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Fort Worth’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Written by Eileen Mattei.

If you want to see people making real money, head to northernmost Fort Worth and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s Western Currency Facility (WCF), which now prints more than half of all U.S. paper currency—more than 18 million notes, or $85.4 million worth, per workday. The Tour and Visitor Center of this money factory—the only place other than Washington, D.C., where U.S. notes are printed—offers free guided tours that put you within eyeball distance of billions of bucks-in-the-making.

After a security check at a “transfer station” (no cameras, phones, pagers, or weapons of any kind allowed), visitors hop on a small bus, which is “wrapped” in a vinyl image of either a $20 or $50 bill, for the 200-yard trip to the WCF’s Tour and Visitor Center. Once there, you can take in two floors of interactive displays and exhibits, visit the Moneyfactory Gift Shop, or view a 15-minute movie while waiting for the next tour. If possible, try to catch the video before the tour; it’s a good overview and puts a humorous face on the serious business of making dough, simoleons, and moola.

Equipped with a headset microphone, tour guide Maria Cruz leads my tour group to an elevated, enclosed walkway lined with large windows that look down on the moneymaking area. Our view across the building’s 17-acre production floor allows us to see different denominations being printed, with the exception of the new, redesigned $10 bills. (At the time, those bills were still in the testing phase and hadn’t been unveiled to the public; work on them was concealed by giant green tarps. They were officially issued earlier this year.)

Just below us, a few hundred stacks of paper (10,000 sheets in each stack) have begun the process of becoming $50 notes. “We call it paper money, but it is actually 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen,” Maria explains. “That’s why it goes through the washing machine without dissolving.” The sheets have embedded security features, such as watermarks and vertical security threads. The printers we see in the Offset Printing Section are putting subtle background colors on the 32-note sheets. Then, in the Plate Printing (intaglio) Section, the backs are printed, using 20,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, to create a green, slightly-indented impression: a greenback. When the United States first printed a national currency, in 1862, the green color helped deter counterfeiters.

Currency spends three days waiting for inks to dry and cure between the different stages of printing. “The sheets stick together like Legos, due to grooving from the intense pressure,” Maria tells us. That’s why the notes go into the jogger, a machine that uses a 10-minute session of vibration and forced air to separate the printed sheets. The fronts of the notes are also printed by the intaglio process, adding black ink for the portraits, borders, and signatures; color-shifting ink for the denominations; and metallic ink for the freedom icons (large symbols on the new, redesigned bills).

From a distance, we peer over workers’ shoulders in the Examination Section, spotting one man wearing a yellow print shirt and denim shorts at a computer. When he dashes to pull sheets deflected from the conveyor line, Maria explains that an alarm has sounded (which we can’t hear in the enclosed walkway) when an electronic eye detected an imperfection—a smudge or crinkle—on the partially-printed sheets. One of our tour group, Shelley Peterson of Keene, notes that her three children (ages 5, 7, and 9) are enjoying the WCF. “They like seeing how stuff is made. It makes it more real,” says Shelley, who is here along with other members of a home-school association from Johnson County.

While the nearly monthlong currency process is largely automated, about 850 people work at the WCF on round-the-clock shifts, five days a week. The tour walkway displays photos of 1905 currency production—women in white, long-sleeved shirts and long skirts cutting bills by hand—that stand in sharp contrast to the current scene.

Moving us along, answering questions enthusiastically, Maria points out where the notes are transferred to the Currency Overprinting Packaging and Equipment Section for the addition of sequential serial numbers and seals. A pass through guillotine cutters transforms the sheets into individual notes. Around the corner in the Cash-Pak Section, we spot high stacks topped with signs—$50, $5, $20—and collectively gasp.

Once bricks of currency are shrink-wrapped, bar-coded, and placed on a skid, they cross into the Federal Reserve vault, where the serial numbers are entered into the computer and the bills become monetized, which means, now they’re Real Money. A skid of $20 notes is worth $12,800,000. No small potatoes.

