Introduction: Quill Pen & Ink

Picture of Quill Pen & Ink

One of the most practical, prevalent and beautiful art forms in the world, calligraphy has been used throughout human history as a form of expression. And until the mid- to late Nineteenth Century, most of this writing was done with a quill pen. Although today, much calligraphic art is done on a computer, there is nothing more satisfying than creating written works of art by hand. To get started learning this craft, follow the steps in this tutorial to make your own quill pen and ink.

Step 1: What You'll Need

Picture of What You'll Need

-Measuring cup
-Dish soap
-White glue
-A small stoppered jar or vial to store the ink
-White vinegar
-10 nails
-Wooden spoon
-4 bags of black tea
-Small bowl
-Plastic wrap

Quill Pen:
-Very sharp, small knife
-Long, thin, strong piece of wire
-Glass jar or soup can
-Hot ashes or sand

*Selecting a good feather is vital. The best kind of feather is 10-12" long, and a primary flight feather from a goose (these can be found easily during molting season in early to mid- summer around any body of fresh water) or a turkey tail feather purchased from a craft store

Step 2: The Ink - Cleaning the Nails

Picture of The Ink - Cleaning the Nails

Pour 1/4 cup of dish soap into the bowl with 2 cups of water. Soak the nails in the soapy water for half an hour

Step 3: The Ink - Mixing Nails & Vinegar

Picture of The Ink - Mixing Nails & Vinegar

Drain soapy water. Dry the bowl and nails, replacing the clean nails in the bowl. Pour enough white vinegar over the nails to cover them, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow to soak for two days.

Step 4: The Ink - Bringing It All Together

Picture of The Ink - Bringing It All Together

Boil the bags of black tea in a cup of water for ten minutes. Allow the water to cool. Mix equal parts of tea and the nail-vinegar liquid (with nails removed) into the vial. The exact amount will vary; use enough to fill your jar or vial to 3/4 full. Mix in glue until the ink is thick enough to write with.
The ink will turn black when it dries on paper.

Step 5: The Quill - Clearing Barbs

Picture of The Quill - Clearing Barbs

Cut away the barbs until the desired amount is left. Traditionally, all of the barbs were cut away and the shaft was cut to a practical 6-7", but a barbed quill is more attractive. At least cut away enough so that the pen rests comfortably in the hand.

Step 6: The Quill - Hardening

Picture of The Quill - Hardening

Shave away the membrane coating the bottom end of the quill. To harden the quill shaft, plunge the quill into either hot ashes or hot sand (the latter of which can be heated in the oven). Allow to stand for half an hour

Step 7: The Quill - First Cut

Picture of The Quill - First Cut

Now it's time to begin shaping the tip of the quill. This is done in four main cuts. The first cut is made on the bottom of the quill (ascertain the bottom by holding the quill in your hand; the side that curves downward to naturally touch the paper is the bottom) at a shallow (roughly 45 degree) angle.

Step 8: The Quill - Removing the Quick

Picture of The Quill - Removing the Quick

Next, remove the quick by sliding the strong, thin wire all the way up the shaft and pulling it out

Step 9: The Quill - Second Cut

Picture of The Quill - Second Cut

Time for the second cut. This cut is closer to the tip than the first and at a much sharper angle

Step 10: The Quill - Final Cuts

Picture of The Quill - Final Cuts

The third cut is simply a slit from the tip of the quill to a little past the second cut. The final cut is the shaping of the tip. For this cut, it all depends on what style you want to write in. The narrower the tip, the thinner your written characters will be.

Step 11: The Finished Product

Picture of The Finished Product

Now you're ready to write! It takes some practice to get the hang of writing with a quill and ink, but there are many books and resources online to help you learn proper technique and how to create different fonts. Writing with a quill is a rewarding experience and once you've learned the basics, the possibilities for creativity are limitless!


theodore.elperro (author)2015-02-13

This is a great article and I thought I'd make it even better by sharing some hints about making the quill:

1.) Removing barbs: If you grasp the barbs firmly and pull toward the tip, they'll peel off smoothly.

2.) Tempering: Soak the quills overnight in water before using the hot sand. This results in more flexibility but same amount of strength.

3.) When making the tip: Make the first cut as noted, but very shallow. THEN: Turn quill over and make a second shallow cut on the opposite side of the first cut. If you've done this correctly, you'll now have a tip that has two little horns. Gently press the horns together, pressing a little more firmly on the side you want the point to be on. A natural split will happen. Now make the point as described, but integrate the split into the point.

