The new alchemists: Blank paper to greenbacks

September 3, 2011

William Bolden makes more money in eight hours than Donald Trump.

Combined with Oprah Winfrey.

Combined with Beyonce and Jay-Z.

Bolden, a soft-spoken man who grew up on a Virginia farm, does the math one recent afternoon. If 40,000 sheets of paper travel through the machine he mans each night at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and each one carries 32 $20 bills, that’s $25,600,000. All in a single shift.

In a year, that means more than $6.6 billion will pass before his eyes. Last year, Trump, Winfrey and the expecting couple earned, according to Forbes, a combined total of about $422 million.

At the bureau, each weekday, around the clock, men and women like Bolden swipe security badges and walk into the rumbling belly of the C Street building to print what the rest of us are laboring for: Greenbacks.

“I don’t think of it as money. Right now, it’s just paper,” says Bolden, 50, standing in front of a yellow, groaning machine that is spitting out stacks of crisp, untouched bills. His eyes scan for tiny details most people wouldn’t notice, such as whether every word on the seal is readable. “Here, we’re producing a commodity that the country needs and it has to be correct.”

Bolden, a Navy veteran who worked for 16 years in the CIA’s print shop before coming to the bureau, speaks of printing with reverence. There is a thrill in that moment of creation, he says, in starting with a blank sheet and ending up with something important. “I’m proud,” he says, “that I print something that is used around the world.”

Lydia Washington, a spokeswoman for the bureau, says there are 1,892 employees between the D.C. and Texas facilities who in a day might produce $974 million. “We set a global standard in currency production,” she says. “Our currency has never been recalled or devalued.” In other words, an old dollar is worth as much as a new dollar. The bills are also strong enough to withstand 4,000 double folds — forward and backward — before they tear.

Each bill, before it reaches the Federal Reserve and eventually the public, goes through four steps at the bureau. In a room thick with the smell of ink, blank sheets of paper with embedded watermarks wait to be born into currency. A banner on the wall reads: “THE COLOR of MONEY $TART$ HERE.” And nearby shelves are labeled with the hues that will go into the bills: “lavender,” “azure,” and “cherry,” among others.

Workers print the back of the bills first, followed by the front. They then send them to another area for inspection. Only the ones deemed to be without flaw will reach Bolden’s section.

There, the already-tight security throughout the building is even more restrictive. Employees work behind gates that stretch from the concrete floors to the ceiling, and signs tell of the two-man rule. No one is ever alone here.

This is the final stage of the bills’ gestation, where workers make sure that the seals are printed with just the right ink density, that the serial numbers follow a precise sequence and that each bill is cut to perfection so that when a person slips it into a vending machine it’s accepted. All of this Bolden does, zipping from one end of the machine to the other with the ease acquired over seven years of experience.

But ask Bolden about his job and he will likely keep it vague. He doesn’t like to talk about what he earns — a pressman in Bolden’s position, according it a chart on the bureau’s Web site, could take home anywhere from $45.20 to $46.30 an hour — or go into detail about what he actually does.

“If anyone asks, I say I work for the Treasury Department,” Bolden says. Otherwise, he says, when you tell people you have millions of dollars within your reach every day, it often leads to the same joke — one that Oprah and Trump have likely heard in some variation: “Can you bring me a stack?”

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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