On Pencil Sharpers, and the Secret to a Great Point.

Classroom Friendly sharpener: one of my favorite crank models, with a Deli I like very much.

Classroom Friendly sharpener: one of my favorite crank models, with a Deli I like very much.

[I wrote this as a guest post on PPIL's Pencil Week (here). I thought I'd repost it since I'm up to my knees in reviews I need to take photos for, and the site's been quiet.]

There are lots of different kinds of pencil sharpeners. One can do no better than to read David Rees’ How to Sharpen Pencils to learn all about them. My list is less specific than his and certainly not as…good, but I thought I might share how I actually sharpen my own pencils at the end, since I hear time and time again that the process gives some folks a bit of trouble.

Turn me. I make pencils sharp. Do it. Do it now!

Turn me. I make pencils sharp. Do it. Do it now!

Crank Sharpeners
These are sharpeners into which a pencil is inserted, which produce a point on the pencil by means of a blade or burrs which rotate around the pencil via a manual crank which is activated by the individual doing the sharpening. The Classroom Friendly sharpener is a great example of this (see here, here and here for a few reviews). These sharpeners sometimes have mechanisms that prevent over sharpening, but most I have encountered in schools and workplaces do not. As such, they tend to eat pencils. They also tend to have old, dull blades/burrs which prevent anyone from really using them effectively. I would not trust an untested crank sharpener to put a point on anything expensive or precious unless my life depended on it. And when I fear that my life might depend on a sharp pencil (!), I have a pocket blade sharpener or knife on me.

My much-beloved and coveted brass KUM wedge.

My much-beloved and coveted brass KUM wedge.

Manual Blade Sharpeners
These are sharpeners that require the user to rotate the pencil inside of the sharpener body, against a blade. Standard wedge sharpeners and Snoopy sharpeners fit into this category. These are generally my favorite, since I can control how much of the point I actually sharpen more easily. They are easy to use but not to master.

Knives
These can be “controlled” knives like The Little Shaver, a machete, short sword, pocket knife or purpose-built pencil sharpening knife. This is an intimate way to sharpen pencils that is generally frowned upon aboard airliners and some city buses. To use a blade, one simply cuts the pencil’s business end into a spear, blunt cone or wedge. This is not for beginners. Or maybe it’s perfect for beginners.

Electric Pencil Sharpeners
These work like crank sharpeners, only they have motors which drive the gears. I own two and more-or-less hate one of them. I find these the most difficult to use, despite their alleged convenience. I am working on a review of a yellow and green model that I like a little better.

The Secret
For pencil sharpeners whose cutting mechanisms rotate around the pencil, it is imperative to hold the pencil perfectly still. Most such sharpeners have no aperture into which to insert the pencil which matches its shape. As such, the cutting mechanism will not rotate around the pencil evenly and produce an even point without the pencil being held stationary, directly in the center of the chamber. I make such an aperture out of my thumb and a finger or two and then insert the pencil into the sharpener through my grip, with which I pinch the pencil in place. Try this with the wobbly sharpener in the library or the electric beast at your office, and you might be pleased at your new results.

For a manual sharpener, just jam that sumbitch in there, directly in the center of the hole, and turn the pencil against the blade. Hold it firmly and steadily, and cut the wood – don’t shave it in splinters. We are looking for strips of cedar to scent your pocket here. Any good sharpener of this type will have a shape which will sharpen your pencil evenly if you feed the pencil into it evenly. Do not be tempted to lean the pencil against the blade, as this will warp your point. Keep it centered, firm and straight. You’ll nail it every time.

Evolution of the Pencil.

Pencils of various ages. Mostly old.

Pencils of various ages. Mostly old.

(This is something I contributed to Pencil Week on Pen Paper Ink Letter.)

Stormy Night in Borrowdale

The legend holds that in the early 1560s (1564?), a large tree – possibly an oak – was uprooted in a storm. Either a traveler or a shepherd or a random passerby notices chunks of a black substance hanging from the upturned roots. Graphite was first believed to be a type of black lead. It was referred to as wadd, black lead and plumbago, from the Latin, meaning “that which acts like lead.” Its existence was well-known throughout Europe at the end of the sixteenth century, and folks with needs for portable and/or erasable writing or drawing equipment were seeking plumbago by 1610 in London.

