Making new money a very old way

The new $5 and $10 bills you'll see starting tomorrow are parttomorrow's technology, part yesterday's craftsmanship

This guy makes lots more money than Bill Gates does. His name: Gary Slaght.

Who? Mr. Slaght is an artist at the United States Treasury Department's Bureau of Engraving and Printing. He makes billions every year - literally. Slaght and the bureau's 14 other engravers and designers helped create the new US paper money. New $5 and $10 bills go into circulation tomorrow.

In his high-security building in Washington, D.C., Slaght (pronounced "slat") makes money the old-fashioned way: by hand. The Treasury began redesigning our paper money in the early 1990s. The changes make the bills much harder to counterfeit. The first redesign was the $100 bill, introduced in 1996. Next came the new $50 (1997) and $20 (1998). The $5 and $10 bills complete the set. The $1 bill won't be changed. (Hm. Do you think that's why there's a new $1 coin?)

Making money isn't easy. It takes lots of concentration and control. Slaght made a lot of the tiny dots, dashes, and squiggly lines you'll see on the new $5 and $10 bills, so he should know. He almost everything but the portraits. And he did it all backwards. (It has to be reversed to come out right when it's printed.)

When he works, Slaght wields a metal tool, called a graver, and a magnifying glass. He uses the hardened-steel gravers to gouge a design into a softer-steel slab.

This process is called intaglio (in-TOL-yo). It's from an Italian word meaning "to cut in." The "master die" he creates is used to make printing plates. When the grooves in the printing plates are filled with ink and printed, it creates a texture on the paper you can feel. (Try it! Use a new bill.)

It took Slaght and a team of engravers four months to make the plate for the $5 bill. Engravers work slowly so they don't slip. "I haven't made a mistake yet," Slaght says, in 28 years there.

Slaght went to art school at the University of Maryland, but he didn't master his craft there. He had to apprentice for seven years at the bureau to learn how to engrave like the old masters.

Another bureau employee, Will Fleishell, engraved the portrait of Abraham Lincoln for the new $5 bill. He took a job here because he valued traditional art. Making money was a bonus. "It's a once-in-a-million shot at artistic immortality," he says.

Today fewer than 40 people in the world engrave well enough to make currency. President Reagan once suggested that top engravers take special classes on how not to be nabbed by terrorists. "If you kidnapped half of the engravers here, you could close this place down," Slaght says.

Most bureau engravers in the 1900s spent their time on stamps and stationery. Few had the chance to make a new bill.

So why the new look now?

The short answer: technology.

US currency hasn't had a major redesign since 1928. That was long before scanners and color copiers. The bureau is fighting technology with technology.

Anti-counterfeiting features on new bills include: a hard-to-duplicate watermark, finely engraved wavy lines that are hard to copy, special color-shifting ink, and tiny words tucked in every bill. Get out a magnifying glass and find "USA10" on the new $10 bill. Look for FIVE DOLLARS in a ribbon on the new $5 bill.

How do you like the new Lincoln portrait? Mr. Fleishell based it on an Anthony Berger photograph taken in 1864. First US Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (with a wavier-hair look) is on the $10 bill. Same guys. New hairdos.

Portraits are hard to counterfeit because it takes a lot of skill to draw flesh. There are so many complex patterns in the faces that they cannot be captured by a scanner or camera lens.

While they were at it, designers put more greenery on the back of the $10 bill. They also took out the old cars puttering past the Treasury Building.

Once the master die is done, it's put through the wringer. It's heated and squeezed under tremendous pressure to make an impression on a piece of plastic.

The plastic impression is used to make lots of printing plates out of nickel. Then the plates are polished and carefully inspected.

NOW the printing plates are put on a high-speed press. The front is printed first (black ink), then the back (green ink - hence the term "greenback").

Each of the bureau's 12 printing presses is as big as two school buses, and much heavier. Twenty tons of pressure are used to print the bills on special paper. Each press can print 8,000 sheets (32 per sheet) an hour. Nine billion bills are printed yearly.

It costs money to make money. New bills cost about 5 cents each. Old ones cost 3.8 cents.

After the sheets of bills have been printed, dried, and inspected, a smaller press adds the serial numbers and Treasury seal. The bills are cut apart, bundled in packs of 100, sealed, and shipped to one of the 12 Federal Reserve banks across the US.

Is it hard for Slaght to let go of his art? Nah. He'll see it soon at an ATM.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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