Pencil 27.02.12

Alphabet Dalton Ghetti

The pencil has been the object of rivalry since it was invented, but while the world has changed around it, it remains the same as it ever was

There's a lot of handwringing about the death of the book and accompanying this (though the hum of anxiety is quieter), laments about the death of handwriting. But despite the fuss about print, paper and handicraft, fears for the most basic writing implement – the pencil – are rather fewer.

Pencil-making is a contentious business. The two oldest pencil makers in the world, Staedtler and Faber-Castell, are both based in Nuremberg. In 1995, when the former tried to celebrate the anniversary which would have supported its claim to be 333 years old, it was successfully sued by the latter (250 years old this year) on the grounds that it hadn't been making pencils continuously over the whole period.

The oldest surviving pencil is a 17th-century carpenter's tool found in Germany (now in the Faber-Castell archive) but the first objects that we might recognise as pencils were made in Britain in the 16th century after the discovery of a graphite mine in Borrowdale, Cumbria. For two centuries this was the only source of graphite in Europe. (Carbon was identified as an element only at the end of the 18th century, so it was wrongly called lead or plumbago.) These earliest pencils consisted of a slab of graphite wrapped in twine; later these leads were glued to wood. It was a blunt instrument, not particularly useful compared to other writing and drawing tools. It was only when the Cumbrian mine was nearly exhausted that inventors in Europe and America looked for ways of exploiting their own graphite mines and developed new ways of making pencils.

A mixture of graphite baked with finely ground clay particles was invented in 1795 by a French engineer called Nicolas Conté and this was soon adopted as a standard. The proportion of clay in the mixture determines the hardness of the lead, making it easier to use (the marks of pure graphite being almost impossible to erase); 19th-century pencil makers soon introduced a grading system for the leads, ranging from the softest, 9B, to the hardest, 9H.

The manufacturing process has been remarkably unchanged for the last 200 years. The wood casings are usually made of cedar. Blocks of wood are cut into square slats, graphite sticks are glued into the grooves of one slat, then a second slat is glued over it. Pencils are then cut out of these wood/graphite sandwiches. Coloured pencils contain almost no graphite, use more glue to bind together the soft coloured pigments, and are then coated in wax to make them smoother.

For all their usefulness – perhaps because of their usefulness – pencils are difficult objects to love. There's a puritanism about the pencil. Nikolaus Pevsner's students in Göttingen were of the same opinion. According to a biography of his early life they referred to him as "the Lord God's Pencil" – because he was "tall and thin and all-knowing".

In the age of the touchscreen, being allowed to graduate from pencil to pen at school isn't the milestone it once was
(I remember it well). In recent years pencil-makers have come up with "anti-break" systems and new-fangled grips, and Faber-Castell even has a luxury line which makes a feature of platinum-plated casings and a built-in sharpener. But the pencil retains its associations with careful apprenticeship – it's the tool you use to prepare for the main event, not a playground for innovation, or an opportunity to show off. Ian Martin's list of imaginary pencils in the Architect's Journal a few years ago included "the Zaha Stiletto Space Probe 3000". Nothing could be more absurd.



Sloan T. Howard Photography



Fatema Ahmed

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In the age of the touchscreen, being allowed to graduate from pencil to pen at school isn't the milestone it once was

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