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Plastic versus Organic

Some Thoughts on the Subject of Quilling: Including a Method for Voicing Bird Quills

by Keith Hill

"Quilling" is a word used by harpsichordists and harpsichord makers meaning: the deliberation over, the selection, the installation, and the voicing of plucking material. In 1970, the year I started to build instruments, there were three acknowledged and generally accepted materials for plectra: bird quill, leather and delrin.

Bird quill was used as the preferred plectra material throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Back then, anyone who could write could handle a pen knife in order to make quill pens. Hence, one might conjecture, whoever could write should also have been able to voice and maintain the quills in a harpsichord. Even though a harpsichord needed constant attention to keep the quilling in perfect working order, quill, as a material, was simple and straightforward to use. With the advent of the fortepiano, the culture of harpsichord quilling vanished.

When, in the early twentieth century, harpsichords were revived and reintroduced to musical life, the musical taste of the time appeared to have rejected the bright sound of quill in favor of leather, probably because leather sounded more fundamental. Although it was slightly more durable than quill, leather, like quill, did not last very long and was complicated and expensive to replace. By mid-century, a new culture of synthetic materials developed, including "miracle" plastics. At the same time, there was a change in the winds of taste in musical instruments from the bland sounds typical of post-romantic instruments to the bright, thin sounds so characteristic of the neo-baroque or historical-copyist style of instrument making. The marriage between the historical-copyist style of harpsichord making and the synthetics culture happened sometime in the late fifties or early sixties when makers and players alike began experimenting with "synthetic quill" in a quest for the ideal plucking material. And as long as I have been a maker of harpsichords, this synthetic quill usually meant delrin; the now ubiquitous plastic which back then appeared to be the dream come true for harpsichord enthusiasts, i.e., the everlasting plectra--"voice it once and you may never have to voice again". Deluded by infatuation for this product, many harpsichord enthusiasts have become delrin addicts; jaded junkies yearning for the stability and nonfussiness of the modern piano.

Deluded, unfortunately, because delrin ain't all it's cracked up to be. Even though it remains in almost universal use, delrin, like all plectrum materials, has failed to be the "voice it once and never handle it again" material.

Being realistic, the actual advantages of delrin are few. One advantage is that it is very predictable in the way it behaves and sounds. It is easy to learn to deal with because it is so predictable. The other advantage is that it is rather durable when compared to all other usable materials. A harpsichord quilled in delrin, being played about three hours a day, might be expected to continue to function without any attention for about eight months. (This largely depends on how stoutly the plectra are being asked to tug at the strings. A forceful voicing might trim this estimate down by as much as five months and a limp voicing might succeed in extending it by as much as a year.)

The very nature of delrin is that it always gets stiffer with exercise. This is called "work hardening" by aficionados in the plastics business. The longer you play on delrin the louder it seems to get and the more resistance it seems to offer. This happens over some months so that it seems barely noticeable. Finally, it becomes extreme enough to need attention. Because of this behavior, delrin must be periodically revoiced to make it offer less resistance and to even out the sound and bring down the volume to an appropriate level. When this has been done two or three times it is best to start over and install new delrin--a procedure that should happen every two years in the harpsichord of a concertizing harpsichordist but gets put off so that it usually occurs once every five to six years.

The disadvantages of delrin on the other hand are plentiful. Some of the disadvantages are structural and others are acoustical. The most annoying of the disadvantages of delrin is that it breaks unexpectedly. ( It seems as though it chooses to break at the most stressful moments in a harpsichordist's life-at the begining of a concert.) In one important regard, delrin is very predictable. When it breaks it's gone, leaving a gaping hole in the music. Exactly when it breaks is very unpredictable. There are a host of reasons for why it breaks. The most common reasons for why delrin breaks, that I have witnessed, are: 1. because it was inadvertently cut during voicing, 2. because it was weakened during voicing, 3. because it was designed to do so (the case with most "prevoiced" delrin), 4. because the delrin was too old and worn out, 5. because it was scraped rather than shaved during the voicing, and 6. because the material was defective. Whatever the reason for the breakage, it leaves an embarassing silence, very unsettling for the player.

