Books on Pencils (I)

Sorry for the delay since the last post. The entire editorial staff was under the weather this week.

Following up on the excellent contributed list of children’s books on pencils, we’re going to take a look at three adult-oriented books on pencils.

Marco Ferreri, Editor. Pencils. Mostre Georgetti, Milan, 1996.

Bill Henderson, Editor. Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club. Pushcart Press, Wainscott, NY, 1996.

Henry Petroski. The Pencil. Knopf, New York, 1992.

Books on Pencils

Pencils is a beautiful and inspiring tribute to the pencil.

Alessandro Ubertazzi writes in the introduction:

One of the reasons for the pencil’s appeal is a latent analogy with the human existence – it’s inevitable end. The pencil is used, it gets sharpened, consumed and disappears.

The volume is a catalogue of an exhibition that occurred in Milan in 1996/1997. It has not just beautiful prose, but stunning, amazing photographs of the pencils in the exhibit.

My favourite photo shows a set of 24 pencils, each made from a different wood. I would love to own this set of pencils!

Every category of pencil is given tribute as part of an exhibition that promoted the “minor arts”: note taking pencils, non-writing pencils, yellow office pencils, black pencils, pencils with rulers, pencils with names, Mussolini’s pencil, unfinished pencils, decorative pencils, advertising pencils, indelible pencils, working pencils, red/blue pencils, Marotte pencils, compass pencils, pencils with caps, mechanical pencils, precious metal pencils, 4-colour pencils, Mordan pencils, celluloid pencils, vulcanite pencils, mechanical pencils disguised as woodcase pencils, pencils that look like pens, aluminum pencils, and many others, all with beautiful photos.

The book mixes photographic tribute with contemplation of this everyday implement.

The ritual of sharpening is of paramount importance since it embodies the concept of regeneration. The point of the instrument becomes sharp once again, the wood dirtied by hands and time regains its natural colour and releases a vague but enticing smell of resin.

As essay in pictures, accompanied by words, Pencils is very adept at probing the fascination of these special bits of wood and graphite.

Children’s Books on Pencils

January 27th will be Family Literacy Day. As a small contribution, pencil talk is delighted to present this guest post, a researched list of children’s books that feature pencils and other writing implements. The books are arranged by readership age range.

Title: Let’s Make Rabbits
Author and/or Illustrator: Leo Lionni
Age range: Babies and toddlers
Description: Scissors and a pencil “make rabbits”. The pencil draws, the scissors cut. When the rabbits are hungry, the scissors cut out a carrot from orange paper and the pencil draws a carrot.

Title: Simon’s Book
Author and/or Illustrator: Henrik Drescher
Age range: 2-5
Description: After going to sleep, a boy’s dip-pens and inkwell take a character he has drawn out on an adventure.

Title: If You Take a Pencil
Author and/or Illustrator: Fulvio Testa
Age range: 4-6
Description: A fantasy counting story, told by a pencil.

Title: Magpie Magic: A Tale of Colorful Mischief
Author and/or Illustrator: April Wilson
Age range: 4-8
Description: A child’s hands draw a bird and the mischief it gets into, using pencils including pencil crayons.

Title: Harold and the Purple Crayon
Author: Crockett Johnson
Age range: 4-8
Description: The classic and much-loved children’s picture book about a little boy who is lead on a grand adventure by his purple crayon one moonlit night. (Celebrating it’s 50th year).

Title: Grandfather’s Pencil and the Room of Stairs
Author and/or Illustrator: Michael Foreman
Age range: 5-9
Description: A pencil writes about its experiences and memories along with the house, floorboards and the table that all originate from the forest.

Title: I am Pencil
Author and/or Illustrator: Linda Hayword
Age range: 7-9
Description: How a pencil is made, distributed and used.

Title: The Good Luck Pencil
Author and/or Illustrator: Diane Stanely, Bruce Degen
Age range: 9-11
Description: A magic pencil brings a young girl more luck than she wants. The pencil helps her write a biography for a school assignment that she then must live up to. She trades her pencil in for a more apt instrument that truly reflects her life.

Title: Marianne Dreams
Author and/or Illustrator: Catherine Storr
Age range: YA
Description: Marianne’s drawings come alive in her dreams. Adapted into the film “Escape into Night” and an operetta by the author, reviews list it a bit on the scary side.

Schoollocker squared index cards

Schoollocker squared index card

Schoollocker is an Etsy store. Etsy is a large online marketplace of hand crafted items, almost akin to Ebay, though items are not sold by auction. An offering I noticed was a quadrille/squared/gridded/graph paper index card. I love this type of index card, and can’t find any close to home.

If the Exacompta cards I mentioned last week are the fashionable boutique high end, these are the practical though dowdy department store edition.

In a 4″ x 6″ version, one side has square ruling, and the other side is blank. The ink is loud, bright, public school blue.

