps:
Engraving the master die
- 1 Engravers hand cut the design into a piece of soft steel, known as the master die, using very fine engraving tools and a magnifying glass. The portrait and images consist of numerous lines, dots, and dashes which are cut in various sizes and shapes. The fine crosshatched lines in the background of the portrait are produced by a ruling machine, and the scrollwork in the borders are cut using a geometric lathe.
- 2 Every time a new Treasurer of the United States or a new Secretary of the Treasury is appointed, their signatures must be engraved on a new master die for each denomination bill. First the signatures are photographically enlarged. An engraver then traces the signatures by hand with one end of a device known as a pantograph. This motion is mechanically reduced through a set of linkages, causing several diamond-tipped needles on the other end of the pantograph to cut the signatures into the master dies.
Making the master printing plate
- 3 Once the master die has been inspected, it is heated and a thin plastic sheet is pressed into it to form a raised impression of the design. Thirty-two of these raised plastic impressions are bonded together in a configuration of four across and eight down to form what is known as an alto. The master die is then placed in storage.
- 4 The plastic alto is placed in an electrolytic plating tank and is plated with copper. The plastic is stripped away leaving a thin plate of metal, known as a basso, with 32 recessed impressions of the design. The metal basso is then cleaned, polished, and inspected. If it passes inspection, it is plated with chromium to make the surface hard, and it becomes a master printing plate.
Printing the front and back of the bills
- 5 The principal printing process is known as intaglio printing. This process is used because of its ability to produce extremely fine detail that remains legible under repeated handling and is difficult to counterfeit. A stack of 10,000 sheets of paper is loaded into a high-speed, rotary intaglio printing press. Each sheet is sized to allow 32 individual bills to be printed on the same sheet. The paper is inspected to ensure that it contains the proper security thread for the denomination to be printed. A master printing plate of the proper denomination is secured around the master plate cylinder in the press.
- 6 The rotating master printing plate is coated with ink. A wiper removes the ink from the surface of the plate, leaving only the ink that is trapped in the engraved recesses of the design. A sheet of paper is fed into the press where it passes between the master plate cylinder and a hard, smooth impression cylinder under pressures reaching 15,000 psi (1,034 bar). The impression cylinder forces the paper into the fine, engraved lines of the printing plate to pick up the ink, leaving a raised image about 0.0008 in (0.02 mm) above the paper. This process is repeated at a rate of about 10,000 sheets per hour.
- 7 The printed sheets are then stacked on top of each other. The backs are printed with green ink first and are allowed to dry for 24-48 hours before the fronts are printed with black ink.
Printing the colored Treasury seal and serial numbers
- 9 The finished sheets are inspected with machine sensors, and any printing errors, folded paper, inclusion of foreign objects, or other defects are identified. Any bills which are found to be defective are marked for later removal. Such bills are replaced with star notes which are numbered in a different sequence and have a star printed after the serial number.
Cutting and wrapping the bills
- 10 The sheets are gathered in stacks of 100 and cut into 16 individual stacks of 100 bills each with a vertical guillotine knife. Any bills which have been identified as defective are replaced with star notes at this time. The stacks of 100 bills are then wrapped with a paper band. The banded stacks are given a final visual inspection and are shrink-wrapped with plastic in bundles of 10 stacks. Four of these 10-stack bundles are then wrapped together to form a "brick" before they are shipped to the various federal reserve banks and other agencies.
Anything as important as money requires strict quality control standards. Flawed money is bad money and cannot be placed into circulation. In addition to the many inspections that occur during the printing process, the raw materials are also subject to strict inspections before they are used. The inks are tested for color, viscosity (thickness), and other properties. The paper is produced by a single manufacturer in a secret, tightly controlled process. The paper is tested for chemical composition, thickness, and other properties. It is illegal for anyone else to manufacture or possess this specific paper.
The finished bills are also tested periodically for durability. Some bills are put through a washing machine to determine the colorfastness of the inks, while others are repeatedly rolled into a cylinder and crushed on end to determine their resistance to handling. It is estimated that a bill can be folded and crumpled up to 4,000 times before it has to be replaced.
Destruction of Paper Money
Despite the use of high-quality paper and inks, the average life of a $1 bill in circulation is only about 18 months. Other denominations last somewhat longer. When a bill has been defaced, torn, or worn to the point where it is no longer identifiable or useable, it is taken out of circulation and returned to the federal reserve banks for destruction by shredding. Some of this shredded money is recycled to make roofing shingles or insulation. Money that is damaged or otherwise flawed during the printing process is shredded at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing plants.
For U.S. paper money, the future has arrived. Starting in 1996, the Department of the Treasury began issuing $100 bills with a new front and back design and several new security features designed to make counterfeiting more difficult. Other new bills in descending denominations will be printed at the rate of one new denomination per year.
