Monday, November 30, 2009

Ketivah Tamah

Shabbat 103b/Sifrei Vaethanan

וכתבתם - שתהא כתיבה תמה; שלא יכתוב אלפ"ין עיינ"ין, עיינ"ין אלפ"ין, בית"ין כפ"ין, כפ"ין בית"ין, גמ"ין צד"ין, צד"ין גמ"ין, דלת"ין ריש"ין, ריש"ין דלת"ין, היה"ין חית"ין, חית"ין היה"ין, וו"ין יוד"ין, יוד"ין וו"ין, זיינ"ין נונ"ין, נונ"ין זיינ"ין, טית"ין פיפ"ין, פיפ"ין טית"ין, כפופין פשוטין, פשוטים כפופין, מימ"ין סמכ"ין, סמכ"ין מימ"ין, סתומין פתוחין, פתוחין סתומין. פרשה פתוחה לא יעשנה סתומה, סתומה לא יעשנה פתוחה.

When the Torah says "ukhtavtam," it means that it should be ketivah tamah - perfect/simple writing. So you shouldn't make:
alephs into ayins or ayins into alephs.
Nor beits into khafs or khafs into beits.
Nor gimels into tzadis or tzadis into gimels.
Nor dalets into reishes or reishes into dalets.
Nor heys into hets or hets into heys.
Nor vavs into yuds or yuds into vavs.
Nor zayins into nuns or nuns into zayins.
Nor tets into pehs or pehs into tets.
You shouldn't make bent ones straight or straight ones bent
Nor mems into samechs or samechs into mems.
You shouldn't make opens closed or closeds open.

And that ain't the half of it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quills, part 18

Found this the other day: "Instructions for the cutting of a quill-feather in Ludivico Arrighi's La Operina da Imparare di scriuere littera Cancellarescha printed in Rome in 1522."

Scan from Ada Yardeni's The Book of Hebrew Script.

Quill-cutting, mediaeval

Yardeni's book, incidentally, is as described: "history, palaeography, script styles, calligraphy & design." Ada Yardeni's a combined paleography-scholar-graphic-designer, so as you might expect, there's a lot of brain food here. My copy is getting rather battered because it's generally the first thing I fish out of the shelf when I have general historical questions about script. It's not intended as a calligraphy source-book, so don't buy it expecting that. Buy it expecting to learn an awful lot about history, palaeography and script styles, with a bit of calligraphy thrown in, and you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Quills, part 17

When the problem isn't technique or lack of ink, generally it's because the semiquills aren't sufficiently close together. Sometimes that's because you made a muck of cutting the ink channel, and the only thing to be done is start over, but usually it's not so drastic as that.

Often you notice it first thing in the morning. Overnight, your quill dried out a little, and the semiquills pulled apart a bit.

My scribey chum DMV discovered a way to prevent this: water tubes for flowers. They're little tubes with a rubbery seal on top, designed for sticking single blooms in so that they stay fresh. Of course, a flower stem is pretty much like a quill in the essential details, so you can use them to keep your quills damp, by putting a tiny bit of damp sponge in the bottom. Jolly clever of DMV to spot that, I say.

Tangentially: I like using them for knife storage, too. Much better than having naked blades floating around in your bag, and handier than having to de-blade your knife every time you want to take it somewhere. Like this:

Supposing you didn't manage to prevent semiquill divergence, though. Or perhaps the semiquills have pulled apart not because of drying out but because of rough handling - if you press too hard, you'll inevitably drive the semiquills apart.

This technique frequently does the trick: turn the quill over, and apply pressure as shown. The semiquills are pushed back together, and as long as you aren't too hard on them, they'll stay that way.

If you push too hard, you'll end up forcing the semiquills to overlap each other, like subduction zones in plate tectonics. This is inconvenient. If you get that, you have to turn it back over and press the other way. Sounds more complicated than it is.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Quills, part 16

Last time, I said this sort of thing is caused when the ink channel gap is large and the inkflow light.

