Advertise here with Carbon Ads

This site is made possible by member support. ❤️

Big thanks to Arcustech for hosting the site and offering amazing tech support.

When you buy through links on, I may earn an affiliate commission. Thanks for supporting the site! home of fine hypertext products since 1998.

🍔  💀  📸  😭  🕳️  🤠  🎬  🥔

Loving pencils

Three years ago, I came across a post on the Sharpie blog — I don’t know how or why I was following Sharpie’s blog, but such were the mysteries of our universe in those long-ago days — announcing a new kind of pencil: a mechanical pencil with liquid graphite ink, with leads that could not break, whose writing was initially erasable but over time (about three days) would become semi-permanent.

Sharpie eventually had to back off some of its claims for the liquid pencil — the original promo material said pencil would become permanent like a Sharpie Marker, which isn’t quite true — but they brought them to market, and sell them for about $3 apiece. (Sadly, the reviews aren’t very good.)

People love pencils. They love them. It’s partly childhood nostalgia, partly how a craftsman comes to care for her tools, and partly the tactile experience. It’s also a blend of appreciation for both their aesthetic and functional qualities, and (especially these days, but not only these days), a soupçon of the disruptive passion that comes from willfully embracing what poses as the technologically obsolete.

Over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen has a story about Pencil Revolution, which she quite rightly calls “The World’s Best Website About Pencils.” She lists ten representative posts, from which I’ll select my favorite five:

I found these at Staples (in the US) a few weeks ago and bought a pack. At $10 for three dozen, it was a pretty good deal. Less than $3.50 for some quality pencils is something I’d find it difficult to pass up. But three dozen is…a commitment to make to the Pencil Gods, when the pencil might just be terrible. I mean, they are pencils. One can’t just throw them away if they turn out to be awful. Luckily, these pencils are not awful at all. Unluckily, having a Big Box means that I’ve given most of them away already.

I feel like there’s something powerful about pencils that I feel viscerally but don’t fully understand. There’s the manuscript part: as much as I love to type, there’s something super powerful in that alignment of the eye and the hand. But that’s pens and chalk and crayons and markers too, and I have completely different feelings about all of these things.

In “Why pencils?” Pencil Revolution’s founder Johnny Gamber tries to explain:

The first and best reason to use pencils is because you like them and enjoy writing/drawing with them. Because you feel better connected to the paper you’re writing on (or the wall, etc.) and the earth from which the clay, the graphite and the wood all came. Because they smell good. Because sharpening them can be a sort of meditative process. Because you can chew on them. Or for reasons we can’t explain.

The point is that it’s best to write with what we like best, no? I’ll admit to enjoying taking notes and writing papers and poems with pencils better than pens. That’s the biggest reason that I use pencils at all.

Maybe it’s that sense of work that’s best realized in sharpening: the continual, attentive maintenance to a thing that’s ultimately, necessarily, and even intentionally disposable. To adapt George Carlin’s observation, when you buy a pencil, you know it’s going to end badly. You’re buying a small tragedy. Caring for a pencil becomes like caring for a pet, or a person, in accelerated miniature, like in time-lapse photography.

Pencils are like love. Pencils are like us. They are free to love, free to squander, and free to give away.

I’m going to do something rare here at Kottke and open up the comments. I’ll close them down at the end of the day. Do you love pencils? Do you hate them? Why? What’s your favorite pencil? What’s your best pencil story? Did a pencil ever break your heart?

Reader comments

DougAug 29, 2013 at 9:06AM

Use a pen and commit to your words.

JoshAug 29, 2013 at 9:06AM

I'm always loathe to sharpen a new pencil because it instantly condenses the infinite possibilities that new pencil represents into a bunch of scribbles that rarely live up to my dreams for that pencil.

AndreaAug 29, 2013 at 9:10AM

Love pencils. Hate erasers.

christopher josephAug 29, 2013 at 9:11AM

Graphite used to cover my left hand from dragging it across the page as I wrote in grade school. I still love them, though. My favorite is "stolen" from a bowling alley. Thicker than normal lead that glides smoothly across the paper. Sadly, it's the last of its kind, since they graduated to electronic scoring. Quite precious, indeed.

