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Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories (nytimes.com)
200 points by uptown 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 95 comments

One really charming bit: They make one color of pastel pencils each week to keep the colors from cross contaminating. Maria, who works on the pastel pencil line, does her nails to match the color they will be making and picks shirts to match too. There's a picture of her hands and that week's pastel extrusions in the article.

My daughter just quoted this Spike Milligan poem to me last night :

  “Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
  I'll draw a sketch of thee.
  What kind of pencil shall I use?
  2B or not 2B?”

I couldn't help but think of the wonderful essay "I, Pencil" [1], and how no one person knows how to make a pencil.

[1]: http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/rdPncl1.html

that's a nicely written story but none of it is really true. You can make a straightforward pencil manually with a little effort. It's all documented, because this stuff was figured out and documented hundreds of years ago. Having a degree in chemistry or physics helps, but it's not necessary.

>You can make a straightforward pencil manually

You're inadvertently moving the goal posts. A "straightforward pencil" isn't what that 1958 essay is about. It's talking about the modern manufactured pencils[1] commonly used in schools.

It's very unlikely that a single person on Earth knows how to make such pencils from raw materials. The person who knows where to find graphite and how to mine for it will not be the same person who knows how to formulate the paint. Neither of them knows how to chop down raw trees and make small hexagon shaped tubes to hold the pencil lead. Then there's the steel or brass ring coupling the eraser to the the wood. There's also the chemistry and materials science to make the synthetic rubber for the eraser. No single person on the planet knows how to make that type of pencil.

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=no+2+school+pencil&source=ln...

I take a very different view (similar to the guy who made a toaster from materials mined from the earth): as a maker, with a PhD in biophysics, I can learn how to do all those things and, through an incredibly tedious process, reproduce what they've done. For pencils, that's pretty easy. Graphite mining, paint formulation, wood sourcing and processing, ferrule production and application, rubber polymer manufacture and application- those are all straightforward industrial things that a well-educated person can learn to do with a combination of the Internet and a good university library.

A much harder thing woudl be to reproduce a modern quantum physics lab- I don't think any one person could master all the techniques required to do that from raw materials. Too much tech stack to walk u.

>I take a very different view (similar to the guy who made a toaster from materials mined from the earth)

Sure, you can take a different view but that doesn't change the truth of the essay. Citing an experimental toaster is repeating the same mischaracterization in your previous comment. The essay is not about making "any usable pencil" or "any toaster".

It seems like you want the "I, Pencil" essay to be something other than what it is. You want a MacGyver[1] themed essay but instead, got an unwanted essay about the cooperation required to make a simple manufactured object.

>I can learn [...] a well-educated person can learn [...]

The essay isn't about what a single person can _learn_. Instead, it highlights the counterintuitive point that no single person with the complete knowledge _exists_.

>A much harder thing woudl be to reproduce a modern quantum physics lab

Yes, things like silicon computer chips, communications satellites orbiting Earth, and particle accelerators are much harder but it misses the poetry of the essay. We already have intuitive sense that no single person knows how to build advanced technology projects. The author deliberately chose something that looked deceptively "simple" and dissected how much coordination in society it takes to make it. The "hidden" complexity is high enough to exceed the knowledge of a single person.

Take just the wood of the pencil. I'd have to chop trees. I don't even know how to make an ax tool to chop the tree. Sure, I guess I could learn how to make an ax -- which means I guess I could learn how to smelt steel... which means I have to learn... and so on. The groove channel in the wood to hold the lead?!? Another series of rabbit holes of learning to manufacture that cut. Glue? Again, the learning is not impossible (given enough time). It still doesn't change the fact that no single person knows it all. I suppose I could make _a_ thing that people might call a "a pencil" in a few days... but to replicate _that_ specific "Number 2 hexagon painted pencil with a synthetic rubber eraser"?!? That would take me a lifetime of learning. Most of the learning time is spent learning how to reinvent tools that make other tools that are several steps removed from the final assembly of the pencil.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGyver#Plot

I think that far exceeds "a little effort", however. And there's the problem of access. I might be able to mine graphite, but where am I going to get a graphite mine?

