Five years

pencil talk started as a small website in 2005. Five years, 534 posts, and 4,666 comments later, we’re still a small website, but we’re also proud to have gained an international following of pencil users, aficionados, artists, drafters, and doodlers.

The website started as a blog with irregular looks at stationery and pencils. The first post was about Rhodia and their enigmatic orange writing pads. The post was viewed many times, and quoted elsewhere, yet never received a comment.

The second post was about the Blackfeet Indian Pencil. Two hundred words and an amateur photo, it has received dozens of comments to date, some of which are stirring reminiscences. If it wasn’t already clear at that point, any doubt was removed – woodcase pencils strike an emotional chord with many.

Though we’ve read Petroski’s book, Schulz may have been the master of the subject. Charlie Brown had some “pen misfunctions” while trying to communicate with his pen pal, and soon switched to pencil. His “Dear Pencil Pal” letters soon became a great ongoing essay and insight into the child’s awakening consciousness. This is at the heart of what a pencil really is – a writing implement, yet also an object imbued with humility and humanity.

The appeal of pencils takes many forms.

Carpentry pencils may be the oldest type of woodcase pencils – with rectangular or oval wood encasing , they won’t roll off a sloped roof, and epitomize the pencil as a working tool.

Test scoring pencils may have origins in the IBM labs, but are now used by students and test takers around the world. Their objective? Make sure their mark is read!

Steno pencils, used by shorthand practitioners and stenographers, are typically round and thinner than general writing pencils.

Copying pencils leave an indelible mark. A mainstay of commercial life before either fountain or ballpoint pens entered the world, they continue to have many uses.

Red and blue pencils are a fascinating specialty pencil. They are two colours of pencil in one – red and blue – potentially representing contrary conditions – debt vs. surplus, or even good vs. bad, yet also bound together at the centre.

Highlighting pencils serve to focus our attention on printed text, whether an office memo or a school book.

Yet the ordinary lead pencil – graphite and clay, baked in a kiln, remains at the centre of our interest. And we’ve only just scratched the surface!

I’d like to thank some longtime supporters.

First and foremost, two others who also write online about pencils, Gunther from Lexikaliker, and David from Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. They have both been sounding posts and sources of many creative ideas.

As well, other online presences – kero556 from Colleen Pencils and isu from the uncomfortable chair. Both kero556 and isu have graciously shared knowledge and pencils (only a portion of which I’ve shown) that completely changed my awareness of the possibilities of pencil making. Keen online observers will note that products in stores often follow the lead of blogs. If you appreciate the online availability in 2010 of Mitsubishi and Tombow pencils in Europe and North America, I would argue that some credit is due to these Japanese bloggers who reached out to Western counterparts some years ago.

I must also thank Nick of One Stop Japan Shop on eBay, who was an early enabler, even before Bundoki, Rakuten, et al.

Fellow pencil bloggers – Kent, Kim, Boris, Sean, Matthias, John, Akinobu, and others on the broader stationery front – Diane, Michael, and Cheryl – have all been inspirations.

From within the industry, WoodChuck from California Cedar, Harshad from Doms India, José from Viarco, and Katie from General Pencil have all been very kind. I’ve also appreciated the assistance at times from the public relations departments of Staedtler, Faber-Castell, Stabilo, and Lyra. These companies are done proud by their always professional representatives.

Let me specifically thank those who have sent pencils over the years – General, Musgrave, and Marco from within the industry. From individuals, people representing over ten countries: kero556, isu, Kent, Jieun, Robert M, Gunther, Matthis, Frank, David O., Diane, Sean, Barrel of a Pencil, Henrik, David, hemmant, dasmarians. Thank you all. I apologize if I have left a name out.

As well, let me give a special acknowledgment to the guest contributors. I regret that these contributions didn’t receive even more attention – every single one was first rate!

Children’s Books on Pencils by ZS. A bibliography of nine children’s books with pencil themes.

Get The Lead Out! by Barrel of a Pencil. A pencil themed crossword puzzle.

The life of a pencil by kiwi-d. It looks just like a post from his blog!

My father’s pencil by Finn. An appeciation of a special pencil.

These posts are all great, but I’d like to particularly mention Barrel’s contribution – Jim worked for months on the puzzle, responded to all issues with revisions, and even purchased some special software to be able to publish the professional looking PDF version. Thank you again, Barrel, it was a unique contribution.

So about the blog…

If the internet moves in dog years, we are grown up!

The initial motivation was to test this new “weblog” phenomenon I was hearing about. Though they were options, I didn’t want to write in a public forum about family or work. Stationery, and pencils in particular, seemed like a harmless and pleasant subject. Little did I know that years later, the blog would become part of an unorganized yet very real international community.

There has been criticism for focusing on the means rather than the end. But an interest in the means hardly excludes an interest in the end, and even the most casual look at those interested in pencils reveals a very broad range of highly accomplished people in both arts and science realms. These people are creators of that “end”. Further, I think the blog has often shown that pencil making is itself a form of craft, and sometimes art.

There have been some regrets. It isn’t a paying job, so there are inevitable slowdowns and gaps in posting. (The last couple of months are an example.) As well, responding to email queries has been a challenge at times. Finally, there seems to be no way to write about pencils without having and using pencils. Without intending it, I have accumulated way too many pencils to use or enjoy them all.

Thank you to all the readers and commenters for your support over the years.

