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Making Pencils - the Hand Tooler's Alternative to Pens

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D_W

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Pen turning has long been popular over here in the states, and perhaps it's popular over there. One of the reasons that I frequent this forum is because there seems to be more people actually making things by hand, and fewer talking about stuff like pen turning and other gadgetry.

(ignore the chess pieces in the background, I was experimenting at the same time with a decent looking pawn design that could be cut easily with just a skew)

At any rate, I took a fascination with pencils as I get older because it's easier for me at work as I move up in level to keep things straight by writing my thoughts in order. Graham noted in another thread that my thoughts can be difficult to follow, and unfortunately, that's true for me once I get deep into something. Writing helps to slow down and organize things. I bought a whole bunch of different pencils to make writing a pleasant feeling thing (which sounds over the top at first, until you experience just how wonderful the good pencils are), and have developed a fondness for tombow (9000, mono R, mono 2B), blackwing pearl, a mitsubishi unis, etc. It seems to me that we ought to be able to make decent pencils entirely by hand, so I devised a small scraping tool to scrape cedar accurately for the lead and proceeded to make pencils.

There is no economic potential in this, which makes it perfect for me.

To this point, I've been using higher quality drafting leads, but they fall short of the leads that are in the pencils mentioned above, so I've gotten the materials needed to make pencil leads (being that I don't have borrowdale mine in my back yard) and am on the fence so far about something that I think is probably mandatory to make them - a small kiln.

As with most other things, the cap iron figures into this, because the facets are cut onto the pencil with a standard bench plane (just upside down in the vise with a 60 degree block of wood clamped to the bottom). Cedar likes to tear out spectacularly, and you won't be lucky enough making these to avoid tearout without the cap iron unless you're willing to make literally hundreds and hundreds of strokes with a lightly set smoothing plane. Sanding is out of the question because it takes the detail right off of the pencil facets.

I'd be glad to take a picture of the tool (a glorified scratcher, but one that makes it easy to cut the groove centered and evenly) that I made to make grooving the wood fairly easy.

Finish is just french polished shellac, but poor man's french polish. You can finish half a dozen or 10 in an hour, the key is just using oil while rubbing on the shellac so that you can continue to rub more on the pencil (once it would otherwise be sticky and stop your progress) and continue to level it at the same time.

The wood is incense cedar, but any soft cedar wood is fine, and a soft pine probably would be, too.
 

D_W

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I have made some 8 sided pencils, too, but they're not as comfortable. If you make your own, you'll find out that it's easier to make an 8 sided pencil than a 6 when you're working mostly freehand, and someone pointed me to a book after I started this and it appears that the same thing happened historically - 8 sided pencils, but I'm sure that the public developed a preference for 6 because the facets are flat under your fingertips where as an 8 sided pencil ends up with a ridge somewhere that you don't want it.

Minutiae that nobody would ever think about, but something you might come to think about if you decide to make these.
 

D_W

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Yes, currently reading that one. I posted about pencils a couple of weeks ago on a forum in the US and people pointed me to the same book. It's got discussion of the lead process in the first 180 pages or so (which is all the further that I've gotten), but fortunately, the hard part of the making (the long-duration of tumbling of graphite and clay to get them worked down to a very fine particle size) can be skipped by just purchasing micron graphite and clay now.

Thanks for the suggestion, though - so far, the book is fantastic and incredible in the combination of detail that someone actually making a pencil by hand would want to know, and from the perspective of an engineer and not some vague overly romantic and potentially inaccurate account.

It's also interesting to know that other tinkerers (I tend to move from one thing to the next, and if I can do something well, build a few and then move on) also found themselves doing the same thing - Thoreau included. I'd never heard before that he made pencils professionally because writers are more enamored with his embellished romantic topical material.
 

Cheshirechappie

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Hmm. I see potential, here.

Those of us condemned to wear spectacles know how difficult it can be to keep a standard pencil in place behind our ear. This opens the possibility of making pencils sized to fit individual ears, and free us from the tyranny of manufactured, standardised, and non-ear-fitting pencil sizes.
 

AndyT

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My favourite anecdote from the book is about the UK codebreakers at Bletchly Park. At one stage during WW2 their (manual) code breaking efforts were failing, because they didn't have enough pencils to go round!
Someone let Winston Churchill know, and he issued an immediate instruction to keep the codebreakers properly supplied with whatever they needed. Phew!
 

D_W

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Cheshirechappie":1pvwkkbm said:
Hmm. I see potential, here.

