A visit to the BOCK factory

What’s in a Nib?

Otto Bock and Karin Bauschulte in 2004

By Tom Westerich  Published in Stylus no. 8  in 2004

We arrived at the corporate headquarters of renowned nib maker Bock GmbH on a warm and misty day. Located in Handschuhsheim, one of the suburbs of Heidelberg, the factory has a splendid view of the mountains on one side and the Rhine River valley on the other. Heidelberg is an historic place for fountain pens and many consider it the birthplace of the German pen industry. In addition to Bock, Osmia, Kaweco, Boehler, Mutschler and Luxor were all born in this area. Peter Bock, father of current owner Otto Bock, founded his business here in 1939.

 

       Otto Bock, Karin Bauschulte and Jochen Brühmüller greeted us upon our arrival, and after a short welcome, the factory tour commenced. We were asked to refrain from taking pictures of current production due to the highly specialized nature of the work and the unique machinery employed. Minus our cameras and our load thus lightened, we actually began our tour at one of the final steps in the nib-production process: we observed five women checking freshly made nibs, pushing aside imperfect ones and fitting the remaining ones into a tray headed straight for the ultrasonic cleaner.

Cold pressing creates the elastic nib.

We then wandered through a huge workshop that prepares tools, stamps and nib moulds. Most of the machinery used at the company is developed in-house, or if not, it is carefully adapted to meet Bock’s high expectations of quality and production tolerances. But in addition to the more high-tech machinery, there is an impressive array of traditional machinery, each executing one of the critical steps in nib making.

 

        Obviously, steel nibs are produced in greater quantities than gold nibs at Bock, and we were fortunate enough to see much of the process. A large roll of steel bands is fed into a press, and this “cold pressing,” as it is called, converts the soft and pliable steel into a springy material with the elasticity characteristic of a good nib. The conversion from soft to springy takes place while the steel is squeezed between two steel rollers, compressing the metal from a width of .6mm to a sheet that thickens from .5mm to .2mm. Bock suggested that I touch the cold pressed steel as it exited the machine still bathed in oil. Contrary to the name of the process, the metal was quite hot to the touch due to the energy created by the mechanical pressing.

The magic spot - where the iridium is welded.

A tray of Gold nibs by Bock

          We then passed that magic location—at least to pen lovers—where small pellets of iridium are welded onto the steel nibs. About eight nibs are fit into a holder on a rotating disc. As each tip touches an iridium pellet, an electrical circuit is closed and with an intense red flash, the pellet is welded onto the nib. This is one of the older machines at Bock, and its basic concept was first introduced by an iridium supplier back in the 1950s. Bock eventually found it much too imprecise and after many evenings and nights spent researching and experimenting, the process was perfected. “We could name the supplier of the original machine, but how it’s been adapted for our purposes here at our factory has to remain a secret,“ Bock explained.

 

         On our way to the area where the gold nibs are made, we almost fall over a huge load of disassembled machinery that is parked in the corridors. These are the old tools of Mutschler, also a nib maker and former competitor of Bock. The company went out of business in ____ and Bock bought much of the equipment to eventually adapt to its own needs.

 

          We soon became aware of an intense and familiar “perfume” in the air—a perfume to pen aficionados, at least. When heated, hard rubber emits an unmistakable odor of sulfur. Wondering aloud where this might be coming from, we learned that the cutting discs that fashion the slit into each nib are embedded in rubber. They heat from the friction created by this process.

 

The gold nib!

Here is a very special Music nib, made by BOCK for OMAS Filarmonica

A tour of the gold nib making process was next on our agenda. There are about ten steps needed to create the perfect gold nib, and at most any one these stages, a variation in production techniques will result in a change in the nib´s characteristics. Gold bands are pressed into the desired thickness, and just as with steel nib production, it is here that the elasticity of the nib is defined. The thinner the gold, the more flexible the nib will be. Final thickness of the nib changes dramatically from the tip of the nib down to the base. Right near the tip, it is about .45 mm. Closer to the venthole, it’s .2 mm and towards the base, it may become even thinner.

