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How is Money Made? A Peek into the Bureau of Printing and Engraving

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 4/20/2015

In the beginning, conch shells, feathers, stones, tools, salt bars or anything considered valuable became “money." Today, money is often intangible –in the form of a card transaction—but physical currency is still important. Learn the history of money and how it is made.

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    Weighing the Issue

    How is Money Made? A Peek into the Bureau of Printing and Engraving The Chinese had very elaborate payments from the 6th century BC, but they weren’t made into coins; instead they weighed out gold and silver chunks on a hand-balanced scale. Businessmen and traders used a type of ingot shaped into particularly decorative shapes. One liang equaled an ounce.

    The Burmese used weights that were pure art; the weights were shaped into animals such as elephants, bulls, ducks and lions. To prove the weight was accurate, a star-shaped mark was stamped on the base to prove it was accepted by the King.

    The Egyptians tell us through ancient wall paintings dating back to the 14th century BC how their offerings were weighed. The tomb etchings depict a worker putting gold rings on a scale—an elaborate scale—used to measure the value of precious metals against the weight of the rings.

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    The Design of Coins

    Ancient coins have been found dating back to a kingdom called Lydia, now known as Turkey. They were crafted during the 7th century BC using electrum (often called “green gold"), a mixture of weighed gold and silver with other trace elements. Electrum was crafted into lumps and stamped with pictures. The king’s coins had lions pressed into them and the design guaranteed the measured weight: one-half ounce each (14 grams), in units called “staters." The process of pushing this personal seal-design into the metal was called minting, just as it is today.

    This badge or seal of approval was adapted currency in other countries too. Japan had measured gold and silver bars, Russia and Southern Italy used copper and bronze tools, and so forth. Everyone differentiated their metal coins with a particular composite of metals, shape and a punched image.

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    Minting was done by placing the hot metal on an anvil (blacksmith’s tool) and using punches or hard metal tools called dies. The metal dies had the design on them and they were pressed into the warmed metals.

    Today an artist draws a design for a coin and the more complicated the better. The side of a coin carrying an image of a king or portrait is called the obverse, or in slang terms “heads." The other side is the reverse, or colloquially, tails. The year of minting is usually shown on the obverse side. After approval, it is hand-engraved on a large clay model. The design is checked and traced onto a computer screen using a carbine-tipped tracer. This automated function takes about 20 hours. This becomes recorded and digitally scanned onto the computer. It directs an engraving machine to etch and cut the design into a coin-sized metal master punch.

    The die blanks—coins without engraving—are polished, washed, sized and inspected. These die punches will strike coin-shaped blanks under tons of pressure to make a coin. There are usually edge lettering tools or upsetting mills that raise the border of the coin and use strips that get impressed into the sides of coins with lettering or striped lines. Coin blanks are called now called planchets.

    The master punch is used to make a raised master punch, which is a version of the design in relief. This matrix is used to make stamps or several working punches.

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    Paper Money

    Some countries had very large coins that looked like slabs or tools, and it soon became difficult to tote these items around. The Chinese first saw the advantage of paper money. Merchants began writing out receipts for purchases and the government took over and printed official receipts to make the system simpler and more uniform with fixed values.

    Various European settlers first introduced paper money to North America. Britain had failed to give the colonists money, so they adapted and used tobacco, shell beads and Spanish pieces of silver to transact trades. The colonists then issued their own paper money, known as dollars.

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    Department of the Treasury

    The United States Department of Treasury oversees the production of coins and currency, the disbursement of payments to the public, revenue collection, and the funds to run the federal government.

    According to the Department of Treasury website, if you take a tour of the facility, you will see dollars—millions of them—printed. You will be privy to currency production featuring large, blank sheets of paper, and ending with wallet-ready bills!

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    Bureau of Printing and Engraving

    The bureau for creating money is rather a secretive establishment. People who work there are closely examined entering and leaving work for security reasons. There are 1,368 employees at the D.C. facility; there is another in Texas.

    According to the Bureau, even though “new printing, production and examining technologies have brought us into the 21st Century, the BEP's engravers continue to use the same traditional tools that have been used for over 125 years—the graver, the burnished, and the hand-held glass."

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    How Banknotes Are Made

    Banknote making is a secret and complicated procedure and made with the intention of securing the process from forgers. There are four main stages involved: design, papermaking, intaglio and letterpress.

