On the sharpening of pencils

Over the holidays, members of my extended family were discussing real (as opposed to mechanical) pencils. This was in relation to a gift my sister received: a real pencil, and an eraser. It pleased her a great deal. I think there was even a hand-held sharpener included in the package, which was limited to a value of $4. (We performed a holiday-gift experiment this year. It was an amazing success, and we'll do it again.)

The giver of the gift would have provided an artisan-sharpened pencil, except that the still relatively modest cost (in the gift realm) exceeded the constraints put on that part of the present-finding exercise. But the topic of pencil sharpening came up, and we considered for more than a passing moment some aspects of the craft, with which most of us were of an age to have been acquainted in at least an amateur or student's role.

As I was leaving the public library the other day, the following appropriately colored book caught my eye:


So, of course, I had to pick it up.

Here's a brief quote from page 157, with one bracketed comment:

For readers of a certain age [that includes me], the sight (and sounds) of a wall-mounted hand-crank pencil sharpener is as powerfully nostalgic as the odor of tiny milk cartons, the heft of a chalkboard eraser, or the rap of an unforgiving teacher's ruler across the knuckles. 

Those happy days, alas, are long gone. . . . 

Consider what follows a re-introduction to a set of skills that were likely central to your portfolio in the distant past, but now risk fading into the ledger of the lost arts. Let us turn our contemporary sensibilities to the wall-mounted hand-crank sharpener and rediscover what pleasures remain thereby.

Urban explorers make a habit of carrying a #2 pencil on their person in case they stumble upon a wall-mounted sharpener in one of the decrepit buildings they trespass.

(Hmm. I travel with a spindle, in case of fiber encounters, and a tiny bit of fiber, in case of spinning-tool encounters. How far-fetched is Rees's observation about the carrying of pencils, just in case?)

What was interesting to me in reading this book (and yes, I read the whole thing) was how many of the pencil-sharpening tools and techniques were completely familiar, and the realization that for many people these would be objects as foreign as a spindle, and the associated skills as peculiar-seeming as the making of yarn by hand: knives, single-burr and double-burr hand-crank sharpeners, single-blade pocket sharpeners, and even electric sharpeners (the chapters on these and on mechanical pencils were among the most enlightening). I even learned something: I'd missed the precise application techniques for the multiple-hole, multiple-stage pocket sharpeners, even though they were around and I'd used them often! I also became aware of a number of fine points [sorry . . . or not {grin}] about pencil-sharpening that I considered common knowledge, and I refined [ . . . ] my knowledge in ways that will improve my sharpening technique in the future.


Oddly, the book was a good (if quick) read. The author was previously a political cartoonist, and a census-taker (the precipitating occupation in his career change), both of which occupations explain a lot. The pages contain good, serious information. Note: The book is not suitable reading for most children, due to levels and types of vocabulary. The only chapter I snoozed through was the one on celebrities, but then I don't follow celebrities so I may have missed something that others will appreciate.

Here's an interview author (and pencil sharpener) David Rees did on Portland TV before a book-signing at Powell's. (I wonder: does he sign in pencil??) The prices of pencil-sharpening have increased since the interview aired. An artisanally sharpened pencil would  be out of reach of all but the largest of our family's gift-giving categories ($0, $4, $40). If one of us received such a pencil, it would be our Big Gift for the year. (Although with the remaining $5, the giver could also provide a pencil, a sharpener, and an eraser—but, unfortunately, not also the book that provides training in how to use the first two.) It's also true that Rees may actually be making something of a living at his chosen pursuit now.

All this certainly does put my own focus on sheep and wool into perspective. I'm not entirely sure what perspective. I'm working on that.


17 thoughts on “On the sharpening of pencils”

  1. You find the most interesting books and ideas to share–thank you. Never even thought about an artisan-sharpened pencil. The book is entirely too intriguing not to track down. How many of us, in bygone times, took a break from schoolwork, to go to that elementary version of the water cooler–the pencil sharpener?

  2. Hah, he missed one important aspect of the wall-mounted pencil sharpener experience. The SCENT. I have one of those wall-mounted sharpeners in my kitchen; nothing could be more evocative in its way than the combined aroma of fine-ground wood and graphite dust.

  3. Lynn, if I could remember how to use a slide rule I might collect them, too! They’re fascinating devices.

    It’s true, TsockTsarina, that the scent is ineffable. He mentions it in the book, but I don’t think with a strong enough emphasis.

    And I look forward to reading The Pencil, and The Book on the Bookshelf, Valerie–as soon as I get this article on sheep written! (Small post about that coming soon, I hope.) I’ve read The Invention of Useful Things (way back) and Invention by Design. I see, however, that I’m way behind on following his work.

    (My current reading, a few pages at a time, is Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, by Manuel Lima.)

  4. How wonderful! Lost arts from a lost time. I was telling my wife about this post and she said that when her grandfather taught architecture he would teach the proper way to sharpen a pencil as part of learning to use tools and materials.

  5. I found it oddly reassuring that when my son entered kindergarten they requested regular #2 pencils as one of their supplies. And we discovered that while Crayons are great, they can melt under seats when on winter road trips…where as colored pencils do not. That was a great discovery as you can imagine. Gotta love long road trips.

  6. I was first made aware of the”pencil subculture” when my husband started collecting Academic Pencils. He has at least one from every university our son and DIL ever applied to, visited or attended. The numbers have added up as they are Students with a capital. However, he will NOT sharpen them or sully the pristine erasers – he keeps them “new in box” so I had to give him a nice packet of Ticonderoga #2s for Christmas along with a sharpener with a magnet for sticking on the dashboard of his truck. Which is plastic :>( He’ll have to buy a vintage pickup with a metal dash, I suppose.

  7. What a wonderful post, thank you 🙂 My father gave me one of his biggest treasures when I started drawing in my teens: his pen knife that he used in school in the 20s. I still use it. It’s very sharp.

  8. Maria, I’m enjoying The Pen Addict, when I have moments to check it out. I like decent-quality but not-too-expensive fountain pens. I don’t like to have to worry a lot about losing them. I like a fairly thick, not-too-slick barrel. I get along pretty well with Waterman Phileas fountain pens. I think I have two. I know where one is {grin}. I got a fancier pen once, but it was too slippery to write with and I worried about where I’d put it.

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