4.) Because you've made a split, the point is now a little trickier to shape (but ink flow will be WAY better). What I like to do is NOT use a knife to shape the point. So, after step 3, above, I use an emery board to shape the tip. Keep going until you like the shape, then get yourself some 800-1000 sandpaper and smooth it (having a little square of this handy will also help when the tip wears down, as it will).

5.) Last step: Look at the split, which should now open into the tip. At the top of the split, you want a tiny hole. Get a needle or a straight pin, hold it over a flame until it's red hot, then put it through the quill at the top of the split. This will hold a little reservoir of ink.

6.) Don't press down very hard when using a quill pen. You don't need to, and you'll save the tip by being gentle.

Love, KK

censure (author)theodore.elperro2016-12-19

I skipped a lot of steps but I agree on the use of a nail file. I used a metal one, no flex in it. I made the mistake once of using a soft emery board and the tip turned out weird. I only score the inside, I don't cut through, seems to work great anyway.

Thanks so much for the advice! Very solid, and I didn't know about soaking it in water before the tempering. Plus, I really like the idea of using an emery board to shape the tip; that would definitely allow for more precision, and is a little more forgiving than using a knife

josuchav (author)2015-09-16

I didn't find an answer to mig welder's question... zinc or rust?

censure (author)josuchav2016-12-19

This is just a guess but I think she's making a modern version of iron gall ink, so iron.

Bexinator (author)2016-02-07

can you use paint instead of ink?

censure (author)Bexinator2016-12-19

sure but if you're going to use anything other than waterbased paint (water color or kid's washable paint), you'll go through quills fast because I doubt it would be healthy for them to be soaked in paint thinner. Who knows though? Try it and write an 'ible.

censure (author)2016-12-19

I actually did this for the first time this week. I notice that
modern ink is much thinner than I expect. The ink only stays on the
quill for about enough to go from A to F in the alphabet. But if I use
one of the shellac inks, I can get it to go up to the entire alphabet.
Most metal nibs work better with thinner ink because they flow better.
But the quill seems to want more gum arabic or something in the ink. I
could use some more ideas in the are of ink choices. I think the
thickest ink available is speedball india ink, but I could be wrong.
I'll have to get some. I suddenly dislike the eternal ink from higgins,
which was my favorite. I also like the way the letters look if the nib
of the quill is a bit rounded. I get only a tiny splatter that way if
it catches, and the letters look much more the way I expect them to
look. I would probably need an ostrich feather to get a very wide
line. It might be an idea for later. Usually rounding is bad, but I
like it. It might be the "ordinary" way they were used and the "fancy"
uses were the flat chisel ended ones.

Another thing I
noticed is if you cut a channel in the nib to help ink flow, you have
to keep cleaning it before each use with the sharp of the pen knife or
it can get clogged and then the pen behaves differently next time you
use it.

I didn't bother with making my own ink, but I like your idea. I also didn't "harden" or remove the quick, I guess I can do that later, though the guinea hen quills seem to have a double shaft. Worked
fine. I got a 10 pcs set of guinea hen quill feathers and about 8 of
them were large enough to make a pen. The other two are now cat toys.
:) Was like $3 on amazon. Cheap hobby, especially if I make the ink like you suggest. That's iron gall ink basically isn't it? With vinegar substituted for the acid in the gall?

I pretty much went from the first cut to the final cuts and didn't try for the crowquill shape. They are small quills so I'm working with what I have. But the nice thing about this is, success is easy. Making a perfect chisel point might take me more time, but for now, I'm happy with it.

Thanks for the instructions!

Mig Welder (author)2015-04-30

Great 'ible!

Minor question though; is the "nail juice" from uncoated steel nails (so a solution of rust) or from galvanized nails (a solution of zinc)?

holyrazer77 (author)Mig Welder2016-11-27

probably more like mill scale. Michael Cthulu on YouTube does this with hiss stock before making swords.

EvanV3 (author)2015-09-12

Also, does it really need to soak for 3 days does 10 min work? Thanks!

EvanV3 (author)2015-09-12

Also, does it really need to soak for 3 days does 10 min work? Thanks!

EvanV3 (author)2015-09-12

Can you use red wine vinegar

Nimrodel626 (author)2015-06-29

Thank you so much! I look forward to making it, as my store-bought in has some how become mixed with water, and all it does is make grey blobs. :( Anyway, I'll get started on the nail part right away! Thanks!

SirTeddyI (author)2014-12-08

Very good job explaining. Thank you very much. I have wanted to learn how to do this for a while, and now I know.

