I am about as paper-free as anyone can be, but when I do want to write something down, I have small pieces of paper I tear up from waste paper. And there is always a pencil sitting at the ready.
Ever since I was a child I have always preferred a pencil to a pen, and through the years have even gotten to the point where the eraser outlasts the lead—actually it’s a graphite and clay mixture. The amount of clay used in the mixture modifies the hardness of the graphite, giving us a full range of pencils from 9H or 9B. The scale for hardness was developed in Europe where H stands for hardness, B for blackness and F for fine point. The standard No. 2 pencil we are all used to using is HB—equally hard and dark. On the European scale the hardest is 9H, the softest is 9B. In the U.S. most Americans use grades: No.1 – B; No. 2 – HB; No. 2½ – F; No. 3 – H; and, No. 4 – 2H.
I especially like the big, fat pencils, and of course, yellow is always the best color for the barrel. This started in Austria in 1890. Up until then most pencils had been painted in dark colors, but one manufacturer decided to paint his best and most expensive pencil yellow to make it more distinctive. Other manufacturers wanting to associate with the quality of these yellow pencils began using the same color. However, people in countries like Brazil and Germany prefer green, and in southern European countries, the preference is for dark red or black with yellow lines. Red with black bands at one end is preferred in Australia.
Today, most pencils are round, but come in a variety of shapes, even triangular.
The invention of pencils dates back to the 16th century when sticks of graphite were wrapped in string or sheepskin for stability and ease of holding while writing.
Italians were the first to develop the wooden holders we call barrels today. A piece of juniper was hollowed out and a piece of pressed graphite was inserted. It didn’t take long to improve the technique where two wooden halves were carved, a graphite stick was laid down on one half and another piece of wood glued to the first. This same, but mechanized, technique is essential used today.
In the U.S. Red Cedar wood was used because of its nice aroma and the fact that it did not splinter when sharpened, until supplies of the timber dwindled dangerously low. It was later discovered that abundant Incense Cedar, perfumed and dyed to match Red Cedar works just as well and is used even today through the use of managed forests.
Erasers were first attached to pencils in 1858. The metal band used to attach the eraser to the pencil is called a ferrule.
I feel like I am in good company because there are some very famous people who preferred pencils: Thomas Edison (used custom-made pencils), Vincent Van Gogh, John Steinbeck and Vladimir Nabokov. There is one other characteristic all these people shared, and those who know me well say I do, too: they were all a little odd, but that’s besides the point.
Annually, about 14 billion pencils are made worldwide each year. While that may seem like a lot of anything, I can remember seeing a television news report about the fact that children from poor families could not go to school simply because they didn’t have their own pencil. Makes you think, doesn’t it?