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How Are Pencils Made? Inside the Pencil Manufacturing Process

Alyssa Mertes

Published: November 23rd, 2021

You couldn't complete a crossword puzzle, sketch a masterpiece, or write the first draft of a novel without a pencil! It may seem like these writing instruments simply grow on trees, but they actually require expert craftsmanship to go from wood to words on paper.

Class is in session! It's time to learn all about the pencil manufacturing process.

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Despite the onrush of computers and the decline of handwritten letters, American pencil making is still a pretty sharp business.

Edith Stanley, writer for Los Angeles Times

What is a Pencil Made Out Of?

Pencil and sharpener

A pencil is primarily made out of wood and graphite. The graphite is ground down and mixed with powdered clay and water to make a thick paste. This paste is then fired in a kiln. The result is a strong lead core that's difficult to break and extremely smooth for writing on paper.

Rubber and aluminum are also part of a pencil's anatomy. The rubber is used to make the erasers, while the aluminum creates the ferrules that hold the erasers in place. You wouldn't be able to fix your writing mistakes if it weren't for these two pieces!

Pencil and sharpener

What Wood Do Pencils Use?

tree

Cedar wood is commonly used to make pencils. The best trees are around 14-years-old since they're mature enough to be cut down. 1 tree can make up to 300,000 pencils.

Caring for cedar trees is extremely important, but unfortunately, many are in danger of extinction due to over-harvesting, habitat loss, and climate change. We should do everything we can to care for the environment, so trees can grow nice and strong into the future.

tree

How is a Pencil Made?

Pencil manufacturing is done at factories that are able to work with a large quantity of wood, graphite, and clay. These materials are put on an assembly line and made into pencils with the help of machinery like mechanical saws, lacquer sprayers, and giant kilns.

Here is how a pencil is made:


  1. Sawmills pre-cut wood into squares that are uniform in size. These wood slats are then shipped to a pencil factory.
  2. Each wood square is treated with a wax and stain. Grooves are also cut along the edges, which will eventually hold the graphite in place.
  3. The grooves are filled with a strong glue.
  4. Graphite is mixed with clay, and the entire mixture is baked in an oven at 1500°F.
  5. The graphite is put inside the wood slat with the glue and another piece of wood is stacked on top, creating a graphite sandwich.
  6. The wood slats are squeezed together by a mechanized plunger.
  7. A mechanical table saw is used to cut individual pencils from the graphite sandwich.
  8. The pencils are sprayed with lacquer, giving them their sheen and color.
  9. The eraser is added to the top of each pencil.
  10. The pencil barrels are decorated with any necessary images or text.
  11. The pencils are packaged and ready for shipment.

Step One: Cut the Wood

Stack of plywood Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

The wood for a pencil needs to be soft enough to sharpen, but not so soft that it will bend. To achieve this, the wood is pre-cut at sawmills into slats called "pencil stock" or "pencil squares." Each slat is then placed in a dry kiln before it's shipped to the factory. This gives the wood a uniform size and moisture content, ultimately making the pencil assembly easier later.

Step Two: Create Grooves in the Wood

Saw spinning Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

Once the factories receive the wood stock, they put it on an assembly line for production. The first stage is treating the squares with a wax and stain. The squares then pass under a giant cutting wheel that carves grooves along the edges. These grooves will eventually hold the graphite in place.

Step Three: Fill the Grooves With Glue

Step 3 Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

The grooves are filled with a special elastic glue that acts as a cushion for the graphite. Without this glue, the graphite has the potential to break before the pencil is finished.

Step Four: Bake the Graphite

Step 4 Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

Now it's time to make the graphite. The graphite is mixed with clay and the entire mixture is baked in an oven at about 1500°F.

Step Five: Make a Graphite Sandwich

Step 5 Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

An automated arm puts the graphite into the wood slat with the glue, flips that wood slat over, and then stacks another piece of wood on top. Think of this creation as a graphite sandwich!