Nick Waszak (author)2014-11-23

How long does it typically take for the ink to dry?

Mielameri (author)Nick Waszak2014-11-26

It only takes a few minutes (or less) to dry on the page, depending on how absorbent the paper you're writing on is, and how much ink you deposited on the page when writing (thicker, chisel-cut tips generally leave more ink, and thus the ink will take longer to dry). If you want to speed up the drying process, you could also invest in blotting paper or pounce (which is a very fine sand that is cheap and easy to use for drying ink more quickly).

As for how long it will keep in the inkwell before drying out? As long as the container used is air tight, it can keep for a very long time--I don't know exactly because I use it pretty quickly, but I would guess upwards of a year. You'll just have to stir it up to take care of the settling that occurs after it's not been in use for a while.

BeccaF (author)2014-08-29

I tried doing this and the ink won't work, the glue doesn't make it thick enough (I have over half of it glue) and the more glue I use the lighter the ink. Help?

Mielameri (author)BeccaF2014-09-01

Hi! A few things that may help:
-Are you using black tea with only a small amount of water? The higher tea-to-water ratio, the greater the color intensity
-Making it in small batches work better. It's easier to thicken a smaller amount of ink
-What kind of glue are you using? White school glue is best
-The ink appears grey when wet and in its container, but will darken to black as it dries
-It should still be fairly liquid; you don't want the ink to be too sluggish
Hope this helps! Let me know if you have any other questions

Mielameri (author)2014-08-01

Coffee is much trickier to use in ink making. It has a lot of compounds that don't make it ideal for use with, say, metal dip or fountain pens, and you have to use a lot more of it to gain the same color intensity as tea

HannahN (author)2014-07-30

Can you use coffee instead of black tea, its just to make the black right, so whats the dif.

sunshiine (author)2014-05-12

Love the quill pen. I will share this with my daughter. I think she would like to make one. Have a great day!


hometownbetty (author)2014-03-19

Thanks for following! Your quill pen and ink tutorial is very cool!

Jayefuu (author)2014-02-09

Great instructions! I thought it would be as easy as just cutting it right. Really interesting.

Mielameri (author)Jayefuu2014-02-10

Thanks :). There's definitely an art to it, though if you're in a pinch (not that I can imagine what kind of pinch would involve making quills...), the cuts are really the most important part to get right

talarasdourian (author)Mielameri2014-02-17

that would be cool though, just go to my history class and be like" Hey Mr. S! like my new pencil?"

Mielameri (author)talarasdourian2014-02-17

Lol! Yeah, or better yet, start using one and don't say anything about it, just act like it's completely normal. That would be pretty hilarious

thehbird (author)2014-01-23


jddelta (author)2014-01-11

Very nice instructable Mielameri, I like to write freehand, it has become a thing of the past with computer generated fonts. Thanks for the idea and how to.

Mielameri (author)2013-11-11

@ meganst thanks! Yep, if you want authenticity for a vintage art project, the quill is the perfect tool :)

meganst (author)2013-11-08

What a wonderful instructable. I love wall art DIY projects and have always wanted to make something with vintage handwriting. Maybe this will help me :)

jgillen0229 (author)2013-11-03

That's awesome!!!

Mielameri (author)2013-10-11

@ absolute zero I've only used this ink in nib pens and quills, so I'm not sure if it would gum up the feed on a fountain pen

absolute zero (author)2013-10-10

Do you think this would work in fountain pens without gumming up the feed?

Mielameri (author)2013-10-10

@ Uncle Kudzu Thanks! The white glue thickens the ink.
There is an excellent tutorial on making ink with oak galls on this site; the recipe used here is an alternative to that

Uncle Kudzu (author)2013-10-10

Well done!

What's the white glue for? I collected some oak galls recently and have been wanting to try making some ink. This instructable lays it out nicely!

nnygamer (author)2013-10-10

I guess I don't have to finish my version of this. Only thing I did different was using Gum Arabic instead of glue in the ink.

Mielameri (author)2013-10-10

Yup! Oak gall ink is a bit better, but this ink is a nice alternative, as I think it uses more common household ingredients :)

omnibot (author)2013-10-09

mole1 >> Oak gall apples. there's an instructable somewhere.

mole1 (author)2013-10-09

Thanks for posting this! I never thought of using tea for the tannin... this is much easier than trying to figure out how to use oak.

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Bio: Making is happiness. Most of my free time involves me either being elbows deep in some project or another, or staring off into space planning ... More »
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