Technical Library

ACTION V: Real quill

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Using real bird quill…
Although obviously derived from the bird, we use the generic word “quill” to describe harpsichord plectra no matter what material they might be made from.

Interest in the use of real bird quill grew rapidly following a widely-read article in the Summer 2013 Early Music America titled “Bird Quills, the Art of Touch, and Other Pleasures — An Interview with Davitt Moroney”. I suspect, though, that many North American players reading that article felt their beloved instruments were somehow inadequate, or lacking in quality, if they only had the commonplace Delrin or Celcon plectra.

I wanted to be as authentic as possible when I built my first harpsichord in 1980, but there was very little readily-available information on the use of real quill. It was the ever-polite English harpsichordist and conductor, the late Christopher Hogwood, visiting for lunch on one of his frequent engagements for the Australian Chamber Orchestra or The Australian Opera, who informed me that I had my crow quills upside down in my French Double’s pearwood jacks!

Since then, several makers, technicians and musicians have written about the use of real quill, including Hendrik Broekman, Titus Crijnen, Dominic Eckersley, Andreas Gilger, Robert Hicks, Keith Hill, Geert Karman, Jonte Knif, Claude Mercier-Ythier, Grant O’Brien, John Phillips, Tilman Skowroneck, Marc Vogel, David Jacques Way, Denzil Wraight… There is a great diversity of opinion in the best choice, preparation, use and maintenance of quill.

Kirckman tongue mortise 22K jpeg
Original 8´ jack from 1773 Kirckman
with curved tongue mortise to suit crow

Real quill vs Delrin
It’s unlikely an audience member from distance could reasonably detect whether a harpsichord is quilled in plastic or bird. From the perspective of a sensitive player, though, there is considerable difference in the way the tone of real quill can be moulded, and for the given amount of pluck, there is greater efficiency with proportionally more fundamental in tone, and crisper touch. Skillfully-voiced Delrin is good, but can not quite approach the behaviour of real quill.

In an experiment I have heard repeated by others, one of my professional Asian clients tried mixed plectra material—Delrin, Celcon, and a few types of feather from various birds—on odd notes spread throughout his fine European-made instrument. It was impossible for us to say with certainty what material might be plucking which string. But when he had me requill the entire harpsichord in crow, the improvement was marked.

Delrin tends to work-harden, so its touch becomes progressively harder with use and requires adjustment to the voicing. The plastic needs to be of good quality and attention paid to the direction of grain when the plectra are punched from the sheet. It’s essential that Delrin is well-shaped with a sharp knife during voicing, with a smooth underside sliced in an even taper in thickness from tongue to tip: Filing, sanding or scraping leave minute corrugations which weaken the quill and cause premature failure. When Delrin does fail, it tends to break off catastrophically, leaving the note silent—hopefully not in the middle of a concert.

In contrast, real quill may very slowly weaken, but is extremely unlikely to catastrophically fail—unless the quill was loose and has slipped out of the tongue. Rather, depending on the type of bird, it tends to tear in an inverted-V at the tongue giving weaker tone, or split longitudinally, losing crispness and causing a dullness. In both cases, the note still plays, with its altered tone warning that replacement is due. From its first contact until the point of plucking, the quill needs to slip off the string without grabbing, so the hard top surface of the quill must be smooth. Oiling helps prevent a hollow wearing at that point, so the quill won’t tear at the string. If a note suddenly becomes loud, the top of the quill needs burnishing. It can be supported on its underside by your thumbnail while its upper surface is rubbed with your other thumbnail or the offcut calamus of another feather.

A well-voiced instrument in real quill should give decent service for some years, and not require any more noticeable maintenance than one of similar quality in Delrin.

Which bird?
Organic materials were ubiquitous in earlier times: Modern plastics were neither needed nor desired. Feathers from several types of birds have been successfully used in harpsichords then and now. Jakob Adlung, in his Musica mechanica organoedi (Berlin, 1768) recommended raven after dismissing (domestic) goose as being too soft, and ostrich as so strong it could break strings. Martin Skowroneck famously used seagull; Keith Hill feels that the bird should be meat-eating, so prefers vulture. One European supplier sells the latter, along with swan, turkey, goose, buzzard, vulture, and crow.

