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Jean Mielot, scribe for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, 1456 [Paris National Libary (MS. Fonds français 9,198)]

To cut a pen

Excerpts from Writing & Illuminating & Lettering by Edward Jonston
Edited by Leif Eurén

Diffent kinds of pens

For caligraphy two kinds of pens are mainly used: reed and quill.

 A Reed or Cane pen is best for very large writing – over half an inch in height – and therefore it is of great use in studying pen strokes and forms. A Quill is best for smaller writing, and is used for all ordinary MS. work. For very fine work (real) Crow Quill may be tried.

The Reed

The Reed pen should be about 8 inches long.

preparing the reed
One end is cut off obliquely

removing the soft core
The soft inside part is shaved away by means of a knife laid flat against it, leaving the hard outer shell

precut of the nib
The nib is laid, back upp, on the slab, and – the knife-blade being vertical – the tip is cut off at right angles to the shaft

opening the slit
A short longitudinal slit (a-b) is made by inserting the knife-blade in the middle of the tip

lengthening with a pencil
A pencil or a brush-handle is held under the nib, and is gently twitched upwards to lengthen the slit.

 An ordinary reed should have a slit about ¾ inch long. A very stiff pen may have in additional a slit on either side of the centre.

lengthening the slit of the nib
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.

final cut of the nib
The nib is laid, back upp, on the slab, and – the knife-blade being vertical – the tip is cut off at an angle of about 70° to the shaft, removing the first rough slit a-b.

making the spring
A strip of thin metal (very thin tin, or clock spring with the “temper” taken out by heating and slowly cooling) i scut the width of the nib and abaout 2 inches long. This is folded into a “spring”.

inserting the spring The spring is inserted into the pen.
The loop a-b-c is “sprung” into place, and hold the spring in the right position. The loop c-d, which should be rather flat, holds the ink in the pen. The point d should be about 18 inch from the end of the nib.

The Quill

Quills from turkey and goose are used.

 The latter is softer, and is sometimes preferred for colour work. 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:

sheft length
The quill should be cut down to 7 or 8 inches; the long feather if left is apt to be in the way.

stripping the shaft
The “barbs” or filament of the feather are stripped off the shaft.

lengthening by pressing a pencil
The nib already has a slit usually about ¼ inch long. This is sufficient in a fairly pliant pen; in a very stiff pen the slit may be lengthened to 38 inch.

lengthenig the slit of the nib
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) as explained under Reed.

paring the nib
The sides of the nib are pared till the width across the tip is rather less than the desired. The width of the cut nib corresponds exactly with the width of the thickest stroke which the pen will make in writing.

final cut of the nib
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.

angle of final cut
The nib should then be examined with the magnifying glass. Hold the pen, back down, over a sheer of white paper, and see that the ends of the two half- nibs are in the same straight line a-b.

form of end of nib
The nib should have an oblique chisel-shaped tip, very sharply cut.

guide the eye
A magnifying glass is necessary for axamining a fine pen; a coarse pen may be held up against the light from a window – a finger-tip being held just over the nib to direct the eye.

closing the slit
A nib in which the slit does not quite close may be bent down to bring the two parts together.

nibs in need of recut
Uneven or blunt nibs must be carefully re-cut.

bending the spring
The Spring (about 332 inch by 1½ inch) is placed so that the point is about 116 inch from the end of the nib. The long loop should be made rather flat to hold plenty of ink (A) – neither too much curved (B: this holds only a drop), nor quite flat (C: this draws the ink up and away from the nib).

Of Quills Generally

extra cutting for broad or fine work
For ordinary use the nib may be cut with fairly steep angle, as shown (magnified) at a.

 But it is better for all carful work and fine, sharp writing that the angle be made very sharp: the knife blade is laid back (much flatter than is shown above) and the quill is cut quite thin; the knife blade is the held vertical and the extreme tip of the nib is cut off sharp and true (b).

 For large writing the curved inside of the quill is pared flat (c, d) to give full strokes. If the nib be left curved and hollow underneath (e), it is apt to make hollow strokes.

shoulder length
The pen may be made more pliant by scraping it till it is thinner, or by cutting the “shoulder” (a-b) longer, or stiffer by cutting the nib back until the “shoulder” is short.

Goose and Crow Quills

The main advantage of a quill over a metal pen are that the former may be shaped exactly as the writers desires, and be re-cut when it becomes blunt.

 A metal pen may be sharpened on an oilstone, but the process takes so much longer that there is no saving in time: it is not easily cut to the exact shape, and it lacks the pleasant elasticity of the quill.

 A gold pen is probably the best substitute for a quill, and if it were possible to have a sharp, “chisel-edged” iridium tip on the gold nib, it would be an extremely convenient form of pen. A “fountain pen” might be used with thin ink.


The Knife

pen knife Quill makers use a special knife. A surgical scalpel makes an excellent pen-knife. The blade should be fairly stout, as the edge of a thin blade is easily damaged. It should be ground only on the right side of the blade and tapered to a point and be kept very sharp.

The Slab

A piece of glass (preferably white) may be used for fine quills; hard wood, bone, or celluloid for reed and cane pens.

Magnifying Glass

A magnifying glass (about 1 inch in diameter) is necessary for examining fine pen nibs to see if they are “true”. A “pocket” glass is the most suitable for general use, and for the analysis of small writing, &c.


A 2, or 3-foot wood rule having brass strips let in to protect the edges, or a metal rule.

Linen Pen-Wiper

A piece of an old linen handkerchief may be used to keep the pen clean.