Humble history of the pencil

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An image of a pencil.

I am feeling nostalgic for the humble pencil.  There is a comfort and warm familiarity whenever I pick one up (rarely these days).  Pencils are inexpensive, portable, simple to operate and the marks that they make are easy to erase.  Unlike other writing tools, they do not run out of ink or skip — sharpen them once in a while, and they are ready to go.

The history of the lead pencil goes back more than 2000 years to Greek and Roman times.  The word for pencil is derived from the Latin word pencillus, meaning “little brush”.  As we know it, the pencil may have evolved out of an ancient Roman stylus (a thin metal rod) which was used to scratch the papyrus, which left a light but readable mark. Other early writing tools were made out of lead.  Lead is a substance that will make its mark on almost anything.  Although the mark that it leaves is faint and not very dependable.

Discovery of Graphite & History of Pencil

In the fifteenth century, new material was found that could be used in place of lead.  This substance is called graphite.  A large deposit of graphite was discovered near Borrowdale, England, in 1564. It is a form of carbon and beneficial material.  Besides its use in pencils, it is an ingredient in lubricants, certain kinds of steel, paint, brushes in electric motors.  In my early 20’s, I worked at a large bakery.  I remember lubricating the conveyor belt chains for the oven with semi-liquid graphite.  It was used instead of oil as it could withstand the high temperatures inside the oven.

Graphite by itself, however, is as unsuitable for pencils as lead. To keep the graphite from wearing down too quickly, it is mixed with fine clay.  And it is the amount of clay that determines how hard the pencil lead will be.  A hard lead will have more clay in it than a soft lead.  Coloured pencils contain no graphite at all, and are a mixture of clay, was, or chalk and colouring materials.

Fun fact

1800 — Massachussets school girl creates a pencil using crushed graphite and a hollowed out twig. (Very resourceful, and easier to transport than a quill and ink pot.)

To make a pencil the helpful tool it is, it needs a wooden sheath.  And the most common wood used for this purpose is cedar.  More than 70% of the world’s pencil makers rely on Lebocedrus deurrens  — the California incense cedar tree — for their wood. A slat of cedar is cut into proper pencil lengths and about nine pencil widths.  Grooves are then cut in a lengthwise direction.  After placing the leads in these grooves, another slat of cedar is glued on top, making a sort of pencil sandwich.  The whole thing is then cut into nine pencils.

After pencils are cut, they are sanded, painted and varnished, and the marker’s name is stamped into them.  If they are to have an eraser, a brass rim is to be added.  The eraser is fitted in, and the brass rim is squeezed tight so that the eraser does not fall out the first time you use it.

Recent History of Pencil

By the beginning of the twentieth century, two systems for identifying the grade of pencils had been established.  European pencil makers were using a combination letter-number system.  Most American pencil makers use a number only system.  The combination letter-number system is the one that is most recognisable today. Usually consisting of 9H, 8H, … 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, …, 8B, 9B. “H” represents Hardness, and “B” represents Blackness and is softer.  Harder pencils are most often used for drafting, and artists most likely use softer pencils.

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