 

        The gold bands are then fed into presses that cut the nibs into their recognizable shape in flattened form. Right after this, the breather hole is created. These two steps could be done simultaneously and in fact, this is being done in steel nib production. Artwork is then imprinted on the nib. Every design has to be engraved into a steel stamp. Nowadays, designs are created by computer and roughly engraved on the stamp, but the final touch must be engraved by hand.

 

         These nib blanks are now inserted into a hydraulic press where they are “bent” into the final curved shape. About 25 tons of pressure is exerted to create the desired form, and every nib requires its own pressing tool. The geometry of the bent nib impacts the nib’s characteristics: a rounded nib shoulder with steep sides tends to be more rigid, while a flat shape is more flexible.

NIb Grinding by the Prof.

Final check of every single Gold Nib

Just as with the steel  nibs, the iridium tip is welded onto the gold nib. The pellets used vary depending upon the nib size required—from 0.8mm for an extra fine nib to 1.8mm for a triple broad. Mr. Bock told us that he was not pleased with the variations in diameter of the iridium pellets being delivered. Thus the company developed a tiny technical marvel that sorts the pellets into five neat cases, each holding a different size pellet.

 

         The iridium tip then has to be ground, first on the upper side, then on the writing side. The goal is to create a rounded surface with a predefined curve to perfectly touch the paper while at various writing angles. Five nibs mounted onto holders are simultaneously moved over the rotating grinding stone following an exact path and with a certain pressure as defined by brass weights. Once again we smell sulphur. Cutting discs create the slit from the tip of the nib to the vent hole. Great precision is needed here, for a small variation will ruin the nib. And then a fascinating ballet of nibs starts. Five nibs, each held separately by single tools, start to move on a rotating grinding wheel. A little pressure opens the nib tip, and a perfectly synchronized rhythm moves the nibs sideways back and forth, grinding not only the main surface of the iridium point but also the inner and outer edges of the tines.  

 

            The next step of the process is the grinding of both sides of the tip to create a precise width, depending on the nib size desired. All the burrs created by the grinding and cutting are clearly visible with a lens.To remove them, a batch of nibs is thrown into a rotating barrel filled with what seems to be a dense solution of greyish matter. Bock fishes out some of the nibs and some of the “stones”—bigger than the nibs being polished. These stones actually do the grinding as the barrel rotates, and the end result is a matte-finished and burr-less nib. The nib’s tip gets the final touch on a rotating wheel of wool covered with polishing paste. Then it is thrown back into a rotating barrel, this time containing softer organic granules like nutshells and other secret polishes. The result is a perfect surface, yet some nibs are subsequently polished with rotating cloth wheels.

 

         Impressed by the tour, we sat down to memorize and deepen the experience. Right away we begin an intense discussion about nib flexibility.  “It’s a myth to believe 18 karat nibs are more flexible than 14 karat!“ says Bock. There are other much more important variables. When asked about the steps in creating a flexible nib,

he told us that the gold band must be rolled thinner, particularly in the area halfway between the vent hole and tip. A normal nib would be .32 mm while a flexible nib may be as thin as .21 mm.  Also important is the length of the slit, he says. The longer it is, the more flex it will have. A slit can vary by .2mm, but more than that would require new tooling. The width of the tines must also correspond with the length of the slit. Another factor is the angle of the nib shoulder.

And whats changed in 2007

Bock GmbH provides nibs to many of the word’s most important brands and works with each to insure high quality, timeliness and service. Our visit was extremely interesting and our tour guides were expert. Toward the end of our tour and as a wonderful remembrance of earlier days at the company, we glimpsed the last of the old worktables used at the company many years ago. We later learned that this table is reserved for Mr. Bock, just as it should be.

Now, in 2007, personal situation has changed, but it looks like a lucky change for the future of nib making in Heidelberg.

Jochen Brühmüller has left the company and Mr. Bock Junior entered the company to take over after his father. Otto Bock, the senior, at his age of way over 80 still is busy in the company, his personal work station is not yet left.

 

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