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(This page published July 1, 2016)
With the continuing growth of fountain pen usage, there has been an amazing rise in the demand for nib repair and customization. If the idea of working on nibs appeals to you, you’re in for a lot of learning and practice and, potentially, enjoyment. Before you can seriously begin customizing nibs, however, you will need a nib grinding station. That’s what this article is about.
CAUTIONDestroying nibs is easy. Grinding nibs properly is not easy. If you are not willing to invest the time and effort to learn how to grind nibs correctly, please leave it to the professionals. They make it look easy because they have invested thousands of hours in gaining the knowledge and developing the skills required to do the job right. Any professional will quite forthrightly tell you you that he or she destroyed a potful of nibs along the way.
There are basically two ways to set up a nib grinding station.
First, you can mount several specialized grinding and polishing wheels on a fixed transverse shaft that is powered by an external motor. Although some makers now have automated systems that can do several nibs at once, this manual system has been the common practice for more than a century, as illustrated in the 2005 photo of a Montblanc nib grinder shown to the left. This is an expensive system, and it is relatively nonportable. It also makes certain customizing cuts difficult because the operator cannot always see clearly what is happening.
Secondly, you can mount an ordinary rotary tool on an angled stand, with a selection of commercial cutoff disks and grinding drums to be switched in or out as needed, with finer abrasives for finishing and polishing off the machine. This setup, shown to the right, is relatively inexpensive and highly portable, and in almost all situations it gives the operator a clear view of what is happening.
The rotary-tool system has several obvious advantages for the hobbyist, and it has also worked very well for many years in my small professional shop and on the road at pen shows. This article describes how to make your own grinding station based on a rotary tool.
As illustrated in the photo above to the right, the setup includes a Dremel Model 2217 Moto-Tool Holder and Base. The 2217 has been out of production for many years, and although it still appears on eBay from time to time, it is usually not inexpensive. Further complicating the difficulty of acquiring and using a 2217 is that it was offered in two versions, one with a long cradle for the rotary tool and one with a short cradle. The two cradles do not fit the same range of tools, and neither fits any tools except Dremel’s own. Given these impediments and because an adjustable stand is not actually required for nib work, the simplest and most economical solution is to build your own stand from wood — or, if you’re not woodworking savvy, find a friend who is. Here is a photo of the finished stand with a rotary tool mounted ready to go to work.
True one end of the oak piece by cutting off about 1∕4" with the table saw and miter gauge. Measure 65∕8" from that end, and cut there. The leftover piece will supply the legs for the stand.
Lay out the stand body on the piece you cut to 65∕8" length, and make all the straight cuts. Click on this image to download a PDF file of the drawing that you can print on 81∕2" × 11" paper:
Drill 1∕4" holes to form the ends of the slots. Use the 1∕8" drill to drill out part of the area between the 1∕4" holes. Finish making the slots with the wood chisel. If you do not have the proper chisel, you can also shave with a whittler’s knife or an X-acto knife with a No 11 blade.
WARNINGUsing a whittler’s knife or an X-acto knife, especially the X-acto knife, is dangerous. Be extremely careful, and hold the stand body in such a way that the knife will not strike your body or your other hand if it happens to slip!
Tilt the saw blade 20° and lower it so that it extends 3∕8" above the table surface. In two passes, one from each side, cut the V-groove in the steeper angled surface of the body. I found that the best way to do this was to use the miter gauge, with a separate length of wood backing the stand piece to keep it from wobbling. Here is a photo of the stand “nose on” to show you the groove:
For the stand’s legs, cut a 1" × 51∕2" piece from the leftover piece of oak.
Locate and mark the center of the wider surface of the leg piece, lay the leg piece in the 3∕4" notch on the body piece so that your mark is visible and is centered on the thickness of the body piece, and use the 1∕8" drill to drill about 11∕4" deep through the center of the leg piece and into the body piece. Then through-drill the leg piece with the 9∕64" drill, and countersink one side deeply enough that the head of the screw will lie about 1∕8" below the surface.
Sand both parts of the stand with 220-grit and then 320-grit paper to break any sharp corners and smooth the surfaces.
Apply white glue sparingly to the notch in the body piece, replace the leg piece carefully to avoid smearing glue on any exposed surfaces, and screw the two parts together. Screw tightly enough that the leg piece does not wobble or wiggle more than a very little, true the leg piece up to a 90° angle with the body piece, and allow to dry.
Finish by applying three coats of clear semigloss polyurethane varnish, following the manufacturer’s directions. After the varnish has dried completely, attach the three self-adhesive bumpers to the bottom of the stand, one at each end of the legs and one at the end of the body opposite the legs. Here is a photo of the finished stand:
Open the hose clamps and thread them through the slots in the stand. Position the rotary tool on the stand as illustrated in the photo near the beginning of this article, and tighten the clamps to hold the tool gently in place. The cord extending from the back end of the tool should just rest on the table or workbench. With a Dremel 100- or 200-series tool, the point at which the tool’s body begins to taper toward the tip will line up just at the peak of the stand, and the lower clamp will lie immediately adjacent to the guard protecting the switch.
Depending on the particular rotary tool you have, the loose ends of the clamps might be too long for your comfort. If they are, mark them where you want to cut them off, remove the tool, slide the clamps out of their slots, and cut off the excess material. Don’t forget to deburr the rough ends; I used a grinding drum in the rotary tool for this.
If you removed the tool from the stand to modify the clamps, reassemble the tool, clamps, and stand.
Align the tool in the stand. Ideally, the button that locks the shaft should be upward, as shown in the photo near the beginning of this article, so that it will be easy to reach when you want to change cutters. (The designs of many tools, however, don’t allow this orientation.) Tighten the clamps firmly enough that the tool cannot rock back and forth, but not so tightly that you crush the wood or crack the tool’s casing.
Place the mouse pad design-side down on your workbench, so that the rougher underside of the pad is exposed. Stand the assembled station on the mousepad, plug the rotary tool into the foot control’s shorter cord, plug the foot control into a wall outlet, and you’re on your way.
NoteIf you’re using a Dremel tool and don’t want to have to keep track of the wrench, you can replace the collet and locking sleeve with a Dremel 4486 MultiPro Keyless Chuck. This chuck fits some, but not all, other brands of tools.
In my daily work, I use two grinding drums and two cutoff disks:
I work on the outside surface of a drum, not the flat ends, and on the flat surface of a cutoff disk, not the edge. The coarser cutoff disk is for removing large amounts of material very rapidly, never for precision grinding.
Do not substitute a cordless rotary tool. These tools do not have sufficient power, and they have a short run time before needing to be recharged.
A two-speed rotary tool such as the Dremel 200-1/15 or a variable-speeed model such as the Dremel 3000-1/25 will work if you set it to run at its top speed. Other variable-speed tools such as the Wen 2305 and 2307 will also work and are of good quality, but do not waste your money on a cheap rotary tool. Many of these “lookalikes” do not have sufficient power or build quality, and they are likely to fail soon after purchase or wear out quickly.
Do not waste your money on a cheap foot control. Cheap models are not well built; some fail very quickly or develop “flat spots” such that you do not have precise control, while others are so poorly made that they are little better than a plain on/off switch.
The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.