It was not until the chemical composition of graphite was uncovered in 1779 by K. W. Steele that A. G. Werner suggested the name by which we now know this magical substance: Graphite, from the Greek graphein, meaning “to write.” Graphite is a type of carbon, located molecularly between coal and diamonds. Because of this molecular structure, it works well as a lubricant. Because it is carbon, graphite marks do not fade or react with paper. As such, barring an assault with eraser-bearing enemies, pencil marks really are forever. Sharpie, for instance, fades on plant stakes. Pencil never fails me (General’s Kimberly 9XXB, as it were).

Early Pencils/Graphite Doohickies

In the beginning, graphite was used to mark sheep. But then artists and individuals who did fieldwork requiring note-making on the go started to use it to make more sophisticated marks than merely putting a dark smudge on wool. Chunks of pure graphite were used at first. These were sawed into sticks and wrapped in sheepskin, later in coiled string. Small pieces of graphite were even inserted into hollow ends of reeds and twigs.

Not 400 years old. General's flat sketching pencil.

Not 400 years old. General’s flat sketching pencil.

The earliest wooden pencils were made from pure chunks of graphite, sawed to fit into grooved pieces of wood. This pure graphite from the famed mine in Borrowdale is still considered to be the largest and best deposit of graphite ever discovered. These pencils had leads with a square cross-section because that was the shape into which they could easily and reliably be cut. When one sharpened these pencils, the lead could be fashioned into a round shape with relative ease. Generally, the lead did not go all of the way through the pencil, since the last few inches were unlikely to be used.

Graphite Composites

By 1726, small pieces of graphite which would otherwise be wasted were ground into powder with a mortar. The impurities were removed by sifting, and the powder was mixed with sulfur. This was melted, and workers would knead this mixture on boards, like bread. When it was cooled, it was sawed into cakes which were then in turn cut into square pencil leads. Outside of England, where the Borrowdale mine is located, pencil makers in countries like France and Germany were almost always reliant on the use of binders to form graphite composites from the inferior graphite available. Other binders used in this way included gum, shellac, wax and insinglass (fish bladder goo). These binders produced scratchy pencils that did not leave a dark mark. German pencils were notorious for containing enough sulfur that the cores would become soft and would produce a brimstone-like smell when held up to a flame.

Borrowdale Mine

The mine at Borrowdale was guarded and protected by the Crown, and men worked under loaded guns. The graphite unearthed there was used to make crucibles for manufacturing cannonballs, among other things, in addition to pencil leads. Because of the mine’s bounty, there were no major efforts in England to make pencils in the composite manner used by the rest of Europe until it became clear that the mine was becoming empty.

Conte’

In 1793, England and France were at war. France could not get pencils made with pure Borrowdale graphite or even the inferior – but still usable – composite German pencils. The Minister of War wanted to find someone who could produce superior pencils for the nation’s needs – someone who could do it in France. Nicolas-Jacques Conte’ was born in Normandy in 1775. He was a portrait painter before the revolution and worked as an inventor and engineer after that. He wore an eye patch because of an injury resulting from a hydrogen gas explosion, when he was working on balloons for use in war. He answered the War Minister’s call and, in a matter of days in 1794, he came up with the idea to mix powdered graphite with potter’s clay as binder. The paste was put into molds and dried. When dry, the leads were packed in charcoal and baked at extremely high temperatures. Conte’ patented this process in 1795, and the modern pencil lead was born. These leads were brittle and could not be sawed, as the soft sulfur composites and pure graphite could be. So the shape of the wooden barrel was changed, to account for a deeper slot into which the square lead would be laid. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Conte’ method was widespread in Europe.

From Harper's Ferry History store, 2010.

From Harper’s Ferry History store, 2010.

Graphite Pencils in America

Legend has it that the first American pencils were made by a young woman in Massachusetts (Medford or Danvers, or somewhere else). She took pieces of Borrowdale graphite, mixed it with gum arabic and stuffed the mixture into a hollow twig (the tree species varies according to which version of the legend one accepts). Perhaps the first large-scale pencil manufacturer was William Monroe, a cabinet maker in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There is evidence that he attempted to master the Conte’ process.