Those of us condemned to wear spectacles know how difficult it can be to keep a standard pencil in place behind our ear. This opens the possibility of making pencils sized to fit individual ears, and free us from the tyranny of manufactured, standardised, and non-ear-fitting pencil sizes.
I'll await the comments about how absurd it is to make something like pencils, because it makes no economic sense...

.....from people who build furniture for their own houses as a hobby.

One of my glasses-wearing coworkers requested that I make him some short pencils that he can use in his workshop since his glasses interfere with holding pencils of any size. I suggested golf pencils.
 

D_W

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Separate note - one of the attractions, or several, of the high end pencils for writing are:
* the leads are much tougher
* they generally mark darker lines at a given wear rate
* the amount of wax or the quality of it in the leads is far better than cheaper pencils, so they write really smoothly

All of these attributes make them superb shop pencils, too. The tombow types are made in vietnam now instead of japan, which means they're not that expensive in japan (something like 60 cents each).

I like to mark in the shop with pencils instead of marking knives when possible because it's easier, and because there's no gauge line to remove if it's not necessary to have one. The idea of using pencils like these in the shop sounds pretentious, but one pencil probably marks months or a year's worth of projects and the retracing of lines due to tips snapping off of sharpened pencils is gone. It's lovely.
 

Cheshirechappie

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D_W":1f72yhcc said:
Cheshirechappie":1f72yhcc said:
Hmm. I see potential, here.

Those of us condemned to wear spectacles know how difficult it can be to keep a standard pencil in place behind our ear. This opens the possibility of making pencils sized to fit individual ears, and free us from the tyranny of manufactured, standardised, and non-ear-fitting pencil sizes.
I'll await the comments about how absurd it is to make something like pencils, because it makes no economic sense...

.....from people who build furniture for their own houses as a hobby.

One of my glasses-wearing coworkers requested that I make him some short pencils that he can use in his workshop since his glasses interfere with holding pencils of any size. I suggested golf pencils.
I can't afford to buy furniture of the tailored sizes and quality that I can make. I can afford to buy pencils.

Didn't know golf pencils were 'a thing' until I goggled 'em, but then I've had a sheltered upbringing. They're just short standard pencils of standard fatness, so they don't help me. I need 'em fatter to sit tight behind my ear along with the spectacles arm, and preferably not half worn out when new!

Of course, I could just do what I've been doing for about the last forty years - either put the pencil in my top pocket or on the bench with the other tools. Seems to work. Most of the time.
 

Inspector

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I doubt that I will ever get into making my own pencils but I do wonder why a custom pencil needs to be made from cedar? With all the effort needed to make a pencil why not from some walnut, maple, spruce, beech et cetera? Riven to ensure straight grain and then lacquered to show off the wood, perhaps each pencil hardness to a different wood, should look pretty nice.

Bridge City Tool Works was playing with a pencil maker along the lines of their Chopstick Master a few years ago. I don't know where they are with it but it looks to have potential. I really like the beaded surface of the finished pencils.

https://blog.bridgecitytools.com/2017/1 ... ool-works/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4P53Uvx5sU

Looks like they are making it for sale now.

https://bridgecitytools.com/products/pencil-precision

Pete
 

AndyT

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I think David - like many others - will have noticed the bit where it says "$593.75" and thought "Naah. I know how to make stuff!"
 

Inspector

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I never said it was cheap just cool. ;) They will likely sell just not quite as many as the chopstick maker. Besides it's only the first one that costs a lot. The rest are much cheaper. :)

Pete
 

D_W

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Inspector":39fjyfgq said:
I doubt that I will ever get into making my own pencils but I do wonder why a custom pencil needs to be made from cedar? With all the effort needed to make a pencil why not from some walnut, maple, spruce, beech et cetera? Riven to ensure straight grain and then lacquered to show off the wood, perhaps each pencil hardness to a different wood, should look pretty nice.

Bridge City Tool Works was playing with a pencil maker along the lines of their Chopstick Master a few years ago. I don't know where they are with it but it looks to have potential. I really like the beaded surface of the finished pencils.

https://blog.bridgecitytools.com/2017/1 ... ool-works/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4P53Uvx5sU

Looks like they are making it for sale now.

https://bridgecitytools.com/products/pencil-precision

Pete
I think that pencil maker can be purchased. Before i went to the trouble to figure out a process that would give me some control of quality, and keep me in the process as more than just motive force, I looked around. There's another guy who created a machined setup that does what I just suggested (just as BC does) - he came up with a contraption that allows a user to basically be block plane power and turn detents. For all of these, some of the sample pencils have bad tearout, etc and it looks like the fun would wear off quickly.

