From time to time, my mind urges me to make something different, to try something new. So what better thing would be, for someone that writes in her own self made books, than to try and make her own writing instruments?
This is how my feather quill making journey begins. Step one – find a tutorial that you think you can trust – I followed this one: http://www.flick.com/~liralen/quills/quills.html

step-by-step feather quill tutorial
As with all things I didn’t followed the step-by-step tutorial exactly by the book, and tried to see what works best for me. The results came fast. Well… depending on what you call fast – first, I sunk the feathers in water overnight
Second, I dipped them in hot sand (from the oven) and left them there till the sand was cold.

best feathers to make quills
Indeed it had an interesting effect, it hardened the quills quite a lot. It is called tempering, and I imagine the feather shaft is similar as in structure to the fingernails, they get soft in water but harden in heat.

I prepared quite a lot of tools to try and find the perfect one, the only ones I found useful were the little blade (used for thinning leather) and the crochet. It seems the perfect knife should be small and not flexible. And very very sharp – you can see I used a jewelers rouge (that chunky white stuff in the photo) – that works like a very fine sand paper, you rub it onto the backside of a leather piece and then sharpen the knife on it.

feather quill pen cutting knife

The reason why the blade has to be short is so that you have good smooth control over it. It has to be a stiff blade so that it won’t bend and wobble while you cut, and very sharp so that you can cut things with one single diagonal strike and not have to make the back and forth movement like with a saw, that would give uneven results, some kind of “stairs” to your cut.

Also at some point you have to remove the residue inside the feather shaft/tube, people use all kinds of self-made instruments for that, I used a crochet but I could improve my instrument. It’s not that important anyway, if you can’t remove the stuff, just press it to the end of the tube with a stick and it will stay there. I am such a perfectionist, I know :p

That being said, all that remains is cutting the feather. It’s “top” is the one you would see when writing, and that will get the slit like nibs have. The top is situated on the convex side of the feather, like, if you hold the feather in your hand to write, you want the quill curved with the convex side up, and concave side down, like sheltering your hand, to rest comfortably in your hand.

writing with a feather quill pen
So, the first cut is made from the top, not what you’d expect, I know. Not sure how steep the angle should be, I just cut diagonally with a long strike. Let’s say 45 degrees angle, for those that care for numbers. If the feather shatters a bit, like a broken fingernail and you know the knife is well sharpened, just repeat the cut a bit further up, you have to find that portion of the quill which is hardened but still flexible, the end portion of my feathers did that shattering thing but as I moved upper I could see that the cut lines were smoother and I could sculpt the feather more precise.
The second cut is opposite to the first one, so it is on the concave side, close to the paper when you would write with the quill.
This second cut has to be more elongated and made further up the feather (closer to the fluffy barbs of the feather)
You would then obtain a weird thing with two “horns”. Some tutorials recommend you to cut the slit of the nib with an Xacto knife, and you can do just that, if this method I like best doesn’t work:

making a feather quill pen
Just press the two horns together until the feather cracks and a slit forms naturally. I think this is the best method as I tried the knife thing and the slit tends to widen too much and you end up with a nib that writes double.
After you have the slit in place on your horned feather, you just need to sculpt the nib, getting rid of the horns, and shape it to resemble a metal nib. Also you may need to recut the bottom side so that it is elongated enough and the quill pen would look close to this:

shape of the feather quill pen
After you made a fairly symmetrical nib,  very pointy at the slit, you can sharpen its end point, peeling it with the knife, making tiny cuts to both top and bottom to make the nib flatter. The last thing is to put the nib on a straight surface, at the edge of the work table, and just remove the very end, the pointy bit, pressing it with the knife perpendicular on the feather shaft and straight down towards the table.

cutting the feather quill nib tip

Don’t remove too much, just as little as you can. If you’d leave it as it is, I guess the end would be too flimsy and irregular and would wear out instantaneously, and because it would be so thin and narrow it would stumble and get stuck in the paper fibers and splatter the ink all over.
To sum it up, you’d have 9 steps: 1: soak feathers in water, 2: heat them in sand, 3: cut it on the top, 4: clean the inside, 5: cut the bottom side, 6: make the slit, 7: sculpt both sides of the nib, 8: sharpen the nib end, 9: cut the very point of the nib (nipping it). That’s it, you can dip your feather quill into ink and try it. If something doesn’t look right, try and see if there are differences in shape to the quill shown in the picture. Cause that one works nice.

Please don’t be deterred by the long explanations, it takes 1 minute to cut a feather into a usable quill pen, I just made it seem like a long tedious operation because I tried to explain it thoroughly, so that you understand which is the top of the feather and which is the bottom, etc.

Oh and I got the best results with the goose feathers, will give the others one more try but first, I have to become a pro with the easiest-to-work-with materials.

All the writing you see in this post’s pictures was made with the quills I made, I am pretty happy with the results, since they are much better than the ones I had using this commercial feather quill I bought from Shepherds /Falkiner: http://store.bookbinding.co.uk/store/product/3296/Quill-Cut-&-Hardened/

Hope you’ll try making a quill someday, if you ever get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no tool to write your memoirs… that will be one useful quill… umm skill!


[avatar user=”Anca” size=”100″ align=”left” /]

Anca is an artistic soul, with lots of ideas. She wants to try this and that, buys all the possible craft supplies that no one ever heard of, “for future projects” (she says)… She is a social media inamorata and ensures a quality customer service. She is our calligrapher and she plays the piano. a lot.



There are 3 comments on this post
  1. Ryan
    October 30, 2015, 1:02 am

    Thank you for this tutorial. I really like the part were you pinch the feather to make the ink channel instead of using a knife.

  2. TheOncomingStorm
    June 23, 2016, 7:59 am

    not a bad tutorial; but honestly, there’s no need to temper a quill unless it’s fresh from the bird. the whole purpose of tempering the feather in hot sand is to harden the shaft since it’s too soft after it’s molted. feathers that people buy from art shops or online are age hardened and will let you get straight to the cutting; which makes the soaking and drying again totally redundant and unnecessary. why can i say that? because i’ve spent over two years writing with them and have sharpened through at least a pound of goose feathers (i prefer those of the left wing).

    • Medieval Journey
      June 23, 2016, 8:20 am

      Interesting! Thank you for sharing. I did noticed a difference though in how the feather is before and after tempering, it did made it harder, but maybe that wasn’t really necessary. I may have been biased about the results since I’ve read all over about the tempering, and I thought it was a must do step.
      I have a bunch of feathers left so I’ll experiment some more!

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