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In 2019, Koehler celebrates the 85th anniversary of the playing card board. It has been so long since the first coating machine was purchased at the Oberkirch mill in 1934.
The paper hall at the Papierfabrik August Koehler around 1939.
Koehler started making board for playing cards 85 years ago – and much has changed since then. New paper and coating machines have been added; new markets have been tapped into, and Koehler has seen crazes come and go. But one thing has stayed the same: Oberkirch remains the home of the very finest quality for the world’s great casinos.
One of the benefits of tradition is that there is something to celebrate from time to time. When the company history is as long and rich as that of Koehler, there is sure to be a string of anniversaries reminiscent of the pearls on the necklace worn by the Queen of Diamonds in a traditional game of poker. And Koehler is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of board for this and other card games.
85 years ago: coating machine 1 goes into Operation
Koehler is celebrating the 85th anniversary of this in 2019. Back in 1934, the first coating machine (“coating machine 1”) was purchased at the Oberkirch facility, enabling the company to produce playing card board coated on one side. The machine comprised a brush spreader with a festoon dryer. “As is the case with many technical innovations, the starting point was to imitate what was previously done by hand,” explains Hartmut Felsch, Factory Director at Koehler in Oberkirch.
“The brushes were fitted with horsehair, pig bristles, and badger hair,” recounts Hugo Lepold (Coating Manager from 1949 to 1988) in his writings. “The coating was applied using felt-covered rollers. It was then dried in a drying chamber, where the board was mounted on bars and guided through the chamber in three-meter-high loops before being rolled up. The coating was single-sided. The speed was approx. 40 m/min.” Nowadays, the coating is applied online at speeds of several hundred meters per minute.
Altenburger: a major customer, then as now
The coating machine was a used model, which Koehler purchased from Dondorf, a company based in Sachsenhausen near Frankfurt. This not only marked the start of a product that Koehler would go on to supply to the world’s great casinos, but also the genesis of the odd fashion trend. However, the first delivery went to an old friend: “Vereinigte Stralsunder und Altenburger Spielkartenfabrik.”
Still known to Koehler simply as “Altenburger,” the company was a development partner back then and remains a valued customer in the field of playing card board. In those days, some 100 metric tons a year were delivered to the firm in Thuringia and later to Leinfelden-Echterdingen near Stuttgart. This figure is now much higher, which reflects a sharp rise in overall sales.
1952: the world’s most modern coating machine arrives
The war years curbed Koehler’s growth aspirations. The company was unable to finalize the purchase of a used paper machine in 1936 and also faced strained relations with the Nazi party. The situation was further compounded by the war economy and a shortage of raw materials. Overall production declined from more than 10,000 metric tons in the 1930s to 5,700 metric tons in 1944, whereas the workforce fell from 600 to 216 by the end of 1945.
Playing card board production picked up again with the construction of coating machine 2 in 1952. Made by Jagenberg, this machine featured an airbrush, a flat dryer, and a working width of 1.5 meters. In his writings, Hugo Lepold referred to it as the “world’s most modern coating machine in its day.” The machine remained in use until 1971 and was supported by the new coating machine 1 from 1964 onward. The original coating machine 1 had now become outdated. In 1971, paper machine 5 was built alongside paper machine 4. Paper machine 5 was a combined blade/roller scraper coating machine with a working width of 330 centimeters and a speed of 600 meters per minute.
Entering the world’s casinos with GPI
In the 1980s, Koehler started coating the playing card board “online,” i.e. on the paper machine itself. By the end of the decade, the production volume stood at 3,000 metric tons, most of which was distributed in the European market. It wasn’t until the end of the 1990s that Koehler made the leap “across the pond,” where it found a long-term partner in the shape of customer Gaming Partners International (GPI; formerly Brown & Bigelow and Gemaco).
While growth in partnership with GPI continued to pave the way for the manufacture of high-quality boards for the world’s casinos, modifications on paper machine 4 resulted in a quality breakthrough in 1995. The size press was replaced with a film press, which enabled a double coating and a consequent improvement in printing parameters. When coating machines 5 and 6 were converted into sizing machine 1, it was finally possible to size the board across the entire machine width. As a result, Koehler was able to put so much pressure on some of its German competitors that they withdrew from the market for playing card board.
A craze that led to a surge in sales and Revenue
1999 was a particularly memorable year for Hartmut Felsch. “We received an order for 40 metric tons of playing card board from the US, which was swiftly followed by an order for 300 metric tons,” he recalls. “Orders were subsequently placed for 1,000 metric tons a month.” It was all down to a temporary craze: Pokémon Cards were made using Koehler’s playing card board. “We earned a lot of money during that period,” says Felsch. “However, the craze was over by the end of the year 2000.”
As with other digital fads, Felsch is not worried about the fact that people were chasing Pokémon figures with their cell phones three years ago (and that some people are still doing so). “In fact, it’s positive for Koehler’s business,” he explains. “Many of these digital crazes are followed up by the production of paper merchandise, which is good news for us.”
The secret to success: listening to and understanding the customer
Besides, Koehler has specialized in premium playing cards for casinos, with development work in this area driven forward in partnership with GPI. “The secret lies in working with customers and listening to what they have to say,” points out Felsch. “We have to know and understand the needs of end users.” Ideally, you can pick up changes before a complaint is received.
Felsch is certain that playing card board will continue to play a role at Koehler. In terms of quantities, it cannot, of course, keep pace with other specialty papers. It is, however, a product that enjoys a special place at Koehler, which is also reflected in the fact that it has been continuously enhanced for the past 85 years. Players at the world’s great casinos don’t just play with any old cards, but with the very best. And these come from Koehler.
Playing Cards from „Vereinigten Altenburger und Stralsunder Spielkartenfabriken“ from the period around 1930.