Full Chisel Blog

August 30, 2008

Pen & Ink

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:13 am

I do have a reason to talk about Pen and Ink, in that I do make a fine quality Pen, but I don’t turn them and the finest Ink available.  I make wooden pen nib holders as I have a supply of Mr. Joseph Gillotts fine patented steel nibs.  I also make quill pens and there are some tricks that will let you make the finest quill pens and how to use them properly.   It is easy, just takes a feather.

Quill pens

 In the above illustration, I show how to properly prepare a goose quill {the preferred quill for pens}, how to harden and finally how to sharpen. 


A is a goose quill, from the right wing of a goose. 


B is the quill that has been clipped to length. 


C is the goose quill with the excess feathers removed.  (The fancy feather quills you see in movies is Hollywood, no one ever really wrote with a fully feathered quill, a bit too unwieldy). 


D is the quill as it looks after the feathers are removed, the end of the quill shaft is translucent. 


E is the goose quill after it has been ‘hardened‘ in hot sand.  I have a tin can with sand that is on the wood stove, when hot it will quickly turn the quill from translucent to opaque on the end.  This is the most important part of quill making.  How long it takes depends on how hot the sand is, so be careful as you can burn or singe the end of the quill.  Keep checking and remove it after it has turned opaque on its end.


F is after the quill has been cut off, and it is squeezed to crack the quill (for the ink) and the opposite crack cut off.  At this point you can determine which side of the quill you would like to use.  It mostly depends upon what feels right or how the quill with its natural curve fits into your hand.  Then choose which side to sharpen.  When you squeeze the quill it will break on two sides, one break or crack is removed when sharpening the other side.


G is the second cut that brings the tip to near finish.  These are carefully made with a sharp knife, a pen knife, I wonder where they got their name?


#1 is the first cut made to remove the opposite crack, made when the quill is squeezed and broken. 


#2 shows the secondary cuts made to bring the width of the quill to the proper width.  It is also important that each side of the split is uniform to make the proper width line.  Of course you are cutting the quill so you can make it as coarse (wide) or fine (narrow) as you like.  Also the longer the secondary cut the more flair you get as you write.


#3 shows the slight angle at which the end of the quill is trimmed depending if the user is left or right handed.  See I told you there is nothing to it. 


If you don’t harden the quill then it is too soft and too flexible to be a decent pen.  The sharpening is important and each side of the crack needs to be the same.  The crack is important as that is how the ink wicks down to the tip.  There are old pen knives with guillotines in them to make the slit (crack) and pen knives can be used to cut the slit, but cracking the quill makes a more natural cleavage for the ink to travel to the surface of the paper.  I have made wooden holders for goose quill nibs and have cut down goose quills for traveling pens.


As for penmanship, well that is another story, but when I first charge up my quill or steel nib pen, I usually use it upside down from how one would normally think of using an ink pen.  This prevents those big blobs of ink from a fully charged pen soiling your document.  Also when first charged if you hold it almost vertical when you start writing you will avoid the blob.  It is also important to clean your pen after each use, but that will require further discussion. 





  1. It took me a while to find one of my pen knives as they are quite small. This one is made in Germany and has a hawksbill tortoise shell handle. I put a penny in the scan to show size and a gnomon to make sense of the picture. The large cent is 1 1/8″ in diameter, a modern penny is 3/4″ in diameter.

    Pen Knife


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 30, 2008 @ 8:35 am

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I find this very fascinating! This is good to know just in case I am stuck on an island with no stationary supplies, I guess 🙂

    Seriously, when you mentioned quills in one of your earlier blog entries, I wanted to make one and looked around for information. The tricky thing for me is finding a goose feather. Why do you need the feather to be from the right wing (something to do with right- or left-handedness?) and how do you tell where the feather came from? I will be just looking near some ponds here where I see geese around.

    Thanks much

    Comment by Praki — August 30, 2008 @ 9:41 am

  3. Praki,

    The reason I mentioned the right wing is because when I bought a half a pound of white goose wing feathers from a Native American Supply Company http://www.crazycrow.com they were all right hand wings? Go figure, someone else got the left wings. The curve is the same just the fletching is different, so it doesn’t matter, just a wing feather. You cut the tip of the quill to the angle for left or right hand.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 30, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  4. I see, it never occurred to me that feathers can be bought. I hate to admit it but I am not sure what fletching is and if it matters. Bit of homework for me this evening 🙂

    Thanks for the link to crazycow.com


    Comment by Praki — August 30, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

  5. This I’ve got to try. Galls and goose feathers I have. Care to recommend a source for steel nibs?


    Comment by Chuck Nickerson — September 2, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  6. Chuck,

    Any art supply company will have steel nibs. Crow quill is one type of steel nibs, very fine for drawing. For writing one with a wider and rounder point is better. Then there are all of the calligraphy nibs. Good Luck, I am going to post, showing some of my pens.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 2, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  7. I find ebay items called ‘fountain pen nibs’. Are these what I’m looking for?


    Comment by Chuck Nickerson — September 5, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

  8. Chuck,

    Fountain pen nibs screw into a fountain pen so this is not what you want. You want steel pen nibs, not to be confused with nicker nibs on hand saws (he he). Speedball is a current maker of steel pen nibs, check those folks out.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — September 6, 2008 @ 5:09 am

  9. this’ll be a nice ‘rabbit-trail’ [ ‘nutria-trail’ here in eUgene 😉 ] for
    some of my pen & ink drawings…using goose quill(s)!

    thanx –
    mark jaquette @
    illustrationism &
    bammgraphics !

    Comment by illustrationISM — October 23, 2008 @ 10:45 pm

  10. Mark,

    A goose quill does leave a distinct line and properly split produces some nice flexibility in line width.

    Thanks for your comment.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 23, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

  11. Hello steve,

    I enjoyed your sight very much. I to have been making my own goose quills for over 4 years and every time I craft a batch they improve tremendously. Have you tried puting your feathers in hot water first and taking them out to dry, then putting them in hot sand?

    I have just recently did this and they are more harder and brittle. This is working out fine as they really make a slit easier to make.
    Have you tried Turkey feathers yet? This to is new for me. They do make outstanding writing quills. I also draw with them.

    Comment by Tom Dooley — July 12, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

  12. Tom,

    Welcome. I will have to try the hot water treatment before dipping them in hot sand. I have started to break my slits rather than cutting them. Seems to work fine.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 12, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress