Making Reed and Quill Pens


Scholar Sharpening His Quill Gerrit Dou (Leiden 1613 – 1675 Leiden), The Leiden Collection

Throughout antiquity, a pen primarily served as a writing instrument. Remarkably, even in our contemporary digital age, traditional quill and reed pens retain their significance among calligraphers and scribes. As orthodox Christian iconographers transmit the working knowledge of tempera painting, calligraphers from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions persistently employ age-old techniques to replicate sacred scriptures using traditional tools and materials: parchment, papyrus, quill and reed pens, traditional hand crafted ink (like iron gall) etc.

While not delving deeply into calligraphy as an independent and extremely facinating subject, we can glean valuable insights from calligraphy manuals regarding the craftsmanship and utilization of traditional pens.

Reed Pen

Materials & Tools

The reed pen has a long history and can be traced back to ancient civilizations. It was one of the earliest writing instruments used by humanity, predating the invention of quill pens and modern-day pens.

Reed pens were widely utilized in various ancient cultures, including Egypt, Greece, Judea and Mesopotamia. In ancient Egypt, scribes wrote on papyrus scrolls using reed pens. The pen was made by cutting a section of a reed stem and shaping it to form a nib.

Egyptian Reed pen from the Roman Period, British Museum

The use of reed pens continued throughout the Middle Ages and the Islamic Golden Age. Islamic calligraphers greatly valued the reed pen for its ability to create precise and elegant strokes. In fact, Arabic calligraphy, with its intricate and flowing designs, owes much of its beauty to the skilled use of reed pens.

Traditional Muslim and Jewish calligraphers today still prefer reed pens over metallic or quill alternatives, calling this tool with its authentic name Qalam, from the Greek κᾰ́λᾰμος [kalamos], which means reed.

How to make a Reed Pen

Cutting the reed pen: take a fairly thin piece of reed, approximately 20cm (8 inches) long. Begin by cutting one end obliquely and carefully shaving away the soft inner portion, ensuring that only the hard outer shell remains. Afterward, make a second cut starting from the middle of the first one, resulting in a flat point for the pen. Next, lay the nib, back up, on the slab and cut off the tip at a right angle to the shaft using a knife with the blade held vertically. 

Splitting the tip to improve ink flow: make a short longitudinal slit by inserting the knife blade in the middle of the tip. To extend the slit, hold a pencil or brush handle beneath the nib and gently lift it upwards. For an ordinary reed, the slit should be about 15-20mm (3/4 inch long), and a very stiff pen may have additional slits on either side of the center. To prevent the pen from splitting too far up, press the left thumb nail against the back of the pen, approximately 1 inch from the tip. Afterwards, lay the nib back up on the slab and cut off the tip at an angle of about 70° to the shaft, removing the initial rough slit.


Below you can find a few videos that illustrate the process of making of such a pen by professional calligraphers:


The reed pen’s nib, becoming softer when moist, facilitated efficient writing on the somewhat rough surface of papyrus. Conversely, vellum (parchment), with its very smooth surface, allowed for much finer and intricate calligraphic marks, requiring a finer, more elastic, and water-resistant tool. As vellum codices gradually replaced papyrus scrolls, reed pens waned in popularity, making way for quill pens. Eventually, with the advent of paper and industrialization, modern metal nib pens took over. Nevertheless, reed pens persist in use among calligraphers and artists today, especially those practicing traditional and historical writing styles.

Quill Pen

Materials & Tools

In October 2023 I had a pleasure to invite a Master Calligrapher Stefano Gelao as a guest artist. Stefano demonstrated quill cutting process and every participant of the course was able to cut their own writing and drawing quill pen and experiment drawing and calligraphy with the Iron Gall Ink students prepared earlier.
Remiges: the flight feathers of the wing, feathers for quill pen cutting

Quill pens are typically crafted from the larger feathers, specifically the primary remiges, of big birds such as geese, turkeys, crows and pheasants.

