Inside One of America's Last Pencil Factories
January 12, 2018 8:17 AM   Subscribe

Interesting and gorgeous photographs.
I've nearly given up on wooden pencils lately, as most of them these days are crap - the lead isn't centered, so they never sharpen correctly!
I'll have to try some General Pencils.
posted by dbmcd at 8:28 AM on January 12

This is some fabulous photography. I never fail to appreciate how simultaneously sophisticated and grungy-tech this kind of manufacturing is. Pencils are remarkably complicated, particularly with the eraser on the end.

Related: Mr. Rogers on how crayuns are made.
posted by Nelson at 8:42 AM on January 12 [3 favorites]

Gorgeous photos.

It's heartening to see the resurgence in pencils, which allows shops like CW Pencils to exist. High quality pencils like Palomino Blackwing and Tombow Mono 100 are readily available and, for those who wish to try everything, there are pencil subscription services.

I've always preferred mechanical pencils, but it's wonderful to try wood pencils occasionally, especially with something as amazing as the Tombow.
posted by milkb0at at 8:44 AM on January 12

I too immediately thought of Mr. Rogers. I could hear his soothing voice in my head as I looked at these pictures. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Outlawyr at 8:46 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

These are beautiful.

But, also, I haven't used a wooden pencil in twenty years, except as an eraser that happens to have a conveniently attached stick for use in scrubbing wirebond pads. I certainly haven't sharpened one since puberty. My recollection of pencils in elementary school is that they were always frustratingly dull and usually filled with disgusting tooth marks from other students that make me hesitate to pick them up. And the school's sharpeners always broke them off and wasted half the material, making an already shockingly inefficient tool even more so. The only good thing I can say about wooden pencils is that their factories make for really neat photos.
posted by eotvos at 8:50 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Pencils are sharpened by rolling them across a high-speed sanding belt

I've been sharpening my pencils wrong!

I like wooden pencils better than mechanical ones. That perfect little point just isn't the right doodling and sketching tool I need when taking meeting notes or writing to-do lists.
posted by carrioncomfort at 9:33 AM on January 12

Wow! I had -no- idea that the graphite cores are glued into 2 halves of a pencil blank - I thought that a hole was drilled into the pencil shape, and the graphite rod shoved in there somehow.

Now I want to switch to using pencils and sharpen them via a Dremel.
posted by Fig at 9:44 AM on January 12

Related slyt
posted by cyclotronboy at 10:20 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

So many things I love here - gorgeous photography, still functioning, well-designed old industrial machinery, and an end product that I'm finding I appreciate more and more. At my shop I sometimes joke to people that I offer artisanally sharpened pencils, but really nothing beats sharpening a pencil with a knife or X-acto blade.
posted by ikahime at 10:22 AM on January 12 [2 favorites]

I'm still a wooden pencil fan and I can't explain why.

This was fantastic - thanks for sharing!
posted by kimberussell at 10:22 AM on January 12

"Pencils" is one of those words that quickly starts to sound like a nonsense word after a few repetitions.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:24 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I adore pencils and use them all day, every day.

Further reading, if you would like to know more about pencils than the people around you ever want to hear about: The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance by Henry Petroski
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 10:27 AM on January 12 [5 favorites]

Please also see David Rees (satirical?) work on Artisinal Pencil Sharpening.
posted by JDC8 at 11:07 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

eotvos - ha! thanks for bringing back pencil sharpening memories from (Canadian) elementary school! I remember those stupid sharpeners with the two grinding cores that were screwed onto a solid surface. They'd eat half the pencil and leave the exposed wood with a rough texture.

My dad was an artist and had always sharpened his drawing pencils with a penknife - I recall my teacher being aghast when I pulled out a knife in grade 3 and sharpened my pencils with it. Oddly enough, I think they spoke to my parents and I ended up being the only kid who was allowed to have a knife in school.

One of America's Last Pencil Factories

So where are pencils made? Is the US a net importer of pencils?

