How to Ruin a Feather to Make a Pen

Detail of Plate 4, L'Art d'Ecrire, Alais de Beaulieu, 1680 (BNF)
Detail of Plate 4, L’Art d’Ecrire, Alais de Beaulieu, 1680 (BNF- see Sources tab for links!)

I’ve learned how quills were manufactured into pens in Jane Austen’s era but, since the industry has fallen off somewhat of late, I need to find out how I can make my own at home!

Terminology:

When quill pens made from feathers were in widespread use, they were just called pens. “Quill” meant a large feather that could be made into a pen.  Jane Austen doesn’t mention the word “‘quill” at all, but uses “pen” frequently.*  Many items now sold as “quill pens,” especially for weddings, are fancy feathers attached to a modern writing instrument. I’ve seen everything from ballpoint pens to steel dip-pen nibs at the end of an ostrich feather! When I talk about a quill pen, I mean a feather that has been cut at the end to form a nib to dip into ink. No other materials are added in the process. In fact, many users trimmed off most of the feathery barbs from their pens.  Contemporary paintings show a wide range of trimming styles, but I’ve never once seen a fluttery ostrich-type feather.

Quill pens. L to R: St. Luke, Jan van Bijlert (17th c); Girl writing letter, Pietro Antonio Rotari (c. 1755); Madame Roland, Adelaide Labille Guiard (1787), La Reponse a la lettre, Jean-Augustin Franquelin (c. 1815).
Quill pens. L to R: St. Luke, Jan van Bijlert (17th c); Girl writing letter, Pietro Antonio Rotari (c. 1755); Madame Roland, Adelaide Labille Guiard (1787), La Reponse a la lettre, Jean-Augustin Franquelin (c. 1815).

A Culture of Quill-Use

The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor includes a paragraph headed ‘How to make a Pen,’ but it opens with the discouraging sentence: “This is gained sooner by Experience and Observation from others who can make a Pen well than by verbal Directions.”  Another Young Man’s Best Companion (and Guide to Useful Knowledge) tells me “In this a few practical lessons from a skilful maker and mender will be of more service than any verbal instructions.”  Well, thanks. Some “Best Companions” you turned out to be! Sure enough, I found the directions provided by both books to be baffling.  At that moment it really came home how the skills I’m trying to acquire were part of the everyday fabric of life for people in the 18th century.  Any pupil of writing would have seen quill pens being used and mended by others many times before she turned her hand to it.  Well, I may not have a culture of quill-using to fall back on, but at least I have the internet!   Modern-day calligraphers came to my rescue again- I found several helpful how-tos that I’ll link to as I go.

Step One: Acquire Appropriate Feathers

I bought a few goose wing-feathers from a lovely etsy shop called The Arte of the Booke. The seller, Nancy Hulan, specializes in medieval and fantasy-inspired work herself, but she has a number of materials for sale that are useful for other historical periods.  Some other calligraphy suppliers, like John Neal Booksellers and Paper Ink Arts, sell individual goose quills either raw, processed, or even pre-cut into pens.  I live among rolling rural hills, so I have hopes of finding someone who keeps turkeys or geese and will save quill feathers for me. Traditionally, the largest 3-5 feathers of a wing are most useful, and the curve of the feathers from the left wing is best suited for right-handed writers.

Step Two: Temper the Feather

This step reproduces in part the “dutching” process described by Faraday. Without it, the quill won’t form a clean split, which is an essential part of the nib.  I didn’t temper my first feather adequately, so the slit was ragged. John Preston, the American writer who had very peculiar notions about his pens, tells me that the zig-zags in a bad slit were called “gander’s teeth!”

My first failed quill- the jagged edges of the slit are called 'gander's teeth.'  Good tempering of the quill prevents them.
My first failed quill! Good tempering of the quill prevents gander’s teeth.

It seems like every person who uses quills has a slightly different method of curing.  What worked for me (the second time around) was to soak the hollow barrel of the quill in water overnight, then to stick it in hot sand. I learned about this method from this detailed and informative page on Cutting Quill Pens. The author, Liralen Li, found that soaking and then heat-treating the quill makes a very flexible pen.

Tempering a Quill: Soaking in water, curing in hot sand, the membrane flaking off the barrel, a scraped quill ready for cutting.
Tempering a Quill: Soaking in water; curing in hot sand; the membrane flaking off the barrel; a scraped quill ready for cutting.