The new bills use the same paper and are the same size and color as today's bills. Multicolor images, such as are commonly found on European currency, were not used because they were too easy to duplicate with color photocopies and printers. The image of Benjamin Franklin still appears on the front of the new $100 bill, although his portrait is larger and is shifted to the left. A watermark, formed by reducing the thickness of the paper during manufacture, has been placed to the right of the portrait and shows a second image of Franklin when the bill is held up to the light. The imbedded security thread is also still there, although now it has been treated to glow red under ultraviolet light. The position of the thread varies depending on the denomination of the bill to prevent the counterfeiting practice of bleaching the ink off lower denomination bills and reprinting them as higher denominations.
Other new features include concentric fine lines behind Franklin's head on the front and behind the image of Independence Hall on the back. These lines are so fine that they are extremely difficult for copiers or printers to duplicate without blurring them into a solid background. Microprinting, which was introduced in 1990, is used in two places on the new $100 bill; the words "USA 100" appear within the lower left-hand numeral 100, and the words "United States of America" run down the lapel of Franklin's coat.
Perhaps the most high-tech feature is a special color-shifting ink which is used to print the numeral in the lower right-hand corner. When viewed from head on, this ink appears green, but changes to black when viewed from the side.
Lower denomination bills will have many, but not all, of the security features present in the new $100 bills. The highest level of protection was given to the $100 bill because it is the largest denomination being printed. It is also the most common bill in circulation outside the United States, and hence, is frequently counterfeited in other countries.
Some of the security features originally proposed for the new money—such as holograms, plastic films, and coded fiber optics—were not used for this latest change because they represented too great a departure from the current money or because of potential technical problems.
Looking further into the future, paper money may eventually be replaced by electronic money that is downloaded onto plastic "stored value" cards from an ATM or computer. Each card would have a computer chip memory, and the money would be electronically transferred through a card reader to make purchases.
Where to Learn More
Friedberg, Robert. Paper Money of the United States, 14th Edition. The Coin and Currency Institute, Inc., 1995.
Krause, Chester L. and Robert F. Lemke. Standard Catalog of U.S. Paper Money. Krause Publications, 1990.
Freeman, David. "Change For a Hundred." Popular Mechanics, January 1996, pp. 72-73.
Geschickter, J. "Making Money." National Geographic World, November 1996, pp.30-33.
Hirschkorn, Phil. "The Buck May Stop Here." George, April/May 1996, pp. 92+.
Lipkin, Richard. "New Greenbacks." Science News, January 27, 1996, pp. 58-60.
Schafrik, Robert E. and Sara E. Church. "Protecting the Greenback." Scientific American, July 1995, pp. 40-46.
"Engravers." The Department of the Treasury. http://www.ustreas.gov/treasury/bureaus/bep/proc/new/engrav.html
"The Money Factory." The Department of the Treasury. http://www.ustreas.gov/treasury/bureaus/bep/proc/new/hq.html
"Your Money Matters." The Department of the Treasury. http://www.ustreas.gov/treasury/whatsnew/newcurr/home.html
— Chris Cavette
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The Buck Starts Here: How Money is Made
Currency production is not an easy or simple task, but one that involves precision, highly trained and skilled craftspeople, specialized equipment and a combination of traditional, old world printing techniques merged with sophisticated, cutting edge technology.
Since 1862, BEP been entrusted with the mission of manufacturing the nation’s currency. All U.S. currency is printed at our facility in Washington, D.C. and at our facility in Fort Worth, Texas. In addition to manufacturing U.S. paper currency, BEP also prints a variety of U.S. government security documents.
Designing and Engraving
The design starts with ideas and rough sketches from our banknote designers, who develop the overall look, layout and artistic details. They work closely with engravers, who use a combination of traditional and modern techniques to engrave the portrait on the front, the vignette on the back, the ornamentation, and the lettering. Each engraving consists of numerous detailed fine lines, dots and dashes that vary in size and shape.
The magnificent artistry and skill of the engraver brings the portrait to life with an array of traditional tools and cutting-edge digital technology.
The intricate carvings and etchings that we see every day on our paper currency are engraved into a network of fine lines and grooves into steel dies that are transferred and processed to create working printing plates. After careful inspection and minor repair if needed, these plates are cleaned and polished. The working plate is chrome-plated for hardness and is then ready to go on the printing press.
Ink and Paper
All notes, regardless of denomination, use green ink on the backs. Faces, on the other hand, use a combination of black ink, color-shifting ink in the lower right-hand corner for the $10 denominations and higher, and metallic ink for the freedom icons on redesigned $10, $20 and $50 bills. The $100 note's "bell in the inkwell" freedom icon uses color-shifting ink. These and the other inks appearing on U.S. currency are specially formulated and blended by BEP. Inks headed for BEP presses undergo continual quality testing.
A fancy word for paper in the currency business is substrate. U.S. currency paper is composed of 25% linen and 75% cotton, with red and blue fibers distributed randomly throughout to make imitation more difficult. The paper is made specifically for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing by Crane Currency in Dalton, Massachusetts and it is illegal for anyone other than BEP to possess this paper. Paper for the $5 bill and above is made with specific watermarks and security threads. While the percentage of counterfeit notes in circulation remains small, there are ever evolving new techniques that we need to stay ahead of.