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    A bill’s design evolves through a series of sketches that pays particular attention to the layout, and artistic details. The Secretary of the Treasury, Jacob J. Lew currently, must approve the final design along with others. Certain features on bills will remain the same, such as the portrait of a particular note—for example, Benjamin Franklin will be on a $100 bill and the Independence Hall will be on the back—the location where the Declaration of Independence was signed. The design is a balance of a dignified image along with built-in intricacies that will make counterfeiting difficult. Often people find hidden dates, symbols and other iconic facts in the drawings.

    A man with great artistic ability, the engraver, uses the same time-honored tools worked through the centuries to create the fine and ultra-fine designs. This historical process was to use a sharp engraving tool called a burin (meaning “cold chisel" in French) to cut the design into a plate. Engravers work using great magnification aids: lights, magnifying glasses and computers. Acids are often used to create the miniscule dots and lines. The image is actually cut in reverse into how it will appear on the die!

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    Siderography is the means by which multiple images of the hand-engraved die are transferred to a printing plate. In siderography, individually engraved elements such as the portrait, border, counters and text are first pieced together to form one complete face (or back) of a note using a transfer press.

    After the dies are assembled and reproduced on plates, engravers cut in additional items like series numbers and signatures using a pantograph machine. A pantograph copies the die engraving onto the plate. As one part of the machine traces the original engraving, another part engraves the image onto the new, reduced size plate.

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    Plate Making

    Today a photoengraver gets a master design and duplicates the image over a plate-film layout. A film recorder of high resolution takes each color and it is transferred to a sheet of sensitive film in negative. Next, this is transposed onto a thin sheet of steel using a light sensitive polymer and ultraviolet light. The unexposed or negative areas are washed away and soft brushes burnish the plate (burning a plate).

    Electroplating is the method. A plastic master, (the "basso") is sprayed with silver nitrate creating an electrical conductor. The plate is then placed into a tank filled with a nickel salt solution, and an electric current is generated. Nickel ions leave the solution and deposit themselves on the electrically charged surface of the master. After time, an alto or nickel plate is separated from the plastic master, trimmed and inspected by the engravers. The plate contains the mirror image of the master in all its intricate detail and is an exact replica of the original engraved die.

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    Intaglio Printing

    Seventy-two hours after drying, sheets of paper go to intaglio (an Italian word pronounced in tal′yō) printing. Meaning ink is applied to a plate and it sinks into the engraved areas; when the plate is pressed against paper, the recessed ink is pulled onto the paper, forming a kind of relief or raised image. The raised design helps to deter counterfeiting.

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    Offset Printing

    As the plates have a separate color, this makes it possible to enhance security using subtle background colors. One plate prints one set of colors, while another may contain the images. According to the bureau, the photoengraver takes great care to make sure the images are perfectly aligned on both plates, and there are no blemishes.

    Then essentially, large rotary offset presses use the offset plates and specially made ink to press the image into specially made blank sheets of paper. The press is capable of printing 10,000 sheets per hour; approximately every 500 impressions, the pressmen will pull a sheet and carefully examine it to ensure that all the colors are remaining consistent.

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    Facts to Know

    • The US Dollar is the most widely used currency since made of paper in 1862
    • United States bills are known as “greenbacks" because of the color of ink used on one side.
    • The Bureau of Printing and Engraving also advises other Federal agencies on document security matters and processes claims for the redemption of mutilated currency.
    • The largest sheet of uncut currency you can buy is the 32-note sheet. The largest denomination sheets that are available are the 16-note $50 sheets. $1, $2, $5, $10 and $20denomination sheets are also available.
    • The Great Seal has as the most prominent feature: the American bald eagle supporting the shield, or escutcheon, which is composed of 13 red and white stripes, representing the original States, and a blue top, which unites the shield and represents Congress.
    • Tours are offered at both of the facilities, located in Washington, DC and Fort Worth, TX.
    • The new $100 bill has security features: a bell in the inkwell and a 3D security ribbon.
    • Paper used for money is a composite of cotton (75%) and linen (25%).
    • Bills are strong enough to withstand 4,000 fold-overs.
    • Currency watermarks on paper are a secret and made behind a curtain guarded by an official guard.