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The Anatomy of a nib


The Quest

from the fountain pen of  John Mottishaw

I am heading south on Highway 61 through ten foot stands of corn, the Mississippi on my left, the meadow larks calling from rolling hills and treed fence rows. The middle of America is lush at this time of year, and as I roll towards Fort Madison past prosperous Victorian farm houses, I am inspired to hope the question which has nagged me for so long will shortly be answered.

Not long after I first started looking at pen tips, I noticed a difference between the tips of pens made before the late 1930’s and those of later vintage. On the earlier pens, the tipping material was attached differently, it appeared, than on pens made after the late thirties. If you look at these early pen nibs under a microscope, at the margin where the gold and the iridium meet, you can see a jagged line where the two connect. It is as if an odd-shaped crystal were attached to the nib. In all later pens, including the Sheaffer’s PFM (late 1950’s) and the Parker 51 (1940’s on), there is a regular, spherical margin where a ball shape is attached.

A change seen through a microscope seems insignificant when you travel through a midwestern summer afternoon. But for a nibman, Highway 61 is taking me to my last chance in America to find the source of this seemingly arcane bit of fountain pen history-- the Sheaffer Pen Company, the last American penmaker to still fabricate its own nibs.

And actually, the history, whatever its origins, is important, for the differences between the earlier and subsequent tipping materials is not only visual. Although there are many examples of points so fine and so hard that they still write as finely and beautifully as when they were made sixty or more years ago, the function of many early pens is compromised by flaws in the surface of the tipping material. In addition to the mystery of the tipping material and the way it is applied to the gold, there exists a class of earlier points that are very difficult to make today because they require so much hand work. I hoped also to learn about that.

I can anticipate and never tire of the flow
of incandescent metal into the mold.


It is late afternoon when I come down the hill into Fort Madison, and the highway runs right by Sheaffer’s front door. The smell of cut grass is pungent and compared to the lawns in Los Angeles, the yards surround the Victorian houses with deep green. Train tracks parallel a grassy park along the river. The center of town runs two blocks wide with brick buildings several stories tall. The backs of these old buildings face Highway 61, the railroad and the Mississippi. Evening in Fort Madison is a hall full of gray haired ladies playing bingo. This is a town that remembers its past, but at its edge there is a new strip with shopping malls and auto dealers.

The next morning, I am looking at a display of vintage and current fountain pens in the front lobby of the Sheaffer main building, when my host, Larry Zumdome, greets me. He started at Sheaffer’s while he was in college and his dad worked here for more than 40 years. "They used to hire worker’s kids for summer jobs. I worked the summers while I was going to college from the age of 18 to 21 as a temp worker. It was great because that is the busiest season, preparing for the Christmas rush."

The work in the Sheaffer foundry, the "gold cell", has been held off for me to see, so Larry takes me there directly. The foundry is a workable combination of high tech and practical. This is a routine that has been worked out over years and years of practice. A big sloppy gas flame rises off the top of the crucible and over the mouth of the ingot mold keeping oxygen from getting to the gold. An induction coil with its steady hum heats the melt.

Gary Lake, a large man in blue coveralls, protective apron, and refractory gloves, whose father started at Sheaffer’s in the 30’s, runs the show. He started at Sheaffer’s in 1964 and knows his job backwards and forwards. I am trying to see what is going on and at the same time stay out of the way. It helps that I have had more than thirty years of foundry experience in fine arts. I can anticipate and never tire of the flow of incandescent metal into the mold. "Liquid lard" Gary says, "That is what keeps the gold from sticking to the mold." He almost immediately pops the clamps off of the two "L" shaped sections that form the sides of the mold, grabs the rapidly cooling gold with tongs and plunges it into cold water. It gives off a burbling sound as the heat is drawn off. If the gold is allowed to cool slowly, it does not have a consistent temper from one end of the bar, or ingot, to the other. He hands me the gold bar, which is now cool enough to hold without gloves. I ask the inevitable question. "$23,000.", He says, "58% of 100 troy ozs. or 2000 penny weight."

She grinds quickly and precisely,
frequently flipping up a 10X loupe to check her work.

Gary is shaping the end of the ingot with a hammer when I am introduced to Ted Sharp, the nib shop foreman and process engineer supervisor. Larry Zumdome excuses himself, saying he has a meeting that he must attend and will catch up with me later.

