Consider: The Pencil
Write this down.
This week’s topic, the pencil, is one we have had on our to-Consider list since before we launched, and as a true pencil-head, I was excited to finally dive into it. In thinking about how to approach the topic, I kept going back and forth on whether to deep-dive on a specific manufacturer or the item itself. So many of the manufacturers have incredible heritage and commitment to craftsmanship. Caran d’Ache (the model 849 is a personal favourite), Faber Castell, General Pencil Company Inc. and others all have 75+ year histories of family ownership, domestic manufacturing, responsible sourcing, continual manufacturing and product innovation. But when I came across “the Woodchuck”, I knew I had my way in.
So this week: pencils! Featuring more twists and turns than an idle doodle. Hope you enjoy!
Writing implements are as old as, well, writing. Like an author, pencils leave a little bit of themselves behind every time they write. Pencils function pretty simply; the molecules in the graphite are stacked in layers, and when used to write, they slide off the nearest graphite molecule and transfer to the paper. Erasers work because the graphite sticks to rubber better than it does paper.
Inks, styluses and quills have all had their own parallel innovation paths (see: The Sharpie). The modern pencil was invented by French scientist Nicolas-Jacques Conté in 1795 (bet that’s a lot later than you thought). What differentiates modern pencils from their previous form is the use of powdered graphite and clay to create the pencil lead, versus lumps of pure graphite as was used previously. You may be wondering why we call the interior of a pencil lead, when it is in fact graphite. Well, early scientists confused graphite with lead, which has led to considerable confusion. In fact, the original name for the substance was plumbago (literally: lead ore) and later changed to graphite. Fun fact: the origin of the word plumber ties back to this term, because plumbers worked on lead pipes.
Graphite is a form of pure carbon and is one of the softest solid materials. Oddly, the other common form of pure carbon is diamonds, one of the hardest known substances.
In the 1550’s, Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti came up with the method of hollowing out two wooden halves, inserting the graphite stick, and gluing them together. Previously, pencils were made by wrapping a stick of solid graphite in leather or string. The Bernacotti’s are credited as the creators of the first carpentry pencils, and this is still the method by which most pencils are made. Perhaps they inspired the Caramilk Secret of how to get the caramel into the Caramilk bar.
The largest pencil in the world, according to Guinness World Records, is over 76 ft long. I thought it would be resident at the Derwent Pencil Museum in Cumbria, England or at the headquarters of a pencil company, but in fact, the big boy was made by followers of Sri Chimnoy at one of their meditation centres in New York as a gift to their spiritual leader on his 76th birthday. Chimnoy was a spiritual leader and meditation advocate who encouraged his followers to take on tasks they did not think they were capable of. A couple of his followers have taken to besting Guinness World Records as a fulfillment of that. On a local note, all over the world Chimnoy’s acolytes have set up meditation centres and businesses to continue his goals. One of them is a vegan/Indian restaurant near my house called Annapurna. I did not realize that the guy staring down at me from their vestibule while I wait for my takeout has inspired such feats as longest continuous somersault and most ping pong balls caught with chopsticks.
Pencil manufacturing was largely a European pursuit until the early 1900’s. Companies like Faber Castell, Lyra, Steadtler, and others leveraged easy access to Bavarian graphite and Bavarian forests to take a lead in pencil manufacturing. Early innovations included customizing the hardness of the lead by blending the graphite with clay, a process pioneered by Conté. There are 20 grades of pencil, from the softest, 9B, to the hardest 9H, with the most popular intermediate value, HB, lying midway between H and B. ‘H’ means hard and ‘B’ means black. The higher the B number, the more graphite gets left on the paper. There is no global standard for this, so each brand’s HB may look a little different.
You are probably wondering how different various pencils can really be from one another. A pencil is a pencil is a pencil - right? I have first hand experience of how different pencils can be. When I wrote my GMAT for the first time (a depressing number of years ago), I did not read the small print and brought the wrong pencil. The proctor forced me to use one of their pencils. When I retook the test weeks later (after practicing with the right pencil), I scored 80 points higher. There you have it, using the proper pencil for the task can actually make you smarter (note: this fact is neither verified by science nor is it accurate).
The pencil renaissance began in 2011 with the revival of the Blackwing. The Ebherhard Faber Pencil Company originally manufactured a pencil called the Blackwing 602, credited as “one of the finest pencils ever made”. It was a favourite of Steinbeck, Looney Tune Chuck Jones and a number of other luminaries. Fans loved the proprietary blend of clay to graphite, as well as the look of the pencil, with its unique eraser shape. In 1998, they stopped making the pencil and unused pencils would sell for $40 each on eBay. In 2007, Cal Cedar products (whose president Charles “Woodchuck” Berolzheimer runs a delightful pencil blog called Timberlines) bought the naming rights and sought to recreate the Blackwing. The Woodchuck is an eclectic guy. He owns pencils.com and converted the family compound from a private island to an 11,000 acre nature reserve and eco lodge. He also led Cal Cedar to create the Blackwing Foundation, which uses the pencil revenues to support arts education in schools.
While wood is a renewable resource, traditional pencil making created considerable waste. As demand increased, the wood used in pencils shifted to more sustainable types, primarily incense cedar. There is continued R&D investment into how to better cut and utilize wood products to increase the yield.
The Duraflame log was actually a by-product of pencil innovation. It was originally created by Cal Cedar to reuse the offcuts and waste from pencil production. The flame log business got so big that they needed to source other waste wood and it has since grown to over $250M per year, far eclipsing pencil sales.
You can get a great pencil at any price point. Your traditional yellow pencil, like the kind used in standardized tests, cost 60 cents each and are usually sold in packs of 12. A mixed set of Japanese Graphite Blackwing pencils costs $30, or, $2.50 per pencil. With the resurgence of the pencil’s popularity there are a number of specialty retailers, like CW Pencil in New York City, where experts can help you find the one that is just “write” for you.
With all this pencil talk, our PS today is a natural extension - sharpening. From the front of class wall-mount pencil sharpeners to desktop electrics, you have endless choice. Comedian/Author David Rees wrote a satirical, but actually practical, manual on the best practices. He also made a very helpful video summary.