Saturday, October 6, 2012

2. Making the Stylus

To make a stylus, obtain some plain (unvarnished) bamboo or wooden chopsticks. Pick them up at Asian restaurants or food stores. Acquire different kinds for experimentation. 

Bamboo sticks that have a some substance in the handle portion work better than disposable wood sticks which are usually thinner. Bamboo also yields sharper angles from sanding.  But wood sticks can work. 

Some newer disposable sticks come joined at the top (right), which, when split apart, form short but rectangular square blocks at the top. These will work, but they don't have the rectangular body that gives a secure fit in the hand.

You'll also need some sandpaper (120 to 220 grit) and a flat table as a working surface. 

Lay the sandpaper flat on the table, and sand the handle or top end of the chop stick into a rectangle with crisp 90-degree angles.  

Shape the tip so that it has a rectangular shape with 90 degree angles

When sanding, hold the chopstick parallel to (i.e., flat against) the sandpaper. Sand the wide sides of the rectangle first, then the thinner sides. Work different sides until you have a shape similar to the diagram above. 

Sanding the long sides of the stylus

If the rectangular part of the handle is long enough, extend the sanding about 3 inches up the handle, since this long edge can be used to make section division lines in a tablet.  

Also sand the tip flat and square with the sides, if necessary. Put the tip perpendicularly against the sand paper as indicated in picture below.

Sanding the tip

The foregoing instructions create a tip with 90-degrees on all corners. You may want to make another stylus with a slight slight angle in the tip, along the long side of the rectangle. This allows for an easier execution of various small wedges as well as gives a more "italic" flow to the signs overall. (For another picture of a stylus with an angled tip, see here.)

Create the angled tip by sanding the tip end putting extra pressure on one side. The following picture shows two styluses, one with a square and the other with a slightly angled tip.

A stylus with a square tip and another with a slightly angled tip

You will find that after a little practice you should be able to produce a stylus within a couple of minutes.

Later you can experiment making a stylus from reed stock, such as bamboo. Pieces can be split off and then sanded. This can yield a more triangular stylus but it can still be used to make the wedges and signs as described post 5 Making the Basic Wedges. It will have to be sanded to create smooth surfaces.  

Bibliography on the stylus in antiquity: 

Bramanti, Armando. "The Cuneiform Stylus: Some Addenda." At Illustrated discussion of the type of stylus used to write cuneiform.

Cammarosano, Michele. "The Cuneiform Stylus." Mesopotamia. Revista di Archeologia, Epigrafia e Storia Orientale Antica XLIX. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2014. Pp. 53–90 and Pl. 1. (Check for availability on

Finkel, Irving and Jonathan Taylor. Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts. Ancient Scripts Series. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015. A nicely illustrated museum book with good photos of a variety of texts and explanation of the writing system. See pp. 74–80 on the stylus and techniques of writing.