Ted and I go to the "pellet room" where the tipping material used by Sheaffer’s is made. A technician is looking through a binocular microscope, inspecting every finished pellet. "We used to buy our tipping material," Ted tells me, "but we figured out the process for making our own." The process begins with pouring molten (3300 F) Ruthenium alloy into water that is agitated by a whirling disc. "The metallurgists over at Iowa State and University of Missouri do not know why it works," Ted Sharp explains, "But it works." Various sizes of spherical and semi-spherical pellets are then run through screens to separate the appropriate ones from those that will go back into the pot for another melt. I am watching what looks like a flea circus on a flat metal deck: tiny pellets, which are all about the same size, are dancing around. They go onto these slightly sloped vibrating tables where the odd and eccentric shapes deselect themselves because of their irregularity. They fall off the "flea circus" and into a slot where they will go back into the pot for re-melt. The regular pellets are then run in a ball mill with steel shot and an abrasive compound to further "spruce up" the surface and crushed any pellets with bubbles in them. After getting a special coating, the pellets are individually inspected under a microscope.

We walk back out into the large open work area, past rows of stamping and pressing machines. By this time Gary is running the bar of 14k gold through a roller. It has gotten so long that he has had to cut it into four pieces of about four feet long. With each pass through the rollers, the metal strip becomes thinner and longer. I choose this time to ask what the process was like before they used pellets.

Ted does not know. It was before his time. But he takes me over to woman who is grinding shape into the tip of an inlaid nib. "This is Letta Grosekemper. She has been here at Sheaffer’s for 43 years." I am immediately interested in what she is doing: putting a 30 degree left hand oblique end on a nib. We talks about how difficult it is to know what people mean when they say left oblique: which is the long side and which is the shorter side of the point? We agree that this kind of point is longer on the right. "Like your left foot" I say. She agrees. I tell her that I also grind nibs in order to repair them. Then I ask my question about what it was like before they used pellets.

"They will never come apart", Ted tells me and I believe him.

Letta remembers when they used a square bar for tipping material, but I am disappointed to hear that she also was not around before pellets. She goes on to tell me about her early days of grinding, "We used to grind the nibs using mud," carborundum dust mixed in oil, "and that was messy stuff." It was applied to a turning brass wheel that graduated from a one inch drum for coarse cutting, to a medium cut, and finally to a four inch diameter felt wheel for finishing. "The mud would fly off of the wheel and we used to go home with it all over us." Now they are using a diamond wheel for fast cutting, a rubberized carborundum for intermediate shaping, and a felt for final polish, with no mud.

She grinds quickly and precisely, frequently flipping up a 10X loupe to check her work. I ask her if she likes what she does. She says yes. She has done almost all of the custom grinding that has come out of Sheaffer’s in recent years. Later I tell Ted that she is a treasure that should be cared for. Ted tells me that she has been grinding nibs for thirty years and never takes any sick time. He tells me that she is thinking of retiring and is training a successor.

We return to Gary at the roller and he tells me that he will be re-melting the ribbons of gold that he has been rolling. "It’s too green, too much new 24k in the melt," he tells me. "It needs to be run through again to mix the alloy better. You can always tell by the tears in the edges of the sheets. If it happens here, you will get tears in the nibs when they are being stamped."

Today they are working on the Targa nib. Everyone there calls them "fishes," because they look just like small cut out fish with fins on each side and a tail. Ted takes me rapidly from one machine to the next, inserting a "fish" and taking it out with one more process done. The nibs are moved from the cutter to the fuser, where the pellet is electrically fused with the gold. This process involves a very slight drop of the nib as its tip melts around the tipping pellet. When the right amount of gold has flowed around the pellet, the electricity automatically shuts off. Next, the nib is imprinted with the Sheaffer stamp, followed by a machine that puts a breather hole in just the right place and on to the center blank machine.

The next machine stamps the curved shape into the nib and the next bends the tabs. We round the bend in the nib making "cell", the group of work stations where this nib is made, and come to the slitter, where the tipping material and the gold nib are slit back to the vent hole.

