Wednesday, November 12, 2008

the pencil, unveiled

I found this pencil this morning in the Safeway parking lot at 16th and Bryant on the way to school. I've been working on a few graphite-dominant drawings to break out of my watercolor rut and it seemed sort of celestially appropriate to find this pencil because this is sort of how I feel about graphite sometimes. I still have my sets of pastels and charcoal from Drawing I & II in college, which have been out of commission for 4 years. I suppose there's something romantic about messy powdery art sticks that get all over you and your clothes and coat the inside of your lungs, but I like to set personal boundaries with my art materials. Here's the skinny on pencils, compliments of wikipedia:


The archetypal pencil may have been the stylus, which was a thin metal stick, often made from lead and used for scratching on papyrus, a form of early paper. They were used extensively by the ancient Egyptians and Romans. The word pencil comes from the Latin word pencillus which means "little tail."

Discovery of graphite deposit

Some time before 1565 (some sources say as early as 1500), an enormous deposit of graphite was discovered on the approach to Grey Knotts from the hamlet of Seathwaite near Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, England. The locals found that it was very useful for marking sheep. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. This was and remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought to be a form of lead. Consequently, it was called plumbago (Latin for "lead ore"). The black core of pencils is still referred to as "lead," even though it never contained the element lead.

The value of graphite was soon realized to be enormous, mainly because it could be used to line the moulds for cannon balls, and the mines were taken over by the Crown and guarded. Graphite had to be smuggled out for use in pencils. Because graphite is soft, it requires some form of case. Graphite sticks were at first wrapped in string or in sheepskin for stability. The news of the usefulness of these early pencils spread far and wide, attracting the attentions of artists all over the "known world."

Although deposits of graphite had been found in other parts of the world, they were not of the same purity and quality as the Borrowdale find, and had to be crushed to remove the impurities, leaving only graphite powder. England continued to enjoy a monopoly on the production of pencils until a method of reconstituting the graphite powder was found. The distinctively square English pencils continued to be made with sticks cut from natural graphite into the 1860s. Today, the town of Keswick, near the original findings of block graphite, has a pencil museum.

Wood holders added

It was the Italians who first thought of wooden holders. An Italian couple in particular, named Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti, were believed to be the ones to create the first blueprints for the modern carpentry pencil for the purpose of marking their carpentry pieces; however, their version was instead a flat, oval, more compact type of pencil. They did this at first by hollowing out a stick of juniper wood. Shortly thereafter, a superior technique was discovered: two wooden halves were carved, a graphite stick inserted, and the two halves then glued together—essentially the same method in use to this day.

American colonists imported pencils from Europe until after the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils for sale in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729, and George Washington used a three-inch pencil when he surveyed the Ohio Territory in 1762. It is said that William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Massachusetts, made the first American wood pencils in 1812. This was not the only pencil-making in Concord. According to Henry Petroski, transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau discovered how to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite using clay as the binder; this invention was prompted by his father's pencil factory in Concord, which employed graphite found in New Hampshire in 1821 by Charles Dunbar.

Munroe's method of making pencils was painstakingly slow, and in the neighbouring town of Acton, a pencil mill owner named Ebenezer Wood set out to automate the process at his own pencil mill located at Nashoba Brook along the old Davis Road. He used the first circular saw in pencil production. He constructed the first hexagon- and octagon-shaped pencil cases that we have today. Ebenezer did not patent his invention and shared his techniques with whoever asked. One of those was Eberhard Faber of New York, who became the leader in pencil production.

Joseph Dixon, an inventor and entrepreneur involved with the Tantiusques granite mine in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, developed a means to mass produce pencils. By 1870, The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company was the world’s largest dealer and consumer of graphite and later became the contemporary Dixon Ticonderoga pencil and art supplies company.


Modern pencils are made industrially by mixing finely ground graphite and clay powders, adding water, forming long spaghetti-like strings, and firing them in a kiln (thermally insulated chambers). The resulting strings are dipped in oil or molten wax, which seeps into the tiny holes of the material, resulting in smoother writing. A juniper or incense-cedar plank with several long parallel grooves is cut to fashion a "slat", and the graphite/clay strings are inserted into the grooves. Another grooved plank is glued on top, and the whole assembly is then cut into individual pencils, which are then varnished or painted.

Color of pencils

The majority of pencils made in the United States are painted yellow. According to Henry Petroski, this tradition began in 1890 when the L. & C. Hardtmuth Company of Austria-Hungary introduced their Koh-I-Noor brand, named after the famous diamond. It was intended to be the world's best and most expensive pencil, and at a time when most pencils were either painted in dark colors or not at all, the Koh-I-Noor was yellow. As well as simply being distinctive, the color may have been inspired by the Austro-Hungarian flag; it was also suggestive of the Orient, at a time when the best-quality graphite came from Siberia. Other companies then copied the yellow color so that their pencils would be associated with this high-quality brand, and chose brand names with explicit Oriental references, such as Mikado (renamed Mirado and Mongol.

Not all countries use yellow pencils; however, German pencils, for example, are often green, based on the trademark colors of Faber-Castell, a major German stationery company. Pencils are commonly round, hexagonal or sometimes triangular in section.


On January 30, 2008, Ashrita Furman, 53, unveiled his giant $20,000 pencil - 76 feet long, 22,000 pounds (with 4,000 solid pounds of Pennsylvania graphite), after 3 weeks of creation in August of 2007 as a birthday gift for teacher Sri Chinmoy. Longer than the 65 feet creation outside the Malaysia HQ of stationers Faber-Castell, it will be transported from Queens, New York, to the City Museum in St. Louis.

The metal band used to mate the eraser with pencil is called a ferrule.

No comments: