Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Remember When . . . We Made Our Own Pens?

In preparation for my "Spies in Early America" class I'm teaching my home school group, I decided to get some quills. After all, if one is pretending to be a Revolutionary-era spy and will be writing secret messages in homemade invisible ink, obviously one ought to use a quill pen to do it! Right? Right. =)

The only problem is that, well, finished quill pens are a bit pricey. And since I listed my classes as "free," I wanted to keep costs to a minimum. As I perused the quill options online, something soon became clear--if I was going to provide quills to 12 students, I needed to buy them uncut, hence cheaply.

Sure. No problem. I could learn to cut quills. I mean, every person who knew how to write for centuries trimmed their own quills. This isn't a big deal. I'm a smart girl. I can figure it out. Right? Right?? LOL

So I ordered my nice set of a dozen black quills. And as I waited for them to arrive, I read up on the process online, visiting several sites to get the full scope of my project. And the more I read...the more I realized that 12 quills ordered for 12 students gave me absolutely no margin of error. Insert Roseanna taking a trip to Jo-Ann Fabrics.

I ended up with 6 colored quills for $2, the 12 black ones for $7, and a precision knife made by Fiskars. (Colonial folks would have used a pen knife. I, however, have not a pen knife. So I went with a sharp blade that still allowed for control.)

My Fiskars Precision Knife
Then I set up my area. I was working on my old wooden desk, which I didn't want to score with my blade, so I put a cutting board down. Then I got to work preparing the quills. The first step is to shave off excess feathers, as you can see from the mound of colored fluff in the above picture. The idea is to make sure it sits comfortably in your hand without the barbs annoying you. I have tiny hands, so I didn't have much to worry about. But men would have to shave off more, for sure. And most people from days bygone would have stripped the quill entirely. For ascetics, I didn't do that here.

See how the feathers hit my hand at first?
After trimming, the feathers don't start until after my hand.
You'll also want to shave the feathers from the middle section of the quill, where they're really fluffy. I actually found that with the feathers I was using, if I took off all the fluffy looking ones from middle and sides, that was a good rule for how far to shave.

Shaving fluffy feathers from inside the rib

 I then cut off all the tips of the feathers. This has to be done at some point, and one of the articles I read said to do it before tempering. Others said after. I see no big difference when you do it, so...whenever, LOL.

Quill with tip removed
Then comes the tempering--this is when you harden your quill. The quill wears away with use, so if you start with a harder shaft, it'll last longer. You can soak them overnight in water to really help the process, but since these are for recreational use, I went straight to the heat tempering.

For this part of the process, you fill a can with sand and pop it in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes. Since I was doing so many quills at once, I used a cake pan. Once the sand is heated, pull it out of the oven and bury your quills in as far as they'll go.

Quills getting their heat treatment in 350-degree sand
Leave them in there until the sand has cooled. I did this part in the evening and left them until morning when I was ready to start working on them again.

Next comes the part I feared messing up royally--cutting. Getting out my handy-dandy precision knife again, I studied the diagrams and descriptions on the various websites and distilled it down to a few main steps.

1. Make a slice at an angle to take away about half the diameter of the quill.

The first slice.
2. Once you've opened the shaft, you can see that inside is a series of circular membranes. Get those out with the tip of your blade and, in the section beyond your cut, some little pokey thing. I used a cuticle shaper from a pedicure set, LOL.

Removing the membrane
3. Then you do the slices to form your nib. Start by making a slit parallel to the shaft and centered, from the tip up about 1/4 inch. This helps the ink flow to the point

Making the slit
4. Then you start shaping the point into a nib. Here are some pictures from various angles.


5. The final step is to work the point. I just pressed my blade to the tip, perpendicular to the shaft, to square it off. Then took it at an angle from both top and bottom to get the best edge.

As I practiced using them, I trimmed a bit here and there until I found the shape that made the ink flow best. And of course...