There was also Joseph Dixon. Yes, that Dixon. He branched out from crucibles and made stove polish and pencils from graphite. He quit making pencils for a time when merchants in Boston told him that he’d have to use fake foreign labels to make his pencils marketable. He did teach the basics of pencil making to John Thoreau (father of the famous Henry David/David Henry) before that, however. Because Dixon might have known about the Conte’ process, John Thoreau might have also. But in the 1820s, there is no real evidence to suggest that the Conte’ process was known in America.

In 1821, John Thoreau’s brother-in-law Charles Dunbar found a deposit of graphite in Bristol, New Hampshire. He partnered with Cyrus Stowe of Concord to mine this excellent graphite. However, they mistakenly only took out a seven-year lease. They enlisted the help of John Thoreau because they had to tear out as much graphite in seven years as they could. Both dropped out soon after, and John founded John Thoreau and Company. John Thoreau’s pencils were made with a composite of ground graphite, glue, bayberry wax and spermaceti. Because of his superior graphite, he was able to sell his pencils without a foreign label and received notice from the MA Agricultural Society in 1824. Still, they were inferior to French or German pencils made with the Conte’ process.

Replica pencil from The Shop at Walden Pond.

Replica pencil from The Shop at Walden Pond.

Our Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau did know something about pencils. In order to pay for his education, he went to New York City with his father in 1834 to sell pencils. Henry David Thoreau was looking for work after quitting teaching over disputes over beating the students. He wanted to make a better pencil. He researched pencils at Harvard’s library. Walter Harding, in The Days of Henry Thoreau, claims that Thoreau discovered the Conte’ process in an encyclopedia, in a library at Harvard. However, Henry Petroski (who literally wrote the book on pencils) maintains that there could not have been such an encyclopedia at the time and that Thoreau likely connected graphite and clay crucibles and got the idea to mix graphite with powdered clay. No matter which explanation is true, Thoreau experimented and mastered the Conte’ process, but he was still not satisfied because his pencils were still gritty. So he went about inventing a new machine for pulverizing the graphite wherein the finest particles rise on air currents are are collected in a box above the chamber of river stones which do the grinding. The rest remained to be reground.

Thoreau dreamed of a seemless pencil (one made without any cuts in the wood running parallel to the barrel) and even invented a machine which could bore a hole into a piece of wood through which a core could be inserted. Like Conte’, Thoreau discovered that he could produce different and consistent grades of leads by varying the graphite and clay mixture. Thoreau and Co. produced four different grades of pencil. Thoreau and Co. pencils were recognized as the finest American pencils in their heyday. Eventually, however, it came to an end. Smith & McDougal bought the superior graphite produced by Thoreau’s machine for electrotyping, which was all kept secret until the Thoreaus stopped making pencils altogether in 1853.

Evolution? The Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil (left) does seem like the pinnacle of pencildom...

Evolution? The Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil (right) does seem like the pinnacle of pencildom…

More on the Evolution of Pencil Anatomy

We have mostly looked at the evolution of the graphite core of the pencil, which does indeed account for most developments in pencildom. But certainly some other points merit a mention.

Pencil leads were still square as late 1830, when German pencil makers (possibly French or English) started to extrude the leads through a round die. Round leads did not become the norm until the mid 1870s. Modern pencil leads are boiled in wax, so that it coats every bit of graphite with this lubricant. The result is smoother writing and – often – less smearing. We even have pencils today which use something other than clay as a binder, such as extruded plastic pencils (Empire in the 1980s, the new Staedtler Wopex).

Some of the first wood-cased pencils were made of juniper species, and they resembled modern carpenter pencils. Because of the grain and balance of strength and softness, Easter Red Cedar was used in pencils until the early 20th century. The wood became so scarce that pencil companies would go around buying up cedar fence posts, replacing these fences with metal ones. Red Cedar was replaced by Incense Cedar, a Western species. Adjustment was slow to the new wood because, despite its name, it does not exude the strong aroma of Red Cedar. Incense cedar was often dyed red and perfumed, in an effort to make the transition smoother. Today, Incense Cedar is the wood of choice for the best pencils. Other species, such as basswood, jelutong and various pine trees, are used by different manufacturers in different countries.

