Hamlet’s point.

Spitzen oder nichtspitzen: das its hier die Frage.

To sharpen, or not to sharpen: that is the question.”
(William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Act III, Scene i.)

I have never been able to adopt a clear principle of action regarding exactly when to sharpen my pencils. Do I sharpen when the sharpness of the point is gone? That seems a little extreme, since it would require that I constantly sharpen (or use sandpaper pads), given that most of what I use pencils for amounts to long stints of writing. Do I wear the lead down to the wood? This seems extreme at the other end, since I would wind up writing in large, Kindergarten letters half-way through what is thereby considered a point. While large letters are not undesirable per se, they don’t fit in my notebooks.
So it would seem that the proper time to sharpen my pencils would be somewhere in between. But where? I do turn the pencil so that I use the points that several flattened plains have made at their intersections (see figure). This enables me to keep the letters fine without resorting to the blade just yet. But at a certain point (!), I give up and cut the wood and graphite with a sharpener.

The thing is, I’m almost never consistent on where this is, on when I finally sharpen the pencil and decide how much graphite is going to get shredded without having fulfilled its purpose of making a mark.

It varies by how hard and how dark the pencil I am using is. Darker leads can be used while dull, since I can still read what I write with them. A lighter German pencil is something I really prefer to keep sharp. It varies by how expensive the pencil is and how precious it is to me (i.e., how many of them I have in my stash). Palominos and Castell 9000s get very close to the wood before I dare to sharpen them, but I don’t mind cutting up a Mirado that is only marginally dull.

What I’m writing on matters, too. I have found that thinner Moleskine paper likes a sharp point, while Rhodia pads and Moleskine sketch books don’t seem to mind a smoother and duller point. Working out logic problems on my bathroom mirror (how Goodwill Hunting is that?!) is futile with too sharp of a point on my china markers. Cheap notebook paper causes any non-sharp pencil to smear everywhere, if the lead is anything softer than an HB.

This is not to mention situational factors. Do I have a meeting to attend where I don’t feel like pulling out a sharpener, or can’t? If so, I will sharpen my pencil before I leave, no matter how much lead is left. Am I putting the pencil into my pocket? I will leave a little dullness. Is it going into the cup, and is it cedar? If so, I will leave it dull so that I can sharpen it and enjoy the aroma the next time I use it.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

How about you? When do you know that it’s time to sharpen your pencils?

[Images, J.G.]

16 thoughts on “Hamlet’s point.”

  1. Love this internal debate–what a great Hamlet-ish stage monologue it would make–performance art on the topic of pencil sharpening. I’d love to see this performed!

    As for me, I sharpen a pencil when I feel dissatisfied with continuing to use the dull point. I DO roll the pencil to get all the pointiness out of it that I can, then I sharpen with anticipation of the new pointiness to come.

  2. And I thought I was obsessed! Goodness, this takes it to a whole ‘nother level. But keep it coming, because all of us pencil-loving geeks have our issues. And we’re all in it together, Comrade.

  3. Mine must be very sharp, so they’re usually sharpened after each use. I keep several ready to go. A dull pencil is an abomination.

  4. Revolutionaries must keep their eye on the point, and not let the little stuff trip them up. I sharpen my pencil when it feels like it needs it, and that feeling depends on what kind of day I’m having, whether the task at hand is one I’m procrastinating over or one that must be done post haste, whether I need a break for rumination (sharpening the pencil is ideal for this — insights come when doing something mindless, such as cleaning the commode in the bathroom, doing dishes, or refreshing the point on your Palomino), and so on. But for the those who are both compulsive AND obsessed with efficiency, my order from PencilThings brought a little device that may help — a tiny “touch-up” sharpener. Then one only needs a trash can or coffee cup handy in order to periodically empty the tiny reservoir on the tiny sharpener. This of course can give compulsive comrades another question to agonize over (“When do you empty the tiny reservoir?”) (you’re welcome, I knew you needed something else to occupy your attention on Tax Day) but I say this is trivial to the true revolutionary.

  5. Spitzen? It has to be: “Spidse eller ikke spidse: det er spørgsmÃ¥let”. After all neither Hamlet nor Amled from the original danish legend went to Osnabrück or Frankfurt.


  6. I know Hamlet wasn’t German; I’ve just been studying the language lately:) Imagine how….melancholy he would have been, had he been German:) (I guess I can say that, coming from melancholy German stock, lol.)

  7. It’s true. A good sharp pencil is, of course, simply an instant kill, rather than just brain damage.

    You want to watch using the long points that way, though, they can cause overpenetration and you may hit an unintended target.


  8. As a college student, I keep a pencil box full of sharpened pencils so that during lectures I don’t have to stop and sharpen. That way I can take continuous notes. I wait until the lead becomes dull enought that it slows me down a little, and then I exchange it for an already sharpened one in the box.

  9. I’d liken sharpening to any other acquired intuition — you just know when, just as you know when to change guitar strings or how much milk to add to coffee.

    My pref is to sharpen frequently. But for editing typescript, I prefer the thicker line of a dull point.

  10. I sharpen when i feel i need to or when the pointis too dull. This varies but if i’m on a writing streak i roll the pencil and go for as long as possible. if i;m just jotting a note i usualy sharpen after the sentece is complete. if i;m stuck and cant think of what to write i sharpen the pencil be there need or not. No pencil is so precious to me that i would try to not sharpen it. I cant see myself ever treasuring a writing implement so much that i would discourage my own enjoyment of using it. if i sharpen it down to a stub too quickly that is a good sign for the company who manufactures it. they will be selling at least 12 more pencils to me. probably more. the ones that dont get used will remain in the collection and recieve sporadic use for the rest of my ownership until such time as i can unload it to the jar by the phone. Then the rest of this house will use it to record messages when they come in or they’ll throw them out but thats their business

  11. Perhaps “2B or not 2B” might have been a better caption for that image. Although, it doesn’t have anything to do with sharpening I guess.

  12. Well, nearly 7 years after the fact, but…..
    Glad to see someone shares my pencil peculiarities.
    I, too , say all the time “A dull pencil is an abomination.” Exact quote. Nice.
    I’m a community theater stage manager, and during a production will likely keep twice as many pre-sharpened pencils as performers on hand.
    One theater company I work with had custom pencils made for a show (to hand out to primary school audiences) and there were a multitude of extras. They are really nice pencils; I actually get really protective of them, and for me to give (not loan) one to an actor is a special privilege.

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