Schoollocker squared index card

The problem is – and these cards are not alone in this aspect – the application of the ruling is random. So the vertical line closest to the card’s left edge might be touching that edge, or it might be several millimeters away. This rules out certain uses of the card.

The paper is also a step down from the high table Exacompta. Yet – the cards are still great fun, and very usable.

This blog rarely mentions prices, but at $US5.50 for 55 cards shipped to Canada, the cheaper and higher quality Exacomptas become an easy choice.

Musgrave HB pencil

Musgrave HB pencil

The Musgrave Pencil Company, like the General Pencil Company, is one of the last independent American pencil makers. Headquartered in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the famous “Pencil City”, Musgrave has been in business since 1916.

Their pencils aren’t generally available in Canada – at least the ones they make in their own name. Home Depot carpenter’s pencils and other private label products they manufacture seem to be more common. I’ve written previously about some Unigraphs that I once found.

I’ll say something to Musgrave that I said to General: Please update your website! An NBC news report shows that Musgrave owns computers and employs at least one professional graphic designer (for their pencils). I am sure it would be possible to put some of that energy into the website, which could become a great showcase for the company. (General has recently updated their site, after years of stagnation.)

The Musgrave HB (that’s really the official name) is part of Musgrave’s “School Line”. It came to the attention of the online community through, which is where I obtained these pencils. Does anyone know where the rest of Musgrave’s line can be obtained? They seem to have hundreds of pencil varieties, but very few seem to reach retailers, nor does Musgrave sell directly.

The HB pencils have a beautiful natural finish, and have a white eraser attached with a gold and maroon ferrule. They are sold unsharpened.

Musgrave HB pencil

On the scale, a couple of dozen pencils ranged from 5.3g to 6.3g, with a mean weight of 5.8g. Compare this with the Castell 9000 (3.9g) or the reference Mars Lumograph (3.8g). This pencil weighs 50% more than the European competitors! The distance between the sides is the same as a Lumograph (maybe a hair larger) – about 7.47mm. So where is the weight? Some must be in the ferrule and eraser. I’m also comparing unsharpened to sharpened pencils.

There is one physical difference apart from the eraser – the hexagonal shape is much less rounded than the Castell or Mars. You can feel the edges of the pencil quite clearly. I really like this. Vintage pencils had similarly unrounded edges.

The lettering is gold, though the “HB” is plain on black. The pencil is marked:

Side 1 (Obverse): ESTABLISHED 1916 [logo] MUSGRAVE [logo] HB
Side 2: blank
Side 3: blank
Side 5: blank
Side 6: blank

As regular blog readers know – I like minimal markings, and I love acknowledgment of the pencil’s origin. Triple points to Musgrave for actually naming the city of production.

I’ve previously mentioned that the Techograph 777, Mars Lumograph 100, and Castell 9000 leads (in HB) are all sufficiently similar that the differences are nuanced and hard to describe. The Musgrave’s lead isn’t at all hard to distinguish. It is softer, smoother, and darker than those three European pencils, and leaves a darker line. It also has an aspect of crumbling or disintegration, and leaves more graphite dust in the area of use. Markings erase as easily as those of the European pencils.

Musgrave HB pencil

It requires quite a bit of thought to find any negatives – there is some crumbling, and the high gloss finish can make it a bit of a slippery hold. The packaging is nil – the pencils arrive loose. (Some may feel this is a plus, but I think this pencil deserves a box.) There is no choice of lead grade.

Overall, the pencil is a great find – a real pleasure to use in every way. Though mail order may not always be convenient, the pencil price also represents a tremendous bargain. I’ll go out on a limb and state that it may be the best pencil that one can buy for under one US dollar.

Here are some some links to information on the Musgrave Pencil Company:

Musgrave HB Product Page You have to click the “Sign on as guest” button. is Musgrave’s official site.

Tennessee Encyclopedia article on Musgrave

Tennessee History for Kids article on Musgrave Excellent photographs!

WBIR (NBC) report on Musgrave Make sure you click the “Watch Video” link – the best film of pencil production I’ve seen. Also, Musgrave president Henry Hulan is interviewed.

Shelbyville Times-Gazette article on Musgrave

New index page

This site now has an index page. I’ve tried to put links to most of the past pencil and stationery content, organized by topic. I also created links to the most popular posts (so far). Please let me know if there are any problems.

Link: pencil talk index


Can any of our Tokyo readers comment?

An article in the Kyodo News mentions a specialty pencil store, as well as the resurgence of pencil sales in Japan.

“Gojuon, which means the Japanese alphabet, is a specialty retail store for ballpoint pens and pencils located in a back alley of Tokyo’s Ginza district, better known as the home to upscale clothing stores, top-class bars and restaurants.

“Old showcases line side by side on the floor, displaying an assortment of pencils, including red and blue two-color pencils, ones with mascots attached to them and pencils with the color of their sticks made to change according to differing temperatures. Pencil sharpeners and caps are also on exhibit.”

It sounds like a great place to visit!