Sometimes it's just that the pen is taking a while to get going. So when your quill is doing this, the first thing is not to panic. Don't (I see this a lot) start dabbing frantically at your parchment with those little, fast, darty strokes beloved of certain kinds of artists. This sort of calligraphy needs to be slow and controlled. If you calmly keep going, or just try again, often enough it'll sort itself out. You can see in the image here that it got going after a couple of millimetres, and all I needed to do was go back over the beginning bit.

(You can also see that the letters are Not Very Even.)

A lot of people seem to think that if you don't get it perfect first time, that's that. Give up, move on. Not so - if it comes out like this, you just go over it until it's right.

The sulks can often be dispelled by making a tiny vertical stroke before embarking on the horizontal line. The image at left is a suggested stroke order for writing letter khaf (scanned from Likut Sifrei Stam, the scribes' handbook), and you can see how each horizontal stroke is started with a tiny vertical stroke.

You barely even need to move the quill, really, but if you do, you get a nifty little twiddle (note technical language). This is another example of necessity becoming a feature of writing - quill writing is easier if you start strokes with tiny vertical lines, and they look rather good (see right), so the little vertical lines become part of the style.

Sometimes it's just that you're running out of ink. Dip in the ink, and all is well. But try the above first; more often the problem is the quill sulking.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Quills, part 15

One of the major frustrations of quill-writing, specially for beginners, is when the quill does this:

What causes this?

Well, think about a nib. In the normal way of things, the semiquills line up neatly, the ink channel is exactly the right width, the ink flow is smooth, and so the line produced is nice and even.

When the nib presses onto the page, it lays down the ink. Obviously, the ink channel itself is not doing any laying down of ink, because it is a gap between the two halves of the nib. When the gap is small and the ink abundant, surface tension takes care of that for you, laying down the ink regardless.

Sometimes (insert physics and chemistry here) that means the middle bits of the letters aren't stuck down as firmly as the edge bits, so several decades later, the middle bit is the first to flake off:

That won't happen until after you're dead, though (we plan long-term in this business...). Our present concern is what happens while the ink is still wet.

As we were saying, the ink channel itself is a gap, and when the gap is large enough and the inkflow light enough, writing doesn't happen in the gap. In non-Torah calligraphy, you can have fun with this; you can deliberately cut a notch in your nib, or you can buy scroll nibs for your fountain pen. It's rather a nice effect, really:

More soon...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Quills, part 14

I mentioned that I've been using two quills since August.

Quills are a bit like shoes. If you're going hiking, you want hiking boots. If you're wearing a pretty frock, you want pretty shoes. If you're not going for a particular look, it doesn't matter much.

Parchment surfaces vary in texture. Sometimes it can be very very smooth, sometimes rough and sandpapery, and anything in between. The image at right is an extreme example, not from this Torah at all. It's a very close zoom, so you can see the marked difference between rough and smooth.

With quills, if you've got very rough parchment, you want a tough sort of quill. One that isn't going to leap and spatter every time there's a bit of irregularity, one that isn't going to wear out every three minutes so you spend all day sharpening. If you're doing extremely fine, delicate work, you probably want to use something smaller and thinner, because otherwise it's like trying to do ballet in hiking boots. If it's just ordinary sort of parchment, it doesn't matter so much.

Two thicknesses of quillIn general, for this Torah, I've been using just an ordinary sort of quill; turkey, not especially remarkable in any way. But occasionally there's been a rougher patch, and for those I've switched to a sturdier quill. Why not use the sturdy one all the time? I just don't feel like it, like I don't wear hiking boots all the time. You can if you want.

Between the top and bottom of this next image I switched from regular quill to sturdy quill, and you can't tell where, because I cut both quills to give exactly the same sort of letters. It looks no different, but it made the difference between a fine writing day and a frustrating writing day.

Quill switch
Clicky for bigger image

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Quills, part 13

As we've seen, quills wear down with use, and become less and less useful, whereupon you have to reshape them. Do you remember in Pride and Prejudice when Caroline Bingley says to Mr Darcy "I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well"? That's what she's talking about.

Darcy is classy and says "Thank you--but I always mend my own."

Very few people did, it seems. Pens were pretty much disposable.

