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
after I first started looking at pen tips, I noticed a difference
between the tips of pens made before the late 1930s
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 Sheaffers
PFM (late 1950s) and the Parker 51 (1940s on),
there is a regular, spherical margin where a ball shape is
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.
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.
can anticipate and never tire of the flow
of incandescent metal into the mold.
late afternoon when I come down the hill into Fort Madison,
and the highway runs right by Sheaffers 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.
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 Sheaffers
while he was in college and his dad worked here for more than
40 years. "They used to hire workers 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."
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.
a large man in blue coveralls, protective apron, and refractory
gloves, whose father started at Sheaffers in the 30s,
runs the show. He started at Sheaffers 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."
grinds quickly and precisely,
frequently flipping up a 10X loupe to check her work.
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.
I go to the "pellet room" where the tipping material
used by Sheaffers 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.
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.
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 Sheaffers
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.
will never come apart", Ted tells me and I believe him.
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.
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 Sheaffers 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.
to Gary at the roller and he tells me that he will be re-melting
the ribbons of gold that he has been rolling. "Its
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
he can tell me about Radite, Sheaffers 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.
way to the lobby Larry and I pause in front of a photograph
of the Sheaffer plant taken in the early 1950s. 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.
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.
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 Sheaffers 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 Sheaffers
for manufacturing and offices, from 1913 to 1921 when they
moved to their present site. I see what was WAs 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.
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.
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
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 Sheaffers 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."
at last I have it from someone with
living memory of the process.
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."
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.
describes working on music nibs.
did Sheaffers start using refined tipping material?
Again AJ has the answer. "When I came back to Sheaffers
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 Sheaffers pens.
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. Didnt
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
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."
AJ about the production numbers of fine, medium and broad
nibs. "Just occasionally did we make a broad or a stub
nib. In the 1930s 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."
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."
me that in his career he had ground some two million points,
"hand ground." He made a good living at Sheaffers.
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."
the war things changed at Sheaffers. He "didnt
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
didnt 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."
AJ lives just a few blocks from Sheaffer Pen Co. he has not
been back there in six or seven years.
it is difficult to find a true extra fine nib, and even more
difficult to find an accountants 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 AJs
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
1998 John Mottishaw No reproduction or distribution without
published in The
PENnant Vol XI, No. 1