Ron DomingueAug 29, 2013 at 9:14AM

I prefer to using the Staedtler mechanical lead holders and bounce between the 3B and HB lead softness for doing gesture drawings. I also like using a Stabilo grease pencil for freehand work because it glides across most surfaces but you have to sharpen it constantly. Then there is a trust old black Prismacolor for shading and some detail work I often use.

acmAug 29, 2013 at 9:15AM

love pencils, partial to Mirado Black Warriors, which we use at work (editing). I like erasers that work, but I *hate* the effect of using a dried-out eraser attached to an old pencil -- it doesn't just fail you, but it actually makes things worse while setting your teeth on edge. feh!

Jonathan FreiAug 29, 2013 at 9:19AM

I love the feel of pencils, but being a lefty, I always end up with smear of pencil lead on the edge of my hand.

Austin KleonAug 29, 2013 at 9:20AM

If you don't like pencils, you just haven't met the right one. Clive Thompson got me hooked on Blackwing Palaminos:

DavidAug 29, 2013 at 9:24AM

I enjoy the emotional connection I have to pencils from childhood. I enjoy the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil. I enjoy the mechanics of an old manual sharpener, and recall marveling at how the crank turned the shaft that did the sharpening. And I remember how easy life became once that wonderment wore off and I discovered the joy of electric sharpeners that do the work for you. But I really can't stand actually writing with a pencil. And I don't miss the inevitable mess from emptying a full sharpener. And the eraser never lasted as long as I needed it to. So overall, I don't miss using pencils, but I still recall them fondly.

BrigidAug 29, 2013 at 9:26AM

Liked pencils only inasmuch as then I had a reason to use Pink Pearl erasers. God I loved those things. So many opportunities to make mistakes.

Bg PorterAug 29, 2013 at 9:28AM

My Dad was a mechanical engineer -- in the 80s when the field shifted over to computers, he gave me a briefcase full of all his now useless drafting gear including a bunch of Staedtler lead holders. When I went off to college to study composition, I took all that gear, and when everyone else's work looked like it was done with jumbo crayons, my pieces all looked like the work of the son of a mechanical engineer. Now, my son who's about to be a junior in high school has decided that he wants to be a landscape architect. Bought him a book on Landscape Architectural Graphics and an awesome briefcase full of drafting gear.

rantiAug 29, 2013 at 9:28AM

I have a 16 Qt. plastic box filled with pencils I collected from various cultural & education institutions (mostly museums), from exhibit floors (companies), sport events, and anything with distinct design or shape.

JeremyAug 29, 2013 at 9:29AM

Pencils are my nemesis. As a lefty I spent most of elementary school with the ulnar side of my hand grey from rubbed-off pencil lead, not to mention the "sloppy" comments teachers would leave on my smudged homework.

I viewed each freshly sharpened pencil like a new love, "Maybe this one will work out and not besmirch me publicly." It's not a mistake I'll make again.

Wile E CoyoteAug 29, 2013 at 9:36AM

It's true, I'm a pencil person. Not for writing, mind you (I generally loathe hand writing things. Typing was a big benefit to me ever since 'they' tried so desperately to teach me the useless skill of cursive.

But drawing and diagramming? Even though I work as an engineer, I went to school for fine arts. With about a decade of drawing on rocks with grease pencils (stone lithography) I have a well developed factual hand. There's something magical about drawing in general, and whenever I start blasting down a diagram every adult in the room suddenly turns in to a kid again when they realize I can actually draw and they get to see it happen as a live performance.

So why pencils over ink, brush, etc? I'm not entirely sure, but I think it's the drawing on rocks thing. With that, the instrument gives and the limestone does not. You can vary this with different kinds of instruments (conte crayons, for example, a little stiffer but still some give). So you can vary your line with pressure much more easily than you can with a pen or marker.

So it is with pencils: the paper gives a bit, you can vary this with more or fewer layers underneath (or the type of paper), and the pencil is quite solid. Or at least that's my theory. Either way it's a very satisfying experience, even when I don't take advantage of the ability to erase things.

Kyle EAug 29, 2013 at 9:40AM

I found a fancy mechanical pencil freshman year in college. I ended up using for every scantron test I took for four years. I still have it today, 10 years later. I almost feel it earned the degree more than I did. Pencils rock.