I’ll confine my remarks on this page to my own direct experience. Since 2014, all my hire instruments have been quilled in Canada goose. The 1773 Jacob & Abraham Kirckman single retains its original jacks and tongues, and has never been quilled in anything other than crow. In its 1956 restoration by Dolmetsch, the four choirs of the 1775 Jacob & Abraham Kirckman double’s tongues were broached square for the then-fashionable leather plectra. As part of its return to original state, I replaced all four choirs of the square-broached tongues with Kirckman reproductions in holly and boxwood, complete with curved mortises for crow.

While all feathers are made of keratin—the same protein material as human hair and fingernails—there are substantial structural differences between feathers of the corvids (crows and ravens), and migratory waterfowl (geese) summarized in the table below. The usable section of the rachis (shaft) of corvid feathers has a distinct arc not unlike human fingernails although obviously a smaller radius. Close examination of the tongues of many original instruments shows that the mortises were punched in a curve to match this arc of the quill. The bad rap given to real quill in recent times was probably due to misunderstanding of this distinction, leading to premature failure of the quill by the stresses it was subject to after having its natural curve forcibly flattened through the usual straight tongue mortise made for Delrin. Ravens, being generally larger birds than crows, have the benefit of longer feather, although they can be harder to find. Most of the usable shaft of corvid feathers is hollow, with a smooth, lighter grey interior.

In contrast, the spine of Canada goose quills is quite flat, rendering them more suitable than crow to retrofit in instruments whose previous Delrin plectra had been fitted into the usual straight tongue mortises. Geese are bigger birds, so naturally more notes can be quilled from the larger feather. The shaft of goose feathers are filled with foam, and when this is carved away, the longitudinal striations are clearly visible. US makers have happily been using Canada goose quills for some years now, as these birds are migratory and considered a pest in many parts. Canada geese are unable to fly for about a month during the moult while they replace all their flight feathers at once. At this time, they feed in the water or congregate on the ground, so their feathers are relatively easy to collect in bulk. The desirable feathers are the first five or six primaries, closest to the ends of the wing. These are the largest feathers from the bird, and on the ground can readily distinguished from a distance by their straight shafts, pointed tips and asymmetrical vanes.

Corvus spp
Branta canadensis
American crow 84K jpeg BIRD Canada goose 75K jpeg
Black COLOR Brown
Hollow, light grey, smooth UPPER RACHIS INTERIOR Foam-filled, with longitudinal striations
Inverted-V USUAL FAILURE PATTERN Longitudinal split
American crow feather 30K jpeg FEATHER
(same scale)
Canada goose feather 28K jpeg

Hints for a good quilling…

  •  Good wooden jacks and tongues are essential: Real quill will never work in plastic jacks
  •  Quill mortise should be slightly angled up at least 6°, and be flat for goose, and an arc for corvids
  •  Choose feathers with smooth, undamaged shafts
  •  Strip or cut off the vanes
  •  Remove the tip where the shaft is too thin
  •  Narrow the shaft in a slight taper, preserving maximum width of the quill to suit the tongue mortise
  •  Commence quilling in the treble, working from the tip end of the feather
  •  Skip down perhaps half an octave or more to quill the next note, working towards the bird end of the same feather
  •  Continue to the bass likewise. Perhaps eight or nine notes might come from the same feather, depending on size
  •  Discard the unpigmented calamus: Quills cut from that part will not prove durable
  •  Smaller feathers can be used for the 4´
  •  Cut the quills to ghost
  •  Do a preliminary voicing. Rather than over-thinning, quills can be carefully swapped from note to note
  •  Remove all the jacks and carefully oil the undersides of the quills

To oil or not to oil?
Quills are kept constantly preened and oiled by the bird when alive, and should be oiled in the instrument. Again, there is a large variety of advice from makers. Some prefer to marinate the quills in oil for several weeks, insisting that not to do so will result in great troubles. Depending on the type of oil used, this can result in a gooey mess. Adlung suggested olive oil, and that was my favorite for several years, sparingly oiling the top surface of the quills until I had read the serious research undertaken by Denzil Wraight. Now I use a light synthetic machine oil and am more concerned about applying oil to the underside of the quill, where the oil wicks into the internal structure of the feather to lubricate it.

Movie thumb 2K jpeg Movie 1K gif Cutting a crow quill plectrum
Carey Beebe demonstrating how to cut a genuine crow quill plectrum for a harpsichord jack.
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Movie thumb 2K jpeg Movie 1K gif Cutting a Canada goose quill plectrum
Carey Beebe demonstrating how to cut a genuine Canada goose quill plectrum for a harpsichord jack.
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