The more pernicious disadvantages of delrin are acoustic. I call them pernicious because few harpsichordists or harpsichord makers appear to notice them. I, for example, merrily used delrin for years, having been convinced by previous experience with more natural products that delrin was the best material for the job. Having prejudiced myself to other alternatives I never looked back. I was wrong. I realize now after more than two years of experience with the real article, bird feathers, exactly how acoustically incompetent delrin is. What follows are three different ways of describing what I intuit is happening which may help explain why I think delrin is so incompetent.

First: Delrin is retarded--it's slow, real slow. The degree of snappiness or springiness, that is, the tendency of the material to return to a position of rest or or to resume its former shape, otherwise know as "elasticity", of delrin is sloth-like in comparison to real quill. To give you an idea of exactly what the effect is like, think of the speech of a person who has an enlarged and short tongue whose speech is garbled and thick and compare that to the speech of Luciano Pavarotti. As unfortunate as this metaphor might be for its choice of examples, it is, nevertheless, apt. The reason for the mumbled, thick and noisy speech of delrin is that its elasticity is, I would guess, about half that of real quill.

Second: Were I to describe what I believe happens physically when a delrin plectrum lifts a string, I would do so by saying: it bends so that just at the moment of release, because of its inherent lack of speed to resume its unbent shape, the plectrum maintains contact with the string for a much longer period of time (than does real quill) as the string passes around the tip of the plectrum. All this appears to happen in an instant. Indeed, it does. But each micro-second of contact a plectrum has with the string increases the amount of thickness in effect and audible noise in the speech of the note.

Third: My intuitive observation might also be described mathematically. That is, a delrin plectrum, when it rises to come in contact to a string, is tangent to a circle (the cross section of a string). Marked 0 degrees at the moment of contact or tangency, the quill, called tangent, might maintain tangency to the circle for as much as, I guestimate at, 120 to 130 degrees around string (the circle) before breaking off and leaving the string to fall. Real quill maintains tangency to the string for about 90 to 95 degrees ( my guess) in a similar situation. The difference in degrees between these two materials is a product of the inherent elasticity in each material. Each degree of tangency accumulates more and more noise. My guess also is that this accounts for why long quills with lots of overbite or extension under the string have such an unpleasant sound--not to speak of the feel.

Another thing that always happens to delrin plectra is that they become tip worn or rounded at the tip. This has its own sound effect. So when you combine the scraping sound imposed on a string by delrin as it passes around the string with the rolling sound imposed on the string by a tip worn delrin plectrum, the effect is revolting. This is especially noticeable by anyone who is acutely aware of the differences between delrin and quill.

The aspect of perniciousness, of which I spoke, is twofold. One, all this noise is usually "tuned out" by the unwitting ear. Two, the amount of noise increases progressively with time and use so usually goes unnoticed precisely because it is so progressive. The question I think needs to be asked is: is it a good idea for musicians to get into the habit of "tuning out" when "tuning in", acquiring an extremely sophisticated awareness, is already so daunting? I don't think it is a good idea.

The last disadvantage to delrin is that it provides no meaningful standard for how harpsichords are supposed to work and feel (forgetting the sound). How is it possible to have a genuine concept of how old harpsichords must have felt to Bach and Scarlatti, et al, when we use plastic plectra? I have found, over the last two years, that real quill has completely different modes of behavior in terms of tone, timbre, touch, and playability (feel) than delrin. All of them are superior in every way to those of delrin. Yet when I go back to using delrin, which I only occasionally do these days, I do find myself voicing delrin in a way differently than I used to. Now I make it conform to the standards of tone, timbre, touch, and feel of quill as much as I can. The result is more interesting than what I used to get, nevertheless, it still feels and sounds like plastic.

