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What’s that pencil made of?

Three common wood species used in woodcase pencils.
L to R: Jelutong, Cedar, Basswood

Readers have often asked about the wood used in pencils. With the exception of an informative comment by Harshad Raveshia about the situation in India, there seems to be little authoritative information on the subject.

Incense Cedar (Calocedrus Decurrens) is the familiar source, with slats provided by CalCedar supplying much of the world. They have competitors in the slat business, but I don’t know much about those other firms.

California logs are sent for milling in Tianjen, China and transformed into the “slats” that pencil companies use as their raw input.

Cedar is aromatic, long-grained, soft, non-splintering when sharpened, and in most parts of of the world, associated with quality pencils. It has a pinkish/red appearance.

Basswood (Tilia), also know as Linden wood or Lime wood, is a widely used alternate species.

Basswood typically is pale white with little grain showing. While the wood can be treated to become softer and the colour made to resemble cedar, the pencils are for me typically tough and sharpener-challenging. The appearance is a matter of taste, but I find the absence of grain to be less appealing.

I’ve been ribbed about lack of success in using a pen knife to sharpen basswood pencils. One really needs a craft or X-Acto knife to take on this type of wood by hand.

Jelutong is a species mainly grown in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. Closely related, Pulai seems to grow in Thailand (see Fantasia Pencil) and other Southeast Asian countries.

This species does sharpen easily, and I regard it as being as usable as cedar. Appearance wise, the wood has noticeable striations or pit marks. I don’t regard Jelutong as being as nice as Cedar.

A quick search reveals that many individuals and organizations have objections to the use of jelutong and pulai, as it comes from tropical rainforests. While the timber use (sometimes via illegal logging) is an issue – the disruption of the rainforest’s biodiversity is also often cited.

Of course shipping cedar logs across the Pacific ocean for milling can’t be good for the environment either.

LYRA uses Eastern White Pine and White Fir in some of their specialty pencils.

So, let’s ask – is a pencil’s wood species, and/or the source of the wood important to you? Is this based on a quality perspective, or an environmental perspective? Or maybe it isn’t important? Comments are most welcome! We also have a poll on this issue:

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Would you like more manufacturer information about the wood used in pencils you purchase?
View Results

12 comments to What’s that pencil made of?

  • CW

    I voted yes but I suspect most people who read this blog would ;)
    I also suspect most other people (some of whom might would think a blog about pencils is weird) wouldn’t care.

  • Thank you for that interesting overview! Of course I would like more information from the manufacturers, mainly because I’m very curious ;-)

    I am currently reading “Die Nürnberger Bleistiftindustrie und ihre Arbeiter – Vergangenheit und Gegenwart” (The pencil industry of Nuremberg and its workers – past and present), the thesis by Dr. Eduard Schwanhäußer, the oldest son of Gustav Adam Schwanhäußer, founder of Schwan (later Schwan-STABILO). In this thesis (published in 1895) he writes that the oldest source that mentions cedar for pencil production he could find was the book “The laws of art and nature” by Pettus (GB, 1683).

  • I would certainly give some purchasing preference to pencils made from wood that was sourced with some reduced environmental impacts, in particular wood from plantation rather than “natural” forest.

  • David O.

    This was timely, as I was thinking the same thing. I’m curious about the wood used in the Papermate “Choice” pencil. Certainly not cedar. More pine-like.

  • CW, well I thinking that interested in pencils or not, there is a general trend towards conveying more information about consumable items that many would welcome.

    Gunther, thanks for sharing the very interesting subject of your current research.

    Kiwi-d, thanks for your comment.

    David O., I haven’t heard of the “Choice”, but there are a number of mystery pencils out there that I’d like to know more about. :-)

  • CNN Predicts …

    Okay, I’m amazed that there isn’t even one jokester willing to anonymously state that the status quo is fine here. :-)

    Thanks to all who voted, and especially to those who commented.

  • Place to place and climate to climate, wood keep changing in its own structure. We all know that wood is a natural source of material and depands on it’s climate, location and soil for growing as good as it’s inner structure.

    Just compare ourselves with wood or tree, people who live with lots of facilities and resorce are always weaker and shorter and those without it are stronger and higher.

    Wood from climatic region where the temparature is low, have lots of water source in soil is always white and bright. Wood from higher temparature region is always darker and harder!!

    When one talk about the Inscene Cedar wood, pencils made with this wood can not be compared with other wood. But everywhere and everyone can not afford to use Cedar wood Pencil!!

    And therefore there is always an option for the other similar, soft or softened wood for making Pencil.

    The issue of Ecfriendly Pencil is just like the issue of ‘Blood Diamond’! In most of places Pencil manufacturers take care of Ecology and Enviornment bu using ‘Non Forest’ wood. Day by day awareness is increasing and spreading and people are more concern with the product what they use!!

    In addition to this Blogs like ‘PencilTalk’, ‘PencilPages’ keeps on spreading the knowlege and information with beautiful presentation and discussion..

    I am very much proud and previleged by sharing my thoughts and views at this ‘PencilTalk’!!

  • Thank you very much, Mr. Raveshia. We are honored by your presence, and enjoy your participation.

  • David O.

    Cedar will always be the *ultimate* pencil wood to me. It has that natural combination of strength and easy sharpening. The trend to the harder to sharpen basswood is a trend to poorer quality, but the wood pencil as a product has gone from a crafted, scientifically refined product to very low priced, low margin commodity. I’ve always grouped my pencils into the the cedar pencils and others. Most of the time, I use the cedars (especially at work). I’ve built up a nice stock of “new old stock” cedar pencils from various times that will last me for some time. The old 2/HB Eberhard Faber “Americans” I have will last even longer than the others with that great graphite they have. It’s almost as if that formula has been lost, unless high end models from Musgrave and others come close.

    There was another thread about new pencil extenders. With a mass imported pencil in the U.S. costing as little as $0.01, no one would bother with using an extender, but I could see myself using one of my two extenders to get the last bit of life out of my old Eberhard Fabers! I just write with them, but I could see artists doing the same thing. If interested in an older pencil extender, they are often included with lots of old pens & mechanical pencils being sold on ebay.

  • [...] made of cedar and of jelutong. But none of mine smell like cedar or look like jelutong. (Perhaps this article by the always excellent Pencil Talk could be helpful.) The pencil’s wood is light-weight and [...]

  • Robert Staunton

    I like the basswood Chinese pencils, especially the 4B for fast writing and note taking. I read that they are now using (partially) plantation basswood so as to reduce deforestation. I love them so much that I even use pencil extenders to get the last bit of usefullness out of them. Chung Hwa is my favorite. For sketching and fast writing I find it the best: not much pressure is needed and it has a creamy smoothness without the usual hard scratching sound of HB pencils. For sharpening, it is not harder to sharpen if you sharpen it a bit slower. I rank it as the cheapest in price and in the top 10% of pencils. Not the best, but pretty good.

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