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Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Nib is Born

Axel Nier, technical setter of Montblanc’s Nib Manufacturing facility, holds a 13-pound reel of gold. This is how nibs begin their life at Montblanc. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

HAMBURG, Germany — How many people does it take to make a nib? At Montblanc it takes about 50 who work through an approximate 35-step process. That’s a lot of work for such a small object.

Just to be clear, what I’m talking about is the part of the dip pen or fountain pen that comes into contact with the writing surface to deposit ink.

The process combines old hand-crafted techniques with the precision of modern machinery. It’s an assembly line system but the human touch throughout the process ensures that each nib gets personal attention. Each nib goes through the same process but, yet, each is unique, explains Axel Nier, technical setter of Montblanc’s Nib Manufacturing facility, who took me on a tour of the clean, well-organized and productive facility in Montblanc’s headquarters.

“We really have hand work that’s over 100 years old so that each nib that leaves Montblanc is hand-grinded so there’s really a soul in the fountain pen,” Nier said. “Everything you see here is really the heart of the fountain pen.”

A brief overview of the process follows:

Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

A nib begins life as a 13-pound spool that looks similar to a reel of motion picture film (top picture). The flat surface moves through a machine that stamps the initial outline, breather holes and stamp of the nib. One side is thicker, which is the writing side of the nib while the thin end goes into the ink feeder. Only 40 percent of the gold is used. The remaining 60 percent is recycled.

The individual pieces move to a press to get its convex shape—15 to 20 pounds of pressure is used. They are then checked by hand to ensure that the shape is exact.

And admittedly blurry image of tiny iridium balls that will be attached to the gold nibs. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

The electrical welder that welds the iridium ball onto the gold surface. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

A tiny iridium ball is then quick-welded onto each nib with a machine that creates a near oxygen-free environment. A spark of a flame does the job of fastening the hard iridium ball onto the soft gold. It takes a split second. The roundness and hardness of the iridium ensures that the nib will be able to glide across paper and last a long time.

The diamond blade slices the nib into two sections. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

A sliver of a cut is made through the iridium ball and gold to create two rectangular wings. Iridium is one of the hardest surfaces on the planet while gold is a soft metal. It takes a special blade to cut the hard iridium point and the gold quickly at the same time. A thin diamond blade is used. It’s so thin that it literally crumbles and tears if not handled delicately.

Photo credit: Montblanb

Grinding of the nib is next, which smooths the edges of the gold around the iridium point.
Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

Next comes the mask. Some of the writing instruments use two colors of gold. Rhodium is used to create white gold so those nibs get a rhodium bath. The mask is placed over the areas that will not receive the coating.

Photo credit: Montblonc

The last step is to assemble the nib to the feeder. Then the nibs are tested by hand. One person spends her day writing eights and other lines to ensure the ink flows properly and the pen handles well. Invisible ink is used so it doesn’t appear to the customer it has been tested.

And the final result.

Photo Credit: Montblonc

Below is video from Montblanc video that presents a stylized but accurate version of the nib manufacturing process as well as the work of artisan atelier that I wrote about Friday.