For more than a thousand years, the feather quill was the dominant writing utensil of the Western world. There are many artists, prop-makers, and enthusiasts today who still use quills and have learned to create their own. The process isn't difficult; it does, however, require a bit of practice to produce an instrument that will allow you to write efficiently and without blotting your page with ink.
I would recommend creating several quills at a time to both take advantage of the extended time required for some steps, and to allow yourself to try the steps several times over.
For this project, you'll need:
-several feathers, 8"+ in length
-an empty tin can
-a conventional oven
-an Xacto knife, or other sharp knife
Step 1: Choosing a Feather
When looking for feathers for your quill, keep a few things in mind. Firstly, your ideal feather has a shaft of around a quarter of an inch thick, or more. A smaller diameter will make the writing instrument more difficult to hold. Look for feathers that have a good length of calamus, the translucent tube at the writing end of the quill. A longer calamus means that you will be able to resharpen and continue to use your quill for some time without running out of feather. In some feathers, particularly those bought in hobby shops, the calamus can be crushed by the packaging or cleaning process; these feathers can't be used as quills. When shopping around for feathers, try to select packages with as few crushed feathers as you can.
I chose plain, white turkey feathers for my project. They came three in a bag for about a dollar at Michael's.
Step 2: Preparing Your Quill Before Tempering
Before you temper your quill's writing shaft (more on that in just a moment), consider prepping the feather into a more pleasing and useful shape.
The first image here is of the three quills I made in this run before I shaped them for the most part. You can see that one of them has already been shaped and used for writing without tempering it first. The untempered quill didn't perform nearly as well as the tempered quills, and it's a step I won't skip again.
In the second image, we have (from left to right):
1) The "afterfeathers" removed and part of the vane stripped away to begin higher on the feather. They can be plucked away for the most part, though I did utilize my Xacto knife. The purpose here is to get much of the feather out of the way of your hand when writing.
2) The flaky scaling on the calamus and the remnants of the barbs have been sanded away; I used a medium-fine sandpaper, though the back of your knife works fairly well. This cleans up the outside of the shaft and makes shaping it easier later on.
3. The vanes of the last feather have been trimmed away to shape the overall look of the pen. This final step is purely aesthetic. Though it was common to remove most of the vane for practicality's sake, your quill can ultimately look however you wish it.
Step 3: Acquiring Sand for Tempering
To temper the quill, you will need some fine grain sand, a tin can to contain it, and an oven in which to heat it. You have several options here, the easiest of which is to buy sand at the hobby shop when you purchase your feathers. However, if you've already made your trip to the store, or are attempting to spend as little money as possible on this project, there's another answer. If you have a sandy pit or play area nearby and already own a sifter, you always have the option to go sift your own sand. I chose to do this, and I do have some tips for the process.
1) Firstly, begin your quest with the knowledge that you are about to render your sifter useless for kitchen prep. I imagine that with persistence, you would be able to remove most if not all of the sand from the sifter. That's not a chance I'm going to take, especially as I don't use the thing that often anyway.
2) Take your empty tin can with you to wherever it is you're gathering sand. It provides both a means of carrying and measuring the sand; why sift more than you need?
3) When choosing a patch of sand to scoop from, try not to dig too deep; the moister the sand, the more difficult the sifting will be. (In addition, because we had gotten some rain in our area as I was tackling this project, I ended up having to bake my sand in the oven to dry it out quickly. It was as simple as spreading it out on parchment paper on a baking sheet and putting it in the oven until it had preheated to the required temperature. I then sifted it another time or two to remove the larger particles that had slipped through. If you use this method, be aware that your sand will be very hot! Use caution when handling it.)
4) If you have a crank sifter, do not use the crank or turning mechanism in your sifter. As tempting as it may be, it doesn't make the job any easier; it only succeeds in jamming up with sand. Far easier was simply scooping up sand with it and shaking it over my tin can until the can was full. Don't forget to dump out the large particles between scoops!
Step 4: Tempering the Shaft
Now that your feathers are prepped and you have your sand, it's time to learn about tempering. Tempering a quill refers to using heat, typically in the form of hot sand, to increase the strength and brittleness of the shaft by removing moisture from it. The nib that you carve from a tempered shaft will deform much less quickly than an untempered nib.
To temper your feather, begin by putting your tin can of sand in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 minutes. I set mine on top of the baking sheet and parchment paper I had previously used for baking the residual moisture out of my sand. When your sand is ready to come out of the oven, you can stick the shafts of your prepared feathers as far into the sand as they will fit. Here they will stay until the sand cools to a safe temperature.