TobyAug 29, 2013 at 9:45AM

Pencils visualise thought processes, while pens say "That's it, no discussion." (That's why our design agency logo is a pencil.) I used to have something like this e+m, but you have just brought to my attention I don't know where the hell it is.

TJ EdisonAug 29, 2013 at 9:48AM

Did you read the comments for those Sharpie pencils (at the link from the tweet)? They are terrible. I thought it was just me: as a pencil lover and mechanical pencil user I bought a package of the Sharpie pencils. I agree with those commenters, they are awful. They write like a pen that's low on ink, not like a pencil at all! I'll stick with my Pentel 0.9.

JoshuaAug 29, 2013 at 9:49AM

I think it's telling that my children choose pencils over pens for any writing or drawing that they feel carries gravitas.

xtophrAug 29, 2013 at 10:01AM

I'm a programmer, so I don't really need a pencil for work. Nonetheless, I always have a pencil and a pad of paper on my desk. I doodle during conference calls, and sketch out UI concepts and simple diagrams, but the real attraction of a pencil for me is psychological. There is something focusing about just holding a pencil. It's hard to explain. It's just easier to think through a problem with a pencil in my hand.

I use Dixon Ticonderoga Blacks. It's like a brand of smokes. I sneer when I pick up a pencil and it's not a Ticonderoga. It has nothing to do with the quality of the pencil, because I'm not doing anything important with it.

Max ShronAug 29, 2013 at 10:04AM

I used pencils for math problems all throughout high school (actually, I used them for everything), but when I got to college I had a professor who insisted we use pen. The class was all about mathematical proof, not about plug and chug problems, and his explanation was that with pencil we would be too willing to erase things that might turn out to be important ideas later, or get distracted trying to keep the page neat. Better to cross out ideas but still have them than to lose them in a whim.

I had been an obsessive mechanical pencil user before then but I've been a pen person ever since.

bobAug 29, 2013 at 10:06AM

I had a college crush who got crushed on mostly for taking class notes with a Rotring mechanical pencil and sending me postcards written with a Staedtler Mars technical pen. It seemed very worldly. I now prefer Alvins, in a range of gauges and hardnesses for different chores. I'm probably sublimating.

DaltonAug 29, 2013 at 10:09AM

I love carpenter's pencils. They're thick, flat, and sturdy and can't be sharpened in a normal sharpener because of the odd shape. It always felt so dangerous and cool to sharpen them with a knife.

MikeAug 29, 2013 at 10:11AM

I second the Dixon Ticonderoga. Dixon Orioles are pretty good too. Never mechanical (I press too hard). Never chinese-made (again, press too hard and they snap in half).

MaciejAug 29, 2013 at 10:13AM

I almost feel guilty of not being cool when I say I prefer pens. I sketch (user interfaces) for a living and I can't imagine going back and erasing stuff.

The vintage allure of pencils would undoubtedly cement my unyielding image of myself as an "original, design-oriented individual". I just don't care enough.

Process is super important, but it's usually quicker to just draw it again. But I suppose it depends on your style. Personally, I see pens as the quick and dirty.

MattAug 29, 2013 at 10:13AM

Since 1988 a piece of pencil lead in the middle knuckle of my right hand reminds me of when I violated a vigilant classmate's personal space. Also from that era, an unsharpened Pentech® Fiberz™ No.2. It lives with my other pencils and tends to make me overly sentimental.

WyattAug 29, 2013 at 10:18AM

Ballpoints are like writing with an ice skate; too slippery and too metallic and shiny when done. I've never had any luck with nib pens, alternately pooling the ink as I pause to think or tearing the paper in my enthusiasm to get a thought out. My deskside whiteboard goes unused, but for the people who visit to use it. Capacitive touch screens have all the fine control of a toddler with finger paint, and all a stylus does is swap the paint for a chisel-point sharpie. Do I even need to elaborate on how marionette-like and wrong an electronic tablet feels?

There's something very pleasing about the friction of graphite on paper. It's a good thing, too, because it's the only way I can write legibly. That it allows you your human fallibility is just icing on the cake.

MelAug 29, 2013 at 10:26AM

My parents have an old mug in their kitchen, filled with pens and pencils. The oldest item is a very hard (6H) pencil that I remember from my childhood, though it probably dates back to my dad's university days. It leaves only ghostly scratchings on paper, and annoyed me each time I mistakenly grabbed it to do my homework.

