Sunday, October 19, 2008

How to cook a goose quill

I am the Procrastination Queen. I've had a handful of goose quills lying around for so long I literally don't remember when I got hold of them, but it was a loooong time ago. Always meant to get serious about learning how to make quill pens; never really had the nerve to just jump in and see what would happen.

Then this month's gardening magazine came in the post and turned out to contain a recipe for berry ink. I didn't recognise the berries they used in the recipe, but they said that privet berries were also used at one time to make ink (in fact, one of the German names for the thing translates literally as ink berries), and we have loads of those in the garden. It was too much to resist. On Friday I picked 150g of privet berries, dumped them in 250ml of vinegar with about half a teaspoon of alum added, and left the brew to stand for the stipulated 12-24 hours prior to boiling it up and straining it.

Now, the problem with this ink is that it's essentially coloured vinegar -- it's so acidic that you can't put it in a fountain pen. Or so the recipe says. The only things that it's safe to use with are steel nibs and... goose quills. In other words, if I wanted to be able to do anything with my homemade ink I was either going to have to invest in some steel-nib dip pens or confront my procrastination head on.

Enter the Internet. A bit of Googling yielded a youtube video on how to make pens (not terribly helpful, in the event, except to make the process look less daunting) and a page on that was a tad more specific on how to temper your quills: heat fine sand in oven to about 180°C, take sand out of oven, stick quills in sand, leave to cool.

OK, I suppose I can do that...

So I did that yesterday. Left the sand in the oven for about 40 minutes, then cut the ends off three of my five quills, stuck them into the sand, and let them sit. When the sand had cooled, sure enough the shafts were visibly opaque compared to the two untreated ones, and both felt and sounded noticeably harder and more brittle too. As this is apparently the effect one wants to get from cooking the quills, I concluded that my sand had been hot enough.

Two untreated quills (note translucency of shafts)
and two tempered ones.

Next up: a penknife. The wisegeek site is useless when it comes to how to cut the nibs (at least, I can't make head or tail of what they say), so I did it by extrapolating from the appearance of fountain pen and dip pen nibs. It turns out that cutting the heat-treated quills is much easier than cutting untempered ones; they become rigid enough not to yield to the knife and so you can work quite precisely to shape the tips. OK, I need more practice at that, but I'm quite impressed that I managed to produce a reasonably fine tip on my very first quill.

Shown with a ruler (centimetres) for scale.
My nib is about 0.5mm wide.

Writing with this quill proved to be surprisingly easy and rather pleasant (though I did get a slight sputtering effect which I hope to be able to eliminate as my shaping skills improve). It lets down the ink incredibly easily, allowing you to write with almost zero pressure on the paper -- I wish this were possible with my fountain pens! Mind you, it also makes fairly loud scratching noises while you write... even though I was using the smoothest paper I've got, which is some 100g/m² colour copying paper that I bought for doing high-quality laser printouts. I tried ordinary printer paper first, but that stuff just sucks my homemade ink right up and all you get is blots and blurs. We're talking low-tech here, people. :)

And here's a writing sample. Click the pic to view larger.

The ink is intriguing to use. It isn't very opaque at all, but semitransparent like watercolour paint, and the most striking thing is that it changes colour as you write! As it comes off the nib it's a reddish mulberry shade, but changes colour as it dries to the pastel turquoise that you can see in the photo. Two things I'm not completely keen on are the vinegary smell of the stuff and its very thin consistency. I wonder if it'd be possible to boil up the privet berries in something else, possibly even water, and to add some kind of thickening agent. But on the whole, this has been a fun and encouraging experiment. I'm quite motivated to try my hand at one of those permanent black ink recipes next -- the ones involving egg yolks, honey, and lampblack. Or the ones involving oak galls and vitriol. And perhaps I should save some logwood from next year's Easter egg dyeing session, because who knows?