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Nibs in New Haven

(first published in Pen World Magazine, July/August 1998, Vol. 11, No. 6)
 
 

The driver from Parker Pen Co. is pressing the doorbell of the 16th century farm house where I have just finished the breakfast part of "bed and breakfast".

Such miserable rainy weather is not uncommon in October on the South Downs, being fully exposed to the open Atlantic, so my driver, a courteous man sitting on the right hand side of the new minivan, has no trouble, to my amazement, navigating the rush hour lanes and motorways to New Haven, the center of Parker Pen Co.

We pull into an empty slot by the front and make a dash for the large bronze arrows that serve as handles for the doors. They are overscale enlargements of early 1930’s Vacumatic clips, with feathers and triangular arrow head.

I am led up a broad winding flight of stairs into the office of Steve Beaumont, who is in the process of finishing a thought on his word processor. Stephen is the marketing director for Parker and has carefully planned my visit. As he shows me the schedule, he asks me if I would care for a cup of tea. I am reminded that we are in the United Kingdom and gladly share some. This will give us a chance to cover some general ground before I see the factory and especially the nib works. My stated intention here is to find out as much as I can about the Parker nib works.

As I talk with Beaumont I become aware that what goes on at this level of the company is every bit as important to whether the parker pen Co. survives and thrives as is the design of the latest product and the feel of the finest nib.

Steve came to Parker on the accountancy side, as plant controller in the early eighties, then as finance manager and as finance director. After the 1986 buy out, he "was asked to run New Haven as a site". For two years, he moved to the middle east and Europe to look after finance and administration. When Gillette was proposing the purchase of Parker, Steve presented the case to the Monopolies commission, a panel of senior industrialists concerned with the anti-trust issues.

I ask Steve if the purchase of Parker and Waterman by Gillette will mean that the nib works would be consolidated either in England or France. (I was disappointed to find out during my visit there in 1992 that Parker no longer makes nibs in Janesville, Wisconsin, the historic home of the company.) Parker will be competing with Waterman head-on" he says. "We share management meetings of Gillette, which includes people from blades, as well as Paper Mate, Waterman and Parker. General strategies are discussed and the pen companies share upcoming products". " Let me give you an illustration". "Jean Vuillion, the head of Waterman argued that Waterman had the rights to the blue pen." "I asked him, ‘does that mean that Parker cannot make a blue pen?’" Mr. Vuillion agreed, but was overruled. "Of course, that was an insupportable argument." Parker has been making blue pens since the 1920’s. Thinking back about the fierce competition between these two companies from the turn of the century on, I am gratified that both of these names will persist.

"Waterman is more concerned with style, Parker with quality, substance and history," Stephen proposed. "When Gillette bought Parker, the brand name was probably its biggest asset." "Let me tell you a story to illustrate." "At the opening of Moscow’s 850th anniversary, and a new department store, we were asking where to find the ‘expensive fountain pen department’". "A store clerk replied, ‘You obviously mean Parkers. They are right over here in the corner’". "I was disappointed with the location in the store, but gratified with the response".

Stephen Beaumont has been to Janesville, Wisconsin , the historic home of Parker Pen Co. And the site of the archives. Together with a designer, he explores the graphic resources for materials. Calendars, backdrops for pen fairs, and future pen designs may have their genesis here. This year they picked out 24 to 30 images for retouching and use.

What does he think of the new Parker snake pen? "The gold one is good value for the money". "It makes me feel like Indiana Jones coming upon the treasure". "Today people are looking for value". "Gone are the days of conspicuous consumption that we saw in the 80’s. Parker won’t use borrowed ideas for their limited edition pens. We want our pens to link back to our heritage or an event that makes sense with the company."

"Parker occupies an enormous range of prices from $5.00 to $10,000. We are not interested in producing disposable pens." "Parker competes head-on with Waterman. Montblanc has 11% of market share, Parker 9% and Waterman 4% followed by Pelikan, Omas, Cartier and Aurora. Of the 10 to 12 billion made by Gillette, Parker with stationery has about one billion, and one half of that is Parker."

Why are fountain pens so popular? "People want to craft something themselves which is personal and different. And the idea of a refillable pen, appeals to the environmental concerns that people have about disposables.

