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 Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen

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whitehound
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PostSubject: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Mon Mar 24, 2014 3:48 pm

You can buy quill pens in "heritage" shops, but they nearly always have a metal nib, with the feather just used as a handle and ink-reservoir.  A true Mediaeval quill pen has the nib actually carved out of the shaft of the feather, but a raw, untreated feather isn't strong enough to form a nib which will bear any pressure without splaying.  It needs to be cooked and cured first.

To make a proper quill pen, you will need:

a)  a large flight or tail feather which has a very thick, strong shaft at the proximal end (that is, the end which was attached to the bird).  A Mediaeval quill pen would most likely be goose or swan, but if you want to branch out into something non-European any large bird will probably do - turkey, ostrich, condor, peacock, macaw etc.  The bird does not need to be dead: find out when your chosen bird is due to moult, and snap up the feathers as they are shed, before they get trampled on.

b)  a very sharp craft knife or scalpel, preferably one which is quite small and easy to handle.  There is a reason why a small, folding pocket-knife is called a "pen-knife".

c)  a piece of wooden dowel less than a foot long (an inch or two to use as a cutting surface, plus enough to hold it by without it flopping about) and of a slightly smaller diameter than the proximal end of the feather.  A chopstick with a round cross-section is ideal, so long as you don't mind it getting a bit chewed-looking.

d)  a very fine hook or a very long sewing-needle, ideally at least 3" long.  The type of large needle with a slightly bent tip, which I think is intended for sewing carpet, or this sort of book-binding needle, is ideal.

e) a standard medium-sized tin-can, about 4" (10cm) tall - the sort of thing dog-food or chopped tomatoes come in - loosely filled with clean sand.  You should be able to get the sand from a pet shop (chinchillas roll in it) or a builders' suppliers.

f)  oven-gloves or similar for handling the tin can when it is hot, and a heat-resistant surface to stand it on.

g)  a general craft work-surface, such as a cutting-out board or a chopping block.

h)  a sharp awl or a drill with a very fine bit (not essential).

o0O0o

1)  Take the knife and shave the vanes off the shaft of the feather to a distance of 3"-4" above the tip.  The idea is to leave the distal (furthest from the bird) end of the feather feathery because it looks pretty, whilst ensuring that the feathery bit begins well above the back of the user's hand.  You don't want any vanes on the bit of the feather which the user is going to be gripping, or pressing against the back of the hand, because their springiness would make the nib hard to control.



2)  Boil some water, then take it off the boil and immediately soak the shaved part of the shaft of the feather in it for about half an hour.

3)  Meanwhile, place the can of sand in the oven (*not* a microwave!) and heat it until it is uncomfortable to touch, without being red-hot or burning.  Take it out of the oven and stand it on your heat-resistant surface.

4)  Plunge the shaved - and now soaked - shaft of the feather into the hot sand in the can.  Leave it to cool overnight.  The heat should cook the shaft and turn it into a kind of firm plastic, while the moisture prevents it from becoming brittle.

5)  Work out which side of the shaft is going to correspond to the underside of the nib, paying attention to the direction in which you want the nib to be oriented relative to the remaining vanes of the feather.  If the shaft is slightly curved (most will be) the underside will usually be the concave side of the curve.  See diagrams below.

6)  Lay the nib end of the feather shaft on your work surface, with the underside uppermost.  Make a shallow cut into the shaft of the feather, about 5/8" (16mm) from the tip and curving slightly towards the tip.  Cut in to about one third of the depth of the shaft and then continue the cut along to the end, straight and parallel to what will be the upper surface of the nib.

7)  The shaft is fairly transparent, and you should be able to see that inside it, to a height of a couple of inches, it is partially filled with a rather revolting sticky membrane.  Now that the shaft has been opened, guddle about inside it with the hook/needle until you have fished out as much of this membrane as you can get at.

8 ) Once you have got rid of the membrane, lay the shaft on the work-surface with the underside uppermost again.  Make a second. curving cut, starting about halfway along the existing cut, going down to about half to two thirds of the depth of the shaft and then slanting down towards the tip.



