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Mark Making – A survey of Calligraphy Tools and Techniques
- by Countess Inga the Unfettered OL OP


Reed Pens


Reed pens are one of the oldest tools used in mark making. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Rome used pens made from reeds to write and draw on papyrus and parchment. Cut from fine canes, reeds or bamboo-like grasses, almost any solid bodied, hollow reed can be used as a pen with proper preparation.

Reed pens are best suited for larger writing and scripts that have simpler shapes such as Uncial or Insular Majuscule (see attached script sheets).  The mark made by the reed tends to be less sharp than that of a quill or metal nibs but they are much more resilient and easier to maintain.

The reeds in your kits are bamboo. While bamboo would not necessarily been readily available to the medieval scribe it IS easy for the modern scribe to find in the local garden centre and functions much like the reeds and canes native to Europe. Note that if you choose to cut your own reeds rather than purchase them, ensure they are allowed to dry out first.


Cutting and shaping the reed
The reed pen should be about 8 inches long.  The following is taken from Writing & Illuminating & Lettering by Edward Jonston

One end is cut off obliquely
preparing the reed

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


The nib is laid, back up, on a hard surface, and – the knife-blade being vertical – the tip is cut off at right angles to the shaft.


For a finer tip set the knife at an angle

producing an oblique chisel-shaped tip


The Slit - This step is optional in my experience
 A short longitudinal slit (a-b) is made by inserting the knife-blade in the middle of the tip


A pencil or a brush-handle is held under the nib, and is gently twitched upwards to lengthen the slit. The pressure of the thumb on the reed will help control the length of 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.

Note that I find that the reed works very well and wears better without the slit. As well when using a thicker reed – like bamboo – it adds to the flexibility of the point if you pare away a small nib-wide slice from the top surface of the reed out to the tip. This removes the hard husk and results in a more yielding tip.

To re-cut, simply move down the shaft of the reed and repeat the process above.


Using the Reed

Reeds do not hold a great deal of ink and will require frequent dipping. Bear in mind that the reed is very porous and so works best when wet. If you allow the reed to soak for about 10 minutes in water before beginning, the ink will flow more smoothly.  Be sure after every dip to wipe the excess ink from the top and underside of the reed on the edge of your ink bottle. It is also a good practice to have a scrap piece of paper handy to test blot before returning to your work. Afterward, rinse your nib and pat dry.



Quill Pens

It is not known when quills began to be used but the earliest reference is by Spanish theologian St. Isidore of Seville in the 6th century. The quill pen remained the primary writing instrument till the 19th century when it was replaced by the metal pen. A quill pen is made from the large flight feathers of a bird. Goose and swan are most common but feathers from turkeys, crows and eagles can also be used. The word pen even derives from the Latin for feather "penna". Quills are far lighter and more flexible than reeds and are well suited to almost any script. This flexibility makes possible the flourishes and 'ornate bits' of the later calligraphy scripts that cannot be executed with a reed and are tricky with metal nibs. Not surprisingly many of the parts you may have found challenging about calligraphy with a metal nib come naturally with a quill.

Ideally the feather will have a long portion of clear useable barrel (the part without the feathery bit). As your quill is used, it will start to loose its sharpness and shape and will need to be sharpened or re-cut. The longer the barrel, the more times you can cut the quill.

The quills in your kit are goose and have already been prepared for cutting. While you can cut and write with unprepared feather, it will cut cleaner and last longer if properly prepared. You can buy goose and turkey feathers at craft stores such as Michael's.


Preparing the Quill

Preparing the quill makes it more flexible and resilient as well as makes it easier to remove the internal and external membrane. The quill is prepared first by soaking overnight and then by tempering in hot sand. First, cut off the very end of the tip of the feather. This allows the water to get inside the feather and soften the internal membrane. Soak the barrel of the feather in water overnight. The barrel will become opaque. Now temper the softened quill in hot sand. Put a can of fine sand (I use a large soup can) into the oven at 350 F for about 20 minutes. Take the can out of the oven and place on the stove. Take the feather out of the water – tap out the water inside – and push the feather into the sand until it covers the bare area. Leave it in the sand till it gets cold. The quill will now be transparent. Take tweezers and pull out the membrane inside and use a penknife to scrape off the external membrane. You are now ready to cut the quill.

Cutting the quill is essentially the same process as cutting a reed but requires a more careful and patient hand. The quill is much more flexible than the reed and so is trickier to cut at first.


