Monday, 4 January 2010

How to Make Pen Nibs: The Steel Pens of Joseph Gillott

If some berated the evils of 19th-century manufacturing, others enthused at its marvels, its environment, its neat structures and achievements. The illustrations published at The Graphic following the Prince of Wales visit in Gillott's pen manufacture in Birmingham show a large structure festooned with banners and flags all expectant of the royal visit. An orderly row of ladies are working the machinery facing tall windows flooded with light. The steel pens of Gillott are as elegant, efficient, civilized as his factory.

Gillott Nibs in the Keswick Pencil Museum
Photo L. Apostolakou

The author of The Trades and Manufactories of Great Britain describes the process of how pen nibs are made. The best Swedish iron, brought from Sheffield in sheets, is used. The iron is cut into thin slips, then goes into the cutting-room where girls pass the slips under a cutting-out press (each girl produces around 30,000 pen nibs per day).


What takes place next is
  • side-slitting during which a slit is cut on each side of the pen, and "it is curious to see the quickness with which nimble fingers of the girls accomplish this";
  • piercing the metal to make the central part in which ink flows through the nib;
  • annealing, that is marking the pen nib with the makers' name and firm trademark
  • raising or binding, an operation which gives the nib its form 
  • hardening during which the pen nibs are put in boxes, placed in a hot furnace, then emptied into pots of 5-ft deep oil, then whizzed around in a cylinder;
  • tempering, i.e. heating the nib "destroying the previous brittleness... and turns it out with all the elasticity requisite for the discharge of its future duties to society".
  • cleaning the nibs in a cylinder containing saw-dust
  • grinding
  • slitting the nib
  • colouring in a variety of tints and  varnishing.
The steel pens are then "ready to be put into boxes and sent into the world to discharge their peaceful mission among men".

Pen Nibs by Gillott. Keswick Pencil Museum.
Photo L. Apostolakou

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