I enjoy the How to Make Everything channel on Youtube for this reason. Here's what's probably their most popular video, the $1500 Sandwich: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URvWSsAgtJE

>You can make a straightforward pencil manually with a little effort.

Step 1: Find a graphite mine.

Making anything without the benefit of the market is staggeringly difficult. Knitting a sweater is easy. Raising your own sheep, shearing your own wool, washing, picking, carding, roving and spinning your own yarn is immensely difficult.

step 1: create the universe

Is this true? When I Googled "how to make a pencil" the video started "Wrap a piece of paper around the lead..."

yes. just read the patents.

You missed the point of the story. Many people would have the technical talent to reverse-engineer a pencil; that's not the lesson.

The real moral of the story is economists have inflated opinions of themselves and low opinions of everyone else.

>economists have inflated opinions of themselves

The author, Leonard E Read, is not an economist nor did he get an economics degree. He's a college dropout.[1] He was a businessman but his extracurricular activities included writing. (E.g. the essay "I, Pencil").

We might call him a "social commentator".

[1] https://fee.org/articles/leonard-read-the-founder-and-builde...

Great photographs: it's really difficult to make a good photo of a black subject against a black background. The first three images in the photo essay---in particular the third---show that, with skill, it can be done.

Most of this comes down to putting the camera on a tripod, then using a button that keeps the shutter open for a long period of time. Drop the ISO way down and then hold it open for 0.5s. Features like that aren't really available in smartphone form, and it felt like a loss.

Lighting is just as important, of course, but you can achieve some interesting effects just by giving light more time to enter a physically stable camera.

EDIT: I changed my mind. If you look at the photos carefully, you can see most of the effect is from a fill light behind the camera. If that light source doesn't exist, no amount of holding the shutter open will make it seem like it does.

> If you look at the photos carefully, you can see most of the effect is from a fill light behind the camera.

Yeah, I was going to say what's really going on here is the photographer has a nice big soft box behind the camera (or maybe even just a diffuser on an on-camera flash). That way all of the flat surfaces facing the camera show pleasant highlights and then the dark areas define the edges of those.

I would say it’s at about 1/60. The guy is still sharp but the pencil leads have some motion blur. Slower than that you will start to get motion blur in human subjects if you are unlucky. 1/30 it is still possible to get sharp portraits but some will have motion blur.

These shots are most certainly flash. The dark ambient background is achieved by stopping down the shutter. Shutter controls ambient, aperture controls flash exposure. Assuming of course you're not setting it faster than your cameras sync speed (which now can be alleviated by high speed sync) on high end cameras. So now you have a well exposed subject, with nearly dark background.

I don’t think it is any harder than controlling any other part of the lighting in your scene.

A flash (any flash, even your camera’s built in one if it has manual power settings) and a few hours doing the first articles on Strobist will gove you the skills you need to light the pics in this article.

> Ferrules — the metal bands that cinch around the bases of erasers — are loaded onto a conveyor and sent to a tipping machine.

I always wondered what these were called.

In French it is a bout ferré, literally a 'shod tip'. From the verb ferrer, to shoe a horse, from which common source English takes farrier.

Just to give you another use for the word:

The metal bit that holds paintbrush bristles to the handle holds the same name.

Um, that's not "another use for the word" : it is in fact the exact same use as all the other examples. Perhaps you meant "another place where a ferrule is used".

As are the little metal caps that are clamped onto the end of cables of a bicycle.


One more meaning the stub at the pointy end of an umbrella is also called the ferrule.

The ferrule is also the name for the joint between the tip and shaft of a pool cue.

The metal piece which clamps the horse hairs to the wooden bow of a string instrument (cello, violin, viola, etc.) is also called a ferrule.

Nit, but it is not _also_ called a ferrule, it IS a ferrule.

Just because a bunch of people haven't heard the word before doesn't mean it isn't a real word with an established meaning. So everywhere you see a ferrule used, it'll not surprisingly be called : a ferrule!

I use ferrules at the end of jumper wires to make a stronger connection when I put the wire into a spring terminal.

