There are many reasons to be interested in writing with a quill. Whether you admire the aesthetic or want to experience a historical practice, it can be a daunting writing style to approach. How does a beginner start writing with a quill?
To write with a quill you must hold it at a certain angle, apply proper pressure, and understand that the cut of the nib dictates much of the practice. Writing with a quill is different than using a ballpoint pen. Beginners can pick up the skill with time and patience.
Just like learning to write the first time, once you have the basics down all you need is practice. Below, I will go into detail on the basics of using a feather quill. I will go over how to hold it, what ink to use, and how to care for it.
Techniques for writing with a quill
Assuming that you have already bought or made a quill, let’s get started! When you begin practicing, start by writing on a thick, rough surface. Additionally, you should put your writing surface on a slightly cushioned surface. These changes will allow you to make mistakes without being too hard on your quill.
While a feather pen is not the same as a ballpoint pen, they are similar enough in basic principles. Where the two types of pens differ is in their behavior. This is due to the shape and nature of quills. What you need to relearn to use a quill effectively includes the following.
- Grip positioning (+ pressure)
- Point orientation
- Writing pressure
These changes in technique come about partially due to the shaft, but it is primarily due to the nib or tip. Quills can have metal tips or more natural cut tips. Both decide the behavior of quills much more than a standard pen or pencil. Normal pens and pencils are a lot more forgiving with how you use them.
Luckily, quills look and feel different enough that once you pick up the skill you’ll never slip into the incorrect techniques.
Proper quill grip
The first point of contact with a quill is also the first thing you’ll need to change. Modern pens and pencils are made to be relatively durable. You can grab them nearly anywhere and hold them with a fair amount of pressure. The same is not true for a quill.
Most quills will have a smaller area for your hand. Grab the smooth part below the feathers with the same hand shape you would grab a pen. Don’t grab the quill too close to the nib. Leave at least a half-inch between your fingers and the nib. This will allow you to see what you’re writing while having fine control.
Next, don’t hold it too tightly. You could break the shaft. While you could potentially still use the nib side of the break, it would not be ideal. Since feathers are not manufactured they naturally differ from each other. Some feathers may be more fragile than others.
How to angle the nib
How a quill writes is one of the most appealing aspects of the writing implement. This is affected by the angle of the nib which makes it very important to know how to control it. You should always consider the angle that you hold the quill at and how the nib is oriented.
Begin by holding the quill at a 45° angle from the page. Once you feel comfortable with this angle you can hold it anywhere from 45° to 90° or perpendicular. Experiment with how the angle affects the writing and your comfort.
The other half of this is the nib itself. If you are right-handed you should hold the quill so that the nib is on the left. If you are left-handed you should hold it the opposite way with the nib on the right. For either direction, the slit in the nib should line up with the top left or right corner of the page. This should be a 45° angle.
Most important is that this does not change as you write. This direction is what creates the lines and curves that go from thick to thin. If you want to change the range of thick to thin by changing the angle you can as long as you keep it consistent when writing.
How much pressure to apply
After getting grip pressure and nib angle down you need to learn how much pressure to write with. If you use too much you could puncture the page or damage your quill. Too little pressure and you won’t get any ink flowing. However, it is harder to use too little pressure as you don’t need much.
The pressure required is lighter than a pencil or ballpoint pen. You should gently pull the quill across the page. Pushing it away from you can cause the nib to catch on the paper and splatter ink. This can also damage the nib if you do it too often.
If you have a heavy hand, a metal nib may be best for you. Natural nibs will be softer and more prone to damage. Metal nibs on the other hand will be more resilient.
Patience is key
It doesn’t matter if you’re using a quill for simple writing or calligraphy. It is still a little more difficult than using the common tools of today. The basics are easy to grasp, but hard to master. It will take practice and patience to become truly skilled with a quill.
Additionally, it can take more time when writing. If you want your writing to look good and avoid blots you will have to take your time with each letter. This is especially true when practicing calligraphy.
What ink to use with a quill
Of course, quills don’t come with ink as ballpoints do. You will need to buy or make ink to dip your quill in. Any ink will technically work, but there are certain inks that work the best. You don’t want ink that is too thick. That said, the ink you use is up to your personal preference. Some great choices are:
- Iron gall ink
- Sumi ink
- Walnut ink
Iron gall ink has a long history of use. If you are looking to experience historical practices, this is the ink for you. It is a nicely flowing ink that dries a deep black.
Sumi ink is a thin ink commonly used for an art style called sumi-e. This ink is great for both art and writing. It comes in a few colors: red, blue, brown, and purple. However, these sumi ink colors are mostly black.
Walnut ink is a brown ink that works well with quills and dip pens. Like the other two, it has high viscosity which makes it flow very well.
Using a quill as a lefty
Though it has only been briefly touched upon above, it is entirely possible to write with a quill left-handed. I am sorry to say you may find it a little harder than the more common righties though. In addition to the typical complications of avoiding slow drying ink, the aspect that makes quills so unique also makes it tricky.
I mentioned earlier that you need to pull the quill across the page as pushing causes problems. With English being written from left to right if you were to try and write naturally you would likely be pushing the quill. Luckily there are several things you can do to make it easier for yourself. You may even be doing some of them already.
The first possibility is to adjust your hand position, paper orientation, or both. This method includes overwriting (commonly called hooking) and underwriting. Another possibility is to use metal nibs instead of natural nibs. The more rigid metal tines won’t catch as frequently. Lastly, you can use quick-drying inks.
If you want to do calligraphy as a lefty, keep in mind the characteristics of thick and thin lines. Chances are yours will be reversed unless you do some hand acrobatics. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. It can add character to your calligraphy.
Caring for your quill
When you’re done practicing you will need to take care of your quill. If you do not, it can wear down whether you have a metal or feather nib. Both types of nibs should be rinsed of ink and dried after each use. For storage, do not store your quill on its tip. Quills should be stored lying down or using a pen holder. Do not store your quill in ink.
Feather nibs will need to be sharpened from time to time. This will be necessary more often if you use too much pressure. You can tell when your quill needs sharpening when it releases more ink than usual.
Now you know how to write with a quill! Keep up with the basics of grip and nib orientation. Remember to take your time and enjoy the hobby!