In spite of these disadvantages delrin will remain in continuous use, basically, because people have become accustomed to not having to pay attention to their musical instruments. That is, they want musical instruments which they can treat like household furniture. For this, delrin is ideal.

The alternative to delrin is, of course, the genuine article--real bird feathers.

My own ignorance about bird feathers ended when I had the experience of hearing the stuff used on one of my own instruments. My brother, Robert, an experienced harpsichordist, had quilled his Italian harpsichord in bird quill. He phoned me one night full of enthusiasm over the sound of quill. All of his coaxing fell on deaf ears. I had had some experiences with crow quills back in the early seventies and was decidedly turned off to the idea of using quills. After an hour of waxing ecstatic, Robert persuaded me to hear the results of his quilling. I agreed. What I heard when I finally played his instrument so astonished my ears that I needed no more than two or three chords to know that I would never again blithly use delrin.

Musically, the best way I could describe the effect is to say that the difference is most like the difference between insipid and feeble violin playing and the playing of a supremely confident virtuoso violinist. Delrin sounded sickly, tired, and dirty. Quill had the affect of virility, forthrightness, and cleanliness. Delrin sounded blah and quill sounded gripping and intense.

Having been suitably convinced, I got some bird quills and quilled up a harpsichord with it. I had some problems with the quill, at first, but nothing insurmountable. The biggest problem was hangers, jacks not returning to playing position. Practically every note would hang. After not a little experimentation, I arrived at a way of working with quill which I happily share with you, should you care to try the real thing for yourself.

The biggest problems with quills are the problems of determining what kind to get and where to acquire them. I thought about the first problem for some time and determined the following: 1. that the best feathers to use for harpsichords are feathers from a meat eating bird. Since feathers are made up of proteins, it seems reasonable and logical to me that protein eating birds might make feathers of greater toughness than those of vegetarian birds. That has since proved to be true. 2. The feathers should come from a flying bird rather than a land bird. My reasoning for this is that the genetic makeup in the feathers of birds that actually have to use their feathers for lifting them into the air would yield feathers of greater durability than those of land birds. The requirements of flexibility and strength for flying feathers should make them also more long lasting in a harpsichord. 3. The feathers should come from birds of some significant size. Larger feathers produce more quills and are stronger in structure than feathers from smaller birds. Finally, 4. the feathers had to come from a non-endangered species of bird. The choice of bird I arrived at was the ugly Vulture. How ironic that such a creature might, in the end, produce so much beauty.

My source for these feathers is a Mr. Mark Vogel of Talgasse 2, Postfach 1245, D - 7893 Jestetten 1, West Germany. Mr. Vogel ( I love the pun) sells feathers (called Feder in German) from Vulture (called Geier) among others. His telephone number, dialed from the US, is: 011 - 49 - 7745 - 8156. His Fax number is: 011 - 49 - 7745 - 1669. He has a catalogue for harpsichord parts which includes all the types of feathers he offers.

Preparing Quill for Voicing

Voicing Tools-1.jpg My method is designed to make the job of quilling as quick, efficient, uniform, and reliable as possible. I structure it in a series of steps. Here is a list of the tools you will need: one voicing knife, one pair of flush-cutting nippers, one small smooth-faced pair of needle-nose pliers, a large jeweler's screwdriver, and a hardwood voicing block.

Step 1. Once you have a feather in hand, hold the feather with the top side of the feather facing you; tip up and base down. Beginning at a place where the shaft of the feather is wide enough to use as a plectrum, strip the feather by pulling on the feathery portion of the feather (called barbs) in a direction that is down, out or away from you, and across the back of the shaft of the feather.

The idea behind this step is to produce a feather that is stripped clean of everything except the main center stem or shaft of the feather without damaging the top surface of the shaft. You can tell the top or front from the back of the feather because the front is usually smooth, hard, and convex and the back has a U-shaped groove running down the center of it. You will be using only the top surface of the shaft for your quill plectra.

