Chris Madden Plates

January 26, 2023
The Best Moments: Autumn s

Christopher D. Madden sat in his seventh-floor office at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing with an engraving tool in his right hand and an antique magnifying eyepiece in his left. In front of him, at a station filled with natural and fluorescent light, lay a slab of highly polished steel.

As he described how he engraves the tiny lines into steel plates that ultimately become the pictures and vignettes on dollar bills, Madden sounded like a painter discussing stroking his brush on a canvas. His latest work was replicating an image of the Treasury Department and other elements that appear on the back of the new $10 bill.

"My job is to look at an image and faithfully re-create it by cutting lines, dots and dashes in the steel, " Madden said. "You must remain very quiet and calm as you go in with your V-shaped tool. Think about a field being plowed. . . . You must stay within the bank note style that creates precise intersections."

Madden, 43, has spent almost 20 years mastering bank note engraving, part of a complex printing process called intaglio. Now the process is transitioning, as engraving moves from the human hand to computers. The bureau says the need for hand engravers won't disappear, however, as a mastery of the old process will be necessary to effectively use electronic software to engrave. The switch is part of the bureau's strategy to stay ahead of counterfeiters, whose efforts have become easier with the advent of digital color copying and printing technology.

Imagine a painter being told that, rather than using oil on canvas, he must enter numbers into a computer to create his work. That is what Madden faces, but he is not bothered.

Madden said he is practicing an "exquisite craft." He sees himself as a producer of a product - secure bank notes - for his two customers, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve. Whatever helps to better achieve that is fine by him.

"You have to go back to the idea of faith and trust in the currency, " he said. "The artist must be able to come here and create an industrial product. We look at different technologies that help us create the product more efficiently."

So, on a recent morning, Madden moved a few feet from his engraving perch to his desk, where three monitors sit. He opened an image of the $1 bill and enlarged a section of George Washington's portrait to 4, 000 times its real size. He then launched a rendition of the face where a color spectrum represents different depths, resembling a satellite map of Earth in which different colors indicate heights and depths relative to sea level.

With the program, he could make extremely small changes to the depths of the engraved lines that form the face, less than the height of a strand of hair. A high-powered laser will follow those digital measurements and burn the lines into steel plates, adding layers of complexity and design to make the bank note more difficult to counterfeit.

Years ago, counterfeiters needed considerable technical skill. But in the early 1990s, the bureau and government partners realized the threat of new technology to bank notes. "There was a feeling currency design would have to be much more frequent; it had to incorporate anti-counterfeit technologies and digital technologies, " said Larry Felix, the director of the bureau, who has been there since 1992. To counterfeit, "you need just a finger and a color copier to push the button."

They decided that new bills with enhanced security features should be released every seven to 10 years. Each bill still goes through a broad vetting process in which government and commercial interests have a say. The new $10 bill includes such features as color security threads and microprints.

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