The one that didn’t get away


A short saga of hard work and perseverance overcoming a host of challenges on just one scroll. This past week in the Middle Kingdom we elevated three very worthy people to SCA peerage the Order of the Masters of Defence.  One of them was my own warder and he asked me to do the scroll commemorating the occasion.

It was an honor that one does not turn away.  He has done much for me and for me to do this for him would in some small way pay him back for his advice, assistance and instruction.  I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  And because I was repaying him for his work with me I could not and would not charge for this commissioned work.  I strongly recommend that if you do not have such a connection, that as scribes you do charge for your labor and time when working on a commission.  Never for court scrolls.

Life being what it is, I had one day and one day only to work on this scroll, Friday July 3, 2015.  I had previously put in my research on script, period wording and spelling, and had even taken a couple classes at the Known World Heraldic and Scribal Symposium with this scroll in mind.  The velum was purchased, (I was compensated for that,) delivered, of good quality and safely stored awaiting the first strokes on its surface.

I ate a hearty breakfast as I tend to get absorbed into my projects and forget to eat.  The house was guaranteed to be quiet and free of distraction.  The stage was set. At the stroke of 10 in the morning, I washed my hands and set about my work. I cleared off the scribal desk of all distractions, pulled up my scribal resources to have at hand.  Printed out the period wording and using painter’s tape, taped it to my scribal desk for easy reference.  Period wording with period spelling meaning I would be copying letter for letter not just word for word.

I grabbed my uncured feathers, cut them down to size, pealed off the spurs and then went looking for my iron skillet and sand to cure the quills.  I could not find my sand.  I could not find my skillet.  I did not have the time to drive an hour to get more sand for the right kind of sand can not be found in the town I live in.  Well, quills do not always need to be cured to use them, I have to try.  So I cut the quill, scraped the outer lining off and sharpened the quill up.  Dipped the pen into ink and tested it on a scrap.  Nope.  I cut the tip too roughly upon inspection, so I re-cut the tip and resharpened it.  I dipped it again and tested the quill pen again on a scrap.  It simply would not deliver the ink in the proper way.  I grabbed my brause 0.75 nibs, made sure they were in working order and grabbed my favorite pen holder.  I tested them, and yes, they were working just fine.  I cleaned them off.

I grabbed my square and did measurements and fixed my layout.  I drew it down using a lead/tin stylus which is one of several period ways to draw in lines for layout.  It was barely marking the smooth velum surface.  I put in one inch (2.54 cm) border for matting and framing purposes.  I also decided to use the golden ratio inside this border.  It would work well for display purposes.  A period Patent of Arms is a legal document often granting lands and requiring services and taxation payments and so on.  They use up all the available area and are cut or folded to leave no borders, and not space to alter the document by adding in words.  Its a form of very effective tamper resistance/detection.  It is not particularly pretty to look at hanging on a wall.  I did create very little interlinear space but more than would be there for the period legal document.

I went to prick the line spacing down the side of the writing area.  I set the divider to 3 mm and started walking it down the side line.  And I notice that those spaces seemed very small indeed.  After a few of them I checked the spacing.  It was at 1.5 mm somehow.  I reset the divider and walked them down the opposite side line.  It worked well. I then grabbed my square and went to draw in the lines for the wording and again grabbed the lead/tin stylus.  I decided that I did not want to emboss the lines in as I have not seen any legal document with embossed lines. The lines were always drawn in.  The lead/tin stylus simply would not draw any lines.  I cleaned it off, I roughed it up just a tad and still it would not draw any lines on the parchment.  I was forced to switch to a graphite pencil.

I am told by a Lochac laurel that indeed graphite pencils are period for about the last 20 years of the SCA time period if one was a brave forward scribe in Italy.  I haven’t seen evidence of this but I have no reason not to believe the Laurel.  I myself have a scarp of parchment that I have drawn lines with graphite and with led on. They cross in a patchwork.  To date only one person has been able to correctly pick out which is which.  They look almost identical.  And so I drew my lines in graphite.

