One of the earliest writing implements — and the one that dominated for the longest period in history — was the quill pen, made from a bird feather. So it’s no surprise that the word pen comes from the Latin word penna, which means “quill” or “feather.” Making a quill pen is a charming way to let children explore how our ancestors once scribed their stories, words and drawings. And it can also make a unique, homemade gift for a budding writer!
Of course if you make a quill, you’ll need ink too… the first inks were derived from natural pigments in leaves, nuts and berries. (In fact, in early writings, different ritual meanings were often attributed to various colors.) I’m a sucker for all things “natural,” so I love the idea of making ink from foraged items, even if they are simply gathered from my kitchen.
This fall, take a nature walk with your kids and look for feathers to make quill pens with. Traditionally, wing feathers of large birds were preferred for their strength (such as a goose, owl, hawk or turkey feather). Feathers about 12” long, with a thick shaft, will work best if you can find them. (Turkey quill feathers are also available at most craft stores.) If you come across any berries or walnuts on your walk, gather those too for your ink. Otherwise, everything else you need should be available at your local market.
Materials for Quill Pen
Feathers, preferably about 12″ long or more, with a thick shaft
A sharp knife and cutting board
Start by selecting a feather that’s long enough to feel comfortable in the hand of the writer. It should have a sturdy shaft – or spine – that is not crushed. If you find your feather in nature, it’s a good idea to wash it; gently run it under warm water and smooth away any dirt or debris. (Optional: To make your quill pen last longer, dip the end of the shaft in warm sand for about 30 min., which will harden the point and make it stronger.)
Next, to assist smaller hands in gripping the quill, shave any feathers away from the bottom few inches of the shaft with a sharp knife. Then, determine where you want the writing tip to be and mark it with a marker; the tip should point down, following the natural curve of the feather. Place your feather on a cutting board and cut the end of the shaft at less than a 45 degree angle, so that it forms a point. (Tip: I found a nail file helped smooth any rough edges.) Finally, use tweezers to clean out the inside of the cut shaft.
Your quill is now ready to use! Simply dip it about a 1/4 inch into ink and experiment writing with an instrument used to sign some of the most notable documents in history. It may take some practice to get it right, so keep playing and have fun!
Materials for Homemade Natural Inks
Berries, ½ cup (fresh or frozen)
Distilled white vinegar
Walnut shells (from about 12 nuts)
Small repurposed jars for “inkwells”
How to Make Berry Ink
Use deep colored berries (think cranberries, blueberries, raspberries) to make a naturally-beautiful writing ink! Start with 1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen berries and push them through a strainer to remove seeds, pulp and skin. Add 1/2 teaspoon of vinegar to the berry juice to help it hold its color, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt as a preservative. Mix well and store in a small glass container with a tight-fitting lid.
How to Make Walnut Ink
Walnut shells create a rich, brown ink for use with your quill pen. First, wrap the shells of about 12 walnuts in an old towel, or sock, and hammer them lightly to crush them. Pour the shells into a saucepan, cover them with water, and then let them simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let soak overnight. Strain the shells and add 1/4 teaspoon of vinegar to help hold the color. Store in a small glass container with a tight-fitting lid.
Bonus Fun! Make Invisible Ink
Want to send a secret message? Use invisible ink with your quill pen, made from lemon juice. Squeeze a lemon and dip your quill pen in the juice; write a message on a piece of paper. When the “ink” is dry, hold the paper over a heat source such as a light bulb or toaster (or even a candle, but be careful as the paper can easily burn this way – trust me!). The heat will cause the invisible message to appear in pale brown lettering, as the acid-weakened paper burns before the rest of the paper.
Elizabeth Sniegocki is a writer and advocate of simple, mindful living. She makes her nest in Sarasota, Florida, where she writes, gardens, cooks, crafts and nurtures two sweet little chicks. Elizabeth blogs about natural living, mothering, homesteading and building community at A Natural Nester.
Photos by Marcy Chapman of Hello Sunshine.