"By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; and by knowledge
the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches." ~Proverbs 24:3-4

Not Just For Kids


The pencil is probably the most commonly used writing instrument. Even in today’s technological society, we still need pencils. Pencils are used for lots of things – writing notes, jotting down phone messages, taking tests, doing math homework, practicing handwriting, drawing and sketching, filling in crossword puzzles, mazes, word searches, etc.

There are many different kinds of pencils. The general writing pencil consists of a long, slender piece of wood (often painted) that surrounds an even thinner stick of “lead,” which is actually graphite. The wood is shaved away at one end so that a small piece of lead sticks out beyond it. This is the pencil’s point, and the shaving away is called “sharpening the pencil.”

Special pencils are made for special purposes. A carpenter pencil is a large pencil with a flattened shape to prevent it from rolling. Drawing and charcoal pencils are used by draftsmen and artists. There are special pencils to mark china, glass, cellophane, film and other materials on which ordinary pencils leave no mark. Colored pencils are used by students, teachers, and artists.

There are mechanical pencils, which are metal or plastic holders that use the same kind of lead as ordinary pencils, although it is much thinner. There are indelible pencils, which make marks that cannot be erased. Pencils made of a white pigment are used to cover mistakes.

Pencils are used everywhere by people of all ages. Most of us take pencils for granted and use one every day without giving it a second thought. But have you ever wondered how the lead gets inside the pencil, and why it’s called “lead” in the first place? Or who invented pencils and when?

The History of Pencils

Pencils like the ones used today were first made about 200 years ago. Before that time most people wrote with feather quill pens and ink. However, the ancient Romans had discovered that lead (the metal) would make readable marks, and they wrote on their papyrus scrolls using a lead-filled stylus. For this reason, we still refer to the writing part of pencils as “lead.”

Graphite came into widespread use for writing following the discovery of a large graphite deposit in the Cumberland Hills near Barrowdale, England in 1564. It was known at the time as "black lead", "English antimony,” or plumbago, meaning “that which writes like lead.” At first, pure sticks of it were sold as marking stones. Graphite made a darker mark than lead, but it’s drawbacks were that it was soft and brittle, and made people’s fingers dirty.

So the graphite was cut into sticks and wrapped in string, sheepskin, or placed inside bamboo reeds. Later, the graphite was inserted into wooden tubes that had been hollowed-out by hand. The first known use of a wooden graphite pencil was in 1565.

The first mass-produced pencils were made in Nuremberg, Bavaria (now Germany) in 1662. The pencil factory was founded by Casper Faber. Faber used powdered graphite, along with sulphur as a binder to hold it together. He poured the powdered graphite and melted sulphur into molds, and when it cooled the material was put into pencils.

In 1795, Nicholas Jacques Conté, a French engineer and inventor, developed a new pencil-making process. Conté achieved success by "binding finely powdered graphite with clay, forming the plastic mass into rods, and firing as in ceramic work." This mixture proved to be so successful that the method was adopted by all pencil makers and is still used today.

By the early 1800’s, the price of Cumberland graphite had reached fantastic heights, so it became customary to groove and fill only half the length of the pencil. A reference to this was made by Jane Austen in “Emma," written in 1816:

“Emma was quite eager to see this superior treasure. It was the end of an old pencil, –the part without any lead. "This was really his," said Harriet. –"Do not you remember one morning?–he wanted to make a memorandum in his pocket-book…but when he took out his pencil, there was so little lead that he soon cut it all away, and it would not do, so you lent him another, and this was left upon the table as good for nothing. But I kept my eye on it; and, as soon as I dared, caught it up, and never parted with it again from that moment."” (Volume III, Chapter IV)

Later in the 1800s, the world’s graphite supply started coming from China. While pencils were ordinarily varnished to bring out the color of the wood, those made of poorer quality wood were painted. Since yellow was a color associated with royalty in China, this color was chosen to make the pencils appear more “regal.” 75% of the pencils sold in the U.S. today are still painted yellow!

William Monroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Massachusetts, made the first American wood pencils in 1812. Henry David Thoreau, the poet, writer, philosopher, and civil engineer, was also a pencil maker. His father and uncle started the business in the 1820’s. Thoreau discovered that grinding graphite into a finer powder produced higher-quality pencils. As a result, his family was known at the time for making the best pencils in America.

In 1856, the descendents of Casper Faber built a pencil factory in New York City. The company is now called the Eberhard Faber Company. Pencils became standard issue for soldiers during the Civil War (1861-1865). Pencils were easier to carry and use than quill pens and ink for writing letters to their loved ones at home.

In 1873, a man named Joseph Dixon, who had previously owned a pencil company in Salem, Mass., purchased the American Graphite Company of Ticonderoga, NY. In 1913, the Joseph Dixon Company introduced a pencil featuring a graphite core that was denser, stronger, and more durable than any other pencil, in a hexagonal shape for writing comfort. The company wanted "a fine American name for a fine American pencil." They named it after Fort Ticonderoga.

The first pencil sharpeners were penknives. (They were so called because they were used to shape the quills used as early pens.) Then, John Love created the “Love Sharpener," a simple, portable pencil sharpener in which the pencil is rotated by hand. Between the 1880s and 1910s, numerous inventors and companies took up the challenge of designing mechanical pencil sharpeners.

Manufacturers continued to make improvements to the pencil. In the early 1900’s, Eversharp began producing a mechanical pencil. By the 1920’s it was selling so well that hundreds of other companies jumped into the market. Later, plastic pencils were introduced as wood substitutes.

Today, Paper Mate is the largest pencil manufacturer in the United States. They produce millions of pencils every day!

How Pencils Are Made

The steps in making pencils were formerly all done by hand. Today, pencils are made by machine. Traditional pencils are composed of three main substances – graphite, clay, and wood. The preferred wood is cedar.

Graphite, clay, and water are mixed together. The kind of pencil depends on this mixture. If more clay is used, the pencil will be harder – that is, it will make a finer line and more pressure will be needed to make the line blacker. If more graphite is used, the pencil will be softer – that is, it will make thicker, blacker lines with less pressure.

The mixture is then put into molds that form it into strings. They are dried, packed into metal molds, and heated in ovens to a very high temperature. Then the “leads” are cooled and put for a time into a bath of melted wax. This will make them write more smoothly.

The wood for the pencil is bought by pencil manufacturers in the form of thin, slatlike pieces. The slats are dried, stained and soaked in a wax bath. Then grooves are cut in the slats and a special kind of glue is applied. The leads are placed in the grooves and another grooved slat is put on top. The glue holds the slats together. Everything has to fit exactly. If the lead is too loose in the groove, the pencil will not write well, and if the lead is too tight, it will break.

The pencils are smoothed with sandpaper and coated with lacquer (a kind of paint). They may be stamped with the maker's name and a number showing how hard or soft they are. Then the metal bands and erasers (called "plugs") are added.


Bread crumbs were used as erasers until 1770, when the first rubber eraser was made. Erasers were originally referred to as "rubbers," because the tree resin they were made of "rubbed out" marks made by a pencil. In Great Britain, erasers are still called "rubbers."

However, rubber is not the primary ingredient in an eraser. The rubber binds together the factice (a generic name for vulcanized vegetable oil), which is what actually takes the marks off paper. There are also several other ingredients such as clay fillers, processing lubricants, and colorants.

Many of today's erasers are made from something other than rubber. Some of the pink erasers are made from synthetic rubber blended with pumice (a grit that enhances its ability to erase). More and more erasers are being made from vinyl, which is a flexible plastic.

My personal favorite is the pliable gray kneaded rubber art eraser widely used by artists and draftsmen. These erasers don't leave pink marks or eraser remnants, and give fidgety kids something to do with their hands - molding shapes, making sculptures, exercising their fingers - while they're doing homework or listening to a lecture.