MartyAug 29, 2013 at 10:28AM

I'm a lefty. The black/grey smudges on my hand turned me off from pencils at a very early age. As a draftsman (for a while) I used plenty of mechanical pencils but never could use them outside of that technical venue.

So in the end, peoples fetishes (in the non-sexual sense) are a feature of the human condition, not a bug.

DennisAug 29, 2013 at 10:40AM

Wow, comments on Kottke. I have gradeschool kids, so I more pencils in my house than at any other time. The is something about pencils that is probably lumped in the same category as tea. It is about the ritual as much as the end result. I hate cheap pencils with crap erasers. I buy my kids Dixon Ticonderogas and should probably throw all the other ones out.

RobinAug 29, 2013 at 11:00AM

But how can we talk about pencils without talking about sharpeners? It's a writing system. Razors and blades. Do there exist sharpener fetishists? Has the Pencil Revolution community achieved consensus on the ideal (non-artisanal) sharpening method??

(The sharpening is the reason I am not a pencil user anymore: too much fuss. I'll take a pen any day.)

K. NotmanAug 29, 2013 at 11:03AM

I am a designer and love pencils, using different types for different tasks. Papermate's #2 Sharpwriter is my go-to for toting around; since it is a cheap mechanical it doesn't get all over everything and doesn't need to be sharpened. Good out on a jobsite. But, for sheer fat-line pleasure, I don't think you can ever beat a Mirado Black Warrior.

Rich JAug 29, 2013 at 11:08AM

I've learned that some pencils will just never have a symmetrical point. I will spend about fifteen minutes sharpening new pencils, just to find one that will allow me to sharpen it properly. The rest I throw out. They were useless. They were always useless. The ratio is about 5 unusable yellow Ticonderogas to 1 usable one. And then that one lasts me a happy month.

I can't stand assymetrical points. There's nothing worse than writing and having wood touch paper, when there's lead left on the other side. I don't see throwing away assymetrical pencils as wasteful; I see it as a craftsperson choosing the right tool.

The best sharpener is the Kum AS2. $6 on Amazon. The blade lasts you about two months, and they include two replacement blades. The ritual of sharpening the pencil is a tactile joy. It's nowhere close to the precision ritual of replacing the Kum's blade. That's a process I have not yet quite mastered. It may require magnets to do properly. But there's nothing quite like the reward of a fresh, sharp blade.

Tim CarmodyAug 29, 2013 at 11:10AM

Robin, if you click through to Rebecca's post above, one of the Pencil Revolution posts she pulls is a very thorough, thoughtful review of a new pencil sharpener. Me, I went with the review of David Rees's Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants because I mean OBVIOUSLY.

Dan DreifortAug 29, 2013 at 11:15AM

Though I now rarely use them, I think of pencils often. There's still a blackish mark on the side of my right knee where Annette Croom stabbed me with a pencil a quarter of a century ago. (For being a jerk, no doubt.) Who says pencils aren't indelible?

I played "pencil breaks" in middle school, destroying countless pencils by flicking them with other pencils. Sometimes you'd find a "good" pencil, one that wouldn't break for many matches as the adoration and ire of your pencil-breaking peers grew. Twenty-some years later I taught my wife how to play the game. Either I've lost my technique or pencils are now made from some unearthly-strong adamantium/wood hybrid.

BethanyAug 29, 2013 at 11:15AM

I recently, without much thought, started using a regular #2 pencil on the desk in my office (I'm a college professor). I use it for jotting to-do lists and notes during student meetings. I like the feel of it, I think. And the nostalgia of sharpening it in the crank sharpener down the hall is appealing.

MichaelAug 29, 2013 at 11:20AM

I really hate sharpening pencils as it activates my latent OCD. I *must* get the point equal all the way around or I have to keep sharpening, usually while uselessly twirling it. It never works and I end up with a stub.

Olivia Aug 29, 2013 at 11:22AM

I was a Dixon Ticonderoga girl through and though. But not the Hard variety, the Soft one - darker color and easier to read. Ticonderoga's consistently had the best erasers of any other pencil - I would often carry a broken Ticonderoga with me even when I had other pencils because of the eraser.