At first, pencils were made individually, with a groove being cut to accept the core, and then another piece of wood was attached to match the shape cut out. Modern pencils are made from slats, which are pieces of wood into which grooves are cut to accept the leads. Glue is put into these grooves, and the leads are dropped into them. Then, an identical slat is glued on top of the slat containing the cores, and the sandwich is compressed until the glue dries. These are cut by precise machines into the round, hexagonal or even triangular pencils we are used to today.

Hymen Lippman is credited as being the first person to attach an eraser to pencils, in 1858. These were inserted into the non-business-end of the pencil and required sharpening just like the writing/drawing end. Eventually, erasers began to be attached by metal ferrules, which are crimped or glued onto the pencil and hold the eraser at the other end. During WWII, metal ferrules were banned in the United States, resulting in the use of plastic ferrules. Dixon Ticonderoga used a green plastic ferrule with two yellow stripes painted onto it, resulting in the color scheme of their iconic pencil today.

Teachers and other folks who fretted over children were resistant to the attachment of erasers to pencils, worried that the practice would encourage carelessness. Learning to write in the early and mid-1980s, we did not have erasers on our pencils. Still, most pencils sold in the United States do have attached erasers, while “art pencils” and pencils made in or for Europe usually do not.

Pencil Grading

While the use of two different grading systems in the world today can result in some confusion, a quick explanation of how these grades work makes them easy to understand and utilize. Pencils in the United States are generally graded from #1 to #4, with #1 being the softest and #4 being the hardest. Several manufacturers even produce a fractional pencil between #2 and #3, such as 2 ½, 2.5, etc.

In the rest of the world (and in American “art” pencils), there is a more sophisticated system by which manufacturers grade pencils. At the far end, there is the H range, which stands for Hard. The higher the number in front of the H, the harder the lead. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the B range. B stands for Black, and the higher the number preceding the B, the softer and darker the pencil mark. In the middle stands HB, which generally corresponds with the #2 pencil in America. In some systems, there is another pencil, F (for Fine) between H and HB, which is also a 2 ½ in American pencils.
B=1
HB=2
H=3
2H=4

There is No Number Two

We all remember being required to use number two pencils for exams, but here’s the problem: there is no such thing. Manufacturers have different interpretations of different grades. Some contain different binders, different wax, no wax, extra carbon, etc. Even #2 Dixon Ticonderogas are different, depending on whether they were made in Mexico or China. (If you’re going to take exams in pencil, get yourself some Musgrave or General’s test scoring pencils!) Grades even vary by market or culture. For instance, German pencils run on the hard side, while Japanese pencils are generally softer and darker than pencils made in Europe or the US.

Conclusion

The modern pencil still does what it did 450 years ago: it makes marks. It has also undoubtedly left its mark on human civilization and various cultures. How many poems, philosophical theories, scientific insights or humorous characters might have gone unrecorded, were it not for the portable writing technology embodied by the pencil? Certainly, there are ballpoint pens and smartphones, but pencils were the first truly portable aids to memory and thought exploration. I carry one wherever I go, though never in the same pocket as my fancy phone.

Selected Sources

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (Henry Petroski)

The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (Walter Harding)

The Pencils of Pens #1: Bic Cristal.

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I like being counted as a Pencil Guy. A dozen of your family members and friends will call or text you when a show on TV or the radio has a segment about pencils. And you might even be lucky enough to be invited to collaborate with two talented bloggers in creating a really fun pencil podcast (Tim and Andy, stand up!)

But, you know, I do have and use pens.

True, there have been times when I literally went weeks without using ink. But one could go that long without (heavens forbid!) using any analogue tools these days.

My name is Johnny, and I have A Thing for Space Pens. And gel pens. And Microns. And sign pens.
And I have A Serious Thing for the Bic Cristal. So I thought this would be the perfect pen with which to begin a series of posts I have lazily put off for a long time, The Pens of Pencils – pens which are, in ways, like pencils. I wanted to do something like Pen Week, but these will just pop up from time to time instead, as time and energy permit.

