P is for Pencils

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P is for Pencils

Notice that I said "pencils", plural. I suppose you could do woodworking with just one pencil, in the same way you could work with only one hammer or one kind of clamp. But... why?

My pencils are always within arm's reach. I keep one in my toolbelt, at least one or two in each toolbox, a cup of pencils on my workbench, etc. Pencils are cheap enough that you should never have to go hunting for one. Buy a gross and scatter them everywhere.

Like a lot of things in the workshop, pencils straddle the line between a tool and a consumable item. Carpenter's pencils are distinctive because they are flat, with a rectangular lead in the core. The shape derives from the function. Quite simply, flat pencils don't roll away when you set them down on uneven surfaces like rafters, beams or items held at odd angles during fitting & assembly.

If I could offer a criticism about the Home Depot pencils pictured here, it would be that the orange paint coating makes them a bit slick, sometimes defeating the "stay where I put you" functionality. However, that bulk pack was cheap and the color makes them easier to spot amid the crap of a messy workbench. At some point, I'll probably rough them all up with my pad sander.

This pack of pencils came with a special sharpener, a rotating kind for flat pencils, which is something I'd never used before. After sharpening all these pencils, though, I've decided I don't like it. It puts a long point on the flat pencils, much as you'd see with a round or hexagonal pencil. The lead in the flat pencil is the wrong kind for that kind of point and they keep breaking off.

I'll go back to sharpening them with a utility knife. That gives a square lead tip, much better for marking measurements, cut lines and drill holes. Also, a big, fat lead is much better for writing those all-important directions to yourself, such as CUT OTHER SIDE or THIS END UP or GLUE FACE GOES HERE.

You might think I'm kidding about those little notes, but you've never seen me work in my shop.

The regular pencils are for drawing up plans, making lists for the store, doing design work on graph paper, etc. Woodworking is as much about mapping things out on paper as it is marking and cutting wood. I've got a bunch of odds and ends pencils for that. I also have a mechanical pencil for when I'm feeling especially fussy.

HISTORICAL SIDE NOTE: Ever wondered why yellow is a such a popular color for pencils? Back in the 1800's, when the graphite in pencils was sliced from naturally occurring blocks found in coal deposits (1), some of the very best quality came from China. It had very little grit or crud embedded and therefore gave a smooth, perfect line. Therefore, to give a mental association with China, pencil makers painted their pencils yellow, a color associated with China and chinoiserie, the Chinese art style which was so popular in Europe at the time. Yellow = China = quality lead.

It's true! You can read all about it and many other interesting facts (2) on the subject of pencils in "The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance" by Henry Petroski. If you have any interest in how form and function come together to become design, this book is for you.

1. ... and when pencil leads were often square as a result of the cutting process...
2. For example, Henry David Thoreau was able to go live in a cabin for two years on Walden Pond because he came from a wealthy family. The money came in large part from the family's pencil factory and associated rolling mills used to process graphite to make pencil leads.

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  1. I love my pencils. Whenever I sketch, I have an army of pencils to choose from. And I had no idea why many pencils are yellow.

    Happy A to Z blogging.

    1. I do some sketching from time to time. The range of pencils is wide, but I usually stick with a softer lead. I'm a much better woodworker than artist. ;-)

  2. Great post, now where the eff did I put that pencil?

    Interesting fact about Thoreau. Funny how he could write about a "simple life" when he never had to worry about money anyway. Puts him in a different light.

    1. Yeah, the Thoreau "simplify, simplify" is predicated on lots of "background money, background money", both to cover start-up costs and as a cushion to insulate you from the bad times. Unfortunately, the process of amassing that kind of cash is anything but simple. Thoreau's "simplify" is really all about "transfer the complexity to someone else".

  3. Well, I still like Thoreau, but I get your point (get it, it's a post about pencils. get it? nudge nudge).


    Anyway, I found this post very interesting. I guess everyone has their favorite. Mine are Ticonderoga Blacks because they write a very smooth dark line. I bought some for awhile that wrote less dark, compared the packages and couldn't figure out why because they were supposedly the exact same pencils, but they seem to have gone back to the good ol' dark lines. Love 'em.

    Thanks for the tip about the color too! (Tip, get it? cause a pencil tip... I can't help myself)

  4. What an interesting read! I never knew that was why many pencils are yellow, another random thing I've learnt today :)

    Happy A to Z ing x

  5. Huh. Thoreau got to live the life he wanted based on pencils, and then became famous for stuff he did with them? Or was he a pen guy?

  6. I admit I know nothing about woodworking, but I still have pencils scattered about in every room. I swear some of them must still be leftover from elementary school because they have fruity flavors when I sharpen them. Very interesting about the yellow color.

    Hope you’re having fun with the A to Z challenge,


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