It’s weird, just mentioning non-mechanical pencils brings me back to how coveted Dixon Ticonderoga pencils were when I was in grade school. The Crayola of pencils, standing out in a sea of Roseart.

On a slightly different note - does anyone have any suggestions for a good pencil sharpener?

The screwed-into-a-tabletop ones we used to have at school in the 80’s and 90’s were great, with the crank and rotating blades. Was easy to make razor-sharp pencil points.

At home, with my kids, we only have those common cheapo sharpeners with a single angled razor blade. They sort-of work, poorly.

With those it’s too easy for the pencil point to break off, often the planed curl of wood will snap at the boundary between the two wooden halves of the pencil. It’s not smooth, and very hard to get a nice sharp point with them.

> The screwed-into-a-tabletop ones we used to have at school in the 80’s and 90’s were great, with the crank and rotating blades. Was easy to make razor-sharp pencil points.

Then get one of those?

X-ACTO KS Manual Pencil Sharpener: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00006IEDY/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_zPGw...


Artist here. I've tried both the Xacto and KUM sharpeners mentioned in this thread. Both are now long, long in the trash after dulling and becoming useless. What you want is a Mobius+Ruppert sharpener. They're machined from solid brass, their weight feels amazing in your hand, they're a beautiful tool, AND, most importantly, you can buy replacement blades. This was the #1 selling point for me. They're about $10 and will ACTUALLY, truly, sincerely last a life time. You can't break 'em. Hell, you could smash a windshield with one if you threw it hard enough.

I adore mine. It lives in a pretty cut crystal candy bowl in a nest of colored pencil shavings.

Those crank operated or electric tabletop sharpeners are great. For a portable sharpener, my personal favourite is the KUM long point automatic two-stage sharpener. The way it works is that it first sharpens the wood leaving a round core and then points the lead inside. The longer point stays pointy a little longer than standard. The only downside is it's a little hungry and uses up pencils a little quicker than normal. Jetpens sells them in the US and Cult Pens in the UK. I can highly recommend both.

Good pencils help too. I tend to prefer German and Japanese brands like Staedtler, Stabilo, Mitsu-Bishi, and Tombow.

Outsource it: http://www.artisanalpencilsharpening.com/

As I posted elsewhere in the thread, author of the NYTimes article is the sometimes comedy partner of the artisanal pencil sharpener, who also wrote the definitive book on the subject.

Knife ?

I was a huge fan of Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. They were lightweight, and I could sharpen them to perfection using my cheap manual sharpener. I had to google the name to remember, but Eberhard Fabers were my least favorite. Very clunky, the barrel always felt coarse, and the tip always broke in the sharpener.

They used to be made in the same city as the factory in the article.

Dear native English speakers: Does the following excerpt make sense to you? “Packing graphite, which is the consistency of sand, ...” I would have expected “which has the consistency of sand”. Thanks!

Native speaker and former English teacher here. Both are correct!

In this case, "the consistency of sand" functions as an adjective, just like "soft". So in the same way you can say "packing graphite, which is soft", you can also say "packing graphite, which is the consistency of sand".

But at the same time, "the consistency of sand" works as an attribute too, like "black exterior". So in the same way you can say "packing graphite, which has a black exterior", you can also say "packing graphite, which has the consistency of sand".

This native speaker thinks you have a point. The “consistency” is a property possessed by the graphite, thus “has”. The “is” suggests that graphite is to be directly equated with consistency.

Comparatives are always tricky in English, but consider:

“Ball bearings, which have the smoothness of plate glass, ...”

You would not put “are” for “have” in the above. You can generate a lot of similar examples.

I agree with your smoothness example, but with consistency both "has" and "is" are common. Usage seems to vary by specific object and context.

One example where almost all authors go with "is": there are thousands of recipes saying to heat butter until it "is" a particular consistency, versus only a handful saying to heat it until it "has" a particular consistency. Compare https://www.google.com/search?q=%22until+the+butter+is+the+c... vs. https://www.google.com/search?q=%22until+the+butter+has+the+....

