Ian Schon: The Man Behind Schon DSGN

First of all, I would like to thank you for accepting this interview. Tell me how exactly did you get into manufacturing pens?

Thank you for reaching out and helping me tell my story! I started making pens in 2010 in engineering school as a way to work on my machining and design skills. After graduating I kept making pens outside of my full time job as a Product Designer. In 2017 I left my job and dedicated myself to my pen and watch manufacturing. I moved out of my small apartment workshop, purchased my production line and relocated all my manufacturing all under one roof in Philadelphia where I could grow my small shop into one that could accommodate ambitious projects like the Monoc Nib.

You produce all your pens in-house, which is impressive and congratulations on that. It’s always satisfying to see such talent within the industry. You have recently launched Monoc Nib – which is certainly impressive for a small manufacturer like yourself. What inspired you to create a Nib?

Thank you! With my background in watches I had a sick obsession with “in- house” machining. When I was making watches I made a choice, to start with the case (which I machined from scratch and then hands, and dials) and everyone asked me when I would make my own movement. 

This was an interesting learning moment for me. When I slowed down making watches and began to tip the scales back towards pens I decided I was going to focus all my energy on the heart of the fountain pen which is of course the nib (much like the movement is the heart of the watch). Naturally you can’t just start there, otherwise all brands would have their own nibs, but I slowly saved funds and developed a plan for the Monoc which would make it the first nib to be machined from solid titanium to ever hit the market. Quite a difficult feat but a beautiful challenge that leveraged everything I knew about manufacturing, design, engineering and business. When the time was right I began prototyping using two machines I had purchased for the project (one for feeds and one for the Monoc mono-body nib). I quickly ran out of money and had to make some normal pens for a bit to keep afloat, but after a brief break I was back full time into this project. This was not an easy project! 

I knew the time was right for the Monoc since I looked around at all the brands and I said to myself, ‘who would inject this kind of cost into their production to make a nib from solid and develop an entirely new way to make nibs?’ and there was no one since it doesn’t fit into a traditional brands business model. It’s so easy to get a manufacturer who already makes nibs and feeds to give you a customized design that you can call your own and it will function fantastically, so for most brands why bother? Why take the risk? To do in house nib and feed you need the manufacturing and production in house and you need to be an independent brand without stakeholders and cost targets. It’s just not feasible otherwise. You have to break a lot of rules about business, margins, production and what you imagine as a traditional product to market pipeline. And after all this work, it needs to write, and write really really well and you need to stand by it! 

While most manufacturers outsource their nibs, you produced this one in-house. How difficult was it to achieve that? 

Extremely. I did not know what I did not know when I started this project. It was all about uncovering the next challenge, solving it and then uncovering the next challenge etc etc. A lot of what I thought would work (and I consider myself to be a decent designer/engineer) was completely incorrect when it came time to the way this nib was made and how it performed. It was so easy to get overwhelmed when the first dozen feed designs didn’t work or flow well or when the tooling for the nib was breaking over and over again but I kept focused because I knew this was a unique opportunity to make something amazing and leave my mark on this community and rich heritage of pen manufacturing! 

Could you briefly describe the manufacturing process and the challenges you went through during production? 

Each nib starts out from a solid bar of titanium and is drilled, turned and then milled. We then grind the tip (using a unique process we developed for the Monoc), slit the nib tines and begin a very time consuming deburring and finishing process, which reminds me a lot of my watch case making days… 

The feeds are also machined from solid Ultem bar (an engineered plastic). With lots of very critical tolerances and custom tools to achieve geometry that is very difficult to machine. We had to make most of our tools in house also since there are few places to have them made without spending more that we can afford since we are small fish afterall. 

Manufacturing and R+D is amazing but so cruel. It was hard at times to start over even if I knew it was the right thing to do since we had so much invested in several other versions of this concept, but we needed to pivot and move towards a different design. The earlier nibs were fascinating. I had entire concepts that were relying on different equipment that we subsequently sold after they failed to produce a viable design. Hard lessons. 

What has inspired the name of the nib and is related to its design?

The name Monoc being short for Monocoque – mänəˌkōk- French for ‘single shell’, often used in aerospace and racing applications where the structural body and external shell of a vehicle are made from one solid piece. I found it fitting for this nib since it’s a monobody nib. 

While most nibs on the market are made of gold or steel, why did you choose to produce this nib out of titanium?

When you have the opportunity to do something new, you might as well start with a blank sheet of paper. I love titanium and even though it’s hard to work with I find it alluring. Steel is regarded as the “cheaper” option when people think of nibs, which is unfair since I can make a fantastic Monoc out of steel… and gold cannot be processed in the way you will need for the Monoc nib. You have to start from solid, and you can cast it… but it would need to be post machined. Not in the spirit of the Monoc (plus we cannot afford to machine gold bars… lets be honest). 

Titanium nibs have existed on the market, but they have had an odd history as an in between steel and gold option. This was a good opportunity to make the most unique titanium nib out there since I had the ability to control the thickness of the nib to best suit the material which would require other brands to make a housing and a feed to match their titanium nibs (which is a hard sell since it is a lower volume product for nib manufacturers traditionally). We get to break the rules because we are small and … we are in house! Not to beat a dead horse, but it really helps a lot. If I want to do something, I go do it. No bosses, nothing holding us back but our tools and our creativity.  

If you were to compare your nib to others on the market, what makes yours stand out? 

Well, its made from solid titanium and it has an iconic look. So for some customers into aesthetics that might be enough. If not, perhaps that it’s made in America by an independent brand? Or perhaps the engineering will draw some customers in? Each person has their own preferences and there is no right answer to the best pen or the best nib for someone. People like my work and the Monoc for different reasons. Some probably hate it, and that’s ok too! 

To be blunt, a $400 nib isnt cheap (without a pen!) but honestly there is no one else doing this so if you want to try out this style of nib innovation and manufacturing, we are here to give you that experience. I think it’s a very affordable price for this level of work and this price will definitely not last forever.

Perhaps the question that most of our readers expect is how would you describe the writing experience with the Monoc nib?

The Monoc is a stiff and smooth nib with a graphite-like feedback. The titanium itself has a fantastic writing quality after we finish the writing surface. The nib is not flexible like a vintage gold nib or flex nib, but stiff, which is counter what some folks like. I find it very practical since it has a stiffer feel (it goes and does what you think it will do) and the feed is a very robust ink/air exchange that provides a consistent flow. 

At the end, I would like to thank you once again for sharing your thoughts with us. Our readers and I look forward to seeing more interesting projects on your website.

Thanks for reaching out and please check out our pens at . For behind the scenes check out our youtube and instagram @Schon_DSGN 

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