As you exit the tour walkway, on the downstairs level of the Visitor Center, you see exhibits detailing the history of money and of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, complete with an antique spider-press demonstration to show visitors how currency was printed at the turn of the 20th Century.

Upstairs exhibits highlight the steps of the production process and let you play with money. Eleven-year-old Kevin Put-man of Cleburne, one of the kids in the Johnson County home-school group, races through the interactive displays, quickly assembling the 11-piece plastic jigsaw puzzle of a $1 bill, upside down and in reverse, with the help of a mirror angled over the frame. His assessment: “Piece of cake.” When his mother, Celeste Hobbs, points to a note sporting a tiny star after the serial number, saying it must be a star note, Kevin has a different opinion. “It’s a backup bill,” he says. Actually, they’re both right. Star notes are backup bills—they replace notes of any denomination that examiners have discarded as flawed; they then circulate like any other notes.

Near the star-note exhibit, adults and children are pressing buttons to shine ultraviolet light on security strips—yellow, green, orange, red, or blue, depending on the denomination—embedded in each note. And the dots and dashes of engraving plates, which are retired after one million impressions (usually in 33 production days), are smudged with visitors’ fingerprints.

At the Mutilated Currency Redemption Desk, a crowd gathers where currency examiner Jessie Marcus has opened an envelope of crumbling $100s and $20s. “It’s petrified. It went through a flood,” explains Jessie, as she slips a scalpel under a single layer. “I use a lot of tape and glue. It’s like a puzzle.” People whose money has been singed in a fire, glued together by a flood, or swallowed by a cow (yes, this actually happened) count on currency redeemers to reconstruct (not restore) bills from the remnants. They’ll receive full reimbursement for each note that is at least 51 percent present.

The Moneyfactory Gift Shop brims with sheets of uncut currency, bags of shredded bills (buy $500 worth for a few bucks), money-motif mouse pads, golf balls, and a book that shows how to make a bill into a bow tie or a ring.

NEXT TIME you open your wallet, try this: Check the upper right of each bill in your wallet. If you see a small FW, you’re holding one of the 4.4 billion notes printed each year in Fort Worth. Made in Texas, good as gold.

The Tour and Visitor Center of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s Western Currency Facility (WCF) is at 9000 Blue Mound Rd., Fort Worth 76131. Call 817/231-4000 or 866/865-1194; Hours: Mon-Fri 10:30-6:30 (June-July) and Mon-Fri 8:30-3:30 (Aug-May). Visitors may view a 15-minute video, enjoy 2 floors of interactive displays and exhibits, visit the Moneyfactory Gift Shop, and take a free, 45-minute guided tour. Tour times vary; call ahead.

To reach the WCF from downtown Fort Worth, take I-35 W North, turn west on Loop I-820 W, and take Exit 15, Blue Mound Rd. (FM 156). Go north 5 miles to the visitors’ parking lot on the right-hand side. (See the Web site listed above for directions from Dallas and other cities.)

Money Facts

• To stay a step ahead of counterfeiters, currency is redesigned every seven to 10 years.

• The dollar symbol never appears on a note.

• Of all the currency printed by the WCF, 95% is to replace worn or damaged currency; the other 5% is used to increase the money supply.

• Every year, the U.S. Treasury handles approximately 30,000 claims and redeems mutilated currency valued at over $30 million.

• More than 60% of U.S. currency circulates overseas, primarily $50 and $100 bills.

• The approximate weight of a currency note, regardless of denomination, is one gram.

• Our present-sized currency measures 2.61 inches wide by 6.14 inches long, and is .0043 inches thick.

• A stack of currency one mile high would contain more than 14.5 million notes.

• If you had 10 billion $1 notes and spent one every second of every day, it would require about 317 years for you to go broke.

• Martha Washington is the only woman whose portrait has appeared on a U.S. currency note.

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