How is the Bic Cristal like a pencil? It’s inexpensive and ubiquitous. You can see how much “write” you’ve got left.* You can vary the line density by varying your pressure. They are even hexagonal.

What the Bic Cristal has over the world of pencils is this: You’d be hard-pressed to find pencils which perform as well as these pens do in the same price range. In Days of Yore (2004-5), one could find cheap pencils which were very nice. But I think the branded pencil which corresponds to the Bic Cristal in price is the “economy” Dixon (not Ticonderoga) pencil. This is probably the worst branded pencil I have every attempted to use. I even masochistically keep a few around, to remind myself that I am lucky to have a large number of decent, even excellent, pencils in The Archive. And I like Dixon Ticonderoga pencils very much. Just not this monstrosity in cheap marigold paint.

Seriously the Bic Cristal  is a good pen. Remember when no one would touch PBR, and then some brave folks started to drink it and reminded us that there are beers whose humility is as wonderful to experience as which type of German hops is contained therein?** Be brave! Use some cheap pens! The Pen Climate seems to be shifting in favor of fountain pens and bottled ink, to a greater and greater degree. I watch this, and I am fascinated. If nothing else, the names some manufacturers come up with for their inks is a testament to human creativity. I do not count myself among fountain pen enthusiasts. But I like very much that there is a growing fountain pen enthusiasm. It brings folks to analogue tools, and that often brings them to pencils. Because pencils are better (!). There are good pens out there with ballpoints in them. Field Notes generated a lot of interest in the Space Pen, beginning in late 2012. If you haven’t tried one in a while, Fisher really does improve the ink every time I get a new refill. The current Fine is easily as good as a Jetstream to me, though it gives me a little more control.

This brings me back to the Bic Cristal. Have you used one lately? Not an old one you found in the drawer***, but a new one stolen from the pen cup at your favorite cafe’? I am often surprised by how much ink a medium-pointed Cristal puts down, yet how long it lasts. I found a few packs of “made in France” blue ones a while back, and the caps and plugs are a different blue. Lovely, but not the cool retro blue I usually prefer. Cristals are smooth, quick-drying pens. They write immediately. They do not smear, even with a bit of rain. You do not need to protect the point or carry a sharpener. If one walks off or gets lost, it’s no great tragedy. And, assuming your municipal recycling program takes all plastics, I am told they are recyclable.

Add to this the fact that Bic has started to put their famous Easy Glide**** ink into the North American medium Cristal, and this great pen is possibly the greatest cheap pen ever made. The blue is bluer. The black is darker. The ink is smoother. And you get that whiff of ink when you furiously scribble on your paper or canvas or skin. Plus, there’s not that gummy ball of ink that so often plagues smooth ballpoint pens like those Inkjoy…things.

In short, if you want a reliable pen which is cheap, attractive, smooth and quick-drying, get yourself a pack or a box of these. Amazon’s Cristals are the new ones, and I found a 2-dozen box at Wallieworld last time I accompanied a family member there on a errand and wondered down the pen aisle. Target has them, too. Check out Little Flower Petals’ recent posts on the Bic Cristal. If part of what you appreciate about pencils is their simplicity, the Bic Cristal might make your fanciest fountain pens jealous.

Finally, if you are surprised by the sudden Pen Post on this blog, remember that even eBay got hacked recently.

——-(endnotes)——-

*Assuming the ink doesn’t dry up and assuming the lead inside of wooden pencil has not fractured, one can estimate the remaining useful life left in the tool.
** Certainly, there are folks who consume Pabst just to be seen consuming Pabst. But I tried it again a number of years ago as a tribute to my great-uncle (i.e., before it was cool), and it is a very nice brew – though perhaps more so before so many affectedly cool people started idolizing it and holding the cans out so that you can see the label. “Look! I found Pabst at the store or managed to correctly order one!”
*** Unlike pencils, pens have a shelf-life. Ballpoint pens last about 3 years in storage. The Space Pen lasts 100, according to Fisher’s estimates.
**** Get your mind out of the gutter.

Of Pencils, Pads and the Road.