Why are the lines bowing?  Because the square is not behaving itself and I can’t support it enough the way I’m using it.  I switch the square to the other side and provide more support and now the lines are going on straight without a problem.  If I erase  the lines that are there it can cause more problems.  I plan to leave them in and just work through them knowing which lines are which.  This actually worked very well for me.  Not being the first time I’ve done it.

Okay, time to do some warm-ups on paper.  Its always good to do warm-ups before you do you actual project.  It gets your brain into the calligraphy groove.  It helps you get your thinking processes on calligraphy and it gets your body into the proper form as well.  Why is the ink not getting to the paper correctly?  Hmm.  I clean the nibs again.  I start back on the practice.

My nib is catching.  So is the next one.  I tested these what the heck?!  Fine, I clean them all again drying them carefully and I get out the crocus cloth.  I “sand” down the nibs front and back and sides and underneath to make sure I have all surfaces clean and without catches.  Okay, its good to go. So I go back to practice.  And my nibs keep clogging up.  I check the ink.  Smells normal.  Looks normal.  I dip in my embosser tip and it comes out with a large drop and gummy.

I didn’t add more gum to my ink.  In fact I haven’t added anything to my private stock of ink.  Okay maybe there is some unknown microbe growth on the surface.  I fold over a paper towel, dip it into the surface of the ink and pull it out.  Oh yeah, big section of gummy comes out with it and I throw it away.  I clean my nibs again.

Okay everything is writing correctly now, My practice looks good.  Time to put ink to pen to velum. The first strokes go well but halfway down the line my pen gums up.  Okay, maybe it gummed up while I was switching things over, no big deal I have three more of this size nib, I’ll just use another one.  I switch out the nibs and five minutes later that one gums up as well.  This repeated itself over and over again. The ink is writing well enough but the pens are gumming up.  I take them all and clean them every fifteen minutes for an hour and I stop.  The lettering isn’t as crisp as I would like it to be but still of good quality.  My ink and my pens are fighting one another and another thing I noticed when writing is that the pen is slippery on the parchment surface.

I take a break to clean off my nibs and get something to eat.  And to think about what the heck is going on with the project.  I get my lunch take my break, wash my hands and come back to the page and just look at it.  I look around my scribal desk and make sure everything is as it should be and then I notice the lack of yellow granules.  I forgot to prep the support, in this case the velum, with gum sandarac.  The ink is dry so I go ahead and prep the remainder of the writing area with gum sandarac.  The sandarac does its job very well and the letters crisp up and the hair thin lines are coming out exactly right.  But my nibs are still gumming up.

I stop writing again and check the ink again,  Now not only is it gummy but I’ve noticed it is stringy and even hairy without any actual hair being involved. As you may have noticed on my blog.  I make ink.  I’ve been making this kind of ink for eight years now.  I’ve never seen ink do anything like this.  Not even remotely like this.  I’m happy to have the opportunity to learn something new but I have a project that needs to be completed.  Today.  This project should have taken me four hours from start to finish once I started on it.  I am already four hours into it and only a third of the way done.  The only thing that has consistently gone right for this project is the velum is good quality and no liquid has been spilled on the parchment.  This is my private stock of ink.  The really really good stuff that takes not a small amount of time to come of age and to be a real joy to write with. I dumped it down the sink. Yes.  I really did.  I couldn’t waste more time on it.

I cleaned out the period style ink pot it was in, by the way given to me by the person who commissioned the scroll I was working on.  I set it off to the side and pulled out a period style desk ink horn.  I filled it with the ink I made for the Known World Heradlic and Scribal Symposium.  I cleaned my nibs and dried them.  I checked the spring in the pen holder I was using and it was fine.  I safely moved the project to a flat clean surface.  I grabbed my canned air and blew away loose material from my scribal desk.  I grabbed my horsehair brush and very thoroughly swept the area clean.  I grabbed a dry paper towel and wiped the area down.  I inspected my work area carefully for anything that would or could cause problems.  I checked the ink to make sure it was not gummy and it was not stringy or hairy.  I checked my nibs to make sure they were not clogged up and did not have any micro-material in their capillary crack, under my 20x microscope and I checked their edges while there.