Step 2. Lay the shaft down on its side on a cutting board and using a sharp voicing knife cut into the side of the shaft, into the pith (a styrofoam-like material that is usually extremely white in color), and slice through the pith along the length of the shaft from the barrel of the quill to the tip. This will allow you to remove from the shaft the furrowed or grooved section which is the back of the quill.

The idea behind this step is twofold. One: you want to end up with the quill stripped of both the barbs (which grow off the side of the shaft) and of the back. Two: you want to pay attention to the quality of the pith as you are cutting it. The softer and punkier it is the less resilient the quill will be in the harpsichord. The firmer and more solid the pith is the more resilient the quill will be. Avoid using feathers with extremely soft punky pith for the eight foot registers--you may regret it. These feathers should be saved for quilling your four foot register.

Step 3. Now that you have removed the barbs and the back from the quill, snip the part of the tip end off just at the point where the quill is wide enough to fit snugly into the quill hole in the tongue. Caution: if you try to insert a quill that is too narrow for the quill hole, it will probably fall out after a few plucks. Then snip of the barrel or base portion of the quill just at the point where the barrel or hollow part at the base of the quill end and the pith filled part begins. Caution: if you try to use any portion of the barrel for plectra you will find them weak and having no durability.

The idea behind this step is to end up with only what you will actually use for quills in your harpsichord. Everything excess is eliminated. What you should be holding at this point is a piece of feather which includes only the top portion of the shaft (the hard, smooth, convex portion) that also has some pith showing on its back side. It is important to make sure that there is pith on the this strip of quill because the pith is very useful in helping keep the plectra from slipping out once they are installed.

Step 4. If you are going to quill a whole register of jacks, repeat steps 1, 2 , & 3 on six to eight more feathers before going to step five.

The idea behind this step is that by having six to eight feathers prepared you can proceed to quill all the jacks by using each quill plectrum made following the next few steps, one to a jack for eight jacks, then doing the same thing over and over again. Gradually the quill gets stiffer and stiffer as it gets closer to the base of the quill. Stiffness translates into loudness. You want to have the least stiff quill in the treble and the most stiff quill in the bass. But you want to have the plectra stiff enough for each note, so it is best to try the volume level immediately after installing the quill into the treblemost jacks to determine if it is stiff enough.

Step 5. Remove, by slicing, the pith from the back or underside of the quill just at the tip of the quill. Do this so that the first 2 millimeters of quill have little or no pith underneath, so that the next 2 millimeters of quill have a little pith left underneath, so that the next 2 millimeters of quill have as much of the pith as they have of the top in thickness, so that the next 2 millimeters have yet more pith underneath, and so on up to 10 or 12 millimeters down from the tip.

Step 6. If the quill is just the right width for inserting into the quill hole, insert the quill into the hole in the jack tongue until is appears that you can not push it further with your fingers. Caution: do not crush or bend the quill as doing so will render that bent portion of the quill useless. If the quill is too wide, use a sharp knife to carve it down to the right size to get it into the hole to that it stops fast in the hole when the quill is long enough and the pith is thick enough to help hold the quill in place. It may take several attempts at first to learn exactly how to carve the quills to width to get it right the first time every time. Do not under any circumstances shape real quill to a point. If you do, you will invite an early failure of such shaped quills. ( Look to the section below called Observations on Quills, paragraph C for the explanation.) Instead, keep the quill as wide as possible.

Step 7. Using a pair of flush-cutting nippers, cut the quill off at the back of the tongue leaving about 2 or 3 millimeters of quill sticking out the back.

Step 8. Using a small pair of needle-nose pliers (that have smooth gripping surfaces--not serrated!), grab the end of the quill about 1 millimeter from the back of the tongue and push the quill in until the quill is securely fixed in the hole. Caution: Always place a block on the side of the jack opposite the side you are pushing from and hold it firmly in place to prevent any accidents that might break the tongue. It is easy to slip when pushing the quills either in from the back or out from the front. If you slip, you are likely to break the tongue. I don't think you want to do this.

