A Possible Method for Processing Quills for Cittern Plectra

Compiled by Kevin McDermott.

Last updated Wednesday, July 19, 2017.
Return to Miscellany

A Possible Method for Processing Quills for Cittern Plectra;

The Which is Derived from a Description of Writing-Quill Manufacture, presumed to come from a mid- to late-Nineteenth Century British source once available on the Internet at http://www.hollisandbell.com/quill.html.


QUILLS employed for writing purposes are commonly obtained from the wings of the goose; but it is only the five outside feathers in each wing which can be used for this purpose. Although the stem of the first feather is the roundest and hardest, it is also the shortest. The second and third feathers are those which are moot employed for making into pens. With good management, as many as twenty quills may be obtained from one goose during the year. Quills for making into pens are also obtained from the turkey. The stems of these quills are stronger than those of the goose, and are employed for other purposes where a strong pen is required. The feathers of the swan are also much prized when a quill pen of great size and strength is desired. Quills from the crow are also employed where a very fine-ribbed pen is wanted for delicate writing or drawing.

When quills are first plucked the stem is found to be soft, tough, and opaque, instead of being hard, elastic, and transparent, as we find it in a quill pen. The quill is also covered, both inside and out, with a vascular membrane, by means of which the feathers receive the supply of blood necessary for their growth and nourishment, and which adheres tightly to it. Besides this, the fatty matter adhering to the quill would prevent the ink from flowing readily along it, if used in its natural state The operation of rendering quills fit for use as pens is sometimes called "Dutching" them, owing to the method having been first employed by that nation. At one time Dutch quills were much valued from the care with which they were prepared, and all the fatty matters removed from them. The method originally employed by the Dutch was to press the quills into red-hot ashes By this means all moisture and fat was got rid of, and the vascular membrane adhering to the quills detached. Great care has, however, to be exercised in conducting this operation, for if exposed too long to the heat the quills would be injured.

An improvement on this method is to introduce the quills for an instant into a sand-bath heated to a temperature of 140 degrees Fahr., and then rubbing them while hot with flannel, by which means it ceases to be greasy, and becomes hard, white, and transparent. Sometimes the barrel of the quill is introduced into a fire for a few seconds, and the quill is then drawn under the edge of a blunt knife, furnished with a handle by which it may be forced down, and fastened down at the other end by a hook and staple. The quill, while hot and softened by the heat, is drawn under the blunt edge of the knife, which being brought down, forces it perfectly flat against a piece of iron heated to 350 degrees Fahr. The round form of the quill immediately returns when the pressure is removed, and the barrel is then polished with the rough skin of the dog-fish Occasionally another method of cleaning them is adopted. The ends of the quills are introduced into water, which moistens them by capillary attraction. They are then exposed to the heat of burning charcoal, and while hot, drawn under the edge of a blunt knife, which squeezes them flat and cleans them. The round shape is afterwards readily restored to the quills, by exposing them to heat.

During the elevated temperature to which the quills are subjected, whatever method may be employed for cleaning them, the inner membrane that lines the inside of the barrel of the quill becomes detached, shrivels up, and drops out when the quill is cut, while the outer membrane cracks, and readily peels off. The feather is now removed from the inner edge of the quill, and the quills sorted into rights and lefts, and tied up neatly into bundles of twenty-fives or fifties. The quills are usually sold of three qualities, called primes, seconds, and pennions. The primes are the feathers that have the largest and strongest barrels; the seconds, those of inferior quality; while the pennions are the commonest kinds.

Quills may sometimes be had of a yellow colour; this is produced-to render them more attractive-by immersing them in nitric acid and water. Sometimes the method employed consists in placing the barrel of the quill in a decoction of turmeric previously to cleaning it.

Small pocket machines have occasionally been constructed for the purpose of cutting quill pens; but as they are expensive, apt to get out of order, and are not much used, we shall not stop to describe them. The quill nibs commonly sold in the stationers' shops are thus made. The barrel of the quill is cut off and divided down the centre into two portions, and their edges smoothed off. The lengths are again divided into three or four portions, and the end of each piece is made into a pen.


The text originally downloaded from the source given above in 2002 by Kevin McDermott; the site is still up (devoted to mid-19th C plain sewing, and such), but the quill page is gone, and with it any ascription as to source. The snail-mail address is Hollis & Bell, 171 Skylake, Sautee, Georgia, 30571.

How I Make My Quill Cittern Plectra

Tools: very sharp knife, X-acto or otherwise; good quality nail file or other very fine file; cutting board; small piece of flannel, chamois, or the like; container of sand.

Select quills which have transparent ends, if possible; lacking a local poultry farm or hunting friends for goose quills, try the craft stores.

You'll be making the business end of the plectrum from the top, un-indented, side of the quill, so (for a right-handed player) select right-handed quills, i.e., ones that will bend back and over your hand when holding the finished plectrum like a pen. You can use left-handed quills, too, but sometimes they can be harder to keep in the proper playing position, because they tend to twist away. It depends on the particular structure of the given quill.

Get some "playground sand" at the local hardware store and put it in something heat-resistant (I use a coffee can, which is large enough to do about 8 quills at a time).

Put the container of sand in the oven, set it for 140° F, and let it sit until you think the sand has been thoroughly heated to full temperature.

Carefully take the sand out of the oven and thrust the quills in. Let them sit there for a few minutes, then take the heated quills out and rub them briskly with flannel (or whatever); unless you're using barnyard or hunter's quills, the folks who put up the packages for the craft stores have dealt with all the fat and uck; you're really just polishing.

Lay the quill down on a cutting surface with the indented side of the quill upward. Holding the knifeblade at an angle, carefully cut a conical section from the tube. Depending on the shape you have left, you may want to make small angle cuts on each side of the "point" so there won't be so much filing.

If you find that there's too much tube wall left, you may wish to make a second, paring cut on each side.

Take the nailfile and file the cut you just made; you really don't want anything to catch on the upstrokes, so a nice, smooth back edge is quite important. Lay the cut edge flat on the file first, then smooth the edges as needed.

Now hold the plectrum point up against your forefinger and use the nailfile to round the business end. Once again, you want to make sure everything is nice and smooth. Take your time.

Strip as much of the feathers off the quill as you like, up to making it all go away. I haven't seen any pictures of period plectra that show this kind of detail-but I'm looking! I base my various feather patterns, and the end cuts, on period styles of writing pens. I figure... these were people who dealt with quill pens all the time. Why wouldn't they cut their plectra the same way? Frankly, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that many a writing quill had a second, musical, life.

Good luck!

-Kevin McDermott, July 20, 2005

All site contents, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © Andrew M. Hartig, 1999-2017. All rights reserved.