I figured i could share the making method in a video, too, if it was free (which was the case for mine - I found someone who had incense cedar to sell, and that was all I paid for other than leads. I made the scratch tool and its iron with offcuts).

I think 95 out of 100 people would prefer to buy the contraption, but I'm wired like the other 5. I want a pencil that sharpens well, that feels good to write with and that has a smooth french polish type finish. I noticed on the expensive pencils (especially the blackwings), every consideration seems to have been handled carefully. It's not necessity the way they did it, it's intentionally doing it well for the sake only of making the best pencil they can make (strongest lead, smoothest lead, great proportions, a higher cost ferrule, excellent cedar that sharpens off in a nice ribbon, a barrel lacquer that really has a fantastic feel, etc). The kinds of things that made John Steinbeck use a 602 blackwing and really appreciate it (the worth of his work has nothing to do with a pencil and he could've done his work with the dollar store pencils here that are $1 for 24).

As far as the wood, cedar was the standard from the start, probably due to ease of work (you can plane it, compress it or scrape it - it tolerates it all) combined with the fact that it will sharpen easily. I'm only speculating beyond that, but I'd guess users liked a pencil with low weight, and note that with my better manual sharpeners, they have blades like plane blades, and when they're dull, the magic is gone (like the kum 2-hole sharpener). They'll probably last 20 times as long and be miles easier to use with cedar vs. almost anything else harder than soft pine.

I haven't tried other woods yet, but if you sharpen with a chisel, resharpening is no big deal. Typical desktop electric sharpeners with spiral cutters won't handle anything much tougher than cedar, though.
 

D_W

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AndyT":2tmjpf2i said:
I think David - like many others - will have noticed the bit where it says "$593.75" and thought "Naah. I know how to make stuff!"
Pretty much! The figuring of how to make is half of the fun factor for me - the challenge to come up with a way to do it and make something nice enough that it's not amateurish looking.

Now, the remaining challenges are to figure out how the commercial pencil makers treat their wood so that it has a soft feel and sharpens in a ribbon (this isn't done on cheap pencils, this ribbon is a continuous ribbon from the sharpening of a new tombow 8900.


Notice how it starts narrow and gets wide - I haven't figured out how to get the cedar to be soft and flexible like that and my pencils have bowed a little bit going into winter - not all, but some.

And, of course, mixing, making, firing and waxing the leads so that they have the same smooth feel as the blackwings.

All sounds nutty ("who cares about what it feels like to sharpen a pencil, or whether or not the lead breaks off, etc"), but these are all the same tactile bits as someone who might ...say..

.....plane a few shavings off of a piece of wood and talk about how relaxing it is....even though it's otherwise pointless (I don't even do that these days - except for the recent testing, I suppose, involved about 40-50 thousand feet of that. It was mildly pleasant but gave me minor motion sickness, too).

I'm sure we have some of those folks here - the folks who walk in their shop when they're short on time, plane a few shavings and then go do something else.
 

Trevanion

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New Sharpening thread, "How to Sharpen a Pencil"

"I do it free-hand, no fancy sharpening jigs here!"

:lol:
 

Inspector

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Trevanion":ktmy2nnf said:
New Sharpening thread, "How to Sharpen a Pencil"

"I do it free-hand, no fancy sharpening jigs here!"

:lol:
Except for the jigs to sharpen the knife to 0.0007 micron, right? :wink:

Pete
 

AndyT

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Trevanion":2zbbfqzi said:
New Sharpening thread, "How to Sharpen a Pencil"

"I do it free-hand, no fancy sharpening jigs here!"

:lol:
I think this thread covered it... I've not reread all six pages. I think it got rather surprisingly heated.

post895469.html
 

Cheshirechappie

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AndyT":2p2bnfys said:
Trevanion":2p2bnfys said:
New Sharpening thread, "How to Sharpen a Pencil"

"I do it free-hand, no fancy sharpening jigs here!"

:lol:
I think this thread covered it... I've not reread all six pages. I think it got rather surprisingly heated.

post895469.html
:shock: Blimey - I'd forgotten that one - and how heated it got ....

As for pencil-sharpening, the book has already been written;

https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Sharpen-Pe ... 174&sr=8-1
 

AndyT

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I think the surviving version has been heavily redacted!
 

nabs

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I still yearn for one of these
[youtube]Bvr2PvLqnYY[/youtube]
... the US Automatic Pencil Sharpener

You should really ship some over here D_W to make up all of our planes you have snaffled up :)
 
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