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kottke.org posts about pencils

How Pencils Are Made

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2019

Even on my busiest day, I will drop everything to watch a video of pencils being made. (I am a particular sucker for sharpening pencils by belt sander.) Blame Mister Rogers and Sesame Street probably, even though they focused on crayons. Here’s a look at how Faber-Castell makes their pencils.

For a more comprehensive and less slickly produced look at how pencils are made, check out this tour of the Derwent Pencil Factory, which opened a new, more efficient facility a few years back but is still located quite near where the first graphite pencil was invented.

A detail that jumped out at me from this video is that Derwent pencils are tested for color and consistency against a group of over 1000 standard pencils, some of which date back to 1937 and are nothing more than tiny nubs now.

In going back through the archive, I realized that pencils are a bit of a thing on the site. And so, a new tag is born: check out all the kottke.org posts about pencils. (thx, jamie)

A visit to an American factory that’s been producing pencils since 1889

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 14, 2018

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

Pencil Factory

What a marvelous little photo essay by Christopher Payne and Sam Anderson about General Pencil, one of the last remaining pencil factories in America.

Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.

You can see many more of Payne’s photos of General Pencil on his website. Here’s Maria, her shirt and nails red to match the color of the pastel cores. There are also a couple of videos of the General Pencil factory:

And this older one that shows much more of the pencil-making process. Neither video includes a shot of the belt sander sharpening system…you can see that in action here.

See also I, Pencil, which details the construction of the humble pencil as a triumph of the free market, a history of pencil lead and how pencils are made, and how crayons are made, with videos from both Mister Rogers and Sesame Street. Oh, and you can buy some of General Pencil’s #2 Cedar Pointes right here.

A history of pencil lead and how pencils are made

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2016

This video is a combination of two things I like very much: long zoom histories and how things are made. The first part of the video follows the story of graphite back to the Big Bang.

[Carl Sagan-eque interlude: “If you want to make a pencil from scratch, first you must invent the universe.”]

The second part shows how pencils are made. Most surprising discovery while watching: Henry David Thoreau (yes, that one) was a talented pencil engineer:

John’s thoughtful son David*, unemployed after graduating from college, started helping out with the family business. He developed new refining techniques that made Thoreau pencils less brittle, less greasy — at the time, they were the finest pencils America had to offer. The Thoreaus were able to offer a variety of pencils, from No. 1 (the softest) to No. 4 (the hardest). That numbering system survives today.

The best artists invent their own tools. (via the kid should see this)

Loving pencils

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 29, 2013

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?

No one knows how to make a pencil

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 09, 2009

I, Pencil is a 1958 ode to mass production, industrial specialization, commodity economics, and the invisible hand using the manufacture of a simple graphite pencil as an example.

Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Really great. A nice illustration of embodied energy to boot.

Update: A old Cardigan article by Dean Allen shares a certain kinship with I,Pencil.

First, you need some water. Fuse two hydrogen with one oxygen and repeat until you have enough. While the water is heating, raise some cattle. Pay a man with grim eyes to do the slaughtering, preferably while you are away. Roast the bones, then add to the water.

Update: From Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov:

Now let us not lose our precious bit of lead while we prepare the wood. Here’s the tree! This particular pine! It Is cut down. Only the trunk is used, stripped of its bark. We hear the whine of a newly invented power saw, we see logs being dried and planed. Here’s the board that will yield the integument of the pencil in the shallow drawer (still not closed). We recognize its presence in the log as we recognized the log in the tree and the tree in the forest and the forest in the world that Jack built. We recognize that presence by something that is perfectly clear to us but nameless, and as impossible to describe as a smile to somebody who has never seen smiling eyes.

Thus the entire little drama, from crystallized carbon and felled pine to this humble implement, to this transparent thing, unfolds in a twinkle. Alas, the solid pencil itself as fingered briefly by Hugh Person still somehow eludes us! But he won’t, oh no.

(thx, matthew)