I put the project back onto my slanted scribal desk put my nibs into the pen holder and transformed the cursing in my head into a silent affirmation that I was handling things well. No, i wasn’t.  Well, okay to be fair, I had handled every obstacle and come up with solutions, and the project looked good.  But at this point no, I wasn’t handling things as well as I need to be.  My head was not on calmly doing this project and getting through it.  Everything so far looked good on the project.  It really did.  but I was so frustrated at this point that I simply did not trust myself to keep my cool and proceed with grace and dignity let alone professionalism and the needed calm for doing fine calligraphy. I called my foster-Laurel (a mentor) who does not do calligraphy.  I didn’t want advice.  I was handling every problem that came up and had reasonable solutions for each problem.  I wanted to vent to someone, complain about the things that had come up, let that pressure off and then go back to my project.  He didn’t answer the phone.  I didn’t leave a message.

He did call me back a few minutes later.  And he wisely let me vent, didn’t attempt to offer any advice, asked a few questions and understood my need to vent.  He was off on adventures with a very important person in his life and had called me back.  Feeling less frustrated, I went back to my project.

I sat back down, did some quick test strokes on some scrap and decided I needed to frankenstein the ink a little bit.  It is a completely period practice.  I added some lamp black to the iron gall ink to make it go on blacker instead of waiting for it change from grey to black.  Don’t get me wrong the ink for KWHSS is good ink, it just isn’t as good as my private stock had been.  It does turn black but it just isn’t where I wanted my ink to be for this project.  I did some more test strokes on scrap and it had the desired qualities to it. And then I wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  No more of the problems that had come up at every stage of the project.  Instead I realized I had drawn a stroke too far and needed to change an “n” back into and “r” and I had somehow managed to spell the recipient’s name wrong.  I had it typed correctly.  Heck I could spell it correctly by memory.  But yes, I had gotten it wrong.  So I had to go back and fix that and then scrape it and polish things back down.  Which I did. I finished up with drawing in the capital S at the beginning and leaving space for the arms to be painted in.

It was 5:15 in the early evening (17:15 for those who use 24 hour time).  The project had taken 7.25 hours with all the problems, all the issues and all the solutions, and it was done.  And it looked good.  I went off to be social and my wife finished it up by putting in the arms.  I came back and finished up making the “S” and the arms connect well and it looks good. For your viewing pleasure a picture of the one that did not get away.

MoD - Middle Kingdom - Adhamh MacAoidh.  Batarde script on velum using iron gall and lamp black ink.

MoD – Middle Kingdom – Adhamh MacAoidh. Batarde script on velum using iron gall and lamp black ink.

Interestingly the picture picks up flaws that the human eye simply doesn’t.  I suppose one last thing had to go wrong.  I’m okay with that.

The point of sharing this short saga with you?  Hopefully to help you when you are having a project with problems however slight or however many they may be.  They are practice for when it seems like everything is going wrong.  They are there to train you and to prove to you that you do know what you are doing and you can make this project happen.  The point of me sharing this with you is to help you get through the parts of the project that can be a real grind.  And very much to tell you, you too can come through this and have a good looking project when you get out the other side.

2 responses to “The one that didn’t get away

  1. Thank you. I always appreciate helpful suggestions. The unevenness shown in the picture is not visible to the naked eye as mentioned in the post. It seems to be a function of the issues I was having with the ink. This one was a slog though worth it.

  2. Hi, Ian the Green, Glad to see you’re still in business. The last blog I read sounded pretty desperate. Keep up the work. My one suggestion is that you work harder on consistency. From a distance, the lines look uneven–some spots blacker than others. That usually comes from uneven spacing within or between letters. Otherwise nice work. (examine the page of writing that is the background for this blog and study the even spacing. It’s a wonderful example.)

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