9)  Turn the pen over so that the upper side of the nib is uppermost - it should now be roughly nib-shaped, but terminating in a fairly sharp point.  Push the piece of dowel or chopstick up inside the shaft, so that it will support the nib when you cut it to shape.

10)  Using the dowel as an anvil, cut across the end of the nib, either straight or at a slight angle depending on what sort of lettering you want to do,  and remove the point.  The higher you cut, the broader the nib and the thicker the lettering.  Generally, you want a thick nib for onramental calligraphy, a medium one for note-scribbling and a very fine one for drawing.

11)  This stage is optional, but if you have a sharp awl or very fine drill-bit to hand, make a tiny round hole in the centre of the nib about 3/16" (5mm) from the tip.  You need the dowel to be inserted into the shaft when you do this, otherwise you will buckle and tear the feather.

12)  Still with the dowel in place, split the nib in half lengthwise by cutting up the middle for about 3/16" (5mm).  If you made the optional hole at stage 11), just cut from the hole to the tip.  The hole should help to prevent the split from spreading further up than you want it to.





Your pen is now ready to use - just dip it in ink to a depth of an inch or two and then tap it gently to remove any excess.  Quill pens are not very strong, so do not press down too hard on the nib.  Even so you will probably only get about two pages of text before your nib splays and begins to blodge.  When this happens, re-cut the nib (and shave the vanes) about half an inch further up the shaft.  You will be able to do this several times before you work your way up to a bit of the shaft which is too thin to form a useable nib, at which point you have to start again with a new feather.  With practice, if you cook and cure several feathers at a time you should be able to prepare a new nib in about five minutes, the longest part of which is the fishing out of the revolting membrane.
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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Mon Mar 24, 2014 9:13 pm

Wow...thanks for taking the time to outline all of this. It makes me remember why I bought the things from people like you when I did art calligraphy. I couldn't cure and harden feather shafts to save my soul.

For those who want to try this, bookbinding needles are available in the States from Hollanders in Michigan. If you try it, I hope you'll report your results.

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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Sun Mar 30, 2014 8:03 pm

Thanks, wonderful admin folk!

One of the innovations I'm considering for my novel is having my heroine find a way to put strands of boiled, felted wool inside goose quills to serve as ink reservoirs and possibly as nib reinforcers. (Or maybe she could have a goldsmith make 14k ones.)
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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Sun Mar 30, 2014 8:13 pm

Quote :
One of the innovations I'm considering for my novel is having my heroine find a way to put strands of boiled, felted wool inside goose quills to serve as ink reservoirs and possibly as nib reinforcers.

The easier, cheaper way for nib reservoirs is to:

1. Cut open an aluminum soda can.

2. Clean it.

3. Cut a strip of aluminum of appropriate size (it has to fit inside the narrow nib shaft)

4. Bend the strip into an "S" shape.

5. Gently push it into the quill, to make the "S"-shaped metal and the nib form a "V"

When you dip the nib, it will hold ink.

You'll need to experiment to get the right curve. The more squeezed the "S" curve, the less heavy the weight and blotty the ink. The blot also depends on how lightly you write with the nib.

Alternately, your heroine could just buy Speedball nibs (which come with built-in reservoirs) and a Speedball nib holder, but that's blasphemy to the dedicated art calligrapher.

I also just found this alternative to cure feathers in a microwave. (The medieval scribe in me is outraged at this shortcut.)

1. Make sure the rounded tip is cut off, otherwise the quill might explode.

2. Place the feathers in the microwave and turn the microwave to full power for 10-second blasts till the feather has been cured. (Milky white opaque to almost clear and slightly yellow.) (You do it in 10-second blasts to make sure you don't over-cure the quills)


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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Mon Mar 31, 2014 5:35 pm

I still can't visualise what you mean about the S-shaped bit of aluminium: I thought I'd understood you but this latest description makes it clear I hadn't. Can you draw or photograph it?

Tamara's story involves somebody from the present going back to the 15th C so aluminium or ready-made speedballs aren't an option. I suppose a small strip of copper or gold would do the same job, but I like the idea of the felt reservoir. I suggest she would need a metal or glass or ceramic tune of the same diameter as the feathers, and then she could ball up her damp felt and squeeze it into the tube and then leave it to set.

