Bills, Bills, Bills: Paying a Visit to Fort Worth's 'Money Factory'

Ask the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to "show you the money" (you won't be disappointed).

Richard Baratz specializes, literally, in the art of money making.

A longtime artist, he’s always had a knack for creating works on paper. Some have even been featured in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Over the last 15 years, however, the Fort Worth resident has been lending his talents as a letter and script engraver, a specialty trade in which tools and techniques are passed down from generation to generation. This unique art form requires an even more niche skill set, but it’s one that remains especially important for anyone who’s ever used American currency.     

Take a closer look at any U.S. bill in your wallet, and you’ll quickly see that there’s more than meets the eye. Study the artwork on the front and back sides of each denomination, from the portraits to the intricate borders, numerals and symbols, each one being a critical element of the monetary masterpiece. You may even notice the letters “FW” located on a bill’s face, which mean that the note was manufactured in Fort Worth at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the United States’ Western Currency Facility.

One of only two U.S. currency manufacturing facilities in the world, this Fort Worth “money factory” produces more than half of the nation’s paper currency order—or about 17.1 million notes a day and approximately $171 billion in face value for 2017—thus maintaining the assumption that things are indeed bigger in Texas.

BEP Fort Worth Money Factory

In the late 1980s, a need arose for a second currency facility outside of Washington, D.C. The final three choices came down to Fort Worth, Denver and Las Vegas. According to Charlene Williams, BEP deputy director and chief operating officer, “the civic pride of the people here in Fort Worth” was one reason why the North Texas town was selected. Twenty-six years since it opened, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing has grown to require over 600 full-time employees, 200 contractors and workers from 11 different trade unions to keep the Fort Worth operation running 24 hours a day, five days a week, with plans to increase both its size in square footage and staff.

“The BEP’s focus is to design and manufacture currency notes that incorporate strong security features to protect your heard-earned money,” Williams said. In her role, Williams oversees the production floor to maximize efficiency and ensure every aspect of printing meets government standards. It’s a daunting task, especially when seeing the scale and complexity of the Fort Worth operation.

“[People] need to have confidence in these notes,” Williams said, as they’re circulated worldwide and must retain a level of integrity that’s difficult to counterfeit. As an engraver at the Bureau, Baratz’s role represents one of the earliest steps in the money manufacturing process, and a craft that has existed at the Bureau since its inception over 150 years ago.

Fort Worth BEP Money Factory

In its most primitive form, even the process itself remains a similar—albeit modernized—version of that which was used back then, when America printed the first “greenbacks” in the mid- to late-19th century. The state-of-the-art manufacturing process used today begins with conceptual discussions about the themes and symbols which might best fit each denomination, and that reflect concepts like strength, unity, peace and patriotism. On the $1 note, for example, the Great Seal of the United States depicts an eagle with its wings outstretched, clutching arrows and an olive branch in its talons to signify war and peace.

When a design has been approved, it goes to the engravers, who interpret the designs by hand. They’ll delicately etch and engrave lines onto a master plate, which are essentially "cloned" to ensure the plates on the printing press are exact replicas of the original.

“It’s really line representing tone,” Baratz said of the banknote-style engraving. “But drawing is a basic skill needed to do the work.” Each illustration consists of miniscule lines, dots and dashes that create depth, tone and texture within an image. When printed, the engraved design creates the illusion of a three-dimensional effect. Additionally, engravers must complete a seven- to 10-year apprenticeship, as the trade requires hours upon hours of painstaking precision and detail-oriented dedication—even more so because each letter, number and figure must be etched onto the plate in reverse.

When asked what piqued his interest in the career opportunity, Baratz’s response was simple. “I’m an artist,” he said. And it’s the work of artists such as Baratz that are vital to the country’s counterfeit deterrence program; each work of art is a security feature in itself.

Think of the engraved illustrations as a signature or fingerprint: no two are alike. After all, anything made by hand is one-of-a-kind and, consequently, harder to reproduce. Even the “best” counterfeit notes will lack the subtle nuances unique to an engraving artist’s signature etches and strokes, rendering them “too perfect” to be authentic.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth welcomed 86,000 visitors last year, and will host live employee craftsmanship demos, which include intaglio engraving, June 20-23 and July 25-28. The Visitor Center is open to the public Tuesday through Friday from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm. Admission and parking are free.

Photo Gallery: Fort Worth's Money Factory

All photos ©Brian Maschino