(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The saga of the quills

So sorry for not having a typecast this time.

For the past five years or so I've been making quill pens, and gradually my technique has improved, helped along by various resources, to the point where, when things are going well, I have wondered if some of my pens might be good enough to sell.  Certainly they're better than the shoddy and overpriced jobs that you'll find in gift shops at historic sites.  Whoever makes those ought to know better, even if most of the tourists don't.  Indeed, I have wished with something like a missionary zeal to introduce more people to real quill pens and the joys of writing therewith - thus my wondering whether I might successfully sell my creations.

If I were to find some kind of market for my quills, I might make a few bucks, but I would also have a reason for making them more often than I do, and could thereby keep my technique sharp - pardon the pun.  Right now I don't use up the pens I make fast enough to need new ones very often, so when I do get around to making a new batch enough time has passed that I always make too many mistakes and waste some.  Cutting the slits is particularly tricky, and I could use more practice to improve my command of that part of the process.

The first problem I face is where to get feathers.  Up until now I've relied on craft stores, which sell packs of turkey feathers at variable prices.  Their quality is hit-and-miss, though the white ones with black-dyed tips (simulating eagle feathers) tend to work better than the colored ones - which, of course, are more affordable.

After a frustrating experience with a half-dozen of these colored specimens, resulting in only two usable pens, I decided to seriously pursue some way of getting fresher stock.  I had read this post on this gorgeous blog dedicated to sacred Hebrew calligraphy, recommending the gathering of primary feathers from wild geese during their early summer molt.  Unfortunately my plans to patrol the local greenbelt this past summer were foiled.  But wait!  Are we not nearing the end of goose hunting season?

A co-worker of mine has a nephew who hunts and said he could supply me with some primary feathers.  Yesss!  Of course, they would come from dead birds, which gave me some cause for regret.  I don't hold to a vegetarian lifestyle (though I like to eat like one when I have the chance) and I have developed sympathies for hunting, but I find geese so cute that it is hard for me to accept the notion of shooting them.

Well, if other people are going to shoot the poor things, at least I can turn their deaths to some further good beyond providing nourishment and use some of their feathers, which otherwise were wasted, for purposes of beauty.  So I eagerly awaited the delivery of the feathers.

And then yesterday afternoon, a young man came in with a big plastic bag full of . . . goose wings.

Yes, the whole wings!  About six of them, all the feathers still firmly attached and resisting my experimental pulls.  I stammered out a flabbergasted thanks for the grisly parcel and wondered what to do next.  I live in an apartment with a small kitchen and no garage.  I was not going to bring those things into my domicile: I knew my wife wouldn't want them inside, and I didn't want my daughter to see them.  It was traumatic enough for me to have to face such a reminder that honks had been silenced.  :(

There is a butcher shop and taxidermy side by side behind my apartment, and in a flash of inspiration I thought I would simply pass the task on to them!  On my way home I stopped and knocked on the taxidermist's door.

"Could you pluck some primary feathers from some goose wings for me?"  He responded with a look of blank puzzlement before telling me that they charge $40 per hour for whatever tasks they might do.

Well, never mind: I'd find some way to do it myself.

My wife was horrified when I told her of the strange cargo I carried in the trunk, in hushed voices out of earshot from a sweet little four-year-old who loves gooses.  But she came up with a helpful suggestion: boil a pot of water, take it outside and pour it over the wings to try to loosen the feathers.

So, after dinner, while the little one was otherwise occupied, Daddy went outside to "do something."  Night had fallen and the temperature was around zero.  I took a big pot of boiling water outside with a cheap baking sheet, which I set down on the snow-packed street in front of the car.  I turned on the engine and the lights, got the wings out of the trunk, and went to work.

"You should know that this is the strangest thing I have ever done!"  Crouching in the snow, pouring hot water over goose wings and then pulling HARD on primary feathers until they finally came loose, trying to work quickly before my fingers froze while trying not to bend or crack the feather shafts, and all the while the neighbors' stupid dog barking away . . . after a few minutes my next-door neighbor came out with a coat over his pajamas to ask me what I was doing.  To which the only appropriate response was the bizarre truth.

Soon the water was gone and my fingers were aching, so I put the wings into the dumpster with funereal mein and took the feathers in to clean them up in the kitchen.  Finally I had 25 big feathers that should be good for making into pens.  Not bad, I guess.

The fruits of my labors, now ready for processing.

Feeling sorry for the poor gooses.
Now that the dirty work is over, I hope the actual pen making will go smoothly.


Ted said...

Hmmn. I imagined you to be a much older fellow. Good luck with your quills, and selling them prolly wouldn't be a bad idea. Not much competition, and the shipping costs would be low. (:

Blank said...

Very interesting post. I know nothing in detail about quill pens except I knew intuitively that the gift store ones must be junk. I would like to be able to use a good one. Is it much like writing with a very flexible nib? How long does one last in normal(?) writing? How critical is the ink? What would you have to charge for one? In any case, I imagine there would be a decent market for them if you can get the word out--which is much easier than it used to be. Great idea!
== Michael Höhne

CStanford said...

You can't press as hard with a quill as you can with a flexible nib. How long it lasts depends on how finely it's trimmed and how hard you press. When I cut my points the finest, they often need re-trimming by the end of one page, because they're so fine that I wear them down. They wear down more quickly if they're cut at an acute angle, so I try to cut them more obtusely. Wider nibs are much more durable: the one I use for calligraphy hasn't been trimmed in months.

The viscosity of the ink is a very important factor, working in connection with the shape of the nib and the type of paper. So far I've got my best results from thickening Higgins fountain pen India ink with gum Arabic (in solution). I haven't tried any other inks except for Yasitomo brand Intense Black Chinese ink, which I usually have to thin down just a bit.

Thanks for the encouragement. We'll see what I come up with.

Waterfront Property Georgia said...

this is an awesome post. You are so full of wisdom and write beautifully!

Brooke said...

This is the most entertaining blog post I've read anywhere in a long, long while. Are you still thinking about selling quills? I'd be up for a purchase, if you include information about how to do the ink right.

slavezombie said...

It sounds like you are quite the expert at carving quills. I think it would be interesting to read a demo on tempering a quill tip. Rather, the steps in creating a working quill from start to finish.