How Not to Make a Quill Pen

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Today, once again, I find myself in the ignominious position of having less of a how-to, than a how-not-to. However, since there are probably many people like myself who jump into a tutorial and find myself less than equipped to finish a DIY project, I thought I’d share my issues, which will hopefully mean your attempts will be more successful. This is just another project that sounds easy, but has a lot more going on.

Step One: gather the feathers

I should start by saying that the ideal feathers for a quill are goose (though turkey and ostrich and peacock all work too). They are readily available and they’re both flexible and strong.

We found these feathers at the beach, and Mom thought I should try making them into quills. I don’t know if the length of time I had them before starting the project made a difference (almost two months), but I’m not sure I advise making feathers with gull feathers you find at the beach, though they can be quite pretty, and it’s still worth a try, especially since there’s not always a lot to do at the beach.

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Step Two: wash the feathers

There are different recommended methods for washing feathers. Mine probably didn’t need too much work, but they were a little sandy, since I’d gotten them from the beach. I cleaned my feathers in warm soapy water and then let them dry on a towel.

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Step Three: divest the feather of some of its fluff

Shaving the feather so it sits comfortable in your hand is probably the easiest part of the process. You just use a sharp knife and trim some of the lower layers off. You could run some sand paper along this, but as I had less and less luck with successive quills, I was less and less concerned with this and started to ignore it altogether. Don’t be like me, even if you have several feathers, make every part of the process feel important so you’re less likely to go too quickly and get careless.

Step Four: the first cut

So my main problem with this project was probably the fact that my chosen knife was not sharp enough. I cut too quickly with too little precision, and ended up messing everything up. Don’t be like me. Cut carefully with a very sharp knife (using extreme caution–please no one get hurt for a quill) at an acute angle. The end should be somewhat pointed, but fairly blunt.

Step Five: remove the quick

There’s stuff in the feather (I won’t dwell on what it is–I’d rather not know) and it’s best removed with either the point of the knife or a pair of small tweezers. It is not advisable to try and stick the tweezer so far in that you crack the feather, as I did twice.

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Step Six: the second cut

You’re basically trying to make this thing look like a fountain pen or calligraphy nib. That is, it roughly comes to a point, and then the point is refined. You don’t want to finalize the pointed or flat shape yet.

Step Seven: cutting through the point

So as you’ve no doubt seen, pens have a slit through the nib. When pressure is place on the tip, the tines open and the ink is allowed to flow. You have to make a cut into the quill to replicate this slit. It is better to do this in the middle of the nib, not at a weird angle, and again, with a sharp knife.

Step Eight: refining the look

At this point you can shape the nib to get the effect you want. It can be either pointed, like a traditional calligraphy look or can be cut flat so that it produces an italic look. It may help to look at the shape of a pen you like (which I didn’t do).

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Step Nine: dip in the ink and write

This is where I had the most trouble, the culmination of an hour’s work. Though I made some marks on paper, it didn’t flow the way I was used to. I had little control over the width of the line, the nib cracked, and ultimately it was pretty unsuccessful. I still want to try again, with different kinds of feathers and a better knife.

Hope this inspires you to give it a try–knowing it’s okay to fail. Or maybe you’ll go back to your trusty fountain pen and remember the reason we moved away from quills in the first place.

What’s your favorite writing implement?

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