Step 9. Insert the jack into its hole in the register and determine how much quill length needs to be either removed or added. To remove quill from the front of the plectrum, turn the jack up side down, place the quill on a small block of hardwood, then cut the quill to remove any excess.

To determine what excessive means, cut the quill to length so that the quill does not extend beyond the string more than the width or diameter of the string it needs to pluck. More than this is excessive. Less than this could make it unreliable. Sometimes the individual quill may need to have a bit more under the string than this. You need to observe how each piece of quill behaves and respond to what it needs to get the most out of it.

Step 10. Snip any excess quill off the back of the tongue. Anything over 1 millimeter of quill showing out the back is excessive. Should you need to extend the quill further, use a small screwdriver to push the quill through from the back. Always reinforce the tongue against possible breakage with the voicing block when doing this.

Having done each step to each jack in the register, you are ready to voice.

Voicing and Regulating Quill

There are only a few things to say about this.

1. It is almost impossible to make quill sound ugly. Voicing quill loudly makes the harpsichord sound loud but not more harsh. If you get a harsh sound, it is likely that the harpsichord itself is responsible for that effect. This means that you should voice the harpsichord mainly for the touch. However you think the quill feels to your fingers and hand should be the way to determine how loud the voicing should be. If you detest a tough feel, voice the instrument softly. If you detest a flaccid feel, voice the instrument for strength of sound. Only you are the best judge of what is right for you.

Also be aware that the inherent quality of tone and the inherent volume of tone in the instrument itself is going to force you to voice for more or less toughness in the touch. The weaker the tone of the harpsichord, the tougher feeling the touch will be even for a soft voicing. The stronger the tone of the harpsichord, the more flexibility it will afford you to make those decisions for your self. The best harpsichords will let you do almost anything you want and it will work. I find that something which is too easy to play is often the most dangerous in a concert situation.

2. Quill voices very easily because of the layered structure of the top of the quill. You can slice away part of a layer at the tip of the quill or a part of a layer from the root of the quill or even a whole layer uniformly because the color of the quill changes with each layer. Also the layers slice or peel away without a struggle. Remember this: Voicing is easy because of this structure but CUTTING the quill to length with the knife can be downright dangerous because it is so hard to cut. It is easy to slip off the quill while cutting it and run the knife into your fingers. So be careful about this.

3. If you make a mistake and take too much off the underside of the quill, remove the quill from the tongue and save it for putting into the four foot register.

4. I use the largest, most resilient quills from a bird for the rear eight foot register, the intermediate size quills for the upper eight foot register, and the smallest size quills for the four foot register.

5. The most exasperating problem one faces using real quills is the problem of hangers. This is a result of the structure of the quill. It is the soft, hence, rough pithy material on the underside of the quill that causes most of the problems. To remedy this, be sure to slice away all of that pithy material from the underside of the very tip of the quill with a very sharp knife before you proceed with voicing the quill. Once you have voiced the entire register then take out each jack one at a time and using an extremely soft leaded graphite drawing pencil, apply a heavy coat of graphite to just the underside of the tip of the quill. This will solve most of the hanging problems. Usually, the other cause for hangers then will be a tongue spring that is too taut. For this, ease the spring carefully so as not to ruin it.

6. Selecting the correct length for the quills in a register can be a problem for delrin but is almost never a problem for quill. No matter how short a quill may be, the touch is never unpleasant; as it always is for delrin. However, long quills sound weaker than short quills. So if you have strong quills, say from an Eagle, you can make them longer than you otherwise might have them be if they came from a Raven. When I proceed to work with Vulture feathers, I normally like to have the rear 8' register set up with quills that are 4,5 millimeters in length, the forward 8' register set up with quills that are 3,5 millimeters in length, and the 4' register set up for a quill length of 2,5-3,0 millimeters (in some cases they need to be shorter). These quill lengths I amend to be longer or shorter depending on the inherent strength of the quills I am using.

The touch becomes viscous feeling when the quills are too long and strong. When too short and strong, it tends to feel like snapping fresh twigs. The middle way is the best--very crisp yet somewhat springy, like a diving board, to the touch. Quills which are left too loud will wear out much faster than ones which are voiced more softly.

7. The last and most important thing to observe when voicing is the oiling. This is a procedure that should be done as often as is needed. The quills need to be oiled when they have been standing too long without having been played--they should not be allowed to dry out or they will become brittle and break. The quills need to be oiled after some time of playing when they begin to feel tough and begin to sound like they are getting coarse and loud without any apparent reason. If you do not maintain your quills just as a bird does, that is , on a regular basis, the strings will start to eat into the plucking tip of the quill or they will embrittle and break. If you look at your quills and they appear dry, they probably are.

You want to oil your quills with a small watercolor brush. Dip the brush into the oil and then attempt to remove all of the oil from the brush on the side of the oil bottle. Even then you want to make sure that the brush is dry enough before oiling the quills. Test the brush out on your finger nail. If it leaves a film, it is properly loaded for oiling your quills. If you can make it leave a tiny droplet on your nail, there is too much oil in your brush, dry it out some more. It is better to oil your quills with a brush that is too dry than one which is too wet. A droplet on the quill may transfer to the string, damping the sound of the string, or it may leak into the tongue and travel down the tongue and get into the axle hole and gum that up. Take notice: Oiling your quills is essential to living happily with quill but if you do not do it with sensitivity to the consequences you shall surely have a non-drying oil all over your harpsichord action. This may eventually necessitate replacing the entire action so be really mindful when you are oiling the quills.

Note: the type of oil you need to use should be non-drying and relatively thin. A low acid vegetable oil would do. Your own body oil (from your forehead) is ideal. Goose fat might do although I have never used it. Lanolin might do also. I have never tried these. I use EMU oil.

8. Every action we take is the indirect result of an attitude or way of thinking we harbor. The way we think is directly responsible for our decisions. Our decisions determine our actions. How you think about voicing will determine what you do when you are voicing. The question is: what is the best way to think about voicing? I believe that the best way to answer this question is to look at both extremes of what voicing can be and decide how to best think about the issue.

At the most crude level of voicing you have no voicing at all. Everything's haphazard. Everything is without reason. Everything is unpredictable. Hence, everything is dangerous to play. If you came across an instrument set up like this, no doubt you would consider the results incompetent.

The exact opposite of this is an over-refined level of voicing. With such a voicing everything is completely regular. Everything is made to conform to a pre-conceived ideal. Everything is absolutely predictable. Hence, everything is perfectly boring. If you encountered an instrument voiced this way you would likely not pay much attention to the voicing.

In my opinion, both ways of voicing are flawed. The crude way of voicing is indeed incompetent because it is uncraftsmanly. But the over-refined way of voicing is equally incompetent but in a more deleterious way; because it is unmusical. It is unmusical because it is purposely monotonous. Anything which is even slightly monotonous will quickly put the mind to sleep. Is this a worthwhile goal for the finishing of an instrument of music?

The ideal voicing should enhance the differences in each and every note and should subdue the "sticking-out" effect that often accompanies this way of voicing. (If something sticks out, it really sticks out. It becomes the only thing the mind will notice.) Yet it should allow for the maximum control over flexibility of sound, as the player sees fit. The easiest way to think about this voicing is to imagine a row of twelve soft drink bottles, all having approximately the same size yet each having a different shape and color. This is how an ideal voicing should appear to the ear. [A crude voicing, using the same analogy, would have bottles of radically differing sizes, shapes and colors; each one breaking with a bang at the moment you play it. And an over-refined voicing would have bottles of the exactly the same size, shape, and color.] The crude voicing jolts the senses with each note. The over-refined voicing lulls the senses to inattention and finally to sleep. While the ideal voicing touches the senses in a way that seems natural and easy. In the end, its best justification for being is that it illuminates polyphony--highlighting each note in a line and giving each voice its special attention.