I remember when the mechanical pencil fad happened, Jelly Roll pens, highlighters, you name it. They were all the rage, and I stuck by my trusty #2's.

BrianAug 29, 2013 at 11:27AM

I always considered it a triumph if I could use a pencil all the way down to the end. Almost every single time I would burn through the eraser before the pencil was even halfway used up and I would toss it.

danAug 29, 2013 at 11:27AM

best pencil story from economics class

SamAug 29, 2013 at 11:30AM

Dependable pencil
Always in the shop
Or found in the yard
I know a pocket knife
Will let you work

TimAug 29, 2013 at 11:43AM

I have sharpened
the pencils
that were in
the pencilbox

and which
you were probably
for school

Forgive me
they were new
so strong
and so yellow

Scott UnderwoodAug 29, 2013 at 11:46AM

I understand the love affair people have with certain writing implements, but I have never preferred wooden pencils over their more technical siblings. My first real job was as a draftsman, in the days before CAD software made that skill a quaint throwback. Then, I used lead holders (a steel shell with a jaw-like grip) and pointers (a spinning sandpaper sharpener that doesn't need to cut wood). Now, though I am digital in nearly every other way, I still carry a paper notebook, and I use Pentel mechanical pencils to take notes and draw. I have a .9mm now, though I'm not obsessive about it; I'll use .5mm and .7mm just as often.

Mark Aug 29, 2013 at 12:08PM

For brainstorming, pens are my weapon of choice. The idea is to get all of your ideas--not matter the quality--down on paper. With a pencil I feel that every word must be questioned and evaluated for it's potential to be erased. Pens make me confident.

Critical CreigAug 29, 2013 at 12:19PM

I love pencils, but rarely use them any more. The Ticonderoga is the minimum requirement, but the best pencil is, in my opinion, two pencils used in conjunction: the Mirado Black Warrior and the Mirado Classic. The round, softer Black Warrior writes different and feels different than the harder, hexagonal Classic. Using them together reduced fatigue when I was doing two hours of math homework per day. I donate a case of Ticonderogas to my daughter's homeroom every semester.

Tom RobertsonAug 29, 2013 at 12:20PM

Maybe part of the love for pencils is they come with a sense of freedom when writing.

On a typewriter, you're limited to predetermined characters. With a pen, when you write something, you're stuck with it. There's no taking it back, only crossing it out.

With a pencil, you can draw or write, or do whatever, and if you make a mistake, you can erase and start over.

You can do all this with a computer of course, but only a pencil does this while giving you a visceral connection to what you are creating.

jkottkeAug 29, 2013 at 12:37PM

I want to love pencils (the Blackwings are amazing) but I am left-handed so I don't because my hand always get covered in graphite when I write. So I prefer pens. Which actually aren't all that much better because when you write left-handed with a pen, you're usually pushing the ball-point against the paper instead of pulling it across the paper. Which makes your writing look like crap and wears out pens quickly, especially micros. Fountain pens are pretty much impossible.

Who wants to talk about keyboards?

ps. I had no idea comments actually worked here anymore since I hadn't tested the code since redesigning the site last year. Huzzah!

AndyAug 29, 2013 at 12:56PM

I love the Pentel Kerry mechanical pencil. My dad got me hooked on them years ago. A .5mm mechanical pencil with a cap is a beautiful thing.

MishaAug 29, 2013 at 1:05PM

I am a lefty but I don't write in the hand-twisted-around the pen way most lefties seem to (seriously, doesn't that get really uncomfortable!?). So for the most part, the smudging problem doesn't affect me, but pencils dull and graphite fades. I like pencils for sketching and marginalia, and I love a good eraser, but I don't use pencil for anything else.

Andre TorrezAug 29, 2013 at 1:12PM

Mechanical pencils don’t have to be sharpened, but the lead does get flat on one side. I use this: It rotates the lead as you lift to draw each letter.

JWWAug 29, 2013 at 1:47PM

I collect pencils and have many hundred different types and styles and brands and hardnesses -- and, most importantly, I use them all. A pencil that's kept pristine is a sad pencil. They are made to be used.

