Backstory: Masters of the mint
In a dying art, engravers handcraft money - including this week's new $10 bill - to foil counterfeiters.
Chris Madden's job would drive most artists crazy. He works inches away from his canvas - a blank piece of steel - staring through an antique brass magnifier with his left eye, hand carving the lines and dots that form a meticulously detailed picture. Working this way, it takes months to complete a portrait. To make matters worse, his last major work sold for only $10.Skip to next paragraph
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Of course, a lot of them were made.
Mr. Madden is a bank-note engraver working out of a heavily guarded seventh-floor studio at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington. His work is on display, most likely, at a wallet near you. That's his Treasury building, for example, on the back of the new $10 bill, set to roll out Thursday.
The new 10 spot is the latest salvo in the Bureau's war on counterfeiting. While no bill is counterfeit-proof, it falls to a small group of Bureau engravers and designers to make it more difficult, employing a combination of high technology and old-world craftsmanship. Call them the nation's real money men.
An artist by training, Madden joined the Bureau after seeing an ad at Ohio State University, where he received his fine arts degree. In 1988, he began the Bureau's 10-year apprentice program, the last person to do so, although the Bureau recently began recruiting two new apprentices.
Each image for the intaglio printing (intaglio printing uses metal plates, copied from the engravers' originals) on US bills has to be hand-carved, at its final size, by Madden or one of the other engravers at the Bureau. And it has to be done in reverse. Madden specializes in picture and portrait engraving. Others do the lettering.
By introducing a new series of bills every seven to 10 years, Bureau Director Larry Felix hopes to dissuade the "casual counterfeiter," allowing the Secret Service to concentrate on the bigger fabricators. The newest bills feature color-changing ink, security strips, and watermarks visible when held up to the light. They also bear tiny printing designed to be difficult to copy.
Currency expert Gene Hessler points out that one of the best anticounterfeiting measures is the work done by engravers. "If you take a freshly printed bill between your fingers," he says, "you can feel those lines - the ink actually stands up on the paper." Those lines are the V-shaped notches of the engraver's burin, a pointed tool similar to an awl, which no color printer can duplicate. Even after going through the laundry a few times, "you can see that those lines were raised at one time," Mr. Hessler says.
Bills aren't just dreamed up on the easel. They go through a thorough bureaucratic vetting by interagency steering committees, business interests (vending machines, for example, need to be able to read the new bills), and stages of approval, with the secretary of the Treasury getting the final say. Madden describes his work as more craft than art: "Art and government really don't go that well together."
Traditionally, the engraver's art has been passed from father to child along with the specialized tools. Madden was the first apprentice without a family connection: He comes from coal miners. His upbringing, though, inspired his career choice. The Bureau, he notes, is an industrial facility, a factory, which is closer to his blue-collar roots.