I bought a bag of fine white sand from a craft store (there is a pebble and sand aisle right next to the fake flowers!) and filled a clean, empty tin can with it. I heated the can in a 350°F oven for about 20 minutes, until a coffee thermometer stuck in the middle topped out at 220°F. After removing the can from the oven, I gently inserted the barrel of the feather into the center. I then left the feather in the sand until the the thermometer told me it had cooled all the way through. I was impatient with my first attempt, which led to the gander’s teeth! I also made the mistake of trying to wiggle the first feather around, stirring the sand with it- that twisted and cracked the barrel so little of it was usable.  Once out of the hot sand, the outer membrane was easy to scrape off with the back of my knife.

Step Three: Cut the Pen

This is the part where I really wished I could have half and hour with a writing master from 1800! I liked the simplicity of this Instructable by art professor Andrew Rafferty, but I found this YouTube video by master calligrapher Dennis Ruud the most helpful.  UPDATE: Here’s another helpful video by Ewan Clayton (I’m quickly becoming a fan!).  I found that I could really only make progress by trying, failing, and then re-reading or re-watching- and repeating the cycle over again. It’s like I couldn’t really see what they were doing until I’d tried to make sense of it with a quill and a knife in my hand.  I found that shaving small slices off at a time helped me stay in control, and that a fresh sharp blade was essential.

Clockwise from top: Xacto knife with a fresh blade, the 'plume' trimmed from a pen, two completed pens, some quill trimmings, a 'thimble' cut from a rubbery work glove.
Clockwise from top: X-acto knife with a fresh blade, the ‘plume’ trimmed from a pen, two completed pens, some quill trimmings, a ‘thimble’ cut from a rubbery work glove.

Step Four: Refine the shape of the nib

Similarly, I only really understood what some of the 17th century images of quill pens were showing me once I’d tried cutting the pen and writing with it.  All of the tutorials I’ve linked to have been for symmetrical square or pointed pens, but the Roundhand writing styles require some refinements.

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

The Golden Thread, a 2013 history of writing by Ewan Clayton, examined the above image in a way that made lightbulbs go off in my head. Clayton explained that the slit usually located in the exact center of the nib was in this case placed off center, so that one side of the nib is wider than the other:

When making a letter the thin upstroke is produced by rocking on to the corner of the larger (and hence stiffer) ‘thumb’ side of the nib and making a thin line extending up to the right. When the nib comes to the top stroke of the letter the whole width of the nib is placed down upon the page to make a thick descending line.

-Ewan Clayton, The Golden Thread (referring to the Alais de Beaulieu image above)

I’d looked at that same image several times without noticing the placement of the slit at all! Once I incorporated these refinements, my quills started to feel like the right tools for the job at hand, which is writing English Roundhand.  The next adventure will be practicing my letters!

* My basis for this claim is a word search in the Pemberley.com digital texts of Austen. They’re very handy to use, but I can’t vouch for their absolute accuracy- different editions do vary slightly.

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6 thoughts on “How to Ruin a Feather to Make a Pen

  1. My goodness, the research you did for this post is amazing! I’m enjoying following your progress in this endeavor.

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  2. Very cool. I have cut my own quills only a few times – it’s tricky, and I like steel nibs – but this makes me want to try again!

    You probably already know, but Donald Jackson (famously the chief scribe of the St John’s Bible) does a lot of work with quills (and is brilliant at it) – I’m not sure how easy to find those resources are, though.

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    1. Thanks, Moya! I feel like I need to cut about another hundred before I’m really good at it. . . I didn’t know about Donald Jackson before (total newbie here), so I’ll have to look him up! 😀

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  3. I am so happy to have found this post! I’ve been desperately searching for info on how to cut a quill so that I can write Roundhand with it, but all the quill cutting tutorials I’ve found so far (there are a surprising number on the internet) have given me pens that are very hard to get the hairlines with. Finally I understand why!! Thank you so much!
    UPDATE: I just tried writing some of the practice forms from one of your other posts with my newly trimmed quill, and it works!! And turning the pen to use the corner isn’t as hard as I’d previously conceived; its actually quite easy and feels overall pretty natural (though I can’t control the pen enough yet to really make the letters look right, haha). I’m so excited! I can’t wait to get practicing. 🙂 Again, thank you so very much!

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    1. I am so glad my post helped you! I had the same experience with all those quill-cutting tutorials- none of them were specifically for this style of writing. I started this blog mainly because I just couldn’t find enough information in one place about the topics I’m interested in, so I’m especially glad to know that it’s helped somebody in the same boat! I’ve been thinking I might write some more about quills, since I’ve cut and trimmed and written with many more since I wrote this post. Stay tuned, and happy practicing!

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