Backstory: Masters of the mint

In a dying art, engravers handcraft money - including this week's new $10 bill - to foil counterfeiters.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

When he started at the Bureau, Madden worried about the older engravers staring so closely at their work for so many hours. He still jokingly wonders about the threat to his sanity from so many tiny details, and then introduces his "assistant" - a remote-controlled monkey head on his desk that cackles at the press of a button.

Another item on the desk represents perhaps a bigger threat to the engravers' art - a computer. Madden is six months into a test of new software that allows him to draw the fine lines and dashes of an engraved portrait on the screen. He zooms in to demonstrate his working view - an unrecognizable hash of lines and dots - and erases one with the click of a mouse, something he can't do with a burin on steel.

It's a long way from a century ago, when engravers arrived at work in top hats and tails to practice their most respected of arts. For inspiration, Madden keeps a leather-bound scrapbook of portraits from the heyday of engraving. He points out the different lines that represent hair, steel, or flesh, pronouncing some "gorgeous."

Madden thinks the engraver's art will continue into the computer age. He can't imagine anyone who wasn't a trained engraver creating the delicate lines that come together to form a portrait or landscape in miniature. "The more you do it in its classical style, the more you appreciate it," he says.

Only a half dozen countries still employ full-time engravers. Hessler foresees a future where a handful of craftsmen can meet the world's needs, as computers automate the engraving process. "Some of these pieces are so gorgeous they belong in a museum," Hessler says. "I just feel bad that the art form is disappearing."

If the computer threatens the art of the hand-engraver, it has made the job of the criminal easier. Counterfeiting, once the province of the skilled forger capable of replicating the work of artisans like Madden, has been aided by cheap scanners and digital imaging software. "All you need is a finger," says Mr. Felix, holding one up to illustrate the ease of pushing a button on a color copier. "We're adding complexity and colors ... just to thwart the use of the finger."

The artisans have to retain most of the design features, though. The basic elements - the portrait, the intricate border that frames the bill, the overall look - need to be there to inspire confidence in users around the world (some 60 percent of it circulates outside US borders). Thus the challenge is "fitting more and more things in the same amount of space," Felix says.

In the new $10 bill, for instance, Alexander Hamilton has been freed from his oval frame and overlaps the rectangular frame at the borders. Other changes, in color, in the watermark, in the magnetic particles embedded in the ink, will all help thwart the casual counterfeiter. But the more determined fabricator, Felix says, will still be able to turn out a passable copy.

And all the protective measures in the world will not help when a clerk accepts a phony $200 bill with George Bush's picture on it, as reportedly happened at a Dairy Queen in Kentucky.

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