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Cutting a Quill: first catch your bird

May 13, 2011

The word pen comes from the Middle French for feather. A quill pen withstands a fair amoThe Lord's prayer in latin. Black ink and decorationrunt of pressure, so the best quills are those made from the flight feathers (primaries) of strong flying birds like geese or swans.  Once upon a time when these birds were eaten more regularly, the wings were a by product, so the feathers were readily available for use as dusters – many houses would have had a goose wing for dusting ledges – or to be used in the kitchen, or to be made into pens or brushes (the animal hair was bound and set into wax plugs and inserted into the hollow quill).

Realistically in the twenty first century the best option is to talk very nicely to a farmer at the local farmers’ market, especially before Christmas when they are likely to be preparing birds for sale and will often save a wing or two. If freshly killed, the wing joint is still quite rubbery and the feathers can be extracted cleanly using a sharp knife and brute force. This should not be undertaken by children.

I find it is then best to leave the feathers for a month or two as they will dry out and harden. They do run the risk of splitting when cut and shaped, but usually cut cleanly enough without snagging. Although pen knives were invented for exactly the purpose of cutting quill pens, I have found that with the right sharp scissors the job can be easier.

First find how the feather naturally fits to the hand: it should curl comfortably up and over the space between thumb and fingers. The outside of the feather’s curve is the upper side or point of the pen. Turn the feather so you have the underside towards you and with a safety board underneath, make one neat downward slice approximately 5mm long, ending at the feather’s tip. This will remove half the feather’s remaining natural point. Using a pointed edge, such as a kebab stick, scrape out the honeycomb of pith inside the feather and dispose of it.

Turn the feather over and make two opposing diagonal cuts, each starting about 5mm up from the tip and shaping the remaining feather nib in towards a point at the centre. If the cuts come to a point you will have a fine nib for delicate lettering and flourishes, but if you leave 1-2mm between the two cut edges you will have achieved a right handed italic nib for larger letters and broad strokes. Do note that lefthanders are penalised here. When a right handed person puts the nib to paper or parchment they automatically achieve an angle of 45 degrees which is perfect for writing. If a left handed person holds the nib in exactly the same way, only the edge of the nib will rest on the paper. For this group, an extra cut diagonally and obliquely away from the centre of the nib up and out to the left is needed to achieve the same angle of nib to paper.

Cut quills showing left and right handed nibs cut from feathers that curve comfortably over the hand

Cut quills showing left and right handed nibs cut from feathers that curve comfortably over the hand

We’re almost there. Only two things remain to do. The first is to harden the nib so that it doesn’t bend too easily and this is achieved most easily by holding a large old spoon full of sand over a candle so that it heats up and then plunging the nib into the sand. Alternatively, the old terracotta oil diffusers that have an indentation on the top for oil and take a night light are ideal. For anyone not considered an adult in law, please check first and get an adult to supervise as fires can easily be started by accident. Never try holding the newly cut nib over a naked candle for two reasons; firstly it doesn’t work – it just melts away all your effort and smells awful, secondly it can be dangerous.

Lastly, trim the feather off the spine to about half way up. Although you see quill pens with the feather intact, if you look closely at Medieval illustrations you will see that unnecessary feather was trimmed away. Not only does it tickle the hand otherwise, but if you do trim it properly you will end up with a beautifully balanced writing instrument that will balance effortlessly in the space between thumb and fingers.

There are those who maintain that the nib must be split in order to hold ink. By all means try this; it may work for you but doesn’t for me. Gall ink is fairly viscous, so the pen has to be dipped in it fairly frequently anyway. I find a split nib is simply more likely to sputter and drip. The important thing to remember when writing with a quill is that it isn’t something mass produced and inert, so you have to work with it. Downward pulling strokes are not only easier to do but allow the pen to work with you: upward strokes where the pen is pushed away are more likely to cause blots and the pen can protest. Also remember to lift and reposition the pen at the top of a stroke – something that is unnecessary with modern writing implements. The best advice, though, really is to go with the flow: students that have been really cautious and careful rarely make as good a job of writing as those who are relaxed and let the curves and shapes flow from the quill so simply relax and enjoy using the new pen.

When it starts to scratch and spit ink it will be time to recut and re harden the nib: just repeat the steps above. The quill will last for years if you are reasonably careful, although if you become a prolific writer then, like Charles Dickens you may need a devoted companion to sit beside you to constantly cut and sharpen your nibs.

Sample black letter alphabet showing broad down strokes. Flourishes are added last.

Sample black letter alphabet showing broad down strokes. Flourishes are added last.

This article is a companion to a previous item on making ink from oak galls and old iron nails:

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