Where is the quality at Parker? "We build quality into our tools."

Why has Parker moved so much production to the UK? "It is less expensive to produce pens here. We save on labor, freight amounts to 5% of production costs and it is cheaper from here to most markets. Also, we save 7.8% on duty into the Common market." "Several of our lines are duplicated in the US including the Insignia and Frontier. The Sonnet is produced in France."

How do you come up with a new design? "Research and Development people work together with Marketing. Twelve months ago we hired six agencies from around the world to make proposals. From those, three were selected for the competition, and the first place was chosen."

******************

He started here at the age of 14 and worked 47 years for Parker. "It was great fun being here during the war", said Poney Eagan. "I used to watch the troops and airplanes and armor line up for the invasion of Europe". "This piece of ground was also the original transit camp for the 1914 - 1918 war." Poney, now retired three years, still keeps his hand in at Parker, guiding visitors through the factory while relating the history. He remembers Parker making strike pins for land mines.

Poney takes me to a large display board showing photos with the history of the site. As we are examining the photos of the Valentine pen company, bought by Parker in 1939, a woman pushing a large tea caddie rolls by us and down the hall , reminding me that here in Britain, some creature comforts are sacred.

Poney filled me in on the Gillette acquisition of Parker: "Parker was heavily involved with Manpower, a job placement service which ran on hard times". The Parker management at the time sold off Manpower and mortgaged everything with Schroeders Bank in order to keep the company going." When the five year bank note came due, Gillette was there with the money, £286 million.

Poney had the statistics at the tip of his tongue: Parker spends 67% on manufacturing, 12% on marketing, and 20% on distribution. They produce 700,000 units a week including all kinds of writing instruments and sell in 72 countries. Most of the pen manufacturing is done right here in New Haven. Two exceptions are the making of the acrylic for pens and the metal plating, which are sub-contracted out. Parker turns the raw pastic into pens.

We walk past an open, empty and today, very wet courtyard surrounded by modern industrial buildings. "This is where metal caps are made, and jotter pens," Poney shouts. This machine is wider than a living room. It does all of the stamping, crimping, fitting and assembly operations. Tiny parts seem to dance, every few inches, down a line on posts. Two men are watchfully attentive to the modular progression. If I had known that the flash of my camera would have caused such a strong reaction, I would have warned them in advance. They snapoff the line thinking that something is seriously wrong. It starts again immediately only to be shut down again as Poney shows me how, if anything breaks the beam read by the eye at the other end of the machine, it quits so that no one can get their hands caught. For his demonstration, Poney gets a humored dirty look from the machine’s overseer. Poney explains that this assembly machine is made by Rudy Hutt in Germany and produces 2000 units per hour. "They are not exclusive, anyone can buy these machines". He is quick to add that "Parker designs its own tooling and mold tools for pens."

There were two of them facing one another like Victorian armories, the Bruderers. We had moved to another part of the factory and were peering in through an oil soaked window at successive pressings that looked like shell casings being stretched into shape. If it weren’t for the ear plugs, I might not have noticed the concussion in my organs. The Bruderers run day and night, with a sound like distant rhythmic distant artillery. They are the deep draw machines that punch out metal pen caps, clips and steel nibs from flat sheets of stainless steel. Nobody was there when we came and nobody was there when we left.

Poney explains that Parker runs in three shifts, "round the clock".

A huge slow churning vat filled with pen caps sits on rubber and spring cushions , vibrating. The polishing room is a lot quieter. The vats are filled with pure geometric forms, as if Plato had been consulted before deciding what to fill them with. The tetrahedral shaped polishing abrasives go in with the caps, pristine cone shapes made of ceramic are in with soapy water and clips, jiggling and sloshing together. These pure shapes penetrate every nook and cranny of the parts, polishing all of the surfaces, the way a key fits is a lock.

We take our ear plugs out and enter a well populated room. High work benches, good light, endless small tools and lots of standing people, about thirty, occupy this tool making shop. These are the people who make the machines that make the pens. In some cases, they make the tools that make the machines that make the pens. Parker puts high priority on the quality of the tools. Here is where I see quality being made. The rumble, clatter and boom of the manufacturing floor is replaced by and atmosphere of tolerance, the kind that is measured on a micrometer in parts of a millimeter. I am looking at a massive, but perforated slab of steel about the dimensions of a standing business brief case. It is being assembled here on a high work bench. When it is installed next to the other manufacturing tools, molten plastic will flow and harden in its crevices, only to be popped out, ready for the next injection of plastic.