Nice examples. It would take more of a grammar nut than I am (and I read Garner's book cover to cover) to untangle it. I'm not able to detect any relevant search terms, either.

Sounds fine to me but I can see why it would be confusing. In proper prose it would be as you have it or maybe "which is of the consistency of sand".

You'll also hear people say things like "it's the same difficulty as ___" instead of "it has the same difficulty as ___".

I believe the sentence is describing a specific kind of graphite -- powdered "packing graphite" -- in contrast to the solid graphite cores it surrounds. The cores are packed in packing graphite.

Either of those sounds fine to this native English speaker. I would probably go with "is" like the author, but it's pretty much a toss-up.

Good spot. I would prefer has. Thinking about it now, I would never use is in this context. I suspect it may be more common in American English.

Native English speaker from America here, I would have said "has," but I can imagine others with bad grammatical habits saying "is" instead.

For example, many people will "graduated college" instead of "graduated from college". Reading comprehension is abysmal as well. I actually read instructions to stuff, but that is culturally-demonized - that probably doesn't help.

At least it makes it easier for the people that care to have a better chance at succeeding. When others lower their standards, it doesn't take much effort to rise to the top.

Think you might have a mild superiority complex going on there, buddy.

There’s nothing wrong with ascribing properties to a noun in either manner. Language is flexible enough to deal with whatever feels appropriate for a given noun-property pair, and this is hardly an egregious error.

Regarding graduation, bear in mind that until the 1960s it was more common for the school to do the graduating, rather than the student; a hypothetical student was graduated from college, they did not graduate from college. Of course, that now seems quite archaic. But the simplification continues, and perhaps in the near future the “unnecessary” from will sound equally unusual.

The point is that language is astonishingly flexible, and generally trying to take the road of prescriptivism is doomed to everlasting sadness and disappointment :)

> Think you might have a mild superiority complex going on there, buddy.

Same to you.

> For example, many people will "graduated college" instead of "graduated from college".

Some people will even verbs from their sentences. But comprehension > grammatical "correctness" always. In time, grammar will adapt.

For me, an American from the South (not sure if that makes a difference), "is" doesn't sound wrong. If I think about it, "has" makes more logical sense. But plenty of phrases we use all the time make no logical sense, so that's not a disqualifier.

That said, "has" definitely doesn't sound wrong, and has the bonus of being more logical. So if you're looking for usage advice, go with "has" in this situation. But know that "is" is acceptable to at least some of us.

Makes sense and sounds absolutely fine. Graphite is the colour of a dark and stormy night.

Native speaker here: yes, I'd expect "has", not "is".

Thanks for all the wonderful, insightful replies! I’m pretty sure I had never reached ten top-level replies. Cheers!

This type of reference is used in recipes as well - mix the dough until is the consistency of x

Is there any real use for high quality wooden pencils beyond nostalgia? A leadholder (a.k.a. clutch pencil) gives you the same flexibility and control with more consistent balance as you sharpen it. Cheap wooden pencils still have some use because they're the cheapest erasable writing implement, but the cost is unlikely to be competitive if they're made in America.

Not really. I don't know anyone who use clutch pencil so I am not sure how it compared to wooden /mechanical pencils. Regardless, pen seems more dominant now in school.

I was born in the early 90s, so both wooden pencils and mechanical pencils meant a lot to me. I still have two pencil lead left in my right palm because I accidentally stabbed my hands when I was a kid - pretty sure most of us who have used pencils regularly back then had experienced this.

Eraser was also a big deal to me and my classmates. I owned regular plain erasers, fruit-flavor erasers, and animal-shape erasers before. But I preferred the slightly expensive Japanese brand called "Sakurafoam eraser" [1].

I am not sure when our future generations will stop writing by hand completely, but eventually pen and pencil will see the fate as scribe and Chinese brush pen which are uncommon now.

[1]: https://imgur.com/a/g30c9

I started using a lead holder/clutch pencil for schoolwork and I can't go back to anything else because of the knurled grip. Pencils slowly slip out of my hand after just 2 minutes of writing while my lead holder will write for hours with no repositioning.

