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Face Value
Comments () | Published October 18, 2010

Hipschen started as an apprentice in 1968, peeling tiny threads of steel off a plate with a pointed chisel, called a burin, to create a seven-cent stamp of Ben Franklin, who designed the country’s first paper money—continental dollars issued to pay for the American Revolution. Franklin used plaster casts of leaves to create lead plates and then print images of the leaves on dollars, because each leaf was unique and therefore hard to counterfeit.

As an apprentice, Hipschen received permission from the bureau to moonlight for the Canadian government to engrave portraits on $10 and $50 bank notes of John A. Macdonald and William Lyon MacKenzie King, the first and tenth prime ministers.

The precision of his work attracted attention among currency experts around the world. He was approached by countries on three continents to engrave their currency, and he received proposals to create illegal engravings. When one man asked Hipschen to copy travelers’ checks, he gave the information to the Secret Service.

Despite his skill, Hipschen’s work long remained anonymous. “The art world and the academic world has largely ignored this area,” Tomasko says. Because currency engraving is a security business, publicity has traditionally been discouraged: “It’s rare to be famous if you are an engraver.”

Over the 37 years Hipschen has spent at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing crouched over an angled, lighted table “digging ditches” in steel, often listening to Beethoven, the reproduction of engravings has evolved.

At first, the finished plates were hardened in molten cyanide and dipped in oil to cool, a technique used in the 1880s. That practice fell out of favor because it was too dangerous. In the 1980s and ’90s, Hipschen continued cutting steel, but the engravings were photo-etched into metal and plastic. By 2000, he was practicing a hybrid engraving method, using both a burin and a computer.

Hipschen was the go-to guy for testing the digital technology. He agreed to put down his burin for a keyboard in 2000 and was sent to Lausanne, Switzerland, to learn to operate digital-engraving technology that could create three-dimensional portraits. Computer engraving involves generating lines, then using digital tools to warp, break, angle, taper, and widen them. When the image is complete, the computer runs a laser that cuts lines into plastic to create a metal plate.

After experimenting with the technology for a few weeks, Hipschen reluctantly declared it a viable option for making US currency. “Being able to artificially create depth was a great leap forward,” he says. “It takes forever to do engraving by hand, but you can do this in minutes. It loses a lot of the character, but I had to admit it worked.”

Repairing a damaged steel plate from an inadvertent slip can take a week, compared with slips in digital engraving, which can be repaired in seconds.

Hipschen’s colleague Ken Kipperman, who engraved the portrait of Alexander Hamilton for the $10 bill that came out in 2006 and is now working on a new portrait of Grant, says a computer can add complexity to engraving. But he warns that anyone doing digital engraving must have training in traditional engraving or else he or she might create bank notes vulnerable to fraud.

“It’s not just a matter of putting an image on a screen,” Lambert says. The Federal Reserve Board insisted that digital engraving be overseen by experienced engravers who know which cuts hold ink best and how to vary line and structure. The bureau says it added digital engraving because the increased complexity of US currency designs “requires a blend of modern technology with the traditional knowledge and skills of our engravers.” It’s continuing to train apprentices in traditional engraving techniques.

Four years ago, after the bureau began expanding its use of computer engraving, Hipschen, now 59, decided to retire. Hand engraving hurt his back and strained his eyes, but he loved it. Computer engraving caused him to suffer carpal tunnel syndrome and simply didn’t feel like art: “I was dealing with equipment I didn’t like, and I wasn’t doing anything original—I was just copying stuff, and I felt worthless.”

Engraving by computer requires that you “just settle for what the program gives you,” he says, “rather than teasing out a perfect resolution of your intention.”


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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/18/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Articles