In the past quills were easily obtainable from shops. These quills came pre-treated and seasoned, having been sun-dried for at least a year.

Freshly procured quills tend to be too soft for writing, lacking the necessary resistance and elasticity found in a dried quill. In the late 18th century, the “dutching” method emerged for curing quills involving the use of heated sand.

Curing the Quill

Preparing the Feather for Dutching:
  • Clean: Wash the feather with warm water and mild soap. A sponge or toothbrush can help remove persistent dirt. Let it dry completely
  • Cut to size: Use scissors or a sharp knife to trim the top of the quill to about 17.5-20cm (7/8 inches) in length. This is the standard size of quill pens for writing.
  • Preapre for dutching: Carefully pull off or trim the long barbs from the shaft. Cut off the tip of the barrel and using a crochet hook (or a hook of the same size you can easily make with wire) to scrape and remove the interior membrane from the barrel. Then eliminate the outer waxy layer from the feather’s barrel using your the quill knife’s blunt side.
  • Soak: Place the feather in a cup or jar of water with the barrel end down. Ensure the barrel is fully submerged. Allow the feather to soak for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Dutching the quill (Curing with hot sand):
  • Heat the sand: Place sand about 5 cm deep in a heatproof container and put it in a 175°C (350°F) oven for 20-25 minutes. After the sand’s cook time, it is advisable to check the temperature with a thermometer. It should be around 105-120°C (220-250°F).
  • Submerge the quill: Remove the feather from water and dry it. Take a quill and fill the barell with sand using a spoon. Quickly plunge the barrel end of the quill into the sand. Wait for 30/40 seconds, shake out the sand and observe the yellowish, waxy, semi-transparent appearance of the barrel. It should be stiff. If it is not plundge it back for a little longer.
  • Note 1: Timing is contingent on the sand’s temperature. Extremely hot sand can cure the quill in a matter of seconds, while sand of milder temperature might necessitate a longer duration. The key lies in developing an understanding of the visual and tactile cues of a properly cured quill. The transformation is evident when the barrel shifts from an opaque white hue to a semi-translucent, yellowish shade, accompanied by a noticeable firmness.
  • Note 2: When using a hot plate instead of an oven, it’s essential to note that the temperature might not distribute evenly across the surface, leading to potential variations. More importantly, the metal surface of the pan might actually be hotter than the sand it contains. In such instances, it becomes crucial to exercise caution and avoid direct contact between your quill and the sides or bottom of the pan when you submerge it.

How to Cut a Quill Pen

Jan van Bijlert (Utrecht c.1597/8-1671), Saint Luke the Evangelist, Christie's
Quill cutting process as documented by Jan van Bijlert (Utrecht c.1597/8-1671), Saint Luke the Evangelist [detail], Christie’s

Now we are ready for the final step of the quill making process: quill cutting. Our main guide in understanding Renaissance painting and drawing techniques, Cennino Cennini, provides a clear description of this procedure:


HOW TO LEARN TO CUT THE QUILL FOR DRAWING. CHAPTER XIV

If you wish to learn the technique of cutting a goose quill for drawing, acquire a good, sturdy quill. Hold it upside down, resting straight across the two fingers of your left hand. Then, secure a very sharp penknife. Make a horizontal cut along the quill, measuring about one finger’s length. Draw the knife towards yourself, ensuring the cut is even and goes through the center of the quill.

Next, place the knife against one of the edges of the quill, preferably the left side facing you. Gently pare and taper the quill toward its tip. Repeat the same process on the other side, achieving a matching curve and point. Now, turn the pen around, with the opposite side facing up. Position it over your left thumbnail. Gradually pare and trim the little tip, adjusting its shape to your preference, whether broader or finer. This allows you to create a quill tailored for either drawing or writing purposes.

