By: Katie Hartman
Cutting the quill’s nib is often seen as the most finicky and difficult part of the quill making process. In a way, this assumption is both true and false. Cutting a quill nib takes practice and some getting used to, especially if you’re nervous handling a knife or razor blade. But, once you cut a few quills and get a feel for the resistance of the barrel under the blade and how deep to make the various scoops, the process is quick and takes a few minutes or less.
The two primary materials you will need for this part of the process are a sharp knife and a cured feather (see parts 1 and 2). The knife that you’re using should be fairly small and you feel confident in making small cuts with it. The blade can be curved or straight, depending on what you have on hand or your preference. I recommend an exacto knife or razor blade. There are two reasons for this: they are easy to acquire and you can change out the blade easily. Being able to change out the blade of the knife means that you don’t need to muck around with sharpening it or worrying that it will be too dull to make the finer cuts on the nib. Getting your hands on a pen knife that is actually intended to cut quills can be difficult or expensive as these are not widely available in craft or hobby stores (at least in America).
While many of the cuts required for making a quill are done with the quill in hand, there are a few cuts that require you to press down on a flat surface. Or if you’re like me and have small hands, it may feel more secure to make the first cut while bracing the quill against a cutting surface. For your cutting surface, any table or counter at a comfortable height will do, but if you want to protect the surface of the table you’re going to want a cutting board or mat. I use the cutting mat that I typically use for sewing projects. Its technically only for use with rotary blades rather than fixed blades, but I prefer the thickness and stability of it compared to a cutting board. You can find a cutting mat at a craft or hobby store and some American supermarkets carry them as well. A traditional kitchen cutting board will also work and can be found in kitchen supply stores, hobby or craft stores, and most American supermarkets. If you have a designated shop table that you feel comfortable cutting directly on, you can skip using a protective surface.
Now let’s get into the process of cutting the quill. For an audio-visual, see the video from the YouTube channel PAScribe below.
Cutting The Quill
Cutting mat or board
- Scoop Cut: Holding the quill securely in your hand or securely pressed to your cutting surface, make a gentle scoop cut starting about an inch up from the tip of the quill. The scoop cut should bottom out about halfway through the barrel of the quill. It takes a surprising amount of pressure to get the cut started and may take more than a few tries. Don’t fret if it takes you more than one cut to get the desired shape! I prefer to cut this fist scoop in a few passes because I always feel nervous about shaving off too much of the barrel.
- Sloping Shoulders: After making the first cut, the next step is to cut the “shoulders” of the nib. The shoulders of the quill are the two sloping cuts that frames the tip of the nib. To cut the shoulders of the quill, make another sloping cut from about halfway up your first scoop, tapering down to the tip of the quill, leaving space for cutting the nib. Slowly rotating the quill as you cut can help to get a nice swoop.
- Guillotine: For the third cut you’re going to make, you’re going to take the tip off of the quill to create the square head of the nib. To do this, hold the quill on the cutting surface and bring the knife straight across the quill tip. You’re going to take a few millimeters off of the quill nib with this cut.
- Slit: For the final cut of the nib, place the knife in the center of the square nib you just created. Rock the blade back and forth until you hear a click when the blade has passed through barb of the feather. This should make a small slit in the nib, which is what will draw and hold the ink when you dip the quill into an ink well.
- CONGRATULATIONS: You did it! Have fun writing with your new quill! Don’t get discouraged if it isn’t perfect or doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. Remember, as anyone in the conservation and preservation department here at UIUC will tell you, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”
Brown and Lovett. The Historical Source Book for Scribes. Toronto-University of Toronto Press, 1999.
Lovett, Patricia. “Materials and Equipment .” The British Library Companion to Calligraphy Illumination & Heraldry: a History and Practical Guide. The British Library, 2000, pp. 13–34.