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
Not long 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 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 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.
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 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
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
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."
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
Ted and 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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. "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."
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,
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.
On our 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
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 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.
Sheaffers 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
* * *
"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 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."
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 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.
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. 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 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 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."
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 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."
After 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."
Although AJ lives just a few blocks
from Sheaffer Pen Co. he has not been back there in six or seven
Today 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 my quest.