Currency printing is built on the principal of layering each printing process on the substrate. Each print technology has a unique fingerprint on how the ink transfers from the plate, the inks they use and how it lays on the substrate, thereby building security into the currency with every production step.
The first step is adding color through offset printing. To accomplish this, BEP has three offset printing presses in D.C., and four in our Texas facility. On this press, the face and back of the sheet is printed at the same time. All denominations, excluding the $1 and $2 notes, are printed in offset first, where detailed background images using unique colors are blended together as they are added to “blank” currency sheets.
The background colors are then printed by state-of-the-art, high speed, sheet-fed, presses. These massive machines are more than 50 feet long and weigh more than 70 tons capable of reaching speeds of 10,000 sheets per hour. In addition to online computer inspection, press operators will pull a sheet after every 500 impressions (approximately), and carefully examine it to ensure that the colors and alignment (which we call “registration”) remain consistent to our rigorous quality standards.
Intaglio – (also called Plate Printing or Steel Plate Printing)
Intaglio is the next layer of the printing process for the denominations that went through offset, and the first stage of printing for the $1 and the $2 notes. Here, ink is applied to the engraved plate. The excess ink is removed from the non-image area of the plate, thereby leaving ink only in the engraved recessed areas. Paper is then laid on top of the plate, and the two are pressed together under great pressure. As a result, the ink from the recessed areas is pulled onto the paper, creating a slightly raised finished image. When dried, the tactility feels like fine sandpaper. Intaglio printing is very specialized and used on high value negotiable documents like currency and portions of passports. Intaglio is used for the portraits, vignettes, scrollwork, numerals and lettering that is unique to each denomination.
BEP’s intaglio presses have the latest technology to ensure the highest of quality and security of U.S. currency. The presses each weigh 57 tons and print with up to 20 tons of pressure. They can produce at speeds of 10,000 sheets per hour and can produce 32 or 50 notes per sheet.
The intaglio presses first print the back of the currency sheets in green ink. The sheets are then taken to a vault to dry for three days. A common work-in-process vault might contain $50 to $100 million of notes at any one time, depending on the denomination being printed. After the ink on the paper is dry, the faces of the notes are printed with black ink. The notes will dry again for another three days before going on to the next phase of production. At any given moment within the Washington, D.C. facility, for instance, there may be up to $300 million dollars in various phases of production.
Offline Currency Inspection System (OCIS)
To ensure only the highest quality sheets move to the numbering operation, sheets are thoroughly examined using OCIS, a state-of-the-art computer system integrated with cameras and sophisticated custom-built software to divide each note into 125,000 pixels or 4,000,000 pixels for the entire sheet at a speed of 2½ sheets per second. OCIS completely analyzes loads for quantity and quality of untrimmed printed sheets inspecting both sides of the currency sheets. Good sheets proceed forward for numbering while rejected sheets are numbers and processed through a single note processing machine.
Single Note Inspection (SNI) inspects and sorts finished numbered notes from the defective OCIS sheets, reclaiming good notes from destruction. These fit notes are either recovered from the finished product on quality-hold, or reclaimed from the standard production waste streams.
The third and final printed layer of U.S. currency is letterpress printing. During this process, the press feeds two 16-subject sheets of currency and prints two green serial numbers, the black universal Federal Reserve seal, the green Department of the Treasury seal, and the corresponding Federal Reserve identification numbers. BEP currency uses two types of letterpress equipment.
Currency Overprinting Processing Equipment and Packaging (COPE/PAK)
At BEP we love acronyms. COPE/PAK combines a rotary letterpress and an automated finishing and packaging line. COPE presses have been specially designed for BEP to print and process 32-subject sheets of currency. 100-sheet stacks pass through two sharp guillotine cutters. The first cut is made horizontally, leaving the notes in pairs. The second cut is made vertically, and for the first time you see individual notes, 100 to a pile. These are bound with denomination bands.
In the COPE/PAK section, there is a machine called “1,000 note bander.” The rotating carousel collects 10 packages of notes and bands them together, resulting in a stack of 1,000 notes (one bundle). These notes are then shrink wrapped and a bar code is affixed, which contains the notes’ serial numbers and Federal Reserve Bank information.
The next rotating carousel shrink wraps four of these bundles into a final currency brick containing 4,000 notes. As a final stage, the four bricks are collated together and shrink wrapped into a 16,000 note Cash Pak. From there, they are placed into the vault to await pick-up by the Federal Reserve. One brick of $100 bills would contain $400,000; one skid of those bricks would contain $64 million.
Large Examining Printing Equipment (LEPE)
LEPE represents the newest generation in numbering and processing equipment for BEP. In February 2014, BEP ushered in a new era by printing currency on 50-subject sheets versus 32 notes per sheet. Sitting at 144 feet long, these mammoth machines are state-of-the-art, specifically designed for BEP, combining multiple currency production processes at once: full sheet examination, letterpress printing functions, product verification, and cutting and packaging currency. Currently, only $1 and $5 notes are produced in 50-subject sheet format. The $20 note is next in line for transition into the larger format and is scheduled to be in production by summer 2022.
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