oiling quills: new findings

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

Denzil Wraight has now published his findings about the wear pattern of quill, the best technique for oiling quill, and recommended oils for this purpose in one short article and a rather longer one with extensive explanations at:


This should be seen as a complement, and in some ways a correction, to my own article about voicing which I published earlier on this blog (a link to the PDF version is here). I am presently testing oiling the quills (with Ballistol) in two of my instruments according to Denzil’s recommendations (including the French Double that takes the brunt of my practicing) and my initial experience is positive (see my most recent thoughts in the third comment added to this post, further below on this same page).

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3 Responses to “oiling quills: new findings”

  1. Siebe Henstra Says:

    looking forward! In my Hemsch after quilling and oiling 2 years ago it goes fine without oil:-)

  2. melonsoda Says:

    I have been testing Denzil Wraight’s oiling procedure too; two harpsichords (French double, Italian single), overall usually 2-5 hours practising/rehearsing per day. So far it seems to work with ballistol. However I am not sure if one really has to oil the underside of the plectrum – this could also depend on the kind of feather used. Wraight uses swan, and those have a very smooth surface – I guess to reject water in nature. Same with gull; that’s probably also the reason why swan and gull sound so differently to raven, vulture, condor or eagle (which I couldn’t distinguish in a blind test). I can well imagine that the smooth surface of those swan quills reject the oil more than others.

    Some time ago we had one of our harpsichords in swan/gull, but changed the quills so I can’t really test if the underside absorbs the oil better (unfortunately I’ve thrown away the swan and gull feathers I had left). Now we use raven, condor, griffon vulture and golden eagle, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference which side is oiled.

    Anyway, while I agree the ballistol procedure is interesting, quills getting harder isn’t much of a problem I think. Even with our new harpsichord it happens rarely. If one plectrum gets harder, it’s much simpler just making a new one. That takes about two to five minutes. So why would you want to try to sort of repair those in a 40 minutes oiling procedure in the first place? Or am I missing something here?

  3. skowroneck Says:

    Thanks for your input. There are a few points where I think I can answer, on the basis of my own observations, after about half a year of having the plectra (gull, crow, wild turkey) in some of my instruments treated with ballistol.
    The differences between the sound that various kinds of feathers make in harpsichords undisputed, I believe to have understood that all bird’s feathers are naturally water-repellent, otherwise birds would drop like stones from the sky with every spot of rain. To verify Denzil’s theory that oil is easier absorbed from the underside of quill, one would have to make tests and check the results with a microscope. I am not having that kind of time, and have been happy with developing a rough practical idea about why his idea makes sense. Some types of feather quills are in fact almost visibly more porous (more matt) from the inside than on the outside surface. Thinking of wild turkey and some parts of the crow I’m using here, for instance. Other than that, here’s what I think:
    1) If the surface of the plectrum is oiled, and the oil doesn’t get absorbed in a reasonable timespan, more of it than otherwise will end up on the string, which takes a while to wear off and sounds dull. Not a big deal, but it has been an occasional issue here. I’ve had less of that when oiling the undersides, which seems to support Denzil’s observations.
    2) Many quills are anyway too thick, hard, unbendable, whatever you like, when they are first fitted in the tongue of the jack. Especially the area of the (often black, harder) single ridge of the top of the feather (so, not the round shafty bit) needs always to be cut and smoothened from below in order to work as a plectrum. Any area of a bird quill plectrum where I have been cutting or scraping will absorb oil easier. So in the end, more often than not, Denzil’s idea works out just fine in practice.
    3) I agree that rather often, the problem of quills that seem (!) to get harder/louder (because their surface gets rough and the tone creaky) in new instruments solves itself rather soon, if one keeps doing maintenance regularly during the first few weeks and plays a lot (Stephen Birkett has on the hpschd-l forum pointed out that some historically more appropriate types of wire also might help to solve this issue. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to test that. Working on it). And yes, making a new plectrum isn’t all that much of a deal. The reason I began testing ballistol in my instruments is twofold: curiosity and, to find out whether this treatment has any effect on (subjectively perceived) across-the-keyboard reliability. An additional question I have lined up for my little Italian harpsichord, whether oiling prevents the tendency for hangers, is yet unanswered; I had no time yet to work on that instrument.
    4) The question of whether it is worth spending 40 minutes once to oil all the plectra of an instrument (while, later, simply having a bottle with oil ready for replacements, where all the other quill materials are kept) is personal. I’m curious, so I invested these 40 minutes.

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