*****************

The only door to the nib works is locked, so Poney and I must wait for Moe Morgan, the nib shop foreman to disarm the door and let us in. Moe Morgan introduces me to Nigel Brooks, the man who keeps the machines in this room set to the proper tolerances. This room is also well populated, but with workers seated at smaller machines in rows. Most are making the 295,000 steel nibs and about 1,800 gold nibs that come out of here a week. Because my questions grow increasingly technical and are specific to the making of gold nibs and the various styles of points, Moe Morgan turns me over to Nigel, who promises a working explanation. I have the feeling that Nigel has only rarely been interviewed. I learn as much by watching his hands as by what he says.

Seeing the intensity of activity here reminds me that nibs are, far and away, the most complex part of the fountain pen, requiring more processes, more labor, and more cost than any other. Parker bought the Valentine Pen Company here in 1940 and by the next year Parker nibs, stamped "N" for New Haven were being produced. The Valentine Pen Company nib works, including the skilled workers and the equipment was the prize.

Parker buys its gold already rolled to a taper from Kookson’s of Birmingham. It comes like heavy ribbon on the roll, weighing about three to four kilograms, with one edge of the ribbon thick, about 20/1000 inch and the other edge thin, about 6/1000 inch. This taper, not found on gold pens of less high quality, allows the nib, once it is cut out to be thicker at the point than it is at the heel. The coil is fed into a machine that gives the gold a flat imprint, makes the vent hole, used for all further registration, a heal slot, a square hole, for registration with the feed, and cuts out the overall shape. It then goes into a forming press which gives what is now only a cookie cutter shape its familiar rounded form, establishing the width across the shoulders and towing down the point end. When I ask Nigel hao all of these foperations can be done by one forming press operation, he gives me a sly grin and says, "It is amazing what we can do with tooling".

I watch as Nigel picks up a single piece of tipping material with a tweezers and puts it in a timy cup in the middle of a small welder that has much the same vaulted shape as a 1930’s tube radio. He presses a switch with his right hand and the current fuzzes the gold around the pellet. He hands the finished weld to me for inspection. Under the ten power loupe that I haul from my pocket, I view a gleaming silver colored ball, thoroughly cupped by and attached to the gold point. This is excellent workmanship. The tipping material is applied with a welder that operates in an oxygen free, hydrogen environment. "We use large pellets on the gold nibs to have somthing to grind off," explains Nigel.

The freshly tipped nib gets the bump grind first. Parker is one of the few remaining companies who make their own nibs and make them to high quality standards. Lower quality nibs are noticeable for their lack of forming on the tip. Parker takes the time to sculpt the tipping material into more choices of point style than any other company that I know of.

I watch again as Nigel gives a demonstratioon of this machine. Even toug every machine in the room is equipped with vacuum dust collextors, heavy dust falls onto all flat survaces in a dark shadow. He loads six nibs into holders and turns on the whir of spinning stones, He lowers the gang of nibs, I watch as they oscillate in the bench top bump grinder, being shaped into good writing tips. "These little grinders cost £30,000 each." Nigel is proud of what they can do. "We started using them in 1992."

More than half of the thickness is ground away to make an italic point. Now we are hunkered down, looking into the gap between two spinning stones in what Nigel calls " the back and face grinder". The Parker italic and oblique tips, which I am sometimes asked to copy on vintage nibs, are handled in a special way here. The tip is passed between two adjusted parallel grinding stones, which take off everything but a "tongue". Care is taken not to remove material in the area where the tipping is fuzzed to the gold so that the connection is not weakened. This process of "back and face grinding" gives the pleasant effect on paper of a wide down stroke and a thin side stroke.

The next machine that Nigel takes me to is much less complex, just a sumple grinding wheel with a nib holder which he adjusts to a specific angle. Again, most of the dust, ths removed metal and the wear on the stones, is sucked up into the vacuum system, a system of pipes that runs above head height throughout this well lit room. The tip grinding machine cuts the final shape, straight across for stub, and at an angle of 15%, either left or 15% right, for the oblique tips.