Isn't the new Blackwing 602 (knockoff) made in the US?

I know that Staedtler still produced the vast majority of their pencils in Nuremberg.
posted by porpoise at 11:54 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

I love pencils. I still use woodcase pencils at work (Dixon Ticonderoga #2.5) and at home for sketching (Faber-Castell 9000). I love the feel of scraping a nicely-sharpened pencil across a slightly rough sheet of paper. I love the smell of a freshly-sharpened pencil (cedar, graphite, and just a hint of paint). The smell of a box of pencils is almost as nostalgic and intoxicating as the smell of a box of crayons. Hey, pencils are neat.
posted by xedrik at 12:05 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

Great photos. I agree, Fig, it's mindblowing that the graphite is put into a blank, and then the blank has to be sectioned.

Nelson, I remember watching that crayon making video with the kids. Two thoughts about it upon revisiting: First, how labor intensive the process is in the video, and second, I needed to dive into the rabbit hole to find more.

This horrible website has more detail on composition. Apparently the pigments in crayons were supplied by Hoover Color Corporation, which was bought out by Cathay Industries in 2016.

As the neighbor says, "Hunh. Now I've learned something, I can go back to bed."
The more you know. *rainbow*
posted by BlueHorse at 12:59 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Ha, I just this last summer moved out of a an old brick pencil factory. Two huge (maybe 150 ft) smokestacks dominated the courtyard

My good friend and boss from my 2nd job, quit Wall Street to buy a pencil factory...maybe 1992? By 1995 he was out of business and back working on Wall Street.

Notwithstanding that fascinating info, I'm not a huge fan of pencils, as the smell of sharpening pencils seems to set my teeth on edge. Still, a mechanical pencil is my fav writing implement...on fine line green graph paper.

posted by sfts2 at 1:25 PM on January 12

I have a lot of woodcase pencils. Like, well into the hundreds. And of the few pencils that are still made in the USA, General's are pretty decent. The wood is generally good quality, and the core is smooth and well milled. General's Flat Sketching pencils (basically a soft carpenter's pencil) are great for shading and calligraphy practice. Their Kimberley aquarelle lays down a good colour for the money. Great pictures in the article. Long may they thrive!
posted by scruss at 6:00 PM on January 12

Beautiful pictures. I want to try that brand. Since most pencils available in US stores are woefully inadequate - especially for beginning writers who have a low frustration tolerance -, I‘ve been buying Faber Castell GRIP pencils by the case whenever we go back to Germany. They have excellent watercolor pencils as well. Schreibwarenladen is usually at the top of the list of enjoyable shopping sprees back home...
posted by The Toad at 8:16 PM on January 12

Stunning photos and fascinating info on how an everyday object is made. So much done by hand!
posted by gryphonlover at 8:50 PM on January 12

most pencils available in US stores are woefully inadequate

Yup. The great thing about General's Kimberly (apart from me never getting the spelling right) is that they have no eraser on the end. Quite how American writers are supposed to function with that counterweight smear machine on the end of every pencil, I'll never know. Kimberlys are also not yellow, another plus.

I've had a few F-C pencils that are gritty, but General's seem to be less so. Unlike US-made pencils that tend very soft (a #2 is closer to a 2B), General's are graded reasonably and also use the rest-of-the-world B/H ratings.
posted by scruss at 6:09 AM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I've recently started using (non-mechanical) pencils again, after giving up on them in middle school, as soon as I was allowed to start using mechanical pencils and pens.

If you're thinking of trying them again, do yourself two favors: one, get some good pencils; two, get a good sharpener. The latter was actually what made me decide I'd given pencils short shrift as writing utensils; I got a little Japanese sharpener capable of putting different angles onto the end of the pencil (courtesy of an AskMe question!) and found that a very sharp 45-degree point on a soft lead pencil is a night-vs-day difference from my elementary school recollections of cramping my hand with some dull, off-brand #2.

People do look at you like you're Dexter when you break out the sharpener to hone your pencil at a meeting, though.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:04 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]

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