I'm a pantheist of pencils: there are many lovely and worthwhile pencils. I have at least one Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 and I have a slowly diminishing box of Palomino Blackwing 602s, and they're fine objects that put graphite on paper. They're good, but not my favorites. I prefer the Tombow Mono J, myself, but those are hard to come by here in the States, so I've only got two.

In my pocket right now I've got a Dixon Ticonderoga HB (one of the newer ones, probably made in Mexico) and a triangular Spanish children's pencil, the Alpino Tri. They're good, too (and a heckuva lot cheaper than the Blackwing's). Here at arm's reach on my desk are two mugs full of pencils: at least 30 in my quick count, from probably 20 different manufacturers. They're all different lengths in different states of use. Mostly HB, but a couple are harder and a couple softer. The oldest here is probably about twenty years old, the newest was probably purchased at Costco for back-to-school last year.

But let's be perfectly honest: they're just pencils. I love them (and composition books, and fountain pens, and bottles of ink, and watercolor boxes, and pocket knives), but they're just objects. They're mass-produced, commoditized objects. Loving pencils is misguided: they're tools for the production of something. Loving pencils puts the focus in the wrong place.

It is right that a craftsperson should find pleasure in her tools -- in the thing itself and the maintenance the thing requires -- but to stop there is a kind of tragedy. Which is why I don't have a pencil blog myself, nor do I read (anymore) blogs like Pencil Revolution. I use pencils to write words. I sharpen with a small sharpener, or a pocket knife, or (in a pinch) rubbed in a wide arc against the asphalt. I use them, sometimes lose them, I give them away, I throw them away.

I pity the poor OCD sufferers who insist upon a perfect point. They're letting the tool get in the way of your work. I pity the snob who refused to use a Bic Crystal ball point pen. They're missing out on a different set of pleasures. I'm not saying that everyone has to love everything, but I do think it's too bad when people invest big emotion in what should be a transitional element: don't blame (or obsess) about the tools and get to work.

(I feel like I should include a pointer to Bayles' and Orland's excellent book _Art & Fear_, which also puts the emphasis on the art product rather than the tools. As a writer and a scholar, it helped me tame my pencil (and fountain pen and ink and typewriter and notebook and pocket knife) obsession(s) and get to actually doing my work. Apologies if I come across as strident and condescending: it's the voice of the recovering alcoholic to a convention of home brewers.)

JulisaAug 29, 2013 at 1:58PM

The lefties' childhood association of disliking pencils because of the graphite marks on the hand? My mother has the same feeling about fountain pens; can't say that I blame her. Now I have to find out how she feels about pencils.

Greg (yeah yeah yeah)Aug 29, 2013 at 2:00PM

My best penmanship is achieved using pencils. Sometimes when I write with pens, even I can't read my writing. It is a source of consternation for me. Sometimes teachers made me type out papers or re-write tests. If it was the latter, I had to print and couldn't attempt cursive.

But, if I had a pencil: Boyee! Writing somehow became a margin away from drawing. Don't get me wrong. I prefer drawing with pens for the control and the ink and knowing once the drawing is done it is ready for ANYthing. But, from the angle that there are some tools which are more purely creative than others, pencils are this tool that is made for making mistakes, made for fleshing out rough ideas, made to be drawn over and improved (hopefully) and made to become smaller and still be useful somehow.

In high school I experimented a lot. With pencils ( i did nothing disturbing) I did decide to try to hold them between my forefinger and middle finger, while partially guiding it with my thumb. It felt right. Unlike most plastic pen shafts, pencils are mostly wood shafted (hurray for wood and shafts!) and they can adjust to you holding them until they wear down.

Plus, pencils give me a gift that keeps me honest about my production output. Wacom pens don't do a good job at this and most pens don't either. Pencils constantly allow my drawing callous to build up on my middle finger. So, when I flip people the bird, they best know it is a talented, working bird!

On keyboards, I miss clickity clacking and "playing piano" on them. But I was taught on some tough motherfuggin' manual pieces of metal. It felt too much like exercise to use them. But, of all the computer keyboards:

Speak 'n' Spell and Timex-Sinclair 1000= what were they smoking? And, I'm looking at you, too Intellivision! (but, you already knew that didn't you paranoid freak of a console!)
Give me a full sized keyboard with tenkey and some spring to its step.

joelAug 29, 2013 at 2:28PM

In grammar school in the early 1970's, there was a pencil sharpener at the back of every classroom. We were always allowed to leave our desk, even during lecture or tests, to go sharpen. It was also a place for a quick visit with a friend. Emptying the sharpener always released the smell of shaved cedar.

