Dollar bills: You need them to buy lunch at camp. You need them to buy gum at the drugstore. And you beg your parents for them to buy the coolest new games and toys. But when was the last time you really looked at money and noticed all the little markings that make it a real United States bill? At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where bills are made, hundreds of workers look at money all day long and make sure each bill is created exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

The history of the bureau

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing (or BEP) here in Washington is celebrating its 150th anniversary. In 1861, for the first time, the federal, or national, government took over the process of printing money. Until then, money had been issued by private banks after they received permission to do so. With the North and the South fighting the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln need to make money (literally) fast to pay the Union soldiers. In 1862, an engineer named Spencer Clark invented a machine that could take huge sheets of paper on which many bills had been printed and cut them down to size automatically. On August 29, 1862, Clark and five workers began using this machine, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was born.

Today the bureau is located at 14th and C streets in Southwest Washington. The only other place that prints U.S. bills is in Fort Worth, Texas, where BEP workers have been making money since 1990. (Coins, such as pennies and quarters, are made in Pennsylvania and Colorado.)

Turn the page to learn how money is made.

How is it done?

It takes almost a week for the BEP to turn a blank sheet of paper that is 26 inches wide by 23 inches tall — that’s about the size of two newspaper pages side by side — into 32 bills.

Money is made in three steps. The first and newest step is called offset; it was first used in 2003. It gives all bills worth $5 or more their uni que color. The large sheets of paper go through a machine that’s bigger than your bedroom (And louder, too!). The machine adds strips of color on the front and back of the paper: green, peach and blue for a $20 bill, purple and gray for a $5. Such subtle, or not obvious, coloring makes it hard for anyone to make counterfeit, or fake, money.

Three people work the machine. Every so often, a worker will pull one of the sheets out of the completed pile to make sure the color is perfect. If it’s not, he pulls another sheet or two off the pile. If their color isn’t right, the workers stop the machine, throw away the bad sheets and find out where the color went wrong.

Grab a bill. Run your fingers over it. It feels different than a normal sheet of paper, right? That feeling, or texture, is created in the second step of money making, called intaglio. (Sounds like in-ta-lee-o. It’s the Italian word meaning to engrave.) Another machine, which makes a sound like a loud heartbeat, puts a special type of ink on a big metal plate that is engraved with all the things that make a bill look like money, including the picture of the president and the numbers. Then the plate is wiped clean so that the ink is left only in the grooves of the plate. With 50 tons of pressure (that’s the weight of about 25 small trucks), the plate and the paper are pressed together. This transfers the engraved images onto the paper and gives the bill a texture that you can feel.

During the third step, in a quieter room, the Treasury and Federal Reserve symbols are added. The serial number and a mark that indicates to which part of the country the bill will go also is added. A machine then cuts the sheets into individual bills and counts them. The machine also checks again to make sure the color is perfect. If something is wrong with a bill, a worker takes it out of the stack, destroys it and replaces it with a bill with a star after its serial number. Look at your bills: If any have a star after the serial number, you’ll know that there was something wrong with the original bill. (No, workers don’t get to take damaged money home!) The money is wrapped in plastic and shipped to one of 12 spots around the United States. From there, the bills are sent to a smaller bank, where your mom or dad probably get their money.

How much?

At the beginning of the year, the Federal Reserve, which is the nation’s banking system, tells the bureau how much money to make, breaking it down by each bill type. In 2012, the bureau will make about 8.4 billion bills worth about $400 billion. It’s cool to think that some of those dollars that started as just a blank sheet of paper may buy you lunch this fall, or even a cool new game.

IF YOU GO: How to take a tour of the Bureau

LOOK CLOSELY: How to look at a $5 bill

Moira E. McLaughlin