Next the nibs go four at a time into the face grinding machine, where just the right amount of tipping is ground off to give a flatter surface to the tip. The next machine smoothes and polishes this face and the next is a press or stamp, which closes the slit, which sprung open when it was cut. These nibs are now ready for adhesive on the underside which will bond with the injection molded plastic to attach them and seal them into the nose section. "They will never come apart", Ted tells me and I believe him. If you want to change point styles on one of these pens, you must change the entire nose cone. (For this reason, these nibs are very difficult for me to repair or alter.) The point section is ready for assembly with the rest of the pen. The whole pen goes on to quality control. An overnight leak test, a write test and a visual check on eight out of every seventy two pens assures that the batch is free from defects. "If we find one bad one, we go back and check them all," Ted tells me.

Ted takes me to meet Sidney Brown, the head of the repair department, who is taking a call from a customer as I come in. She is telling the customer to, "just mention what happened with the pen in your note and we will give you the part at a 50% discount - just because." I know that this is one reason that Sheaffer has such a following and brand loyalty.

After a tour of the repair facilities, Larry Zumdome takes me to meet Mr. Tom Frantz, the patents and trade marks attorney who also serves as the Sheaffer historian. Tom Frantz is retired from Sheaffer Pen and is supposed to come in only one day a week, but seems to still be spending most of his time here. His father was the corporate secretary for W. A. Sheaffer, himself. So I am keen to ask him about the nib tipping process of the past.

While he can tell me about Radite, Sheaffer’s earliest plastic, he cannot, unfortunately, shed any light on my nib tipping question at this time. And so my tour finishes on a disappointing note: the answer to my original question has eluded me.

On our way to the lobby Larry and I pause in front of a photograph of the Sheaffer plant taken in the early 1950’s. This was a time when there were still big problems with the ball point pen. The fountain pen was the primary writing instrument. Maybe second only to the pencil. He tells me that Sheaffer Pen is no longer the largest employer in Fort Madison. Dial Corp., Monsanto, and Dupont are also here now. In an easy manner Larry turns to me and says, "We make a great pen." I have to agree.

Driving around Fort Madison, I cannot help thinking that although Sheaffer Pen may not be the largest employer at this time, they are deeply imbedded in this river front town. The entire history of this great company is here. The original jewelry store that W.A. Sheaffer ran at the turn of the century is still a jewelry store (with a new owner and a painfully dated face lift) at 149 G street.

Just one half block away and by contrast, beautifully preserved outside, is the Hesse building, the original factory building. I have the good fortune to run into Dave Sullen MPC (Master Pen Collector) who resides here in Fort Madison and has law offices in this original Sheaffer’s building. He is able to give me the low-down on history here, as well as a complete inside tour. This building is still owned by the same family that built it 140 years ago. The entire third floor was occupied by Sheaffer’s for manufacturing and offices, from 1913 to 1921 when they moved to their present site. I see what was WA’s office with bay windows at the north end of the building. I can picture him there planning his strategy to do battle with the giants, Waterman and Parker from behind his desk.

Sheaffer’s Pen Co. was growing so fast that the Hesse building could not hold them. Just a few blocks to the east they bought and moved into the Creamery building at what is now called the 400 block of 4th street and soon thereafter took over the Morrison Plow works in the next block. This land now makes up the current site.

Today, Fort Madison is a town where, according to the real estate listings, you can buy a house for $30,000 to $65,000. I bet it strikes some of the people here in Iowa as strange that some collectors spend $10,000 on a limited edition fountain pen.


"You can call me AJ or Solie." AJ Solheid says into the phone. "That is what everyone at the plant called me," AJ Solheid is 86 years old and he just finished supper. A message after I returned to Los Angeles, from Letta Grosekemper, has made me hopeful, after all, of getting my original question answered. For it was AJ who taught Letta; and now he is telling me that he started working at Sheaffer’s in June of 1934. "I know when it was because I had been working on the WPA, just got married, and was hired on in June of that year."

Now at last I have it from someone with
living memory of the process.

So how was tipping done in those days? "My wife began as a fuser...a hell of a job" is his first response. "The nibs were mounted on a wheel. The tip of the nib had a shelf where it was flattened out. And the tipping material came in a cup. You would spread it out and it looked like little pieces of coal, all different shapes. The iridium was picked out of the pile by hand, with tweezers, dipped in a gray sticky stuff," (probably a flux) "and placed on the shelf of the nib. As the wheel was rotated slowly, the tip of each nib passed through a flame which melted the gold around the iridium, fusing it together. The base gold curled right over it, welding the tip to the nib. We had three or four different grades of tipping. The hardest was used on the best pens."