I studied engineering at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, 10 years later, and by then had moved on to mechanical pencils. When driving on the freeway just south of campus I would often notice a familiar smell. It took almost two years to place it: shaved cedar.

The California Cedar Products Company is still there, making pencil slats, and filling the air with the scent of cedar. Lots of good information on their site about history, both theirs and the pencil's.

Kedar DeshpandeAug 29, 2013 at 2:33PM

When I was 8 I bought a bright yellow, all metal Rotring mechanical pencil with my own hard earned money (it was pricey!). That pencil got beaten up over the years but still works perfectly and looks retro classy.

My only problem with it, and I'm sure this is universal, was that the microscopic erasure ran out in less than a week. Other than that, its served me well.

TazioAug 29, 2013 at 2:35PM

+1 for Dan
I, Pencil is a fabulous essay by Leonard Read that follows the life of a pencil through the manufacturing process and all of the people that had a hand in his creation. Well worth your time.

LeeIAug 29, 2013 at 2:52PM

Love pencils! Just picked up this cool Furst drafting pencil.

Love keyboards!
Did you see this one from the mind of Atwood?

Ed LudwigAug 29, 2013 at 3:36PM

I am an illustrator born in 1958. My workflow goes like: Pencil sketches on tracing paper, followed by finished pencil on tracing paper, transfer sketch to Bristol board, ink board, scan inked work into computer, color in Photoshop using layers. The first three steps always involve pencils, pencils, pencils! I use a lot of pencils. The cheaper the better. My hand looks shiny gray after a full day.

ubi de feoAug 29, 2013 at 3:57PM

I think you're missing a biggie here.
you must try Muji's erasable pens.
I'm in love with them.

pzAug 29, 2013 at 4:02PM

plotting data with
good coffee
a #3 pencil
and a
good metal ruler

There'll never be an app for that!

Michael Haydel Aug 29, 2013 at 4:41PM

Another pencil fan here. Love 'em, and can't stand pens.

My implement of choice is the Uni-ball KuruToga ( The erasers on them leave a bit to be desired, but thats what those great white rectangular ones are for!

ChukAug 29, 2013 at 4:42PM

Tim's poem is great.
I dislike but have come to tolerate mechanical pencils, love a freshly sharpened regular HB (no particular brand but not the cheap splintery or off-centre leaded ones), but I don't write with pencil anymore -- if I'm handwriting, it's probably a form or a cheque and needs a pen.

lauraAug 29, 2013 at 4:45PM

I can't even understand how it's possible to not like pencils, but I guess that's a function of drawing all my life. I prefer mechanical pencils, due to their fine point, just as I prefer fine point gel ink pens. Sharpening bores me- I like being able to click and continue what I'm doing.

Brad BarrishAug 29, 2013 at 4:57PM

I hate pencils for a lot of the reasons that people seem to love them. I often half-joke that they are for people who aren't willing to commit. I imagine artists have valid reasons for liking pencils, but writers? Come on. Why use something that you have to take care of? If you carry a pencil, and I'm talking about the non-mechanical variety, you inevitably have to carry other things to take care of that pencil or you have to carry backups. Bullshit.

grsAug 29, 2013 at 5:10PM

Prismacolors - I don't get to sit down with a set of them like I did many moons ago in high school. Now it more technical drawing for work - mainly color coding geological cross sections. Industry prefers pens - the permanent nature - if you make a mistake, single line strikeouts and initial it. Don't use a pencil and erase or it might imply you're trying to hide something.

But just doodling and blending with Prismacolors? That soft lead? The blending? I need to dig out my nice set and let the kids try them out.

aliciaAug 29, 2013 at 5:19PM

i ESPECIALLY love ticonderogas! preferably in black with the black erasers.

Greg (yeah yeah yeah)Aug 29, 2013 at 6:02PM

"they are for people who aren't willing to commit."--Brad B.