The craftsman’s handbook by Cennini, Cennino, active 15th century; translated by Thompson, Daniel Varney, 1902- ed

An exceptionally detailed guide to the cutting of both quill and reed pens can be found in “Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering” by Edward Johnston. While the author mentions apparently pre-made and pre-cut quill pen that can be acquired in a stationary shop and doesn’t necessitate curing, the comprehensive process, dimensions, and techniques for nib cutting are highly informative and valuable.

THE QUILL.

A Turkey’s Quill is strong, and suitable for general writing. As supplied by the stationers it consists of a complete wing-feather, about 12 inches long, having the quill part cut for ordinary use. For careful writing it should be re-made thus:

  • I. The quill should be cut down to 7 or 8 inches; the long feather if left is apt to be in the way.
  • II. The “barbs” or filaments of the feather are stripped off the shaft.
  • III. The nib already has a slit usually about ½ inch long. This is sufficient in a fairly pliant pen; in a very stiff pen the slit may be lengthened to ⅝ inch. This may be done with care by holding a half-nib between the forefinger and thumb of each hand, but the safest way is to twitch the slit open, using the end of another pen (or a brush-handle): The left thumb nail is pressed against the back of the pen—about 1 inch from the tip—to prevent it splitting too far up.
  • IV. The sides of the nib are pared till the width across the tip is rather less than the width desired.
  • V. The nib is laid, back up, on the glass slab, and the extreme tip is cut off obliquely to the slit, the knife blade being slightly sloped, and its edge forming an angle of about 70° with the line of the shaft. The shaft rests lightly in the left hand (not gripped and not pressed down on slab at all), and the knife blade is entered with a steady pressure. If the nib is then not wide enough it may be cut again; if too wide, the sides may be pared down. Cut very little at a time off the tip of the nib; a heavy cut is apt to force the pen out of shape and spoil the edge of the nib.
  • VI. The nib should then be examined with the magnifying glass. Hold the pen, back down, over a sheet of white paper, and see that the ends of the two half-nibs are in the same straight line a-b. 
  • VI a. The nib should have an oblique chisel-shaped tip, very sharply cut. 
  • VI b. A magnifying glass is necessary for examining a fine pen; a coarse pen may be held up against the light from a window—a fingertip being held just over the nib to direct the eye. 
  • VI c. A nib in which the slit does not quite close may be bent down to bring the two parts together. 
  • VI d. Uneven or blunt nibs (fig. 34) must be carefully re-cut.
Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering by Edward Johnston
Quill pen cutting process from Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering by Edward Johnston
Roman number refer to the cutting steps in the instruction above.

To connect with Renaissance Italy, both in terms of location and time, let’s explore a calligraphy treatise by Ludovico Degli Arrighi (1480?-1527?), an Italian artist, calligrapher, printmaker, and typographer. In his handbook on Cancelleresca (Chancery hand), a widely used writing style in Europe at the time, Ludovico provides a step-by-step guide to the quill cutting process:

Quill pen cutting scheme, from the La operina di Ludouico Vicentino, da imparare di scriuere littera cancellarescha
by Ludovico degli Arrighi, The Bibliothèque nationale de France
Quill pen cutting scheme, from the La operina di Ludouico Vicentino, da imparare di scriuere littera cancellarescha by Ludovico degli Arrighi, The Bibliothèque nationale de France

An additional way of quill cutting is beautifully illustrated in this plate from Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert, Encyclopedia or Reasoned Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts published in the second half of the 18th century in France:

Quill cutting instruction, illustration from Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert, image from Wikipedia

Holding the Pen

To wrap up this guide focusing on reed and quill pens, let’s examine this plate from early 16th-century London illustrating the correct (and incorrect) way of holding the pen while writing. Following this, we will delve into the application of these pens in creating ink drawings.

“Hovv Yov Ovght to Hold Your Penne” – a plate from a calligraphy guide “A nevv booke, containing all sorts of hands”
Published in London in 1611, Folger Shakespeare Library