Writing with quills: tips and tricks

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Using quills in the paleographical classroom

Learning to read English secretary hand, or any form of cursive handwriting, is hard work! Since 2006, we've been helping new paleographers decipher unfamiliar handwriting by learning to write it themselves. "Quill day" usually happens on day 2 of intensive paleographical training, once paleographers have been introduced to minuscule and majuscule letterforms and have had some practice making their own pencil and paper "cribsheet" alphabets based on hands we encounter on day 1.

Students learn on multiple levels with this exercise. The letterforms begin to become part of the student's "muscle memory" after they have developed a sense of the stroke sequence of the letterforms and experimented with the nib's preference for downstrokes. After this exercise, it becomes easier for them to recognize letterforms as a series of strokes that manifest in a variety of ways, and to distinguish between letterform strokes, approach strokes, and exit strokes (the "joins" in cursive handwriting). As students experiment and make mistakes, they start to appreciate the physical and mental labor and skill of writing with quills and become more sympathetic to the messiness of the manuscripts they encounter in class and in their research.

One way to do it

Set up the classroom beforehand by covering the table tops with Kraft butcher paper and, ideally, setting up a makeshift writing stand for each participant (see below). Furnish each writing station with a tiny cup of ink, a pre-cut quill pen, a sheet of paper (if large, folded in half or cut in half), a pencil, and ruler or straight-edge.

Before students get started, introduce them to how iron gall ink is made and how goose feathers are turned into quill pens. See below for making iron gall ink in the classroom -- it is actually pretty easy once you have the ingredients to hand, and everyone oohs and awws when the ferrous sulfate (copperas) is added to the ground gall nuts and wine/vinegar/water solution and the liquid turns from brown to a deep midnight blue/black color. Letterlocking's YouTube video demonstration of inkmaking is a little confusing, but might be useful to watch (and there are plenty of other videos out there if you need more guidance). I don't think you need to be absolutely precise about measurements for an in-class demonstration. In general, just smash 5 or 6 gall nuts and add them to a jam jar or half pint of water, vinegar, white wine, or stale beer. Stir (and then various recipes call for boiling or sitting in the sun or sitting in an earthen jar for a while), and then strain it through a coffee filter, and add about half as much copperas and gum arabic into the mix, stir it up, and strain again if you still have a lot of floaty bits. You can find ink recipes by searching "ink" in our Manuscript Transcriptions Collection in our digital image database, but be warned that they are usually for gallons of ink, so reduce the proportions accordingly!

You can point students to this Collation post with images of practice alphabets made by early modern learners. Students should use the ruler and a pencil to create guidelines a few centimeters wide. Encourage them to start by writing their names and the alphabet. Have a few spare quills at the ready in case someone's quill misbehaves, and encourage students to adjust their grip, pressure (the quill should be held very lightly, and pressed very lightly) and angle if the ink isn't flowing. Remind them to use mutiple pen lifts and down strokes for each letter and join. I usually give them an ink recipe to copy out, or an early modern pangram, and instruct them to emulate the hand of the scribe. Give yourself 60-90 minutes for the full experience.



We usually don't cut our own goose quills because curved scalpels (cheaper than pen knives) are super sharp and dangerous. Goose quills with cut nibs are available from:


Chancery paper made by the University of Iowa's Center for the Book (based on Tim Barrett's research) is/was available through Talas, although it seems to be rarely in stock. You can also use any other laid, lightweight paper made from cotton and/or hemp (linen/flax is very hard to find). We have used paper from The Paper Foundation, in Burneside, Cumbria. Always ask if seconds are available since handmade paper is expensive. John Neal Books also has some good paper choices, including Frankfurt and Arches Wove (Arches Text Wove is available at many retailers; it is not laid but that's okay for the purpose of a student's first encounter!). The Folger usually buys full sheets which students then fold into bifolia.

iron gall ink

Lucas at Scribal Workshop makes good iron gall ink in 1 oz and 4 oz sizes. A little bit goes a long way. You can parcel it out in disposable shot/communion cups and pour any unused ink back into the bottle at the end of your session.

You can make your own by ordering ingredients from Kremer Pigments (or elsewhere):

Or you can get a DIY iron gall ink kit from Lucas at Scribal Workshop.

other supplies

  • writing supports so you can write at a 20-45 degree angle (you can use library book cradles with stiff mat board on top, or order writing slopes like this one)
  • paper towels / Kraft butcher paper to protect table-tops
  • pencils
  • a ruler or straight-edge for writers to line their sheets
  • if making ink, a spice or coffee grinder or mortar and pestle and cloth sack or hammer (pound the galls and the gum arabic while they are inside the sack to avoid a mess), a small scale if you want precise measurements, water/wine/vinegar, a couple of pint size glasses or vases, spoons, coffee filters, nitrile gloves. IMPORTANT: if you are using a recipe from a recipe book, make sure to greatly reduce the volume! Plan ahead if you want your ink to sit in the sun or to be heated and cooled. The ink generally works fine if you make and use it immediately, however.

If you are interested in buying a writing kit for each student which includes a sheet of paper, a quill pen, and a 1/4 oz. bottle of iron gall ink, they are available from Lucas at Scribal Workshop. He can customize the kits and will send them to each student for an extra fee if you are teaching a class remotely.