Step Six: Squeeze the Sandwich

Step 6 Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

A mechanized plunger squeezes the "sandwich" together with over 2,000 pounds of pressure. The wood slats are compressed, and the glue has time to dry.

Step Seven: Cut the Sandwich Into Pencils

Step 7 Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

The glue takes about an hour to dry. After that, the "sandwiches" are ready to be sliced into pencils. A fast-spinning cutter is used to shape the pencils into a hexagonal design. From there, the pencils are cut out of the sandwich into individual pieces. Any pencils with defects are discarded.

Step Eight: Take a Lacquer Shower

Step 8 Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

The pencils go under a shower head that sprays them with lacquer. Each pencil is coated with 4 to 10 coats of lacquer, depending on the desired quality, sheen, and color.

Step Nine: Add the Eraser

Step 9 Source: http://www.thisisinsider.com

At this stage, the metal ferrule and rubber eraser are added to the top. The pencils are almost ready for writing!

Step Ten: Print With Image or Text

Step  10

Most pencils have an image or text printed on the barrel, whether it's the "HB" or "2" used for grading graphite, the name of the company that made the pencils, or some other fun design or message. This customization is done using screen printing, engraving, or foil stamping.

Step Eleven: Packaging

Step  11

The final result is beautiful pencils ready for sharpening! All of the pencils made by the factory are packaged for shipment. You will then buy these pencils and use them at home, school, work, and everywhere in between.

Want to see pencil making in action? Check out this video from Business Insider!

Did you know?

Colored pencils have been made since 1834. They are created at factories just like regular pencils, only the wood is filled with dyed graphite instead of regular graphite.

Do Pencils Contain Lead?

Pencil shaving

People mistakenly think that pencils contain lead, but it's actually graphite. Graphite is a crystallized form of carbon that turns into diamonds if it's exposed to high pressures and temperatures.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should put your pencils in the microwave to make diamonds! Pencil lead isn't pure graphite, but rather, is a mixture of graphite, clay, and a little bit of water. Sometimes there's more clay, while other times there's more graphite. It just depends on who is making the pencils. So sadly, your pencil won't be making any gems (other than your amazing words) any time soon!

Pencil shaving

Where Are Pencils Made?

Pencil factory https://www.tripadvisor.com

Many pencils are exported from China, accounting for 44% of the pencils sold in the United States. Any pencils made in America are likely created in Tennessee.

Back in the early days of pencil manufacturing, factories set up shop in Tennessee to have easier access to the valuable eastern red cedar trees in the area. These trees grow in mild climates and can be up to 50 feet tall.

Pencil factory https://www.tripadvisor.com

Today, pencil factories are still going strong in Tennessee. Shelbyville in particular is a leading pencil manufacturer in the United States. There are 7 factories in the town that produce millions of pencils every single day. No wonder the residents affectionately refer to Shelbyville as "Pencil City!"

Did you know?

A majority of pencils are yellow because the best graphite was said to be in China where yellow is associated with royalty and respect.

What Are the Most Popular Pencil Brands?

Pencils are made all over the world. Here are some of the most popular manufacturers in business today:

  • Dixon Ticonderoga
  • Faber-Castell
  • Bic
  • The General Pencil Company
  • Staedtler
  • Paper Mate
  • Musgrave Pencil Company
  • Blackwing
  • Crayola
  • Stabilo
  • Mitsubishi
Dixon pencils https://polarpencilpusher.home.blog

Dixon Ticonderoga

Be a part of pencil history! It's as easy as writing with wooden pencils created by Dixon Ticonderoga. The factory, which opened in 1812, was always advanced. In fact, it was able to produce upwards of 80,000 pencils a day, despite the limits in technology at that time. Dixon transformed the industry and brought pencil making to new heights.

brands castell pencil https://polarpencilpusher.home.blog

Faber-Castell

Germany may be known for their sausages, beer, and Volkswagens, but the country is also home to the world's largest pencil manufacturer – Faber-Castell. The company, which started in 1761, makes about 2.3 billion pencils every single year. They even once had the Guinness World Record for the “World's Biggest Pencil” until they were beat in 2007.

