Nibs In Germany
As the big BMW pulled away from our hotel in Frankfurt, the driver thoughtfully asked if traveling on the autobahn at speeds over 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph) would be uncomfortable for us. We looked at one another, grinned like two kids in a candy store, and replied in unison, "No problem!"
'Welcome to Germany!' I thought as we accelerated toward Heidelberg. In less than one hour, Howard Levy, founder of the Bexley Pen Company, and I would visit Peter Bock GmbH for an in-depth look at how they manufacture nibs. We were about to see the culmination of more than 60 years of nib making expertise. It would prove to be a fountain pen lover's dream.
We were warmly greeted by the owner, Otto Bock, and his assistant, Karin Bauschulte. As vintage pen collectors, Howard and I were eager to talk with them about their decades of experience in the fountain pen industry.
As we chatted, Otto Bock explained that the firm was founded in April, 1939 by his father, Peter. An initial staff of ten people created high-quality, handmade gold nibs for several pen manufacturers in the Heidelberg area.
As a young boy, Otto Bock was fascinated by the work in his father's factory. When he completed his mechanical engineering studies in the early 1950s, he plunged into the automation work that was already occurring at Bock. This investment led to considerable growth in the business and a staff of 120 people.
As Otto Bock reminisced about the pen industry over the past 50 years, he mentioned brands that are familiar today, as well as ones that have become part of history.
He explained that one of his father's early customers was C. Josef Lamy, founder of the Lamy pen company. Mr. Lamy had the idea to place advertisements in German newspapers offering fountain pens for sale by mail. Mr. Lamy would receive paid orders, assemble the requested pens, then ship them directly to his customers. This distinctive approach built Lamy's reputation as a reliable manufacturer, providing the foundation for its long success. In the ensuing years, Lamy has grown to the point where it manufactures most of its own nibs. However, when specialty nibs are required, Bock continues its long tradition of serving Lamy's needs.
Mr. Bock mentioned a little known fact about a connection that he has with another Heidelberg company, Mutschler. Philip Mutschler, founder of the Mutschler Fountain Pen Works, was Otto Bock's uncle (his mother's brother). In the 1980s, Mutschler switched its focus from fountain pens to nibs, and purchased nib manufacturing capacity from the Degussa company. Mutschler is now a competitor of Bock's in the nib making business.
He recalled an interesting family connection between two pen companies from the Heidelberg area. During the 1920s and 1930s, Boehler and Osmia were well-known German brands. (Parker Pen owned Osmia for a few years during the late 1930s. The now rare Parker-Osmia Duofolds were produced at that time. )
Modern day collectors have wondered why Osmia pens are sometimes found with parts clearly labeled Boehler. It is often assumed that these mismatched parts were the result of later repairs. As Mr. Bock recalled, the Boehler and Osmia companies were owned by brothers, who occasionally made parts for each other's pens. This explains why there were a number of Osmia pens that came from the factory with Boehler parts.
In those days, Bock supplied nibs to a number of pen companies. There were four customers in the Heidelberg area: Boehler, Kaweco, Luxor, and Osmia. Other brands included the Buschle Kompaktor from Wueppertal, Fink from Hamburg, Geha from Hannover, Mekurit from Leipzig, Senator from Gross-Biberau, and Soennecken from Bonn. Bock's export business was with Marion Pen Company in Birmingham, England.
We chuckled together about whether it was marketing wisdom, or just wry humor, that resulted in a pen brand from Berlin called Argument. (It has the same meaning in German and English.) Mr. Bock told how they marketed their brand by mounting a large replica of their pen on the roof of a Model T Ford that drove about with the brand name "Argument" written in large letters on the side of the vehicle.
Bock's tradition of being a supplier to numerous pen companies continues today. As we talked, I looked through a sample case of nibs that Bock currently produces. It contained Bock nibs for 31 different brands of fountain pens. Among them were nibs for well-known German and Italian pen manufacturers ... ones that are often assumed to make all of their own nibs.
Since nib-making is so specialized, nib manufacturers have found it necessary to invent their own equipment and processes. During the past six decades, the bedrock of Bock's success has been its ability to produce high-quality nibs in flexible, cost-effective ways. Otto Bock's passion has been to continually invent better ways to achieve the precision and versatility needed to do this.
In this spirit, we started our tour in the machine shop where they make the equipment that makes the nibs.
Mr. Bock explained how he personally works with pen manufacturers to define the specifications for their nibs. Most customers start by providing the artwork for the appearance of the finished nib. However, if they so wish, Bock has the capability to produce designs as well.
One key variable is how stiff or flexible the nib is to be. We learned that, contrary to conventional wisdom, 18 carat nibs are not inherently more flexible than 14 carat nibs. It depends more on how the gold has been tempered, and the shape of the nib, than the gold content.
Once the specifications are finalized, tooling is produced for that specific nib. We were particularly fascinated to watch a skilled technician make the dies used to create the precise shape of the nibs, as well as the decorative "nib art." He used precision electronic measurement equipment to ensure that finished nibs will meet design specifications. Once tooling is ready, the numerous manufacturing steps can begin.
In the world of fountain pens, about 10 times as many steel nibs are produced as gold nibs. However, in financial terms, the picture is quite different. Gold nibs produce much more revenue for a nib-maker since they generally cost more than 50 times as much as steel ones.