At Home Kit
This essay is from Wayne H. W. Wolfson. It is a detailed musing on writing and drawing kits that will surely facilitate the formulation of Kits for Comrades everywhere. I, for one, am rethinking the use and contents of my vintage (it was my Dad’s) US Army Map Case…

I groped for the idea from last night which I planned on using for a story. Like a fisherman who spots something just below the surface of the water, its shape making it seem worthwhile to go after while still not revealing exactly what it is. Usually I have my trusty pad next to me in which I could have quickly jotted it down. But having gotten in late last night and somewhat whammied by jetlag, I had not unpacked my book bag. It would come back to me, its temporary absence spurring me on to unpack.

To varying degrees all artists are pagans in that we all seem to create little rituals which superstitions then attach themselves to. If I feel a story percolating but not quite there yet or I am unsure of what I want to draw next — If I then go out without a (sketch/note) pad then I know inspiration will hit or I will encounter subject matter whose presence is fleeting and cannot necessarily be returned to the next day, when better equipped. As inconvenient as this may sound, it can actually be worked to one’s advantage too, knowing the cause and effect, choosing to go out unequipped, so as to bring things to the surface.

For the most part though, I always have some manner of pad and pencil on me. What I am equipped with depends upon where I am. Read the rest of this entry »

Hen’s Love for Pencils.

We love Rad and Hungry at Pencil Revolution. Those good folks are continually spreading The Pencil Message and gathering pencils from afar to share with Like Minded Individuals. Plus, Hen sent my daughter a box of really cool pencils last year that Charlotte still uses and talks about. So my ears were already open to Awesomeness when this was posted, and I was, well, moved. Please, Comrades, read Hen’s post about how she got into pencils. It will strike a chord with a lot of Comrades.

Restoring Bullet Pencils (The Jungle is Neutral).

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On the heels of the excellent post about the history of the bullet pencil comes this piece, with instructions for restoring bullet pencils into working condition:

“If you’re a collector of these old commercial bullet pencils rather than an end user, please read no further because this post will most likely distress you. I am taking a 1930s bullet pencil and stripping all of the collector’s value out of it – every last drop. This quirky little writing instrument may have survived the ravages of the past 75-80 years, but ultimately it couldn’t survive me with its original finish and character intact. If it makes you feel any better, this bullet pencil is but one of 13 that I have acquired recently. The rest are safely packed away in their original condition and hopefully they’ll remain that way for posterity.”

Read on…

See also this article on hacking a notebook to hold a bullet pencil.

Why Pencils: A Penchant for Paper.

pench_paper
Heather has been reviewing pencils for quite a while now, and I have been thoroughly enjoying her reviews — being a reader of her blog for literally years. A recent post really struck a chord with the Pencil Lover in me:

“For whatever reason, pencils have a charm for me that pens, even fountain pens and inks, just don’t. They seem friendlier, somehow. Homelier. More comfortable. You can always count on them to write. You don’t have to worry about the ink drying up, or about tricky issues like feathering, bleed through, drying times, fading, or waterproofness. You can break them in half and they still write. You can forget about them for a decade or two in the back of your desk drawer and they’ll still write. If you take notes in pencil, you can count on them to last, unless someone burns them or goes after them with an eraser. You can’t always count on that with ink.”

I feel like I should add some sort of commentary in an Academic way to justify this quotation. But Heather’s piece is very well-put, perfectly, already. Check out the rest of the post here.

Pencil FAQ, with Vikram Shah.


Vikram Shah sent us the link to a video he created:

Hi Comrades! I’ve made a Pencil FAQ video taking submissions from my friends on Facebook and answering their questions about pencils. Although it’s a bit long at 30:17, I think it would be educational to those who wonder, for example, why pencils are yellow, or why most are hexagonal. Please take a look if you have the time!

(If the embedded video doesn’t work for you, you can view it on YouTube here.)

Many thanks to Vikram for his Service to Pencildom. I can only imagine the patience involved with a project like this, in addition to the shear generosity involved with this kind of sharing.

Vero and Pencils.