Bic pencil http://comfortableshoesstudio.com/

Bic

While Bic is known for their pens and lighters, you shouldn't overlook their pencils. The brand has a huge selection of cheap pencils and is also focused on making their pencil manufacturing more sustainable. In 2012, Bic released the Evolution, which is a plastic pencil made from recycled yogurt cups!

Pencil on hand https://abcnews.go.com

The General Pencil Company

The General Pencil Company has been owned and operated by the Weissenborn family since 1889. All of their pencils are made from western cedar wood as it's stronger and more eco-friendly. General also uses recycled material in their packaging and sends their sawdust waste to Duraflame, which converts it into logs for household fireplaces.

Drawing a dog https://www.jetpens.com

Staedtler

Let's go back to Germany to talk about Staedtler, a pencil company that started in 1853. Staedtler is known for quality and is particularly favored by sketch artists. Check out their line of charcoal pencils if you want to create an incredible work of art!

5 pencils https://www.ontimesupplies.com

Paper Mate

You've got a friend in Paper Mate! This brand is found at stores like Target and Walmart for back-to-school season. Pick up their colorful wooden pencils, mechanical pencils, and lead refills before the bell rings on a new year.

Pencils https://musgravepencil.com/

Musgrave Pencil Company

The Musgrave Pencil Company is located in Shelbyville, Tennessee. They make anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 pencils every day at their factory. These pencils are made from red pine and cedar wood and come in over 80 distinct colors.

Blackwing  pencils https://www.jetpens.com

Blackwing

Blackwing is now one of the most famous pencil manufacturers in the world, but they had a shaky start. The factory was closed from 1998 until the brand was revived by the Californian Cedar Products Company in 2010. The bestsellers are the Blackwing 602 Pencils, which are named after the 602 pencils that were made when the company first started.

Crayola owl drawing https://hildurko.com

Crayola

Everybody loves Crayola’s crayons, but did you know they also make pencils? This includes not only colored pencils, but also graphite pencils that you can use for homework and art projects. These pencils are unique since you twist them to activate the lead.

stabilo  pencils https://www.stabilo.com/

Stabilo

Good thing there’s plenty of clay and graphite in Germany because there are many pencil factories in the country. This includes Stabilo, a company that opened their doors in 1855. Stabilo makes highlighters and pens, but their pencils are fan favorites. You can even buy pencils with indented grooves that are designed to improve handwriting in both left and right-handed writers.

Mitsubishi  pencils https://choosingkeeping.com/p

Mitsubishi

Not to be confused with the cars, Mitsubishi is a pencil maker that’s very popular in Europe and Asia. They use the HB graphite grading scale instead of the #1 to #4 system used in the United States. Keep in mind that Mitsubishi pencils, which are sold under the Uni-Ball brand, may or may not come with erasers.

Did you know?

Charcoal pencils made by the General Pencil Company were used to create portraits for Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and many other U.S. presidents.

pencil taking test

Why is a Pencil Called #2?

#2 pencils come from a system for grading graphite. Henry David Thoreau and his father John numbered their graphite's quality from 1 to 4. The softer the pencil, the lower the number and the more graphite inside. The firmer the pencil, the higher the number, meaning more clay.

The standard today is the reliable #2 model. The graphite in these pencils is at just the right amount of thickness to produce an easily readable mark. This is why #2 pencils are perfect for standardized tests.

How Are Mechanical Pencils Made?

Mechanical pencils are divided into three categories: screw, clutch, or ratchet. These are made a bit differently, but are designed in a way that they can be refilled with lead of different sizes, from 0.2 mm to 5.6 mm.

The differences between the types of mechanical pencils are outlined in the following chart!