Colleen Woods Pencils, Vol. 1

Colleen Woods pencils

Here are some pencils that I never thought I would see in person – the first volume of the Colleen Woods series.

An amazing masterpiece of pencil making, each pencil in the series of twenty-four (two volumes of twelve) is made from a different species of wood.

Colleen Woods pencils

The set is just breathtaking.

Colleen Woods pencils

Each pencil notes the specific gravity of the wood. Pencil no. 1, made of Indian Rosewood, is the densest at 0.93.

Colleen Woods pencils

Three of my favorites:

Colleen Woods pencils

Please also see: Colleen Woods Pencils from June, 2009, which features Volume 2 of the set.

The joy of a large piece of paper

My desk. :-)

Who enjoys using a large piece of paper?

On the forefront of the photo is a Miquelrius “Grid-It!” series notepad in “The Guardian” design. Each sheet of paper shows a 1988 newspaper layout design by David Hillman. It is the layout for a sheet of newspaper.

At 375mm x 600mm, each sheet is 0.225 square metres, or 2.42 square feet.

The significance is appreciated – I have been a previous subscriber to the Guardian’s international edition, and can still purchase the Saturday edition in walking distance from my house. It seems to be a strong international representative of the UK.

In the background is the Rhodia No. 38 “dotPad” – a black covered, dotted grid version of the famous Rhodia notepad.

The dotPad is advertised as 420mm x 318mm, but that includes an unusable section bound with staples. The usable (and detachable, via perforation) area is the standard A3 sized 420mm x 297mm. I measured the notepad with my Danish Folle ruler, and am not just accepting the manufacturer’s statements.

A3 paper is 420mm x 297mm = 0.125 square metres or 1.35 square feet, so it is about half the size of the Miquelrius pad.

These types of paper are great for design work and drawing graphs of several types, which I do.

For paper of this weight and dimension, mail order tends to be impractical, and I was fortunate to find these items locally.

The Guardian notepad was purchased at Phidon Pens in Cambridge, Ontario.

The Rhodia dotPad was purchased at Write Impressions in Waterloo, Ontario.

Also, the official page for The Guardian Miquelrius notepad.

Much of the monitor screen real estate is unfortunately blank as I was trying to view the currently offline Pencils and Music website.

Does anyone else like large format paper?

Pencil manufacturers in the news

Pencil manufacturers have been receiving some major media attention recently.

Behind the scenes, I would guess that Faber-Castell’s capable public relations staff have been very active. Faber-Castell’s 250th anniversary is next year, and the celebrations are starting. See this YouTube video for a behind the scenes view of how the “250” human logo was formed and photographed.

An article in the Wall Street Journal suggests some local tensions in Nürnberg, with a friendly rivalry between Faber-Castell and Staedtler. The article mentions a 1995 lawsuit against Staedtler regarding Staedtler’s previous claim to have originated with their namesake Friedrich Staedtler in 1662, rather than J. S. Staedtler’s company founding in 1835.

Speaking of Friedrich Staedtler, a Nürnberg school was recently renamed in his honour.

There was also an article on Faber-Castell in the Economist, a periodical we’ve previously mentioned for their coverage of the pencil industry.

The Economist mentions a different lawsuit, a century earlier. There seems to be a thread between the past and present – the Faber company has long appreciated a good court battle. This case is the overturning of the Hyman erser patent in the US Supreme Court in 1875. I learned about this at The IPKat blog.

The ruling by Mr. Justice Hunt can be found here. I love the careful language, and daresay it is one of the finest contemplations of a pencil’s function that will be found. The ruling’s conclusion:

In the case we are considering, the parts claimed to make a combination are distinct and disconnected. Not only is there no new result, but no joint operation. When the lead is used, it performs the same operation and in the same manner as it would do if there were no rubber at the other end of the pencil; when the rubber is used, it is in the same manner and performs the same duty as if the lead were not in the same pencil. A pencil is laid down and a rubber is taken up, the one to write, the other to erase; a pencil is turned over to erase with, or an eraser is turned over to write with. The principle is the same in both instances. It may be more convenient to have the two instruments on one rod than on two. There may be a security against the absence of the tools of an artist or mechanic from the fact that the greater the number, the greater the danger of loss. It may be more convenient to turn over the different ends of the same stick than to lay down one stick and take up another. This, however, is not invention within the patent law, as the authorities cited fully show. There is no relation between the instruments in the performance of their several functions, and no reciprocal action, no parts used in common.

We are of the opinion that for the reasons given, neither the patent of Lipman nor the improvement of Reckendorfer can be sustained, and that the judgment of the circuit court dismissing the bill must be affirmed.

From the product side, we are still waiting to see what Faber-Castell’s 250th anniversary may bring. There does appear to be a limited edition case of art supplies in the market. (Search for “Alexander Vethers” to see a similar limited edition.)

This eBay seller is kind enough to enumerate the contents: hundreds of pencils, pastels, and other supplies – a complete set of Faber-Castell’s top tier of art supplies. The price (€1250 – about $US1725) is actually in line with what one might pay for these items individually.

There is no doubt more to come in 2011, and I’ll admit that I am hoping for something special in the lead pencil category. I also notice no official press release for this first anniversary offering – Faber-Castell is letting their vendors get the buzz, which sounds like a smart strategy to me.

My thanks to David O., via a blog comment, and John, via an email, for mentioning one or more of these news stories.