Now at last I have it from someone with living memory of the process. The pieces were rough ore of iridium that had been pulverized to appropriate sizes, then selected and placed by hand onto the nib using the naked eye and tweezers. This explains the inconsistent material that I have been looking at under my microscope. It also explains the tips with cracks and fissures that go from one side of the tip to the other. And it explains areas of porosity and crystal structures that are very different from one nib to the next, even in pens of the same vintage and made by the same company. They were using a material that they could not yet smelt, purify or alloy.

AJ describes working on music nibs.

So when did Sheaffer’s start using refined tipping material? Again AJ has the answer. "When I came back to Sheaffer’s after the war in 1945, it was Christmas. That was when we started working on ball tipping material. They started doing it on an experimental basis right after the war." Now we have another way of dating post war Sheaffer’s pens.

In those days there were lots of nib grinders. He started out the last of fourteen men. "You learned by watching." Were there any women grinding nibs? "All men. One woman. Didn’t stay long. The carborundum would fly into your face. Had to wear glasses". AJ describes the process in detail. "We worked on a copper lathe. It was three sizes of spinning copper drums all on one shaft that got its power from the overhead pulley. We charged the lathe with a dauber. We would daub on carborundum in an oil base." It was piece work. "A sac of 50 pens lasted one and a half hours. That was really moving."

AJ describes working on music nibs. "We made them in 1950. The tipping had to be selected. You had to find an extra long piece so that you could get that width. And the iridium had to be place just so on the point before fusing." Then if the nib was not flexible enough, they took material off of the top and tapered in the sides. He did custom orders such as four pens all the same for doctors. "They had to be all the same, special order, in a packet. The nibs had to write the same in any direction. The hardest to make were the "hair line". I spent two hours on a hair line. I had to take it down to width and depth and on to polishing. I finished up on rouge paper, holding the nib loosely in my fingers."

I ask AJ about the production numbers of fine, medium and broad nibs. "Just occasionally did we make a broad or a stub nib. In the 1930’s 60 to 70% of points were fine points, they were my favorite point. The best ones write wider on the cross stroke, narrower on the down stroke. That is what we call "slope"." Then there was the short hand point in 1938-39. "It had a fine point, but the same width and depth, no slope. We had a gauge to measure the side width. Twenty to 30% of points were medium. I never did like the medium point. They wrote pretty much the same in both directions. Ten to 15% were extra fine points. They were more difficult but still done by the regular grinder. If we took too much off the sides in grinding them down, they would have to be scrapped. The wider points would just be made into a narrower size. The needle point was never done by a regular grinder, it was a special order for accountants. I would take the needle point right on down on the brass wheel. But your fingers have to be used to that stuff. I could not do it now."

I had wanted to know why it was so difficult to find stub or even broad nibs on pens of this period. AJ had the answer. "I think it was true throughout the industry. The demand was there for the fines."

AJ told me that in his career he had ground some two million points, "hand ground." He made a good living at Sheaffer’s. His wife came home from working there shortly after she started and he supported both of them. He knew a guy who was a "buddy of the head of the company who went to shows on the east coast. Traveled all over with his lathe. You could make a good living (as a nibman) going around the world."

After the war things changed at Sheaffer’s. He "didn’t like the new tipping material because it took away jobs." The processes were more automated. The tips required less grinding and more of it was done by machines. Also, the workers didn’t have the same attitude. "You could not scold them. Before the war you would stay in your chair. They made too much scrap and did not take enough time to do it right. Ten rejects out of fifty was too many. The work got cleaner though, with carbide wheels instead of oil mud."

Although AJ lives just a few blocks from Sheaffer Pen Co. he has not been back there in six or seven years.

Today it is difficult to find a true extra fine nib, and even more difficult to find an accountant’s point. However, the material used to make points these days is generally superior to what was used before W.W.II. AJ told me that at its peak Sheaffer, "had 75 pen grinders and seven people slitting." Today Letta Grosekemper manages to grind almost all of the custom nibs. As I hung the phone I realized that AJ’s culture of point makers had disappeared, and with them the little tricks and larger attitudes that produced wonderful hand made nibs. It was my good fortune that Letta Grosekemper led me to A.J. Solheid; thanks to him I had the answer to my quest.


© 1998 John Mottishaw No reproduction or distribution without permission. first published in The PENnant Vol XI, No. 1

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