I have in front of me some figures from the book Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen by Michael Finlay. In 1820, the Bank of England bought more than 1.25 million pens, for a staff of 1002 people; that works out to about 300 pens each per quarter. This is on the high end; some businesses only got through about 100 pens each per quarter, but you'd get a new pen-knife every quarter as well.

What do you do with 300 pens per quarter? Well, if you're working a six-day week, that means you're getting through four pens a day. Two hours' writing will wear a fresh quill down to the point where you've either got to sharpen it or stop using it. I've mentioned that learning to sharpen quills is somewhat time-consuming; evidently the clerks at the Bank of England didn't learn to sharpen quills, and when their pens wore down, they'd toss them and take fresh ones.

The dynamics of the quill market have changed rather since then, at least outside of Israel. These days, if you use quills, you really have to know how to sharpen them, and if you want to be any sort of independent you have to know how to make them too. If you're tossing quills at the rate of four a day, you're going to be spending an awful lot of money on quills.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quills, part 12

The thing about shaping the nib is it has to be exactly the same every time. If you get it even a little bit different, verse 2 is going to look different from verse 1, and that's bad news. Oh, it doesn't make the Torah non-kosher, it just looks a bit odd, and you don't want a Torah to look odd.

But nibs are very very little. It's hard to get it exactly the same every time. That's why learning to cut them is a skill. A smidge this way, a smidge that way - crucial.

Anyway, when you get it just right, you start writing with it. All is well for a little while - an hour or two if you're lucky - but all the while, the friction between the parchment and the nib is wearing away your carefully-cut edges, wearing and wearing and wearing, until you notice that your perfect pen is no longer perfect.

So you sigh and sharpen, taking off just enough that the nib is newly crisp at the edges, and not so much that it is noticeably changed in size. That's the idea, anyway.

Every time you sharpen, you necessarily cut bits off, and eventually you'll have snibbled away all the usable part of the quill and have to get a new one (once you've gone up into the pith, you've lost the advantages of a feather, and it becomes basically just a fluffy reed).

If someone is super-expert, they might make a quill last five or six months, even using it every day. While you're learning, you might easily destroy two or three in a day, but once you've got the hang of it you can expect a quill to last you a month or so easily enough. I've been using two since August, and one of them is getting to the end of its life. More about that later.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Quills, part 11

For durability, you want a feather that's not too soft, so that you won't be resharpening it every ten minutes. You also want one that's not too flexible; if it is too bendy it will feel more like a paintbrush than a pen, which is sort of annoying - and not too thin, so that you can grip it comfortably. Primary flight feathers are good for quills. Secondaries aren't so bad either, so long as they're big enough. Other feathers tend to be too narrow.

When I'm cutting a quill the first thing I do is chop off most of its length and all of the fluffy bits, so that what remains looks a lot like...a pen. Surprise. Then I soak it in water for ten minutes or so, which makes the next stages easier: chop off the very tip, use a small crochet hook to pull all the crud out from the inside. scrape the membrane off the outside, and roughly shape the end so's it looks like a nib.

Then sometimes I temper it, but not always because I haven't got this down reliably yet, and sometimes it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference. The idea with tempering is to dry the natural moisture out of the feather, so that it will stay sharp longer, by judicious application of heat, chemicals, and/or time.

Then I cut the channel up the middle. The channel is super-clever. It works like the bristles on a paintbrush, to hold a small supply of ink and let it out as needed. If you don't have a channel you can write maybe one or two letters before you have to get more ink. With a channel, you can write at least four or five, and maybe twenty or thirty. People brought up on ballpens and fibre-tips usually think the channel means the nib is broken.

I use a razor blade to cut my channels, but other people swear by knives or by squeezing the feather till it cracks. You do what works for you.

Then I use a scalpel to do the fine-shaping of the nib. A proper proper scribe would use a pen-knife, which they would sharpen periodically. I'm rubbish at sharpening knives, and a knife made of really good steel is expensive, so I use surgical scalpels, which are very sharp for a short time, but aren't designed to stay sharp so I have to keep replacing the blade. I feel a bit bad about this.