Dave Mills

It is quite a project to create finished banknotes, ready for distribution. I have laid out the general steps involved, from artist's sketches through to finished product, with examples (where I have them!) at various stages of the process.

Artist's Sketches

The first concepts of a banknote's design come from sketches that an artist will make. These sketches are found from very rough to quite complete banknotes, and are usually single-color pen and ink drawings, maybe just of a certain area of a banknote.

Artist's Project (Maquette)

Many more "project" drawings and prints are made, than make it through to the final accepted banknote designs. These projects can be in the form of pen and ink drawings, watercolors, or more final prints. For banknotes that were actually issued, the artist's drawings are usually kept by the bank, so most drawings in collector's hands are of unreleased designs. They are all rare.

Engraving the Plates

Once the art has been approved, one or more engravers is assigned the task of creating the printing plates. One for each color, engraved typically in either boxwood or mild steel. This is an arduous task, working via a magnifying glass to see all the fine details.

The 1906 Luc-Olivier Merson note was the first multicolor French note, requiring four plates.

Color separations of the four plates engraved by Romagnol for the 1906 100F Luc-Olivier Merson banknote1

Printing Methods

Detail of 100F Luc-Olivier Merson: Relief printing

Early French banknotes, from the assignats through the black and the blue prints, and all the way up to the 10F Berlioz issue of 1972, were printed with a relief process. Plates of wood or metal were cut, ink applied to the raised surfaces, and then the plate was pressed onto the paper.

Detail of Berlioz issue - printed with offset lithography

Detail of 5000F Victoire: Intaglio printing over relief background

Many of the multi-color French-printed notes starting with the 5000F Victoire note of 1939 have had a single color plate engraved with the main subject and printed using the intaglio method on top of the colored background which is printed in relief. In this way, the main subject can be made to stand out from the rest of the design, and "jump off the paper". With intaglio printing, the artwork is engraved into a plate of steel. Ink is applied to the plate, then the surface wiped clean, leaving ink only in the recessed areas. Paper is pressed against the plate under high pressure, and the ink is transferred onto the paper. Intaglio printing creates a very fine set of lines, as well as embossing of the paper due to the pressure of forcing the paper into the plate. It is generally used only for the finest printed products (e.g. an "engraved invitation").

Banknotes after 1972 are partially or sometimes fully printed via offset lithographic process. The design is applied to a flat plate using materials that have differing surface tension properties. These properties have the characteristic of attracting or repelling the applied ink, which then can be pressed onto the paper. Offset lithography adds a rubber roller to the mechanism, which picks up the ink by rolling across the plate, then rolls the ink onto paper.2 3

Artwork Reuse

Two banknotes, one from Uruguay, the other from French Indochina, sharing the subject

It is not uncommon to find that artwork created for one note was reused on another note.

Printer's Waste

Printer's Waste from W.A.S. Intaglio Print

During the printing process, all waste and errors are intended to be destroyed. Some such material inevitably escapes the facility and ends up on the open market. I would include in this category test prints (sometimes called "printer's proofs" on cheap colored non-watermarked paper, which are simply done to check the print quality before using the final watermarked paper to produce the banknotes.


Yugoslavia P-25 Proof

Proof notes, either during the printing process or as Artist's Proofs, are found in either the final or other trial colors. They may be uniface (printed only on one side), on either watermarked or unwatermarked paper. Fewer Proof notes are made than Specimen notes, so they are quite rare.


France P-M11 Specimen

Specimen banknotes were issued to provide foreign and regional banks with sample copies of banknotes, either as notification of a banknote's release, or to help determine forgeries. The earliest Specimen notes were existing notes overprinted with "Annule" stamp. Later notes were printed specifically as specimens, with "0000" serial numbers (sometimes hand-written), or the word "SPECIMEN" perforated or printed in the paper. Typically at most 300 Specimen copies are made of any banknote, so they are rare.

Echantillons (Sample Notes)

Sample notes are produced by printing companies as samples of their printing quality. They are used as display samples and for testing in ATM machines. There is no restriction on printing of Echantillon notes; they are not rare.


Inevitably, some errors will work their way through the printing facility, and be released into circulation. Dramatic errors, such as missing printing passes, uniface printings and folded paper can be quite rare and valuable. Other minor errors such as color mis-registration tend to be quite common.

  1. Les Billets Française de la Banque de France, by Maryse Souque et al, published by the Banque de France
  2. Trois Siecles de Billets Français, by Michel Daspre
  3. Wikipedia