Wednesday, 31 March 2010

All about a Pencil...

Despite the many thousands of words I have written over the years very few have been written using a pencil.

I have never felt confident gripping round or hexagonal pencils and with poor handwriting to start with that just makes matters worse. I was given a pen / propelling pencil set by my friends George and Chris for my 21st birthday present and despite using the pen on and off ever since I never felt the pencil was weighted quite right.

Added to which, like most propelling pencil leads and cheap pencils, the leads were HB. HB is a balance between hard and soft (H meaning hard and B meaning black; a system introduced in the early 1900s by an English manufacturer called Brookman). The various graphite pencil grades are achieved by altering the proportion of graphite to clay: the more clay the harder the pencil. I prefer a 2B pencil – it is softer and darker.   Two pencils of the same grade by different manufacturers will not necessarily make a mark of identical tone nor have the same hardness. The 2B of one manufacturer may be the 4B of another. So if you are sketching it is best to get a set from one manufacturer rather than build them up from occasional purchases.

When I was young we called coloured pencils ‘crayons’. Nowadays that seems reserved for wax or oil based colours.

I have a couple of sets of coloured pencils but one of the most fascinating I have seen is one of Richard’s which has a number of different colours blended in the one pencil.

A pencil is constructed of a narrow, solid pigment core inside a protective casing. The case prevents the core from breaking or staining the user’s hand. The Italians first thought of wooden cases. 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. The favoured timber for pencils was originally Juniper or Red Cedar as they were aromatic and did not splinter when sharpened. In the early 1900s supplies of Red Cedar were dwindling so that pencil manufacturers were forced to recycle the wood from cedar fences and barns to maintain supplies. Britain went as far as discouraging the use of pencil sharpeners to reduce unnecessary sharpening. It was soon discovered that Incense Cedar, when dyed and perfumed to resemble Red Cedar, was a suitable alternative. Over 14 billion pencils are manufactured worldwide annually and the range of woods has increased accordingly..

During the Napoleonic Wars, France was unable to import the pure graphite sticks from the British mines – at that time the only known source in the world for solid graphite. In response, in 1795, Nicholas Jacques Conté - an officer in Napoleon's army - discovered a method of mixing powdered graphite with clay and forming the mixture into rods that were then fired in a kiln.   The name Conté is still to be found today.  Twenty or thirty years later the Americans devised the idea of hexagonal and octagonal pencils made using circular saws and in the 1860s the real mass production of pencils began.

In 1858 Hymen Lipman received the first American patent for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil. In 1862 Lipman sold his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000. Reckendofer went on to sue the pencil manufacturer Faber-Castell for infringement but in 1875, the United States Supreme Court ruled against him.

The majority of pencils made in the United States are painted yellow, a tradition which allegedly began in 1890 when an Austro-Hungarian introduced a brand intended to be the world's best and most expensive pencil. At a time when most pencils were either painted in dark colours or not at all, this pencil was yellow. Other companies soon followed suit. But not all countries favour yellow pencils, German and Brazilian pencils, for example, are often green, based on the trademark colours of Faber-Castell. In southern European countries pencils tend to be dark red or black with yellow lines while in Australia, red with black bands at one end are popular.

The pencil above is not a typical pencil - it is a Grease Pencil. It can write on virtually any surface (including glass, plastic, metal and photographs). The most commonly found grease pencils are encased in paper which can be peeled off.

Now, after all these years and using so many different pencils, I have found a pencil that I really like. Made by Faber-Castell of Germany it is called the Grip 2001 and comes in 2B. Not only does it have tiny rubberised dots to help one grip it but it is also triangular (technically a Reuleaux Triangle) . Considering how most of us hold our pencils I’m surprised more of them don’t come in triangular shape.

Faber-Castell are conscious of the environmental impact of producing wooden pencils and use wood from trees specially planted on sandy soil in Brazil. Their plantations provide a home to around 178 species of bird, 36 mammals and 40 species of reptile and are managed to have as little impact as possible on this wildlife. They have fifteen factories around the world and do not employ children in any of them.

And that, dear fellow bloglings, is a most verbose way of me telling you I’ve found a pencil with which I enjoy writing.


  1. Sorry John, I can't get the image of the big leather chair out of my mind.

    ' And your specialist subject is'.
    A good post for all that, cheers.

  2. Amazing post CJ. I have used many many hundreds of pencils - all 2B - in my time and still use propelling pencils and refillable pencils all the time. In fact the council kept 2B pencils for me and I bought my own by the box - I still do.

    The last box I bought was, oddly, the Grip 2001 although I didn't know that was what it was called.

  3. In 'A beutiful mind' and a few other films we have seen recently the actors have drawn white diagrams on window glass using what appears to be a pencil. We had no idea what it was - but could it be a grease pencil? can they draw in white? how easy is it to remove from the glass?

  4. WOW - this is a lot of pencil knowledge. I never realized the reason why I preferred some pencils over others - but never really enjoyed the scratchy feeling through my fingers as I wrote/drew with one.

  5. If anyone asks me about pencils today, I am armed!
    I remember my kids having a little triangular rubber piece that would slide onto a pencil, to make it easier for them to learn to write. The idea of the rubber dots is something like that too.
    I just bought some water color pencils. You draw something with them, then run a wet paint brush over them to create a watercolor. It's pretty cool!

  6. Impressive piece of research! I have difficulties writing a lot by hand now with any kind of pen or pencil. But I have a variety of them... My favourite is a rather thick refillable 0,7 one with rubber grip. And it's a Faber-Castell...!

  7. How interesting! I use a lot of pencils -- the sofer the better, even though they need frequent resharpening. I much prefer doing crossword puzzles in pencil to doing them in pen -- though my "twin" (sister-in-law with same birthday) always uses a pen. She says you must be bold and charge ahead! The only pencil I don't like is a propelling pencil. I'm not sure what I do to them, but the leads keep breaking and falling out, which means that when I go to write, I can't.
    Thanks so much for the fascinating post. 14 billion pencils a year. Wow! That's a lot of pencils lost down sofa backs! Canadian Chickadee

  8. I'have written hundreds of poems and not one of them hand-written but I love drawing and painting with pencils it feels real.

  9. Pencils I love, so thank you for this fest! Can't resist adding this:-
    Ode To An Old, Wooden Pencil

    Oh, Pencil! How your black and red
    draws words and pictures from my head.
    The painted stripes are dented, scratched,
    but still your black lead stays intact.

    You once belonged unto another,
    who chewed your end. It made me shudder.
    But when I found you, sad, forlorn,
    I docked your tail. You were reborn.

    Now, detrimental teeth marks gone,
    and pristine eraser placed upon
    your nether regions, you're renewed -
    one cannot tell you had been chewed!


Hello - thanks for dropping by to leave a comment. Your comments are much appreciated even if I don't always reply. They will appear as soon as they have been moderated.

Blog Archive