Practical Guide I – How To Prepare a Quill for Writing

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

With increased literacy rates during the last centuries of the Middle Ages, reading and writing became much more a part of daily life. Whether  for the scribe in his scriptorium, for the burgeoning merchant with his accounts, or even for the housewife and her recipes, writing begins as everything must: with the basics. In this case, with a well-chosen and well-trimmed pen.

This step-by-step guide was written by Jorge Lar, a longtime historical reenactor and a regular volunteer at the Middelaldercentret (Medieval Centre) in Nykøbing Falster, Denmark. All the following photos and text – for which I can’t thank him enough – are entirely his, with only minor editing (and translation) from me.


How To Prepare a Quill for Writing


  • feather (goose or swan)
  • sharp penknife


01Goose feather, about 2 years after collection. It was allowed to dry naturally in a dry place. When the feathers are “fresh,” the calamus (quill) is very soft, and not yet suitable for writing. One method used to expedite the process is to place the feather in a bowl with warm sand. This method is not easy to control (too much heat renders the feather too dry, which causes it to break easily), and for this reason I find it much easier to just set aside a few feathers for a year or two and wait for them to dry naturally, over time. Note: For a right-handed person, left wing feathers are perhaps more comfortable, because they curve naturally to the right. As I am left-handed, the way I hold a quill and generally write is totally different when compared to someone who’s right-handed. For this reason, I don’t usually take notice of whether the feather is from the left or right wing, as it is not much of a difference to me).



02/03Usually the best feathers to write with (primary remiges/flight feathers, from the tip of an adult bird’s wings) are very long. A quill is a tool and therefore meant to be simple and useful, with none of the exaggerated or decorative feathers that are seen in films … so the first thing to do is cut the end of the feather down to a size that feels comfortable in the hand. The final length may vary, but generally the length of any modern normal pen is ideal (about 15 cm).




04/05As per the previous step, the vanes are removed from the rachis. After their removal, the knife (well sharpened) may be used to remove any leftovers.


06We then begin cutting the calamus:


07The first cut is made at an angle of 90 degrees, to cut away the tip of the calamus.



08/09 – The second cut is diagonal, at about 120 degrees. 


10The interior of the calamus is then cleaned, and any dead matter is removed.


11A central cut (that will allow the ink to flow) is made at the tip. 



12/13The tip is then “sharpened” in a shape akin to modern metal nibs, on both sides of the cut (which should be centred). The measure, or final width of the tip depends on each of several factors: What size font do we want to write? What kind of font, etc. Note: Steps 11 and 12 can be reversed, i.e. first sharpen the tip and only then cut, but I find it much easier and more practical to sharpen after cutting


14The final cut is again straight. With the pen set on a rigid base, a clean cut is made at the tip to produce a clean, perfectly straight nib.


15Finally, with the tip of the knife at about 45 degrees, the tip of the quill is pared down. With the previous cut (step 14), the tip may kept a microscopic “beard”, but when writing it will cause the pen to scratch the paper, and prevent the ink from flowing naturally. This last cut prevents this by “rounding” or “cleaning” the tip.


16Et voilá. The quill is tested and, if necessary, the nib’s width is corrected by adjusting the cut made during steps 12/13. 


A good quill, well cared for (i.e. cleaned after use and always carefully stored so as the tip won’t break or be subjected to pressure) may last for years. Of course, from time to time it has to be sharpened again, as the tip gets spent.

You can watch a video (by Jorge) of the entire process here.


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