Well, you state that and it isn't always so. Like, grs wrote, there are Prismacolor pencils. You dont' erase those. You can blend the color(s). You can build on the colors, like in painting. It gives you a lot more fine control than a brush and if you are going for finished art in pencil then you use pencil.

I don't have qualms with anyone who prefers one tool over another, for drawing or just for writing. I know of very few painters who like even holding pens or pencils. They get stymied at trying to make pictures with those tiny, thin tools with the restrictive tips.

My thing is you use the best tool--if possible--for what you want to do. Pencil, Pen, rock on asphalt, whatever.

The main reason I'm posting twice is to share this. This is from years ago but in animation traditional toolsets versus digital workflows is an ongoing debate. This just pokes some fun.

JoAug 29, 2013 at 6:23PM

When I was in 4th grade, my dad told me he was moving the family to China. This was pretty traumatic, as I couldn't imagine what it would be like over there and I had no inclination to leave my friends behind.

Knowing that I wanted to somehow keep them with me, I asked each of my close friends for one of their pencils, so that I could use the pencils in China and remember them when I did. I remembered asking the boy I'd had a crush one since 1st grade to give me a pencil. He disdained me and probably chose the hot pink one he had out of spite, one of his "discard" pencils.

Given your post, it's interesting that looking back, I chose a pencil as the object closest to a person. I'm not sure if, up till then, it was my favorite writing implement.

I know that I have since come to prefer pens though.

ShawnAug 29, 2013 at 10:21PM

I'll always love pencils for woodworking, it's hard to find a pen you can tuck behind your ear. As a child, I thought my uncles looked ridiculous, now I know how useful it is to have something close at hand that'll write on wood and can be sanded off once you've made the cut. Plus, "measure twice, cut once" only works if you can remember the measurement while your children sing loudly in the next room.

jkottke: I'll talk about keyboards too. Why aren't there more full-size keyboards with a detachable number pad? I want properly positioned arrow keys so my old-school DEC keyboard muscle memory doesn't mislead me, but I also want my mouse close to center so I don't have to twist my arm all the time. Is that too much to ask?

nerddotisAug 29, 2013 at 10:41PM

Pencils are tremendous. As for erasing--why bother? My current fave is a classic: the Dixon Ticonderoga #3. That's right, I like a harder lead in my pencil.

EllenAug 29, 2013 at 10:54PM

A Dixon Ticonderoga 2 5/10. How can you not love this pencil? A #2 is too soft, a #3 is too hard, but just like Goldilocks, the #2 5/10 is just right.

Victor DangAug 29, 2013 at 11:35PM

I'll be honest: for quite a while recently, I've preferred to use pens over pencils, mostly because I've found it to be much simpler to just cross out my mistakes rather than having to erase them and then be taunted by those remaining traces of graphite that just won't go away. Only recently have I started to actually reconsider pencils as a whole and come around to appreciating them, mainly for art purposes like drawing.
I do know that as a kid, however, mechanical pencils were definitely seen as superior to those regular pencils. Refillable lead! How cool was that? Sadly the excitement wore off quick when you eventually ran out of lead and erasers and had to run to the supply store to get more.
As a kid, I wanted convenience, but I found that no writing option truly satisfied me 100%, and I was far happier with typing at home than writing at school. Nowadays, though, I can't say that I really mind any of them.
Anyways, I may as well jump onto the Ticonderoga bandwagon and endorse them, since their pencils seem to suck the least. Anybody else recall MeadWestvaco or Pentel? I know for a fact that the latter held high tacit approval in my school, judging by the abundance of Pentel pens and the popularity of their beautiful white Hi-Polymer erasers over the awful Pink Pearl brand (to this day, I still do not know why those awful things are everywhere, despite doing a poor job at erasing in my experience).

PresleyAug 29, 2013 at 11:54PM

I love hunks of graphite. They're really great for drawing and covering large areas with beautiful graphite gray. Pencils are great for woodworking, and measuring the kids growth on the wall. I'm not picky about brands, but there seems to be a recent trend of round pencils rapped in printed sticker material, yuck! It ruins the whole sharpening experience. I share the childhood lefty smear stories of other commenters, but pencil smear is not nearly as bad as erasable pens, they are the worst.

MollyAug 30, 2013 at 1:46AM

Ticonderoga, guys.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.