School teachers did not like the idea of putting erasers on pencils at first, thinking that they would encourage children to make mistakes. In America, pencils with attached erasers are now common, while in Europe most pencils are still sold without erasers!

Grades of Pencils

Manufacturers usually grade pencils – that is, give them numbers to indicate their hardness or softness. The usual numbers are No. 1 (soft), No. 2 (medium), No. 3 (firm), and No. 4 (hard). Some manufacturers also give grades between No. 1 and No. 4, such as No. 2B or No. 2 ½. The No. 2 grade is preferred by most people for general writing, and is specified for use by standardized test providers.

What Kind of Pencil Do You Have?

Pencils made from cedar are reddish-brown inside with a smooth, fine grain and a visible seam. You can recognize cedar by its straight-grain and fragrant aroma. Pencils made from plastic have a pinkish color with no grain or seam, because plastic composite pencils are extruded by machine. They bend easily, snap cleanly when broken, and have no scent. Pencils made from tropical rainforest wood have a brownish color with little dark brown or red flecks and a slight scent.

Famous Pencil Pushers

  • Artist/inventor Leonardo da Vinci frequently sketched in pencil.
  • Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils for sale in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729.
  • George Washington used a 3-inch pencil when he surveyed the Ohio Territory in 1762.
  • Abraham Lincoln wrote his famous Gettysburg Address with a pencil.
  • Before he wrote Walden, Henry David Thoreau made pencils in his father's factory.
  • Thomas Edison always kept a 3-inch-long pencil in his vest pocket to jot down notes.
  • American author John Steinbeck reportedly wore down 60 pencils a day.
  • Ernest Hemingway got himself in the mood for writing by sharpening dozens of pencils.

    Did You Know…?

    The word “pencil pusher,” meaning a person who does mostly paperwork, dates back to 1881.

    Pencils as a Hobby

    Many people like to collect pencils. In 1955, Lester C. Taylor, a professor at Sterling College, Kansas, started writing and distributing a newsletter called "The Pencil Collector". By 1958 the group had became the American Pencil Collectors Society. Today there are over 300 active members, including teenagers, retired persons, and people from other countries. For more info, visit the American Pencil Collectors Society website at www.pencilcollector.org. Some people also make models of log cabins, windmills, and other structures out of pencils.

    Additional Information

    The Pencil, by Henry Petrowski, 1990. (The detailed history of a common product.)

    www.pencils.com (Learn how a pencil is made, what kind of wood makes the best pencils, the history of pencils, which pencil is which, pencil trivia, and a lot more.)

    www.pencilpages.com (A Comprehensive On-line Resource for Pencil-Related Information.)

    www.pencils.co.uk (The story of pencils and pencil making, with information on the history of graphite mining in the early days, from the Cumberland Pencil Museum.)

    http://papermate.com/sanford/consumer/papermate/jhtml/aboutus/pencilhistory.jhtml (The making of PaperMate wood pencils, with photos and fun facts.)

    www.generalpencil.com (How pencils are made, and the anatomy of a pencil.)

    www.pencils.net (The making of a pencil and pencil facts.)

    http://science.howstuffworks.com/question465.htm (How Stuff Works: how do they get the lead in a wooden pencil?)

    www.officemuseum.com/pencil_history.htm (An illustrated history of the lead pencil, along with the history of mechanical pencil sharpeners.)

    www.tooltalk.org/articles/pencilsh.htm (Manufacturing Milestones: the pencil sharpener.)

    http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa100197.htm (A Brief History of Writing Instruments)

    www.ringpen.com/history.html (Writing Instrument Timeline)

    www.noogenesis.com/inventing/pencil/pencil_page.html (Classroom Activity: inventing a new kind of pencil.)

    www.pencilflag.com/about.htm (Ideas for making pencil flags, and a 9/11 Remembrance Flag.)

    www.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/6758/lapiz3.html (Spanish language introduction to pencils.)


    These pages are a continuous work in progress.
    Copyright © 2000- by Teri Ann Berg Olsen
    All rights reserved.

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