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Quills - Part 2: Cutting a Quill Pen

To actually cut a quill pen (O.E. writingfeðer), a sharp 'pen-'knife (O.E. writseax) and much patient practice are needed. Select the feather from one of the first five flight feathers of any large bird such as a Goose, Swan or even a Peacock. Interestingly enough, feathers from the left wing fit the right hand best, and vice versa. Soak the feather in hot water until it is soft, harden it by pushing it into hot sand, then proceed as follows:

1: First shorten the plume (amount of shortening is optional). Then strip away the barb (which would otherwise rest uncomfortably against the knuckle of the index finger).
2: Cut away the tip of the barrel at a steep angle. Remove the membrane from inside the feather.
3: Make a slit in the top centre of the barrel. The best way to do this is to place the point of the knife inside the barrel, and lever the knife blade gently upwards, releasing pressure as soon as a crack occurs.
4: Slice a scoop from the underside of the pen, to about half its diameter, and centred on the slit.
5: Shape the nib on one side of the slit.
6: Shape the nib on the opposite side, making sure the two halves match.
7: If the underside of the nib is too concave, scrape it flat with a clean scooping cut, removing as little quill as possible.
8: To "nib" the pen, rest the underside of the point on a smooth, hard surface. Thin the tip from the top side by 'scraping' the blade forward at a shallow angle; then make a vertical cut, either at right angles to the slit or obliquely. On a very strong feather the last cut can be repeated to remove a very fine sliver, avoiding a rough underside on the tip of the nib.


Although quill-pens were used in late Anglo-Saxon England, there is also evidence to suggest that reed-pens (O.E. hreod) were at least as common, if not more common. We assume that the process of cutting a reed-pen is the same as that for a quill-pen. From a plea we posted a while ago, we had some good news from 'Wren' as he was prompted to try the reed Phragmites and found it to be very suitable for the job. He used a quarter inch thick section that he found to be very comfortable to use, although his first cut nibs were a little untidy to begin with.

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