The “Pen” in Penmanship

3PensI have some good models for a formal Georgian hand, so I’m all ready to start writing! At first, I thought I would dip just my toe in to test the waters- I would use the steel calligraphy nibs I already had in order to learn the letter forms, and later turn to the additional set of skills involved in using an authentic quill pen. Oh, how wrong I was!  I learned that I can’t separate the shapes of the letters from the tools used to make them.

I dabbled a little bit in calligraphy some years ago, so I thought I knew my way around a dip-pen.  I assumed that since English Roundhand was written with broad-edged quills (rather than pointy, flexible steel pens), broad-edged metal nibs would be a close-enough match. As I tried to copy my model penstrokes from George Bickham and John Jenkins, I just couldn’t get the thicks and thins in the right place.  In the broad-edged calligraphy I’d tried before, the movement of the pen determined where the thick and thin strokes appeared: down strokes were bold, upstrokes were thin, and they flowed into one another as I drew the letter:

How broad pens achieve thick and thin strokes in a letter in Medieval and Renaissance styles of calligraphy.
How broad pens achieve thick and thin strokes in a letter in Medieval and Renaissance styles of calligraphy.

The 18th/early19th century models I was looking at had thickness or weight in different places that didn’t obey this rule.  Here are John Jenkins’ “Principal Strokes” and one of my attempts to replicate them with a square steel nib:


SquareSteelNOI was frustrated- what was I doing wrong? The instructions in The Young Clerk’s Assistant and The Art of Writing didn’t include pictures of pens. I found their descriptions of quill-cutting confusing, especially since they assumed I already knew the basics. Luckily, I was able to find answers to my questions in online fora for modern calligraphers- I was so glad to find experts discussing exactly the same questions. From this spirited discussion on the Fountain Pen Network forum, I learned two essential things that took me right back to the period sources: 1) George Bickham and many other writing masters recommend cutting the pen nib at an angle and making the fine lines with one corner of the pen, and 2) Quill pens are better at extending fine hairlines with their corner as Bickham describes.  A French illustration from 1680 helped me understand what I had read in Bickham’s book:

Detail from Plate 20, L'Art d'Ecrire, 1680, Alais de Beaulieu.
Detail from Plate 20, L’Art d’Ecrire par Alais, 1680, Alais de Beaulieu.

Make All Your Body-Strokes with the Full, & all Hair Strokes with the corner of Your Pen.

Make the Nib of your Pen for the Round and Round-Text Hands the breadth of the full stroke, & that part lying next the Hand Something Shorter & Narrower.

 – The Young Clerk’s Assistant, George Bickham, 1733

Those turns of phrase did not conjure up an angled nib to me, in my inexperience. The Alais de Beaulieu image made sense of it for me by showing the angle extending up from “L’angle du Pouce” (the thumb side of the nib, labelled 1) to “L’angle des droits” (the finger side of the nib labelled 2).  This angle does make “that part lying next the Hand Something Shorter.”

Armed with this new insight, I decided to try again with a steel pen nib that was angled like the picture from Alais de Beaulieu.  As you can see in the next picture, I was more able to put the thicks and thins in the right places, but too often the thin lines would peter out, and starting with a hairline (like in the 2nd stroke) sometimes just wouldn’t happen:


From the discussion forums, I’d learned that some modern calligraphers prefer quills to steel nibs not only because of their historical accuracy, but because they are better at drawing out those thin hair lines.  So much for my fine ideas about trying out Regency handwriting a little bit at a time! Clearly the only thing to do was to acquire some quills and try them out.  How I learned to prepare and cut the quills is a saga I’ll leave for another time, but I won’t keep you in suspense- here is an example of Jenkins’ Principal Strokes executed with a quill pen, cut at an angle, with “that part lying next the Hand Something Shorter & Narrower”:


I still have a lot to learn and a mighty need to practice, practice practice, but I feel that this last example is the best yet.  I have learned that there is no substitute for the right tools for the job, and that I can’t hope to achieve historical results without historical methods. I have a feeling that I will be meeting with those lessons again as I learn more of the skills of an Accomplished Lady!

8 thoughts on “The “Pen” in Penmanship

  1. Nicely cut quill nib! Not an easy job to make one that actually writes well. I am wicked jealous, as I was never able to make one that wrote that well for me. 😉

    If you do not already have a copy, may I recommend Edward Johnston’s most excellent book, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering. It was first published in 1906, nearly a full century after the Regency, but he made a detailed study of both the various styles of writing over the centuries and the tools needed to do the work. It is an invaluable technical reference for calligraphers.

    In addition, if you ever decide to turn your attention to the writing surfaces upon which all this effort was expended, as you may already know, the definitive reference on the subject of paper is Dard Hunter’s Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft.

    Fortunately, both have been reprinted by Dover Books at quite good prices.

    I am very much enjoying your articles on penmanship.




  2. Thanks for those references! I am familiar with Johnston’s work- he does provide lots of practical information about quills, although he has little interest in 17th and 18th century handwriting. Maybe it belonged to too recent history to seem exciting to him compared to the Medieval and Renaissance calligraphic styles.
    I will definitely look up Hunter on paper- I have been reading early 19th century descriptions of paper manufacture, but it would be good to get some wider historical perspective. I hope you enjoy my upcoming posts as much- thanks again!
    Yr obdt svt,
    Lady Smatter


    1. Hi Lisa, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. Thanks for reading and commenting! I haven’t tried to use chicken feathers and I don’t know if they would be successful. I know that goose and turkey feathers were considered the best because of the size and strength of their barrels (the hollow part of the feather shaft), but calligraphers have used feathers from other birds with good results. You’ll have to experiment. Please let me know if you do! I plan to write some updates on turning Quills into pens soon, so check back.


      1. The next time my hens moult, I’ll have a go at turning their larger wing feathers into quill pens.

        I don’t know anyone locally who keeps larger domestic fowl. But I should keep my ears open.


  3. I use pointed nibs like the Nikko G (moderately flexible), Brause 361/Leonardt 40 (“Blue Pumpkin”) or Brause EF66 (tiny, but really flexible). All give pretty good hairlines while letting you get fat downstrokes. Nikko G doesn’t do quite as dramatic differences as the others, but is definitely “better-behaved” (less likely to refuse to write and/or dump all its ink at once)


    1. Thanks for sharing your favorite tools! It seems like lots of modern calligraphers get great results from pointed nibs. I tried a metal nib just to see if it could be a shortcut to the historical methods of the 18th century, but quills won out. Since I wrote this post, I’ve become much more comfortable cutting and writing with quills.


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