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What Is Money Made Of? And How It’s Made!

There’s the old saying that, “money doesn’t grow on trees.” But where does it come from then? What is money made of?

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, money is made up of 75% cotton and 25% linen in the United States. The front of the bills are printed with black, color-changing, and metallic ink. On the back, there is only green ink. The paper comes into the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on pallets, while the ink is a specially made formula.

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What Money Is Made of Around the World

Money is made of different materials around the world.

  • United States: 75% cotton and 25% linen
  • Australia: A waxy, waterproof polymer.
  • Canada: Switching from cotton and paper to a synthetic polymer (plastic money) purchased from Australia.
  • United Kingdom: The GBP (pound sterling) is made from paper money, except the £5, £10, and £20 notes. The £50 polymer note will be introduced in 2021.
  • India: Announced plans to start switching to polymer money on a trial-basis, but are still using paper money.
$20 bill front
The front of the U.S. currency is mainly printed in black ink.
$20 bill back
The back of the bill has green ink.

Where Money Is Made

The U.S. dollar bill is one of the major currencies of the world. It is made by facilities of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas. Billions of dollars are printed each year and transported to the Federal Reserve. There are approximately $2.05 trillion Federal Reserve notes in circulation as of February 2021.

How Money Is Made

In the U.S., money is made by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in careful steps.

  1. Design: Banknote designers utilize art tools (pen, pencil, brush) to create a design that symbolizes America and contains security measures hidden within to deter counterfeiting. The design has to be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury.
  2. Engraving (Intaglio Art): Engravers then shrink the design to the correct size and engrave it on steel dies (another name for the surface engrave on). The drawing is broken down into several different dies such as one with just the portrait, the text, etc. The engraving must also be made as a mirror image to print correctly.
  3. Siderography: Siderography transfers the steel plate to a steel cylinder that can be used in a rolling press. It is a process developed by Jacob Perkins in the early 1800s. In this step, the individually hand-engraved dies are combined and transferred onto a printing plate to create a master die. Then, duplicate individual plastic molds are made and assembled.
  4. Plate Making: In a process called electroplating, hundreds of identical printing plates are made of the original master.
  5. Offset Printing: For $20 bills, minute background colors are added to increase security against counterfeiting. Photoengravers transfer the design to offset printing plates and print them with the BEP’s Simultan presses, which can print 10,000 sheets per hour. The sheets are then stored for 72 hours to dry in WIP (Work-In-Process) cages. 
  6. Plate Printing (Intaglio Printing): About 20,000 lbs. per square inch are applied in this step to transfer the ink from the printing plates to the paper money. This process is used to print the scrollwork, portraits, numerals, vignettes, and lettering for each denomination. The back of the bills are first printed and dried before printing that face side. However, special cut-out ink rollers are used on the front in order to print the three different colored inks needed (black, color-changing, and metallic ink). They are then left to dry for 72 hours again.
  7. Inspection: The printed sheets are inspected by state-of-the-art technology to adhere to the highest quality. They must be free of any minor imperfections such as ink spots or smears. Imperfect sheets are rejected and scheduled for destruction. The 32-subject sheets are split into two 16 subject sheets.
  8. Overprinting: In this final printing step, the Currency Overprinting Processing Equipment (COPE) printers are used to add the serial numbers, the Federal Reserve seal, the Department of the Treasury seal, and the Federal Reserve identification numbers. 
  9. Cutting, Stacking & Packaging: After undergoing a second inspection, the sheets are passed down in piles of 100 to guillotine cutters where they are made into individual currency notes. They are then stacked into 100 bills to form a strap. Next, 10 straps are shrink-wrapped together to form a bundle (1,000 bills). Then, 4 bundles are shrink-wrapped and labeled to form a brick (4,000 bills).
  10. Packaging Operations: In this final step, the bricks of money are labeled with a unique number and then grouped again into four bricks with color-coded shrink film under 450 degrees of heat. This is called a cash-pack (16,000 bills). 40 cash-packs of 640,000 bills are placed together on a skid (similar to a pallet).

Learn more about the processes on the official Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s website.

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