They at least used to be very common for drafting. I probably still have one or two somewhere. As you point out, you get a better grip and they're probably also easier to keep very sharp.

... did you say fruit flavoured eraser???

Fruit scented anyway. You weren't really supposed to eat them, although I can't speak for GP. (I used to eat match heads when I was a kid, so I can hardly criticize anyone's eating habits.)

You can still get them, for example the Lil Juicies:


In india we call eraser as rubber too :) Fruit Flavoured Rubber will sound too NSFW in America :)

Japanese labor is also expensive, also German, yet they both manage to have pencil factories. You can get your favorite brands here: https://cwpencils.com/collections/2-pencils

Quality, specialization and marketing.

This made we wonder why there aren't more regional or local pencil factories or factories of other low tech products where a few people and the right machinery can be quite productive.

Because shipping products from overseas where they are mass-made is cheaper than producing them next corner. An effect of globalization.

Scale matters as does brand. If you are just the regional pencil factory, and only distribute in a small area, you will have difficulty keeping the factory working all the time.

Pencils are cheap, good leadholders are not. A decent pencil costs 0,50€, an amazing one 2€. Good 2mm leads alone are in the premium woodcase pencil price range.

Pencils can be quickly swapped for different hardness. Swapping the lead grade in a holder is much more involved. Some artists may even find subtle differences between brands of pencils and may prefer to quickly swap.

Leadholders are almost invariably quite thick. The feel in hand is very different from the slim woodcase pencil.

Whenever I write by hand, I tend to prefer a fountain pen, a mechanical or a woodcase pencil. Writing with a Mitsubishi Hi-Uni or Tombow Mono 100 pencil, for those who can appreciate it, is a cheap luxury. Pencils are higly versatile writing instruments. I'm left handed and heavy handed and prefer H or 2H pencils to prevent smudging. Writers like Vladimir Nabokov praised the Eberhard Faber Blackwing (about 2B on a typical modern pencil scale, although these aren't standardized) for its smooth, almost pen-like glide.

American manufacturers can't compete in lowest price, but they might in best quality. The Germans and Japanese already do.

>Pencils can be quickly swapped for different hardness. Swapping the lead grade in a holder is much more involved.

But surely you could just between multiple holders with different leads in them, which would be equivalent to swapping pencils?

Yes, but at a price and space disadvantage. A set of leadholders to match the gradient of a good art pencil set will cost at least tens, more likely hundreds of dollars. They will also take more space. Clutch pencil leads are not as readily available everywhere, especially in different hardnesses.

>smooth, almost pen-like glide

I have a Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 10B woodcase pencil, which is the only 10B rated pencil I could find. As you said, pencil hardness isn't standardized, but it's a very soft pencil, and it does feel smooth compared to other woodcase pencils. But it does not feel as smooth as a 0.5mm mechanical pencil with Pilot Neox 4B lead, which is the smoothest mechanical pencil lead I could find. The Mitsubishi does however write a little darker.

I don't think artists will ever give them up.

> but the cost is unlikely to be competitive if they're made in America.

There are competitors which sell twelve-packs of № 2 of similar quality for about the same price, if Amazon is anything to go by.

Pencils are also still basically indispensable in schools.

Wooden pencils are far superior and more versatile for drawing.

What artistic technique is possible with a wooden pencil but not a leadholder? Leadholders let you draw with the side of the lead, and sharpen it to any shape you like. They're practically the same as wooden pencils except you don't need to cut the case to sharpen them.

A cheap paintbrush is practically the same as an expensive one, but I'd not trade my $70 watercolor brush for a cheap one. In art, practically the same can get weirdly different results. Simply changing a brand in the same category (paint, for example) can mean color differences and some mixing issues if mixed with some other brands.

With this, it is more issue of price, availability, personal preference and practicality. Some folks will seek out such a thing, but most wont.

I found one from Faber-Castell (generally available brand of art pens/pencils). [1] The hardness isn't marked on the outside of the pencil (good for looks, bad for pencil changes) Though it comes with 14 different hardnesses of lead, refills only come in 11 (You don't need such a wide variety most times though). Oh, and they are $11.50 each.

