Georgian Court University
Making a Reed Pen
Grade/Level: 6, 7, 8
Estimated Time Frame: One class period
Subject(s): Language Arts (English), Media Studies, Research
Introduction: Reed pens revolutionized the writing systems of the Egyptians by replacing the stone on stone method of writing and allowing a much higher degree of fine-scale detail in the hieroglyphs produced. From Ancient Egyptian times to the Middle Ages, use of reed pens dominated the writing systems of many cultures. However, reed pens donít retain a sharp point for very long, and eventually they were replaced by quill pens made from the feathers of large birds. In this lesson students will make and use a reed pen that resembles those used by Ancient Egyptians.
New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards
STANDARD 1.2 (Creation and Performance) All students will utilize those skills, media, methods, and technologies appropriate to each art form in the creation, performance, and presentation of dance, music, theater, and visual art
D. Visual Art
STANDARD 1.5 (History/Culture) All students will understand and analyze the role, development, and continuing influence of the arts in relation to world cultures, history, and society.
The activity also addresses National Standards in the Social Studies standards 1 (culture), 3 (people, places and environments)
∑ Phragmites stems (If you do not have any of this plant growing on school property, we suggest contacting local parks or anyone responsible for maintaining public spaces such as parks, game fields etc. They are often all too pleased to get rid of as much of this plant as you are willing to take. However please take care not to disperse seeds from one location to another by collecting and transporting specimens with flowering heads. Since you don't need the flowers / seed heads, be sure to cut them off and leave them where the plants were growing)
∑ Bowl or bucket of water
∑ Sharp utility knife
∑ Hard cutting surface
∑ Ink or paint (India ink works best)
1. Choose a section of Phragmites stem thatís free of any splits, cracks or other damage that may make the "pen" fall apart later. You will need a section of reed thatís about 8 inches long.
2. Soak the narrow end of the reed (the end that will be the "nib") in water for at least 15 minutes so that it wonít splinter when you cut it
3. Cut the nib end on an oblique angle using a sharp craft knife, X-Acto knife or penknife (Trivia Factoid: thatís actually how penknives got their name - they were used to cut the nibs on pens!). Whatever knife you use, cut very carefully, always cutting away from yourself. Also, make sure that youíre cutting on a firm surface that wonít be damaged if the knife hits it.
4. Starting about 1/2" from the end, use your knife to cut a curve from the back to the point at the end. Whittle at the pen to make it thinner and evenly curved with a point by slicing another, sharper-angled oblique slash into the previous cut.
5. Don't try to form the nib in one or two swipes. Progressively carve it down until it has about the shape of a fountain or dip penís nib (see pictures below). Remember that it's easier to trim more off later than to have to start all over again because you cut off too much. Also, try to make the tip come to a flat before the end, because you will be cutting off the end to make the square nib later on. The finer the tip that you whittle, the finer the detail you will get from the resulting pen. Depending on what you are looking for, you can go from a thick "poster" pen to a finer-scale writing implement. Youíre never going to get a micro-thin line with this kind of pen, but you can improve the fine resolution by gently scraping the inside edge of the tip of the nib to create a thinner wall toward the end (donít go nuts here though, since if you make the nib too thin it will just break from the force of writing with it).
6. Clean out any pith from the inside of the reedís stem, but scrape gently so that you donít damage the outer tube.
7, Hold the pen against a flat surface and press down with a sharp knife to square off the end. This forms your writing edge (see below).
8. Make a small slit in the center of the top side of the newly formed nib. This slit should be at a right angle to the writing edge. For best results, put the pen flat on a hard surface and press a very fine-bladed knife gently into the center of the tip to start the split.
9. The slit can then be lengthened by placing a pencil or a brush-handle under the nib, gently twitched upwards to lengthen the slit. Be careful, here. You only want to split the nib, not the whole pen! An ordinary reed should have a slit about Ĺ to ĺ inch long.
10. To prevent the reed from splitting too far up, place a thumb nail against the back of the pen about ĺ inch from the tip.
11. You can try dipping the pen in ink and using it to write. However, this often results in a lot of blots because the pen is overloaded with ink. Try loading the pen by using a dropper to put ink into the back (the hollow side) of the reed.
12. When writing, you will tend to find that the ink flow requires that the pen be held at a higher angle (more toward the "vertical") than a regular pen in order to help the ink to flow. Also, since thereís no real reservoir of ink, you will find that the pen needs to be "re-inked" every few letters.
Have students use their new pens to create calligraphy versions of their biopoem, or to create their own hieroglyphics. Alternately, they can copy real Egyptian glyphs (e.g. http://karenswhimsy.com/hieroglyphics.shtm)
Sources of methods and images for this activity:
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© 2009. Louise Wootton, Edited by Claire Gallagher
Although the information in this document has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement NE97262206 to Georgian Court University, it has not gone through the Agency's publications review process and, therefore, may not necessarily reflect the views of the Agency and no official endorsement should be inferred.