Some Observations about Quill

A. I do not recommend bothering to quill a mediocre harpsichord. It is so hard to tell the difference between delrin and quill in such an instrument that is largely a waste of time. If you can hear the difference in your own instrument and it convinces you then put it in quill, it will feel better if not sound better.

B. I have had no luck quilling plastic jacks with plastic tongues, maybe you will but I doubt it. The quill always falls out after a while. The plastic is too slippery to hold the natural material.

C. For any of you who might be concerned about the killing of birds just for the feathers, there is no need to worry. Birds lose their feathers every year. The process is called molting. The feathers can be harvested each year for as long as the birds are alive. I do this with my flock of geese which I raise specifically for this function. I give their feathers as inexpensive replacements to my patrons to augment their quilling needs.

D. If you are quilling a whole harpsichord, be aware that the process takes about twice as long to do as does the same thing with delrin. But, oddly, to make replacements for quill is much faster than for delrin.

E. I have used the word break to describe what happens when you have to replace a quill. Actually, quill never breaks. This is one of the most redeeming features of quill--it never truly breaks; it fails. Unlike delrin which always leaves a hole in the sound when it fails, failure in a quill means that the quill gets suddenly softer than the other quills. It will continue to play as it always has, it is just somewhat softer. In a really good harpsichord, the only one who might notice this would be the player, not members of the audience, because the note feels lighter and sounds much softer. Yet out in the concert hall, The sound appears almost the same.

F. The reason for why quill never breaks is because of its structure. The structure is made up of layers and layers of a hard fingernail-like substance. Each layer also has rod-like structures that seem to be in a direction along the length of the shaft of the feather. This twofold structure makes quill very strong for its mass. So when quill fails it will do so when a layer fails or when there is a split between the rod-like structures. Such a quill will continue to function, but only at about half steam. So players need never fear the loss of a note in the middle of a concert.

G. It is because quill is so hard when you attempt to cut it to length that you need to always keep the top surface of your voicing block fresh and clean. I do this by rotating the surface with each new cut and by avoiding having a new cut occur where an earlier cut was made. The reason for this is that the quill is flexible enough to follow the knife edge down into the old cut mark in the block. When this happens, the plectrum acquires a slight hook at the tip of the quill. I usually use several blocks to voice one register of quill ; after which I refresh the cutting surfaces with a file or a machine sander.

Others who have some experience with quill suggest the following:

H. Keep quill strips ready in a jar along with a bit of oil. I have tried this for some time and dislike handling the oily quill while installing it.

I. Playing with a brutal touch degrades quill faster than playing with a mindful, sensitive, relaxed touch. Where a harpsichord is exposed to the possibility of being played by players who sport a set of power chops, mercifully keep such an instrument in delrin. Players like that probably won't notice the difference anyway.

J. Quill is not for everyone. Where time and attention are hard to come by, delrin is ideal. When priorities other than harpsichord maintenance require your tender loving care, delrin is ideal. In a situation where no one is prepared to care for a harpsichord, delrin is ideal.


I hope that the thoughts presented here will encourage you to try using quill in your own instruments. It is worth your time and energy to investigate the use of quill. I do not yet have sufficient experience to determine exactly how long quill will last. But by the last report, some harpsichords which I quilled two years ago are still going strong. The owners report that even being used 8 to 10 hours a day 6 days a week, the quills are still playing and sounding beautiful. The reported casualties average one quill every two or three weeks divided between several instruments. Those who report multiple casualties are those who invariably have a casual attitude about oiling their quills or whose strings have rusted to the point of abrading their quills.

I also hope that what I have offered here has helped to dispel some of the mis-notions that exist in the minds of harpsichordists and harpsichord makers about using the original material. In our headlong plunge into authenticity, we clearly have missed something very important in this regard. Harpsichordists who are only acquainted with delrin and are unwilling to learn to live with quill are missing a very beautiful experience. Those whose instruments I have quilled find that they actually love working with the quill once they get to know it. Try it--perhaps you'll like it!

Here is a link to another site that has some good information based on experience as well regarding the oiling of quills.