I'd use at least 3-4 different graphite hardnesses in one picture, usually a few more. $45-$60 with hard to find replacement leads for a small benefit that doesn't seem to improve things the way a good paintbrush does. After all, you can just buy Faber-Castell wood pencils (a set for around the price of one) and get the same quality lead.

Now, more to the point, the concerns I would have switching as an artist: some mechanical pencil lead isn't quite the same substance as the pencils, and it is obvious when one erases and blends. Not only that, but I'm pretty sure that even though you can use the side of lead, the shape of the tip is different sort of support than the wood against the pencil. I can see how folks would prefer one sort over an other, so it might not work out.

[1] http://www.fabercastell.com/products/more-products/mechanica...

My almost totally unsubstantiated understanding is that you tend to get less graphite and more binders in mechanical pencil and leadholder leads, because they need greater mechanical strength to stay in one piece without the support of a wooden matrix.

I can say that lead extracted from a Dixon Ticonderoga produced considerably less smoke than an 0.9mm Pentel-branded mechanical pencil lead when I drove five amps at 30VDC through both of them in turn, as a test of whether a newly arrived bench supply, cheaply bought from a no-name manufacturer, would live up to its rating. Both leads eventually glowed cherry red, as would be expected of any small-diameter carbon resistor dissipating 150W, but I wasn't equipped to measure such temperatures any more accurately than by eyeballing the emission color, which suggests a temperature in the rough neighborhood of 800-1000°F. On the way there, both leads cooked off everything that wasn't carbon, the Ticonderoga lead producing a faint ribbon of smoke that ceased after a few seconds, while the mechanical lead, despite its smaller diameter, released such a robust and prolonged emission that I wondered whether it might burst into flame. Once they'd cooled back to ambient, I handled both leads, and found the Ticonderoga about as sturdy as it had initially been, while the mechanical lead became extremely fragile with the loss of whatever waxes had burned off; I wasn't even able to remove it from the test jig without breaking it several times, and when I carefully loaded the largest piece into a pencil and tried to feed it for a writing test, it was too weak even to stand up to the clutch.

I haven't tried it with leadholder leads, not having enough use for such tools to own any, but I'd expect a result closer to the mechanical lead than the wood-pencil one.

Colour leads are not commonly available, and is often not as good in quality compared to cased colour pencils.Charcoal is not hard enough (I think) to made into lead form for lead holders. Water soluble leads I haven't seen in forms for lead holders.

Even if colored leads were available for the holders, I'd be shy to buy them without at least few different holders. indigo ad blues would show up with the yellows, assuming they leave some residue on the holder.

Some standardized tests don't allow mechanical pencils.

For anyone interested in rekindling a passion for pencils, I would highly recommend checking out the Erasable podcast [0]. A podcast about pencils sounds impossibly dull but somehow it works.

[0]: http://www.erasable.us/

Totally fascinating. Reminds me of this NYT piece about an artisanal pencil shop: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/fashion/a-pencil-shop-...

Damn, now I want that IBM pencil!


Too funny, this article was written by Sam Anderson, the comedy partner of David Rees, author of How to Sharpen Pencils, http://www.artisanalpencilsharpening.com/.

> Pastel extrusions, used for colored pencils, are laid by hand onto grooved wooden boards, where they will dry before being placed in pencil slats.

It blows my mind that they do this manually... I wonder how often, if at all, they update their production line.

As soon as I remembered pencils had graphite in them (duh) I was reminded of this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YBwDNfOaxU

Those photos are absolutely gorgeous. If anyone's hoping for TLDR, the article is mostly incredible photos: go take a look.

If you ever wondered how to sharpen a pencil?


The author of the article and this book write and perform comedy together.

I am intrigued that they are made of cedar. I thought pencils were made of tulipwood which is poplar. Maybe just in Europe. I wonder what kind of cedar, guessing it's western red cedar?

I bought 2 packs of their cedar pencils. Very nice quality pencil that don't disintergrate in your sharpener.

What will happen to pen plotters and other cool geekery once all pencils are gone ?!

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