"As a young man just out of the Army and attending Mechanical Arts School, the teacher asked for a detailed drawing (of a mechanism) and I felt like doing a self portrait.  I got an 'A' for the class." - Vero

“As a young man just out of the Army and attending Mechanical Arts School, the teacher asked for a detailed drawing (of a mechanism) and I felt like doing a self portrait. I got an ‘A’ for the class.” – Vero

Mr. Vero Ricci wrote to us recently, telling us about rediscovering pencils and asking about a good electric sharpener for use with colored pencils. Alas, I only own one, and I don’t think I’d recommend it. But I had to share this essay on a life in pencil. If you grew up in the 80s, you almost certainly encountered Vero’s designs of such things as coffin candy (which a semi-creepy kid like I was couldn’t get enough of) and burger boxes, which I really enjoyed as well. Below, please find Vero’s essay (and be sure to check out the site devoted to his designs set up by his son Steve here).

Pencils, I guess we can go back to early childhood, say about 4 years old. I’d watch my aunt Gilda sketch while she played cards with my folks. She had a way of making amazing things appear on paper. With my eyes reaching just above the kitchen table, I copied her every move. She taught me how to make a straight line without the aid of a straight edge. This aside, I became attached to pencil and paper. God’s gift of allowing me to draw was evident when we replaced wallpaper in my home. My parents constructed the house in 1938-39. I was then 5 years old. I couldn’t resist the fresh plastered walls that took a year to dry. I sketched a 1939 Dodge automobile in all its splendor with my trusty soft lead pencil, 4 feet above the floor, smack in the middle of the wall. Evidence of this act came when the old wallpaper was stripped off some 50 years later. There it was in all its splendor, for anyone to see, my 1939 Dodge. The most amazing thing to me was the wonderfully accurate detail made by a 5 year old. God’s gift came when I was very young.

This was another idea that was similar to the snappy gator from Topps Chewing gum.

This was another idea that was similar to the snappy gator from Topps Chewing gum.

From that day on I sketched quite a bit, but it wasn’t the most important thing in my life. Baseball, football, basketball and the Cowboys and Indians lead the way. In High School my teacher pulled me aside and taught me to paint with oils. She taught well because I won 1st prize two years straight in the Philadelphia Gimble’s Art Exhibit.

Most of my work was done when it was expected from me. While in the Army they nabbed me and I ended up drawing and painting just about everything imaginable. By profession I became an Industrial Designer. The tools that earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for me were my creative mind, a soft pencil, an eraser, a 3-inch triangle and a white 8 ½ X 11 pad of white bond paper. I prefer, to this day, soft lead. Most of the time I used the No. 2 Dixon Yellow Boy pencil with the endless aid of a rubber eraser. I enjoy simplicity and well-thought-out drawings that possess intelligent use of line.

In recent days I joined an elderly group of artists that holds drawing classes every Friday afternoon. I embarked on the use of colored pencils and have not yet come to terms with it. The points break too often, and sharpening the things breaks the points just as well. I know there are good answers out there and I’ll eventfully find the solution. Great pieces of fine art have been made with colored pencil. So hopefully there is a chance for me to enter the arena. Unfortunately, colored pencils don’t result with the contrast I seek. The black pencils are not dark enough. As a result, I started to use a 6B lead pencil to achieve the desired darkness. Unfortunately, the soft dark lead smears the soft pastel color work.

Boy, do I remember these?! Candy out of a trashcan was pretty fun.

Boy, do I remember these?! Candy out of a trashcan was pretty fun.

My life can be defined by drawing, painting and product design. All being inter-connected into a single 80-year-old human, and distinguishing one from the other is not possible.

Read more about Vero Ricci on the website created by his son here. If those little plastic coffins are a design by Mr. Ricci, then I have eaten my own weight in sugar from one of his creations.

On Memory, at the Pratt Chat.

Here is a very interesting piece on memory and poetry from Comrade Brian on Pratt Chat:

How is your memory? When it comes to certain things, my memory is like a steel trap; but otherwise, it’s more like a soggy noodle. I’ve always been impressed by my friends who can quote things verbatim, especially long works of poems. My one friend can recite Poe’s The Raven from heart, and I had another friend who recited Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner while we were sailing on the Chesapeake one day (a perfect setting).