Cutting and Shaping the Quill
The quill should be cut down to 7 or 8 inches long.  The 'barbs' (feathery bit) should be stripped off the shaft – if not entirely at least far enough to be clear of your hand. It may be prettier with the barbs but it will get in your way.

The cutting process is very similar to that of the reed pen but the shaping of the cuts – particularly the shoulders (the second scoop that leads to the tip of the nib) – is far more critical in ensuring you have even and smooth ink flow. It may take several tiny adjustments to get it right but once you become familiar with the shape that works, it becomes a fairly easy process. The tip needs to be flat, whereas the part of the quill that holds ink needs to be rounded to make best usage of ink's surface tension abilities. If the curve and surface area extends too far down the tip, the ink will flow too quickly to the tip, ending up in blobby writing and a tendency for the tip to drop a lot of ink at once. (

The primary difference is in the making of the slit. The slit is critical to the proper functioning of the quill. There are several theories as to when the slit should be made. Many sources suggest that the slit should be started in the first stages of cutting (as in Example 1) however I find that cutting the shoulders can be very tricky if the nib is already split. For beginners, I suggest using an alternate method(See Example 2) where the slit is introduced after cutting the shoulders. If find this gives me more control over the final shape of the tip of the nib and produces a more controlled slit length. Try both, there is no right way and we cannot be sure the exact process used – you may find starting the slit first easiest.

Example 1.

The following is taken from Regia Anelorum website  "How to cut a quill pen" also offers excellent step-by-steps instructions and photographs.

1: Cut away the tip of the barrel at a steep angle.
2: Make a slit in the top centre of the barrel. The best way to do this is to place the point of the knife inside the barrel, and lever the knife blade gently upwards, releasing pressure as soon as a crack occurs.


3: Slice a scoop from the underside of the pen, to about half its diameter, and centered on the slit.


4: Shape the nib on one side of the slit.


5: Shape the nib on the opposite side, 
making sure the two halves match.


6: If the underside of the nib is too concave, scrape it flat with a clean scooping cut, removing as little quill as possible.


7: To "nib" the pen, rest the underside of the point on a smooth, hard surface. Thin the tip from the top side by 'scraping' the blade forward at a shallow angle; then make a vertical cut, either at right angles to the slit or obliquely. On a very strong feather the last cut can be repeated to remove a very fine sliver, avoiding a rough underside on the tip of the nib.


Example 2.

Skip Step 2 in Example 1. After you complete Step 6 you will make your slit. This can either be done as in the instructions for cutting reed pens:

- A short longitudinal slit is made by inserting the knife-blade in the middle of the tip

- A pencil or a brush-handle is held under the nib, and is gently twitched upwards to lengthen the slit. The pressure of the thumb on the reed will help control the length of the slit.

Or it can be done by resting the underside of the point on a smooth, hard surface and gently slicing down on the center line of the nib moving outward to the tip. The slit can be lengthened as above in. Then move on to Step 7 and complete your nib.

Sharpening and Re-cutting

To sharpen your tip, carefully pare the shoulders and tip. To re-cut, you can either lengthen the existing slit, move down the shaft and repeat the original cutting process or turn over the quill and start a fresh nib. Extending the slit results in more nibs per quill but it is often easier to start fresh. Again experiment and see what works best for you.


Using the Quill

A quill is not held like a pencil and should be held almost vertical between your thumb and fingers. Do not press down to hard or the nib will splay open. A quill requires a light touch and may require some practice to get used to. Draw the nib toward you/downward or side-to-side, a quill cannot be pushed. Pushing will cause the nib to catch on the paper or vellum and flick ink over your surface. It will also eventually damage the cut of your quill and result in your having to re-cut. If cut properly the quill will hold a fair bit of ink (several letters to several words) but will still require regular dipping. As with the reed, be sure after every dip to wipe the excess ink from the top and underside on the edge of your ink bottle. It is also a good practice to have a scrap piece of paper handy to test blot before returning to your work. Afterward, rinse your quill and set aside to dry.


Metal 'Dip' Pens

It is important to note that the metal 'dip' pen is not a medieval scribal tool. Metal pens first came into use at the beginning of the 19th c though there are examples of attempts at metal pens going back to the Roman period. They soon replaced the quill as a writing and drawing tool. The metal pen is a holder (wood, metal or plastic) into which a variety of metal nibs can be inserted. They are often referred to as 'dip' pens because they require constant dipping into the ink. The metal nib often incorporates a reservoir, which reduces the need to dip.

