All about the Benjamins: Making the $100 bill (pictures)

What does $320 million in cash look like? CNET Road Trip 2014 visits the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth, Texas, for an up-close view.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
1 of 36 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

$320 million

FORT WORTH, Texas -- It's hard to know how you're going to feel starting at $320 million in cash.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I got a chance to visit the Western Currency Facility, where the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing produces the majority of America's paper money.

I wanted to see how the latest $100 bills, which have been in circulation since 2013, are made, from the engraving process through printing and packaging. The visit didn't disappoint, especially when I found myself standing in front of five "skids" of $100 bills totaling $320 million. There's a deep sense of longing mixed with an urge to be as nonchalant as you can in the face of such a visceral display of riches.

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Quick wash with silver nitrate

One of the earliest stages of the production process is known as electroplating.

In this part of the process, technicians take a plastic master sheet, known as a "basso," and, as seen here, spray it with silver nitrate, which serves as an electrical conductor, according to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

The plate is submerged in a tank of nickel salt solution, and electrical current is added. At that point, nickel ions transfer from the solution to the surface of the master, which is electrically charged.

The plate is left in the tank for 22 hours, after which a nickel plate, known as an "alto," has literally grown.

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Dropping the plate in solution

Here, we see a Bureau of Engraving and Printing technician dropping the plastic master plate into the nickel salt solution.

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All grown up

This is an "alto," a nickel plate that has literally grown onto the surface of the plastic master after 22 hours in the nickel salt solution.

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Separating from master

After technicians pull the plate out of the solution, they physically separate the alto from the plastic master. The alto is a perfect negative image of the original plastic master plate.

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Tracing numbers

In the facility's engraving department, a team of engravers etch many of the features of the $100 bill into steel dies, making what were originally designers' models into 3D engravings. To do so, they employ tools known as gravers, as well as acids.
Complicating matters, the engravers must etch all the features in reverse, since the dies will be pressed onto a plate.
Each engraver works on different elements of the notes. Seen here, an engraver is etching numbers, which are then automatically transferred by a pantograph onto a plate that will be used in the printing process.

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Pantograph transferring

A pantograph transfers the engraver's etchings onto each note on a plate.

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Inspecting at Engraving

Using a magnifying glass, an engraver inspects a plate for any kind of defect.

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Numbers engraved

In the lower left hand corner of the right-hand note on this plate, you can see the reverse image of the number 346, which has just been added by a pantograph after an engraver etched it.

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'Tools of the trade'

These are an engraver's 'tools of the trade,' many of which are hand-made by the engraver, or passed down from generation to generation. The tools can sometimes be 100 years old.

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After being pantographed, plates have chrome added in order to increase their longevity, meaning they can be used again and again in the printing process.

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Chrome plate inspected

After having the yellow solution washed off, a chrome plate is held up for inspection.

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Single subject

In the Western Currency Facility's photo-engraving department, technicians use computers to design specific elements of the notes, such as a feather and inkwell from the back side of the $100 bill, which are then printed onto film.

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The film is then exposed, one color at a time -- blue, copper, tan, and yellow -- to an image setting machine. Each film is one color.

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A plate, like the one seen here, is generated based on the photographs taken by the image setter. That plate is then put into a printing press.

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Plates on printing press

A printing press, with two plates on rollers, which add specific elements of the $100 bill, like the inkwell, and feather.

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Checking the watermark

A sheet with several elements already printed is examined on a light table to make sure the notes' watermarks are in the right place.

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Printing sheets

The front sides of 32-note sheets are printed as they make their way through this printing press. First one side, then the other is printed.

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Countless stacks of currency sit and dry for 72 hours, before they are brought back to the printing process in order to have their back sides printed.

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Printed backs

The back sides of the sheets have now been printed.

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Inspecting the rear of the sheets

A technician uses a magnifying glass to inspect the back side of this sheet of $100 bills, looking for any kind of defect. If he finds any defects, the sheets are removed and destroyed.

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A technician uses the "jogger," a machine that blows air into the stacks of bills after they've dried for 72 hours. He also uses his hands to separate them.

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Full and half sheets

Two Western Currency Facility technicians hold up sheets of $100 bills. On the left side, we see a sheet that has been cut into two halves, while a full 32-note sheet is seen on the right.

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Camera inspecting

As 32-note sheets come off the press, a camera inspects them, looking for any defects. If they're detected, the sheets are automatically removed.

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Cutting 32 into 16

A machine slices a 32-note sheet in two 16-note halves.

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16 into 2

A slicer then cuts the 16-note sheets into sets of two notes.

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Single stacks

Finally, another slicer cuts the notes into stacks of single notes.

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A machine collates "straps," as stacks of 100 $100 bills are known.

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Each slot in this carousel holds a "bundle," or 10 straps of $100 bills. Each bundle is $100,000.

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A bundle of $100 bills, or $100,000.

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A shrink-wrapped brick of $100 bills, or four bundles, totaling $400,000.

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Headed for San Francisco

Stacks of packaged $100 bills are seen at the Western Currency Facility in Fort Worth, Texas. These bills are destined for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco.

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50- and 32-subject sheets

Western Currency Facility plant manager Charlene Williams (left) and a fellow Bureau of Engraving and Printing employee show off a 50-subject sheet of $1 bills -- which the facility now prints -- and an old 32-note sheet. The facility is currently only printing 50-subject $1 bills, but plans to expand to other denominations soon.

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Anti-counterfeit 1

A look at the color-shifting inkwell and 3D security ribbon, the two new anti-counterfeiting features being used on $100 bills.

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Anti-counterfeit 2

A look at the anti-counterfeiting features from a different angle.

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Tiny print

The $100 bill features many anti-counterfeiting measures, including tiny print that is invisible to the naked eye, and which is extremely difficult to reproduce. In this image, the letters "USA" are repeated again and again on the lower edge of the note, and the words "United States of America" are repeated on Benjamin Franklin's collar.

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