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Creating a Modern Bank Note

By Bank of Canada | Wednesday, December 6, 2006

As Canada's sole note-issuing authority, the Bank of Canada is responsible for overseeing all stages in the development of a new series of bank notes: research, design, and production. The form and material of the notes are subject to approval by the Minister of Finance. The Bank carries out its research in collaboration with external partners, including bank note printers, the National Research Council, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as other central banks and the international security-documents industry. The Bank identifies the latest advances in security printing and features and determines whether they can be used in Canadian bank notes. It is at this stage that the Bank establishes the themes and general designs for the new series.

The design stage involves several steps. The designer begins by creating proposals in the form of conceptual models for the new notes. The Bank selects one of these for approval by the Minister of Finance.

Once the design has been finalized, the production process begins. A set of initial plates is made by one of the two Canadian security printers that the Bank uses, and these are tested for quality on small-scale presses. When the Bank is satisfied with the print quality, large plates are made that produce sheets of notes. Each plate carries part of the finished design, with up to nine plates required for a typical note. Several printing methods are used, including intaglio, lithography, letterpress, and silkscreen.

Intaglio–the art of engraving–involves printing an image from a design cut or etched into a metal plate. Thick ink is applied to the plate and then wiped off, leaving ink in the lines and grooves. Paper is squeezed under pressure into the engraved plate, pulling the ink out of the grooves and onto the paper's surface, producing the raised ink distinctive to bank notes. This technique has been used since the eighteenth century for portraits, lettering, and patterns on bank notes, because the feel of intaglio print cannot be duplicated by other printing processes. All notes issued by the Bank of Canada since 1935 have incorporated intaglio-printed elements.

A single handmade engraving may take months, and one slip of the engraving tool can ruin weeks of work. Because bank notes are printed at a rate of 8,000 to 10,000 sheets per hour, lines and dots on the engravings must be well defined, and the depth and direction of each line must be carefully considered to obtain the quality needed to create security features. New techniques are being adopted that incorporate mechanical engraving equipment or a laser on an extremely fine scale to replicate hand engraving. This process still requires a high level of skill, but the tool is a computer mouse rather than a fine chisel. Such techniques were used on the Canadian Journey $50 note.

When finished, the master die is replicated by electrolytic deposition–a complex process involving many steps–that produces a large printing plate on which every detail of the master die is reproduced 45 times.

Lithography is used to apply the colours and tones, resulting in the multi-coloured design on the front and the back of bank notes. Up to eight lithographic plates are required for each denomination. These plates are manufactured using a light-exposure process and typically contain groupings of very fine lines or extremely small text (microprint), some of which is almost impossible to reproduce with a photocopier or inkjet printer. During the printing process, the lithographic plates transfer the ink to a blanket which, in turn, transfers it to the paper. The ink layer used for the background colours is very thin but requires at least three days to dry completely. This method is used to apply the signatures on Canadian Journey notes. In the past, signatures were applied either by letterpress or intaglio.

Letterpress printing with rollers is used to apply the bar codes and serial numbers to the notes.

Certain security features are applied to notes after printing. Others are already in the paper or are applied to it before printing begins. For example, the colour-shifting security thread woven through notes in the Canadian Journey series, together with the watermark portraits, are incorporated in the paper itself, whereas the holographic stripe is applied to the finished paper before it is delivered for printing. Fibres can also be mixed into the paper pulp–some are visible to the naked eye, while others are visible only under ultraviolet light.

The large sheets of printed notes are carefully examined for errors, a labour-intensive process (extensive use is made of machines and instruments to inspect notes during and after printing) that prevents defective notes from entering circulation. Sheets containing errors are counted, numbered, packaged, and later destroyed. Finished sheets of notes are then fed into machines that cut, bundle, and package them as individual notes. The packages of notes are then sent to the Bank of Canada for distribution to financial institutions.

This article represents a portion of the publication The Art and Design of Canadian Bank Notes from the Bank of Canada

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