In my experience, it took about an hour and a half for this step. Because of the extended time taken here, I prefer to temper three or four quills at a time. You should be able to see a clear difference between the coloration of a tempered and an untempered calamus. While I don't have a picture of the latter, you can see that the tempered shaft is more opaque than before, and it will bend less in the hand.
A variation upon this tempering process involves soaking the feather for a day before placing it in hot sand. I haven't personally tried this, but I've heard that it allows the shaft to maintain some of its flexibility while still improving its tolerance to wear.
Step 5: Shaping the Nib
Using an Xacto knife (or similar, VERY sharp blade), slice the end of the shaft at a 45 degree angle on the "underside" of the pen as it would sit in your hand. There will be more shaping to be done, but for now, you've opened up the inside of the calamus for cleaning. Using a thin tool such as a toothpick, clean out the matter from the inside of the shaft. This will help prevent gobs of ink from getting caught in the membranes inside the pen. Be gentle with the shaft at this time; it doesn't take much force to split the calamus in places you didn't intend.
After the membranes have been cleaned out, you're ready to start shaping the nib. I have found the best way to do this is to observe fountain pen nibs and try to emulate their design. Depending on what you wish to use the quill for, you may desire a wider nib or a narrow one. Experiment with different shapes and find the one that suits you.
Begin by "slitting" your ink reservoir into the end of the pen. To do this, lay the shaft with it's "underside" (the opening created when you cut it at an angle) facing upwards. Using the tip of your knife, press into the middle of the shaft until it splits down the center to the tip of the nib. Once your reservoir has been cut, you're ready to move forward.
The third picture is of the shape I typically aim for when I cut nibs; using the reservoir slit as my center line, I aim to make the nib symmetrical. The primary goal is to provide a narrow writing point, although there are characteristics which make some shapes more useful than others. By slicing in again and narrowing the tip, you encourage the ink to stay in the top of the pen instead of pooling at the writing point. This is possible because of the surface tension of ink; it has a tendency to remain in the curved tube of the shaft rather than on the flat underside of the nib.
UPDATE 4-30: I added a couple of pictures to try and give you a better idea of the shape of the nib. This is several sharpenings later; you can see the pen has been used for writing and subsequently cleaned out.
Step 6: Bonus Step: Boosting Your Reservoir
A trick of the trade used as a means for extending your charge of ink, some quill makers will take a barb or two from their feather and insert it into the end of their quill. This small bit of feather allows the quill to hold a greater charge of ink, allowing you to go longer without dipping your pen. While not necessary, I've found this greatly increases the amount of writing I can do on a single dip.
1. Begin by selecting a barb of around an inch in length
2. Make a 'U' shape out of the barb; it will probably crease or bend in the middle, and this is okay.
3. Poke the loop, open side first, into the end of the quill, lining it up with the ink reservoir. One "leg" of the u-shaped barb should be laying along the slit of the reservoir. Using a tool like a toothpick, prod the barb further into the calamus so that the ink collected in the barb doesn't drag against the paper while you write.
I typically replace this small loop every time I clean out my pen for simplicity's sake. It can be recovered during the cleaning, but as I have an entire vane full of replacements, I don't worry too much about it.
Step 7: That's All She Wrote
And there it is! You've made a quill! All that's left is to dip it in some ink and take it for a spin.
Some final notes on using your new quill:
- I get more use out of my own quills when I clean them after using them; allowing the ink to build up keeps you from getting a good charge. To clean India ink out of a quill, I just run it under the tap and use my fingers to clean the outside. To get the ink on the inside, I trim away half of the cotton on a Q-tip and moisten it before swabbing the inside of the shaft with it. If you have a shaft larger in diameter, you may not need to trim the Q-tip, but mine are typically narrow enough that doing so would likely crack the shaft.
- Is your quill getting dull? No worries! Just sharpen it like you did when you first cut it!
- If you remember how to write in cursive, I would highly recommend it, as it was developed for a time when we wrote with quills. Because you pick the pen up from the paper less often, you'll find that less ink is wasted when you write in cursive. In addition, the smoother movement will cause less ink to be splattered on the page.
- You will probably get ink everywhere. Just a head's up.
- Don't want to go buy ink from a hobby shop? No worries; you can make your own. All you need is charcoal powder/dust and a little bit of rubbing alcohol. Mix well and write to your heart's content.