Nibs can be purchased in a wide array of sizes and styles (including left-handed) making them easily adjustable to most scripts. The metal nib is not as flexible as a quill pen making some aspects of scripts complicated but the end result is very similar. Unlike quills or reeds they require little maintenance aside from regular cleaning. While metal pens are not true 'medieval' scribal tools, the similarity in result when compared with a quill pen and their ease of use make them a common compromise in the SCA scribes' kit.

​​The holders I have brought for you to try hold a standard Speedball nib. They inexpensive and can be purchased at most artist supply shops. Speedball is just one of many suppliers of metal nibs. The nib you will use today is a Speedball nib and uses a permanently affixed top reservoir. I am partial to Mitchell's because they use a removable under reservoir - but they are more expensive.


Using the 'Dip' Pen

Like the quill, the 'dip' pen works best when held almost upright – at about a 65 degree angle to the surface. The metal nib is more forgiving than the quill but if you press too hard the nib will splay or dig into the paper. Draw the nib toward you/downward or side-to-side, a metal nib cannot be pushed – it will cut into the paper. When dipping the pen be sure not to over dip but to just submerge the reservoir on the nib. Some scribes prefer to fill the reservoir with a dropper rather than dipping at all. If you dip, be sure to wipe the excess ink on the edge of your ink bottle. Again it is a good practice to have a scrap piece of paper handy to test blot before returning to your work. Afterward, rinse your nib carefully and store to dry. If you are using Speedball nibs, the reservoir is not removable so you will need to be careful when cleaning. With removable reservoirs (Mitchell's) cleaning is much easier. After much use the nib may loose its edge and can be sharpened on an emery board or piece of fine sand paper by drawing the nib toward you as if drawing a straight line.


Modern Cartridge Pens

Most people in the SCA begin to explore the wonders of calligraphy with the cartridge pen. It is a familiar weight and size –similar to a large pen – and the internal ink cartridge makes the ink flow smoothly and easily. It uses a permanently affixed metal nib so is low maintenance and aside from cleaning needs little care. There are no special skills needed to use the pen and with a bit of practice it yields beautiful results. So the question surely is – why use anything else? First, it is not at all medieval – I'm sure that comes as no surprise. Secondly, the ink used in cartridge pens is not very fade resistant. To flow properly from cartridge to nib, the ink must be thinner than the ink you would use with reeds, quills or metal 'dip' pens. Thirdly, many of the marks found in Medieval scripts are not easily made with the fixed metal nib (they are typically less flexible than the dip pen) so this style of pen will limit your ability to make medieval marks.

While cartridge pens are great for getting started and I often use them for my drafts, I heartily encourage you to try something a bit more medieval when doing calligraphy. If you do use a cartridge pen be sure to teach your hand to make the marks correctly. I suggest holding the cartridge pen in the same way as you should a quill or 'dip' pen and resist the temptation to hold it as up would a modern pen. Your calligraphy will be better – even if you never move on to more period tools – and if you make the move you will not have to relearn your mark making. As with all other tools be sure rinse the nib after use and store upright – particularly if the cartridge is still full!


Questions?? Suggestions??  Contact me at!


Want to learn more??

Alexander, Johnathan, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work, Yale University Press, New Haven 1992.

Brown, Michelle, Understanding Illuminating Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, The J. Paul Getty Museum and the British Library Board, London, 1994.

De Hamel, Christopher, Scribes and Illuminators: Medieval Craftsman Series, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1992.

De Hamel, Christopher, The British Library guide to Manuscript Illumination – History and Techniques, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2001.

Drogin, Marc, Medieval Calligraphy – It's History and Technique, Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1980.

Jackson, Donald, The History of Writing, Taplinger Publishing Co., New York, 1981.

Johnston, Edward, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering, Pitman & Sons, London, 1932.Lamb, C.M., Ed., The Calligrapher's Handbook, Faber & Faber, London, 1968.

The Craftsman's Handbook "Ikl Libro dell'Arte" Cennino d'Andrea Cennini, Translated By Daniel Thompson, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1960.

Theophilus On Divers Arts,The Foremost Medieval treatise on Painting, Glassmaking and Metalwork, Dover Publications Inc., NewYork, 1979.

Thompson, Daniel, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1956.

Wong, Frederick, The Complete Calligrapher,: Watson-Guptill, New York 1980.

"How to cut a quill pen"

"Cutting a Quill Pen" Regia Anglorum website

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