But memory and poetry have a long, interlinked history—and some may even argue genesis—together, going back to the first poets, who most likely sang the epics from memory accompanied by a lyre. And during Shakespeare’s time, it was pub game to begin reciting a line of poetry from memory, and your partner had to finish the poem, or so I remember one of my English teachers telling me. (More here.)

Note: The friend who can recite “The Raven” by heart is Yours Truly. I double mastered it when my daughter was small and didn’t like the light on for reading sometimes but still wanted to hear poetry.* But Coleridge by heart — that’s impressive!

I think an interesting feat of Pencil Memory (and I can think of a few Pencil Bloggers who can probably do it; I can’t) would be to recite the Pencil Dynasties from the great German pencil companies!

[*I am also known to spout very loud renditions of Shel Silverstein poems at people named Paul.]

Another Blackwing 602 Ode.

This article was very interesting and made the stationery blog rounds this week — and I’ll admit to reading it each time it came up. Comrade Brian just sent us another Ode to the Blackwing 602. I will admit that I’ve never even seen and original 602 in person, let alone used or owned one. And I hang my head in veritable Pencil Shame.

Also: the idea of having boxes of a favorite pencil (as Mr. Capote is said to have done)  in one’s nightstand appeals to me immensely. My nightstand is designed  to sit low to the floor (I have a low bed) and to hold books. But I do keep a black ceramic pencil cup next to my bed with various pencils for notes while reading, and I have an old “fancy” box that contains some of my most prized pencils on the same surface. I think there are some sharpeners around there, too.

Anyone else keep pencils dangerously close to where they sleep?

Hobo Signs and Traveling.

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This is another post from the Enoch Pratt library, the public library system in our Home Base of Baltimore (HON!). Pencils seem to mix with literature which seems to mix with walking which leads to wandering, and we were wondering, Why not put this on PR for the benefit of Comrades not lucky enough to inhabit Charm City? (there’s far too much coffee and too little punctuation in HQ this weekend, as you can see).

Read the entire article here, written by frequent Pencil Revolution contributor and featured writer, Brian.

A little over two years ago, Field Notes introduced the Steno, a 6×9 stenography pad made with just truly excellent paper (and I should make a dozen of them my birthday present this year, yes). There are hobo symbols on the inside of the heavy cover. I toyed with the idea of hobo symbols for my door, but we lived in an old apartment. Now that we have a house and a door (an old wooden job) of our own, I think I have to get out the chalk.

What’s the symbol for “Pencils and memo pads for helping me vacuum?”

 

Hipsters and Pencils.

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I certainly don’t mean to open a Hipster Shooting Gallery, firing at hipsters or other people. Nor — given the fact that hipsters seem to adopt things I like (beards, rye whiskey, bikes, etc.) and the subsequent fact that I probably look like an older and wider hipster — do I necessarily exclude myself from the School of the Hip. Even if I’d rather be counted out.

But I have noticed something that I’m sure many Comrades have noticed. There’s this whole “artisanal” and “craft” and “small-batch” movement going on. There’s no question. But I’ve noticed that pencils are fitting into this in bigger and bigger ways. Pencils are showing up more and more in advertising for products and services aimed at the hip crowd. I read somewhere (I forget where) that a lot of the low-fi stationery trends are “hipsterish” and that brands like Field Notes have been extra successful as a result.* To be sure, the shops that seem to cater to hipsters around my house all have a decent stationery section.

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If paper is cool, certainly no ordinary writing implements will do. No Bics or gel pens. Wood and graphite and the accoutrements/accouterments thereof all the way! Take this ad (above) from a local watering hole in Baltimore. There are myriad examples I will let Comrades find on their own, for enjoyment and/or scoffing and/or edification.

I live in a pretty hip spot, and there are benefits (good coffee shops, stores with stationery) and obnoxiousness (kids telling you about the neighborhood in which you grew up like their discovered it). I’m waiting to hear someone in expensively battered boots wax philosophical about the benefits of using a “simple” pencil’s eraser as a smartphone stylus in our of our hipper coffeeshops.

I’ve been known to employ Blackwing erasers on my non-smart-but-touch-screen-phone. But never in public.

*[I might point out that Field Notes have also been successful because of their level of service.]

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