(Let me try to dispel some of the confusion about stub, italic, calligraphy and oblique nibs. They are all cut on a back and face grinder as described above, or by some similar operation, to give them their characteristic difference in line width between the wide down stroke and the narrower side stroke. Stub, italic and calligraphy nibs are all cut straight across. Because italic pens, found in calligraphy sets, came on the scene in the 1960’s that term has come to mean the same thing as the more traditional word "stub". The oblique nibs are cut at an angle, either down on the left, looking like your left foot from the top, or down on the right. The effect is like turning your angle to the paper, except that it feels natural. Stub, italic and oblique nibs can be found in either rounder, cursive forms, used by those who like to write letters and in the sharper, more calligraphic, and harder to use form, used by people who form their letters one at a time. Some pen companies are so affraid of giving their customers a "scratchy" nib that they err too far in the direction of softness, with the result a point so rounded that the "stub" effect is entirely lost. Calligraphy nibs, almost always made of steel, are the sharpest, hardest to use and most dramatic in their writing characteristics. They are not made by the pen companies because of the difficulties of use. I make them for the seasoned calligrapher.)

Nigel opens the door on what might be a pizza oven. Before slitting, the nibs are "age hardened" in an oven at 350 degrees C to take out the stresses.

My interest in the slitter is so intense that Nigel dismantles the machine so I can see how it operates. Tiny guides hold the paper thin rubberized, carbide wheel from wobbling and two tiny blocks prevent the nib tip from moving ouut of position with the slitter. He tells me that it is necessary to change these blocks all to often, "because the hardness of the tipping material wears away the blocks, making it necessary for me to re-set them often." He fits a nib into the holder and up against the blacks, turns on the spinning wheel and cuts the tipping material and the rest of the point in half, all the way up to the center of the vent hole.

After the nib is slit, there are eight corners which might catch the paper, four on each tine. The purpose of "blend grinding" is not to give the nib its general shape, but to smooth these outer and inner corners and the edges. I can notice the deposits of heavy metals and polishing stone dust below the wheels as Nigel places six nibs in six more holders. They are lowered onto the fine grinding stones. They do an odd dance, a show of mechanical articulation, pivoting, standing up, turning over and pivoting again, until every surface that the writing paper might meet is polished smooth.

The only nibs here which cannot be done on the machine grinders are the extra fine or accountant tips. "They do not turn out well if they are done by machine." Nigel tells me that he does the very small number that are ordered by hand at the back of the shop in his extra time. This squares with my understanding of the exacting nature of the extra fine point. They have always been done by the most highly skilled workers. Human skill, at least in this area still exceed the limits of machine tolerances.

The nibs are then tumbled in what is known as the barreling process. Walnut shells, detergent and the nibs all roll around together until burs from the slitting, and any other sharp edges are removed. One final impact in the point closing tool sets the nib closed, making the tips come together. Rhodium plate is applied over a masking which when removed, leaves the gold color to contrast with the silver colored plating making a finished two-tone nib.

It is 4:30 and the room is growing quieter. Moe Morgan tells me that my driver is waiting for me. I follow him back upstairs to the carpeted area and to Stephen Beaumont. We all say our goodbys. In the van on the way back along the partly dry roads I think about how small the nib is and how important it is to the pen companies. In many ways the survival of pen companies has always rested on the tiny area at the tip of the point.

  

When I think about how great pen designs of the past came into being, I realize that a lot of what happened was based on intuition and fortuitous accident. (Think about the Parker’s big Red coming out of the tool room while George S. Parker was off flying around the world.) These things are not done in such a hap-hazzard manner today.

My interest in the pen companies and in the pens themselves is aesthetic and artisan in point of view. However, I realize that the modern pen company is the combined organization of many specialists and even a few generalists. I find it easy to see the value of the work done by the highly skilled workers, the setters, the machinists and the precision assembly people. I have also come to realize the essential nature of the managers, organizers and those people who are higher up in the corporate structure. Without them and their skills any particular pen company would cease to exist just as surely as if the nib did not write. So in my search for the quality designs and structure of the fountain pen, I cannot divorce the extremes of the modern corporate world.

 
 
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