The mighty pen

Humans have been making their mark for thousands of years. Some cave drawings of animals and people are at least 25,000 years old. Making your mark with pen, ink, and paper is much more recent, though. The first pens were probably sharpened sticks or bones. Ink was made of crushed berries, soot, or other natural dyes. Ancient Egyptians were the first to make paper from reeds growing on the shores of the Nile. They called it papyrus (puh-PYE-russ). But it wasn't until about AD 700 that a particularly successful writing tool came to be used. It was such a great tool, in fact, that it dominated the written word for more than a thousand years after that: the quill pen.

Our word "pen," in fact, comes from the Latin word "penna," which means "wing." (And the penknife? It was originally a pocket tool for carving and resharpening quill pens.) Feathers from any large bird were used: geese, peacocks, eagles, turkeys. Crow quills were used for very fine work, such as accounting books.

The best quill pens were (and still are) made from the five largest wing feathers of domesticated (white) geese. Thomas Jefferson even kept a special flock of geese at his home, Monticello, so he wouldn't run out of pens. Right-handed people prefer pens made of feathers from a goose's left wing. That way, the natural curve of the feather won't cause it to poke them as they write. Left-handed people prefer right-wing feathers.

Why feathers? Didn't they have metal? Samuel Pepys (pronounced "peeps"), an Englishman who kept a diary in the 1600s, mentions a valuable pen made of silver. Iron and steel were available, too. But the ink used at the time - a mixture of iron salts, oak galls, and gum arabic - was very acidic. The ink ate away pens made of the only steel produced at the time. When better steel - and mass production of steel pen nibs - was developed in the mid-1800s, steel pens began replacing quills.

Richard Gray has been carving quill pens since he was 8 years old, growing up on a plantation in Georgia. He used mostly turkey feathers, and he got pretty good at it.

One day, as a grown-up, in 1976, he visited Independence Hall in Philadelphia. That's where America's Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. It's also where the Articles of Confederation uniting the 13 Colonies was signed in 1781. The "birthplace of the United States" has been carefully maintained over the years in every detail. It was well kept up when Mr. Gray visited, too. Except for the pens.

The quill pens "were really ratty," Gray recalls, "They were really in bad shape." Being an expert quillmaker, he approached a guide and asked her: Would they like him to cut some new quill pens? Would they ever! she replied. When he got home, Gray sent some.

Pretty soon, word spread. Other museums began to call Gray. Could he make quill pens for them, too? By 1992, Gray was in the quill-pen business. His company, Historic America, now supplies quill pens to some 700 museums and historic sites nationwide.

Gray and his three carvers make lots of pens - 200,000 a year. How long do they take to make? A good carver can cut six quills a minute! But it can take five months of practice to consistently meet Gray's standard.

It takes practice to learn to write with a quill pen, too. People who are used to writing with ballpoint pens often press too hard at first. It takes a light touch to write with a feather. You must hold the pen at an angle. You need to dip it in the ink the right way (not too deep) and wipe off the excess ink on the lip of the ink bottle.

Every bird feather is slightly different, and so is every quill pen. Gray mentions that about every 12th pen he carves is especially good at holding ink. Using such a pen, he hardly has to dip his pen in ink at all. He can write the entire alphabet five or six times without stopping to refill. It has to do with how fine the point is, how clear the shaft of the feather is (calcium deposits make it cloudy), and how well-carved the quill is.

The last cut - the scored line down the middle of the pen nib - is the most important, Gray says. That's the one that takes the most practice to master.

Historic America sells wholesale only. To find a local quill-pen retailer, call them at: (912) 576-5178.

How to carve your own quill

You will need a grown-up's help, a suitable feather, a very sharp knife (an X-Acto knife or equivalent), and a cutting board. You can do the preparation, but an adult should do the cutting.

Sea gulls, Canada geese, large pet parrots, even crows, shed feathers that you can turn into pens. Keep your eyes open. Ask at a local pet store.

First, wash the feather, and then let it air dry. Use hot water and antibacterial soap. If you like, wipe down the feather with rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab. Cut away any feather barbs that interfere with your gripping the pen.

Soak the quill shaft in warm water for an hour, to soften it. Now you're ready.

Start the first cut about an inch from the tip. The slanting cut should go halfway through the shaft, then straight to the tip, as shown at left.

The inside of the quill may contain fibers. Pull or scrape them out with a toothpick.

The second and third cuts create the point, or nib, of the pen. Make an angled, scooped cut on either side, so that it looks like the nib of an old-fashioned fountain pen.

Quill-carver Richard Gray suggests you smooth the nib gently with very fine sandpaper.

If you like, you can cut off a tiny bit of the very tip of the nib. A square-cut nib will draw a thicker line.

The last cut is the hardest to master.

Turn the pen over so the cut part of the quill is facing up. Starting at the tip of the nib, carefully score a line from the very tip to the top of the nib you created. Do not cut all the way through!

Writing with a quill pen

Dip the point of the quill into a bottle of ink. Don't dip it any deeper than up to the top of the "reservoir" line - the line scored inside of the shaft. Lightly tap the pen inside the bottle, to remove excess ink. Now turn it over and wipe any excess ink off the top of the pen on the lip of the ink bottle.

Hold the pen at an angle, and press very lightly at first.

Your quill will last a long time, depending on how much you use it. If the point wears out, resoak the quill and recarve it.

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