Engraving goes digital, but craftsmanship remains

Adept of an exquisite craft ("You must remain very quiet and calm as you go in with your V-shaped tool. Think about a field being plowed."), engraver Christopher Madden is moving with the government into the digital age.

Even the most skilled jobs are transitioning to digital. The Washington Post profiles master engraver Christopher Madden of the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, who is learning to move with the Bureau, from hand- to digital-engraving.

Adept of an exquisite craft ("You must remain very quiet and calm as you go in with your V-shaped tool. Think about a field being plowed."), Madden is moving with the BEP and the Federal Reserve into the digital age.

[O]n 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.

The US is one of the last countries to employ engravers, and Madden is one of the last engravers trained by the Bureau. In 1988, he started a 10-year apprenticeship. As engraving goes digital, the Bureau is looking for two new engravers to start the decade-long training process.

Madden is confident that these new engravers, who will also go through the 10-year apprenticeship, will master the hand-engraving process even as technology takes over. "In order to make this transition from the old methods to the new methods," he said, "the engraver still must impart all those years of experience and all the technological prowess he or she has gathered to create a secure bank note."

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