I suspect a strip of fuzzy leather could also be used.
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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Mon Mar 31, 2014 6:53 pm

Thanks! This is all very helpful.
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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Mon Mar 31, 2014 10:14 pm

whitehound wrote:
I still can't visualise what you mean about the S-shaped bit of aluminium: I thought I'd understood you but this latest description makes it clear I hadn't.  Can you draw or photograph it?

Tamara's story involves somebody from the present going back to the 15th C so aluminium or ready-made speedballs aren't an option.  I suppose a small strip of copper or gold would do the same job, but I like the idea of the felt reservoir.  I suggest she would need a metal or glass or ceramic tune of the same diameter as the feathers, and then she could ball up her damp felt and squeeze it into the tube and then leave it to set.

I suspect a strip of fuzzy leather could also be used.

Here's an illustration:



The felt might work for a reservoir...or it might wick up the ink so much, it won't flow to the tip. Gold would work better; it's light, you can beat it to the thickness you want, and Jervaulx would have it on hand for illumination in the scriptorium.

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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Tue Apr 01, 2014 4:49 am

OK, that was what I thought you meant - but then in what sense does the S-curve make a V with the nib?  Also, as you re-cut the nib you'd have to shove the S further up the shaft and there'd come a point where it wouldn't go any further, which might reduce the number of times (= how high up the shaft) a given quill could be re-cut.  I suppose once you'd reached the limit you'd slice the remains of the quill open to retrieve the reservoir for re-use.

Gold's not light - it's even heavier than lead.  It's how you tell if a watch is solid gold rather than gold plated - a gold watch is very noticeably heavier.  So copper would be better as far as weight goes - but of course copper will eventually corrode, and gold lasts forever.

Jervaulx would have gold for making gold leaf - but would it not have already been beaten thinner than you'd want it to make the S?  I realise I don't know whether a monastery would have bought a lump of gold and hammered it out into leaf themselves, or bought in gold leaf (essentially a super-thin foil, for those who don't know) ready-made.  Do you know?  If not, does *anybody* know?

I suppose they'd probably have lead available, which is almost as durable and workable as gold, and not as heavy.
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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Tue Apr 01, 2014 3:02 pm

whitehound wrote:
...in what sense does the S-curve make a V with the nib?  

Not sure I can explain this. The angle of the bottom of the "S" (or closer to a backward "Z", if you like?) lines up against the top of the quill's cut and usually takes the shape of a "V" rather than the tight "S" shape if you look at the nib in cross-section. It's not complicated; you just shove the S/Z up there, make sure it lines up with the cut as a modern fountain pen's reservoir does, dip the quill in the ink, and see how you need to adjust the S/Z to prevent the ink from blotching. If it blotches, you keep experimenting with the load of ink and the angle of the "S" (bend the "S" shorter or longer) until it works.

It's finnicky and can be maddening. Each reservoir and quill are different, so you have to experiment with the reservoir placement. In the end, you may decide fiddling with it just isn't worth it. But if you use quills a lot and fiddle a lot, you get better at "sensing" where to position the reservoir. Even if you have someone experienced show you, you still have to do it in order to "get it," if that makes sense? So I can explain, but even if I were standing at your elbow, you'd still have to play with positioning the metal, dip the quill and see how it writes...if it blotches or flows correctly.

Quote :
Also, as you re-cut the nib you'd have to shove the S further up the shaft and there'd come a point where it wouldn't go any further, which might reduce the number of times (= how high up the shaft) a given quill could be re-cut.  

When you can't shove the reservoir any further, you fish it out with a needle or a small crochet hook and use the quill without it if you haven't damaged it. You don't have to use a reservoir at all; the only advantage is that you don't have to dip the quill as often.

Quote :
Gold's not light - it's even heavier than lead.  It's how you tell if a watch is solid gold rather than gold plated - a gold watch is very noticeably heavier.  So copper would be better as far as weight goes - but of course copper will eventually corrode, and gold lasts forever.