Types of mechanical pencils mobile version Types of mechanical pencils desktop version

Clutch Mechanical Pencils

  • Year Invented: 1879
  • Inventor: Joseph Hoffman in New York
  • Eraser is pressed activating jaws inside the tips, allowing lead to drop

Screw Mechanical Pencils

  • Year Invented: 1915
  • Inventor: Tokuji Hayakawa in Japan
  • Lead slides down barrel and locks at the bottom

Ratchet Mechanical Pencils

  • Year Invented: 1915
  • Inventor: Charles R. Keeran in Illinois
  • Jaws inside a ring at the tip hold the lead in place and are controlled by a button

Ratchet and clutch mechanical pencils are the most common. They’re easy to use and are available in bulk at many retail stores. Screw mechanical pencils, on the other hand, are still popular novelty items, but are mostly sold in Asia.

pencil taking test

Are Pencils Still Useful?

People use phones, tablets, and computers to not only draw, but also to write notes, poetry, stories, and even journal entries. However, pencils are still useful in this digital age. In fact, sales for pencils are projected to grow 3% annually into the future.

It’s important to continue to write things by hand. Handwriting is important because it exercises our motor skills, improves our memory, and helps us be better critical thinkers. So grab your favorite pencil and put words on the page!

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

More than 14 billion pencils are created every year, which is enough to circle the earth 62 times.

Stats 2 icon

The average pencil can be sharpened 17 times and write 45,000 words.

Stats 3 icon

Visit New York to see the World’s Largest Pencil, which is over 76 feet long and weighs more than 21,000 pounds.

The Bottom Line

You need to use a pencil for so many tasks, from tackling that word search puzzle to crushing your friends in Pictionary. Take the time to appreciate all the hard work and attention to detail that goes into making your favorite pencils!

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

4 random promtional products 4 random promotional products tablet
Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.

References

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Weaver, C. (2018). Ted Talks: Why the Pencil is Perfect. Retrieved June 14, 2018, from https://www.ted.com/talks/caroline_weaver_why_the_pencil_is_perfect/transcript?language=en

Gabbard, J. and Bilash, L. (2017, November 15). The Fascinating Process Behind How Pencils Are Made. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://www.insider.com/how-pencils-are-made-2017-11

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Ozawa, M. (2015, August 27). Why We Love General Pencil Company: American Made. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://www.marthastewart.com/1125679/american-made-general-pencil-company

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Francis, E, Noll, E. (2016, December 12). Made in America Holiday: General Pencil Co. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://abcnews.go.com/Business/made-america-holiday-general-pencil/story?id=44146314

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David, M. (2014, November 18). A Brief History of the Mechanical Pencil. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://blog.pencils.com/brief-history-mechanical-pencil/

Ugwu, E. (2016, February 15). The Dream of Made-in-Nigeria Pencil. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from http://saharareporters.com/2016/02/15/dream-made-nigeria-pencil-emmanuel-uchenna-ugwu

Elgin, C. (2017, August 10). Pencils Around the World. Retrieved June 20, 2018, from https://cwpencils.com/blogs/news/pencils-around-the-world

Nix, S. (2020, January 29). Easter Redcedar, a Common Tree in North America. Retrieved from, https://www.thoughtco.com/eastern-redcedar-common-tree-north-america-1342774

Mala, A. (2020, July 2). How Many Trees Are Cut Down Each Year to Make Pencils? Retrieved from, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-many-trees-are-cut-down-each-year-to-make-pencils.html

Wild Earth Allies. Threatened Trees. Retrieved from, https://wildearthallies.org/what-we-do/threatened-trees/

Stanley, E. (1997, February 20). Pencil City, USA Can Proudly Say, ‘We’re No.2!’: Despite Computers, Foreign Competitors, and Rising Wood Prices, This Tennessee Town’s Industry Hasn’t Dulled. Retrieved from, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1997-02-20-mn-30668-story.html

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