26 comments:

  1. Such a fun post! I always wondered what it would be like to make and write with your own quill pen!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It really wasn't that hard once I got over the fear of doing it all wrong, LOL. Haven't quite mastered the art of writing with them though, LOL.

      Delete
  2. Roseanna, I have a whole new appreciation for the stationers of old who stood on the corners to sharpen quills! Amazing and kudos to you for fine looking quill pens! Lovely.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Elaine! I had a lot of fun doing this. I'm sure my end product could use some more work, LOL, but I might just keep playing with them until I have it down. ;-)

      Delete
  3. Very interesting. Makes me want to try it out so I can write with my own quill.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You should! I think anyone who makes their own quills gets definite coolness points. ;-)

      Delete
  4. That's really neat. It's more of a process than I would have expected it to be. I'm sure you're class will appreciate and enjoy using them, though I'm glad you posted about this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well I had fun, so I hope they do too, LOL.

      Delete
  5. Wow, Roseanna, who knew there was so much involved to get a good point. I'm sure it was a fun class and I hope the students appreciated all the effort it took to be able to write.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The class is tomorrow, so here's hoping! =)

      Delete
  6. This explains why my childhood attempts never worked out - dipping blunt-tipped, uncut turkey feathers in acrylic paint just wasn't particularly effective. I shall have to try again using your significantly more sophisticated method! (And real ink, of course)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL. Pretty sure I did the same thing, and wondered how in the world historical folks pulled off what I couldn't! ;-)

      Delete
  7. Love this one, Roseanna! Sounds like a challenge but fun too. :)

    Enjoy your class!

    Andrea

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Andrea! Had fun preparing it, and I'm so looking forward to the class tomorrow!

      Delete
  8. Totally fascinating. Wish I could take your class - or have you teach me to make quills.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you were a wee bit closer, I'd invite you over for coffee and quill cutting. ;-)

      Delete
  9. Those look so cool! When I went to camp as a leader, my camp name was "Quill," but almost none of the kids knew what it was...even a few of the other leaders weren't sure! I was floored. ;) But sometimes I forget that not everyone is as big of a book nerd as I am...

    ReplyDelete
  10. Oh ... this post and all the detailed pictures made me smile. I love doing this sort of thing. Plus ... I'm reminded of "Pride and Prejudice". Miss Bingley offered to mend Mr Darcy's pen and he said, "No, thank you, I will mend my own pen." Thank you for sharing! :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Whoa this is such a cool post! Why couldn't you be one of my co-op teachers in my homeschool days? lol This is awesome. Those kids are very lucky to have you! :D

    Stori Tori's Blog

    ReplyDelete
  12. Love this post. I remembered it from when you posted it and just came to check it out again. Maybe you would know...would American pioneers of the 1880s and 1890s still be using quill pens? Seems a bit late for them but at the same time, feathers would be on hand...

    I'm teaching a pioneer class this summer and trying to come up with activities for a wide range of ages that are fun and not too school-ish.

    Thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Quills were definitely in decline by then--metal pens were being mass produced by the mid 1800s. But I would think it's reasonable to say that those who didn't get to town often might have resorted to a quill now and then. SOMEONE kept the craft alive, and I don't who else would have done it, LOL.

      Delete
    2. Thank you.

      Oh, what did you use as ink in your class? I'm still tempted to do it as an activity...focusing more on the general pioneers and not just Laura Ingalls Wilder's time. :)

      Delete
    3. I actually had bottles of ink that I got with a pen set years ago. My kids have also just used watered-down paint.

      Delete
    4. That's what I was thinking. How long of feathers do you recommend? Do you have any links that were most helpful?

      Delete
    5. I think all the feathers I got were probably between 8-10 inches to start with. And honestly, the cheap ones from JoAnn's worked just as well as the more expensive ones, so I would just get those if I were you. The links I referred to are:

      http://www.regia.org/research/church/quill2.htm

      and

      http://www.flick.com/~liralen/quills/quills.html

      Delete