Gold might be better for some scribes because it's heavier. Quills are so light, some scribes might prefer the weight added by a bit of gold...but I'm not all that sure the weight of a 1/2" long gold "S" reservoir would be all that noticeable. It's not noticeable if you use aluminum today.

Some calligraphers swear that writing on parchment and vellum is this side of heaven. but I don't like working with a quill on parchment because I need a bit of "drag" between the nib and the medium I'm using. To me, parchment/vellum is too smooth. I prefer a medium with "tooth," if that makes sense.  Parchment is smoother than paper if it's been prepared properly; vellum is even worse (better?). Just before you begin writing on it, you brush it with pumice to clear off any debris, then brush it with chalk so the ink won't run (as you write on an angled surface). You want the paper as smooth as possible, so the nib doesn't skitter and the ink doesn't spatter. If it does, you have to wait until it dries, then scrape off the ink and try again.

It was just too smooth (not to mention expensive in this age) and the quill too light for my hand. So I prefer modern steel nibs, which is blasphemy to any professional art calligrapher. It's blasphemous also to use anything but an instrument you dip into the ink, so fountain calligraphy pens are ixnayed too by the purists. And those felt-tip calligraphy pens? We hates them, Precious, and have foresworn their use. Whatever. Smile

Quote :
Jervaulx would have gold for making gold leaf - but would it not have already been beaten thinner than you'd want it to make the S?

Absolutely too thin, since the gold sheets used in illumination are thinner than tissue paper. They float and cling and are extremely fragile, think of them as 'gold webbing'; the slightest breath (never mind breeze) will float them away. It clings to your finger and you likely tear it trying to get it off...so you lift it with tweezers and move slowly to place it where you want it. Look up illuminating letters in video sometime; it's a finicky process as well. I guess that's why he who wrote letters didn't necessarily also illuminate the pages. The upside is that it doesn't take much to gold a letter, and you can collect and save tiny pieces for use next time.

Something just occurred to me...they mined tin in medieval times, so perhaps tin would be available for Tamara's character to use it? The character could ask the local blacksmith to beat and cut what she needed from a sheet of tin? It wouldn't tarnish if the scribe rinses and dries it after each use. You have to rinse and dry Speedball nibs or they rust and ruin; even today, they're definitely not stainless steel.

Quote :
I realise I don't know whether a monastery would have bought a lump of gold and hammered it out into leaf themselves, or bought in gold leaf (essentially a super-thin foil, for those who don't know) ready-made.  Do you know?  If not, does *anybody* know?

They'd likely have some gold on hand for their scribes to hammer out as it was needed. A very little gold goes a long way to illuminate letters, so it need only be a very small lump. They also had access to real ultramarine (for the brilliant blue) which, if I recall, was more expensive than gold. The study of their inks and pigments and how/where they got them is fascinating and a subject until itself. You can buy gold leaf today to use in illumination (and it's so expensive most people use other leaf that's a combination of gold and...I can't remember what alloy. It will tarnish eventually because of the secondary alloy, but it won't tarnish in 100 years so it's usually good enough for the casual illuminator), but I doubt they made it for the monasteries to buy. It's just too fragile. Today, the gold foil that's sold is placed between sheets of very thin paper. You cut the paper and the gold when you cut gold for a letter, then use the tweezers or your burnisher to shift the gold.

Quote :
I suppose they'd probably have lead available, which is almost as durable and workable as gold, and not as heavy.

I imagine the local blacksmith would have metals -- remember the horseshoes and nails were made of iron? But if I were writing as Tamara is, I'd just toss the reservoir as an unnecessary detail and have the character use a naked quill.

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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Tue Apr 01, 2014 3:18 pm

Unless, of course, she's thinking of making an actual felt-tip pen for colouring large areas, in which case you'd make your tube of hard felt and shove it up a quill which didn't have a cut nib, instead using the end of the felt rod as the nib, and the quill simply as a means of holding the felt rod without getting the ink all over your hand.

Tin is a good idea, yes.
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PostSubject: Re: Cut Your Own Quill: how to make a Mediaeval-style quill pen   Wed Apr 02, 2014 9:46 pm

Thanks again, ladies!

Tamara
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