We saw gold nibs being made, and learned that the process for making steel nibs is essentially the same.
Here are the 11 steps that we observed while Bock was making gold nibs.
1. The gold used to make nibs arrives in the form of long, flat gold bands round into large rolls. The gold band is somewhat wider than the finished nib length. It is thicker on the side that will become the writing end of the nib, and thinner on the side that will be inserted into the section. (This saves money on the costly gold and allows for a better fit of the nib into the section.) The gold band has been treated to give the combination of flexibility and hardness needed to make proper nibs.
2. We watched the gold banding unwind and feed into presses that punch out nib blanks. At the same time, the "breather hole" was made and the flat blanks were imprinted with their "nib art" (decoration, logos, nib size, carat content of the gold).
3. Then, the nib blanks are inserted into hydraulic presses that use 25 tons of pressure to form the gold nibs into their final convex shape.
4. A small ball of iridium is welded to the soft gold on the point of the nib. The size of the ball determines the width of the nib. The tip material is commonly called iridium, but is actually an alloy of various metals from the platinum family of metals. A specially-designed electrical resistance welding machine meets the challenge of making sure the very hard iridium tip is firmly attached to the relatively soft gold nib. The result is a tip that can withstand many years of abrasion as the nib slides across paper.
5. Grinding machines, invented by Bock, shape the bottom, top and sides of the nib tip. We remembered that some nib manufacturers do not finish the top of the tip since it is does not touch the paper. Bock nibs are so well finished on the top that you can turn the nib over and nearly always write with the top surface of the nib!
6. A slit is cut from the tip to the breather hole of the nib using a diamond cutting disk no thicker than a human hair. This machine, also invented by Bock, is a marvel of engineering design. It is so precise that designers can create "nib art" that depends upon the slit being precisely in the middle of the nib. We looked at a modern Pelikan gold nib, where it was easy to see that the decorative pattern would have been spoiled if the slit had been cut off-center.
7. Once the nib is split, another grinding operation gives both sides of the tip the best shape for writing performance. It is another engineering marvel to see the nibs do an intricate dance on the grinders to achieve just the right shape. Mr. Bock offered his 10x magnifier so that we could have a look at the finished profile. Karin Bauschulte said, with a twinkle in her voice, "The technical term is shaped like a baby's bottom."
8. We watched a technician take a container of nibs and electronically measure each one to ensure that the nib widths met Bock's tight quality standards. It was a testament to the maxim that quality must be built in. Nib after nib was made exactly to specification. None had to be rejected.
9. Next, the nibs are thoroughly polished. Mr. Bock showed us two ways that the nibs can receive their final high gloss finish. One method looks similar to an old-fashioned ice cream freezer without the cold. Loose nibs are dumped into a cylindrical container filled with what looks like thick pancake batter. A paddle rotates in the container, stirring a slurry of walnut shells in an industrial abrasive similar to toothpaste. The second method reminds me of a miniature car wash. Nibs are mounted in small holders where they rotate while moving in an orbit. As they move, the nibs are sprayed with liquid abrasive and tiny cloth wheels whirl around them polishing every surface. In either case, the results are excellent.
10. If the nibs are to be "two tone," an extra step is required. For example, a gold nib can have a portion of the nib decoration plated in rhodium in order to create a color contrast between the gold and silver colored metals. Typically, the part that will not be plated is masked so that the plating will not adhere to the gold in those areas. After the decorative overlay is plated, the mask is removed to reveal the original metal. This work is very challenging, so we were particularly impressed when we looked at two- tone nibs under 10x magnification and saw the precision with which it was done.
11. Finished nibs are cleaned, then mounted in foam holders that protect them for shipment to the fountain pen manufacturers.
Howard and I left the immaculate production area with the same impression. In our combined experience of more than 50 years in precision manufacturing, we have seldom seen such an impressive display of engineering ingenuity. Otto Bock and his team have labored for decades to invent and improve their manufacturing processes to a point where their nibs are of the highest quality at very competitive prices.
Years ago, many manufacturers made their own nibs. Only a handful of manufacturers still do this, and it is becoming even rarer. Similarly, the number of specialty nib manufacturers can be counted on one hand.
Howard and I understood that we had just seen a form of manufacturing that had evolved from relatively primitive methods that many could use, to sophisticated proprietary methods that are unique in their effectiveness and efficiency. It is a classic case of survival of the fittest.
What better way to end the day than to make some changes to the nibs that Bock makes for Bexley. Otto Bock offered his suggestions for us to consider. Great ideas. We wanted to change over from 14K to 18K nibs. "No problem," said Mr. Bock.
We also wanted to add a new broad stub nib to the Bexley line of nibs. We discussed nib width and flexibility, and agreed on what to do.
We were soon working on new "nib art" for our 18K Bexley nibs. A few sketches to shape our ideas, a visit to Bock's CAD technician, and, in less than an hour, a new design was approved for tooling and production.
As we thanked our gracious hosts for such a wonderful day, our driver pulled up to the front entrance of Peter Bock GmbH. Soon, we were back in the big BMW speeding toward Frankfurt with vivid memories of gleaming gold nibs "Made in Germany".