Sunday, October 18, 2009

Quills, part 1

I sat down to write a post on quills, and before I knew it I had fifteen posts and was still going strong. I never knew I could say so much about quills. So we're going to have Quill Month. Tenuous link: it's parshat Noach, and that's got birds in it, and birds have feathers, which is what we make quills out of...see? Tenuous.

Okay, quill terminology.

Quill: the tubey middle bit of a feather, the pen made from same.

Nib: the business part of a quill. Note that the nib has a slit up its centre. The slit divides the nib into semiquills*. The slit forms a channel in which ink lives (as you can see in the picture), so sometimes I call it an ink channel. The ink sits in the channel and gets pulled out gradually, as the nib sets ink onto the page - like a candle wick, but in reverse (physics is so clever).

The nib is cut from the non-fluffy end of the feather.

Many people, myself definitely included, strip off the fluffy bits before working, so that the quill resembles a pen more than it does a feather. This is because when you are working (rather than playing about), the fluffy bits get in the way and are just annoying.

The quills in the top picture are goose. The quill in the bottom picture is turkey. Goose is good for smaller work, like mezuzot; turkey tends to be sturdier and more durable, so I like using it for Torah work.

Some scribes temper their quills with heat or chemicals. The idea is for the tempering process to harden the feather, and then it stays sharp longer and is nicer to write with.

Tempering can be tricky - the problem is that if you don't do it enough, nothing happens, but if you do it too much, you melt the quill. If you melt it, tiny air bubbles form and are trapped in it when it hardens so you can't cut it to a smooth edge, plus it's far too brittle to be useful. I do it sometimes, and sometimes I don't bother.

* Okay, the proper word is "tines," but "semiquills" is a much prettier word. Credit to my chum Gabriel for inventing a good word.

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