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For years I have had trouble finding quills for writing with. I’ve asked people about finding them, but some are stupid and think you can magically find good feathers for quills anywhere in the countryside. Of course I have walked a lot in the countryside, and not found any suitable feathers. Except last weekend I might have done. So this post is about trying to prepare them for use as quills.

I expect that as an alchemist you could probably afford to buy ready made quills, until of course you ran out of money, but you would certainly have to be able to sharpen them for use. Who made the quills I haven’t be able to find, perhaps professional scribes produced lots for sale. Anyway, onto the research into how they were prepared.

“Scribes and Illuminators” by Christopher de Hamel is a good place to start. It describes trimming the feathers so that you are just left with the top thicker inches of the main stem. Then you harden it by plunging it into hot sand when damp. This is to harden it and yet make it more flexible. You then need to remove any remaining outer skin and pith within the barrel of it.

You can also find instructions here online:


Cennini, in his “Craftsman’s handbook” of the 15th century, describes how to cut the quill for drawing, and says that goose feathers are best, and emphasises the importance of a sharp penknife.

Unfortunately he doesn’t mention heating it in sand to toughen it.

This all seems far too simple. Unfortunately there isn’t an obvious source of information about how hot the sand should be. Therefore I am reduced to heating a pot with sand in it in the oven.

First, the pot with sand in, fine grained sand:


Pot by Jim (http://www.trinitycourtpotteries.co.uk/), probably the best historical potter at work in the UK just now.

I used my ordinary kitchen oven, on the grounds that they wouldn’t have had much to play with in heating the pot. The question is why they used a pot with sand in the first place. Probably it was the most controllable way of doing it without exposing the feather to a naked flame.

First attempt with feather 1 was 2 minutes at around 50C, cooling. No apparent difference in the feather.

Next same quill dampened, 80C straight from oven, for 5 minutes. Temp at thermometer reached 82 after 90 seconds, indicating pulse of oven heat still travelling through sand. Also clear that sand acts as a temperature moderator, like with Alchemists and their sand bath, smooths out pulses in heating that might burn things. Thermometer at 85 by end. The tip of the feather was starting to look brown.

Now, feather 2, dampened under tap, at 108C for 5 minutes, dropped to 103 or 104 by end. No clear change in the feather at all really.

So dampened it again and put pot back in oven to 140C. No thermometer this time, it doesn’t go that high, so temperature is approximate. After 5 minutes, quill looks okay, no obvious physical change to it. The outer skin comes off easily as can be seen here:


Higher temperature again – 180C for 7 minutes was enough to cause the quill to go brown. Clearly too hot. Perhaps could be done again with much less time in the sand, but that would be a bit iffy and I don’t have spare feathers.


Now for the cutting test. I use a penknife from Tod’s Stuff (http://www.todsstuff.co.uk/knives-domestic/penknives-domestic.htm), one of my more expensive early purchases, but worth it. Unfortunately sharpening it is tricky, so it doesn’t cut as well as it should. Most of you will know about cutting pens already, even if you don’t have any skill at it. I don’t have much, it’s a bit fiddly, but I have managed to make usable pens before.

Feather 1 was irritatingly plastic and flexible, and to find decent material I had to cut off nearly a cm of it.

Feather 2 was stronger, and less flexible. The obvious explanation is that the two different feathers, with slightly different diameters of tube and length were of different wall thickness and strength. Obviously I’d need to compare a lot of feathers from specific wing positions to get a scientific answer.

Anyway, feather 2 was generally easier to deal with when cutting it, but I don’t have any ink handy to do a writing test.

So in conclusion, you can probably heat your damp feather to anywhere between 90 and 140 degrees C (but no higher) and get a usable feather out of it. Whether this is precisely what medieval people did, we can’t tell. I also need to test cut a non-treated feather, to see what it feels like. So as usual I end with more questions than answers, but have hopefully narrowed the available possibilities for experiment and helped someone who might do it themselves at some point.