Error Is Human, Pt. 1: Certifiable U.S. Paper Money Errors


Part I of a two part series discussing the US errors that Paper Money Guaranty (PMG) will recognize, grade and encapsulate.

By Jay H. RecherPaper Money Guaranty Corporation….

Errors happen. That’s just part of life. Even the best of us occasionally make a mistake. The following are examples of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) making some mistakes that fell through the cracks of their quality control department. Keep in mind that a very small amount of error notes actually see the light of day. On average, the BEP will destroy 6% of all printed money due to not holding up to their strict standards.

This two-part series will discuss, define and demonstrate United States errors that PMG will recognize, grade and encapsulate. Each article covers approximately 10 separate errors.

Before we begin, it is important to understand how US paper money is made. The money is 75% cotton and 25% linen. The BEP has used the same company to manufacture paper for them since 1879: Crane and Company of Dalton, Massachusetts. These notes are designed to withhold some serious wear and tear. The Federal Reserve estimates that the average lifespan of a $1 note is 5.8 years, while a $100 note has a lifespan of 15.0 years. The $10 has the lowest lifespan of 4.5 years due it being handled the most.

There are three basic stages of the printing process. Errors can and do occur at any of the three stages listed below:

  1. First Print — This covers the back of the note.
  2. Second Print — This covers the front of the note; includes the portrait and border.
  3. Overprint – This may include both treasury and district seal and the serial numbers.

The following errors can occur during any stage of the printing process.

Misalignment Error

Misalignment error. Courtesy PMG
Misalignment error. Courtesy PMG.

Occurs when the full sheet of paper money gets out of alignment during the printing process. Most often one side of the note will be misaligned while the other side will have normal centering. In order to qualify for a misalignment error the “other” note needs to be visible or part of a print hits another part of a separate print. For example, the overprint overlaps onto the design of the second print.

Gutter Fold Error

Gutter Fold Error - PMG
Gutter Fold Error. Courtesy PMG.

Occurs when the paper is folded prior to the printing phase. This is the most common error to leave the BEP.

Cutting Error

Cutting Error - PMG
Cutting Error. Courtesy PMG.

Occurs when the sheets fail to align properly during the cutting process. Both sides of the note will be affected from this error. In order to qualify for a cutting error the “other” note needs to be visible.

Insufficient Inking Error

Insufficient Inking Error - PMG
Insufficient Inking Error. Courtesy PMG.

Occurs when the ink fountain doesn’t fill the printing plate with sufficient ink.

Board Break Error

Board Break Error - PMG
Board Break Error. Courtesy PMG.

This error occurs when there is a faulty or partially broken impression cylinder. An impression cylinder pulls the currency paper into the intaglio portion of the printing plate.

Ink Smear Error

Ink Smear Error - PMG
Ink Smear Error. Courtesy PMG.

This error can happen when the oscillating wiper doesn’t properly remove excess ink, or if the ink jets malfunction and disperse more ink than needed.

Solvent Smear Error

Solvent Smear Error - PMG
Solvent Smear Error. Courtesy PMG.

A dissolving solvent is used to clean the ink off of the printing plate between prints. If there is too much solvent used or the solvent isn’t wiped clean before the print process begins, a solvent smear error will occur. This type of error will not bleed through the paper.

Offset Printing Error

Offset Printing Error - PMG
Offset Printing Error. Courtesy PMG.

An error resulting in a mirror image of the opposite side. This occurs when one section of ink is transferred to another.

Missing Print Error

Missing Print Error - PMG
Missing Print Error. Courtesy PMG.

Occurs when a step in the three step process (First, Second or Overprint) is completely missed. No ink was ever applied in this error. If traces of ink can be found, please look to Insufficient Inking Error as a possible error.

Printed Fold Error

Printed Fold Error - PMG
Printed Fold Error. Courtesy PMG.

This occurs when the sheet is folded prior to being printed. In the picture above, the back was printed first (as usual) and the sheet was normal. The sheet was still normal during its second printing. Somehow during the second and overprint printing process, the sheet was folded. The sheet was fed while folded and thus we see the result above.

Obstructed Printing Error with Retention

Obstructed Printing Error with Retention - PMG
Obstructed Printing Error with Retention. Courtesy PMG.

When any type of foreign material comes in contact between the printing press and the paper, an obstruction error will occur. Typically this would be a scrap of paper, but it could be a paperclip or even a sticker.

This concludes part one of two showcasing US error notes that PMG will grade and encapsulate. This is by no means all the errors that can occur on both sides. It is merely the errors that PMG sees most often. The next article will discuss errors that usually occur on only one side of the note. Expect to see the next article in our October newsletter.

Note: images from

PMG is an independent member of the Certified Collectibles Group (CCG).

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  1. There are no errors discussed with examples of errors with non matching serial numbers and seals or errors which human error was the cause, purpose or not purposefully done. I have a 20 dollar bill which I believe was the Printers doing and not someone altering it to increase value. It is authenticated by Bank as real paper money.


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