Other Lessons in This Course
- How Pencils are Made
- How a Pen Works!
- How Do Mood Pencils Work?
- How Umbrellas are Made
- How are Stress Balls Made?
- What are Magnets Made Of?
- How are Sticky Notes Made?
- How Sports Bottles are Made
- How Golf Balls are Made?
- How Injection Molding Works
- Anatomy of Pens and Pencils
- How Effective are Hand Sanitizers?
- How Ceramic Mugs are Made
- How are Pens Made?
- How Pencils are Made
- How Tote Bags are Made
The core of a pencil is made of graphite, clay, and water. During the 17th century, the graphite and clay were grounded down by hand, put into a cylindrical mold, and fired in a kiln. Today, pencils are mass-produced by machines that cut down the wood, insert the lead, and stamp or print a design.
We couldn’t complete a crossword puzzle, sketch a masterpiece, or write the next great American novel without a good pencil. While it may seem like these writing instruments simply grow on trees, they require expert craftsmanship and engineering to be produced.
The Evolution of Pencil Manufacturing
Since pencil’s early days, the manufacturing system has more or less been the same. The graphite is grinded down and mixed with powdered clay and water to make a thick paste. This paste is put into a cylindrical mold and fired in a kiln. The result is a strong lead core that’s difficult to break and extremely smooth for writing on paper.
A system for grading the graphite was eventually developed in the 1820s. Henry David Thoreau and his father John numbered the hardness of their pencils from #1 - #4. The softer the pencil, the more graphite it contained, resulting in a darker, smoother line. The firmer the pencil, the more clay it contained, meaning the lines would be lighter. The standard today, as any student can verify, is the reliable #2 model. The graphite in these pencils is at just the right amount of thickness to produce an easily readable mark.
With Thoreau’s scale in place, America needed a way to keep up with the demand for high-quality pencils. In the 1870s, Joseph Dixon used his background in lithography to create machines that were capable of mass-producing pencils at a faster rate. The machines also pushed the pencil making process forward by cutting grooves for the graphite into the wood. Before then pencils had always been handmade with a flat, round design. With Dixon’s machines, they were hexagonal and had attached erasers. His company could produce upwards of 80,000 a day, completely taking the industry to new heights.
Making Pencils: The Step by Step Process
Many pencil-making companies are in Tennessee, harking back to the old days when they set up shop in this area to have easier access to the valuable red cedar oak. The best trees are around 14-years-old since they’re mature enough to be cut. By the time the tree is chopped down and ready to go, each manufacturer follows a similar format in creating the pencils.
- • Step One: The wood is softened and cut into slats called "pencil stock" or "pencil squares."
- • Step Two: A wax and stain are applied and the slats are passed under a cutting wheel.
- • Step Three: The grooves in the slat are filled with a special elastic glue for the lead.
- • Step Four: Lead is create by mixing graphite and clay and baking it in an oven at about 1500°F.
- • Step Five: After the lead is added, another slat of wood is loaded on top like a sandwich.
- • Step Six: A mechanized plunger squeezes the "sandwich" together and the glue dries.
- • Step Seven: The "sandwiches" are sliced into pencils.
- • Step Eight: The pencils go through a lacquering head, getting their color and sheen.
- • Step Nine: A rubber eraser is added to the top via an assembly machine.
The first step is making sure the wood is soft enough to sharpen, but not so soft that it will bend when you use it to write. The wood is pre-cut into slats called “pencil stock” or “pencil squares” at sawmills. Each slat is placed in a dry kiln prior to being shipped to the manufacturer. This gives them a uniform moisture content that makes their assembly more streamlined.
The manufacturers apply a wax and stain after they receive the slats from the sawmills. The first step is for the slats to pass under a giant cutting wheel that carves grooves along the edges. These grooves will eventually hold the lead or graphite in place.
The grooves are filled with a special elastic glue that acts as a cushion for the graphite. Without the glue, the graphite has the potential to break before the pencil’s design is complete.
Now it’s time to add the lead. Lead is created by mixing graphite and clay and baking it in an oven at about 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. Graphite is an organic form of crystalline carbon that is found in metamorphic and indigenous rocks. It is turned into lead, which is the common terminology used to describe the inside of a pencil.
After the pencil is loaded with lead, it’s time for another slat of wood to be loaded on top. This is done on a conveyor belt with an automated arm that flips the side with glue over and stacks it on top of the other slat containing the lead. Think of it as a lead sandwich.
A mechanized plunger squeezes the “sandwich” together with over 2,000 pounds of pressure. The wood slats are compressed as the glue has time to dry.
After about an hour, the “sandwiches” are sliced into pencils. A fast-spinning cutter is used to shape the pencils into a hexagonal design. From there, the pencils separate out of the sandwich into individual pieces. Any pencils with defects are discarded.
One at a time the pencils go through a lacquering head, giving them their color and sheen. The surface is coated with 4-10 coats of paint or lacquer, depending on the desired quality and color.
The final step is adding the rubber eraser at the very top with an assembly machine. First, the machine squeezes the top of the pencil and slides on the aluminum part (known as a ferrule). Next, it inserts the rubber eraser and squeezes to hold everything together.
Some pencils are wrapped in decorative film with intricate designs, while others are screen printed or foil stamped with a logo or advertising message. If they’re not used as company giveaways, the pencils are simply imprinted with the brand name of the pencil manufacturer.
The result is a beautiful pencil ready for sharpening! With a logo added, they also make great giveaways at school fundraisers, trade shows, and a variety of other events.
Fine Quality Since 1889: The General Pencil Company
Pencil manufacturing has been relatively the same since its early days. There are even some companies from the beginning that are still in business today, such as the General Pencil Company in Redwood City, California.
The General Pencil Company has been owned and operated by the Weissenborn family since 1889. Edward Weissenborn first set up shop in Jersey City Heights, New York and named his company the American Pencil Company. Fast forward over 100 years later and the business is still in the family, with his great-great grandchildren helming the ship.
This company has a large part in the history of both pencils and America and continues to pave the way forward with their commitment to sustainability. All their pencils are made from western-cedar wood found in California and Oregon as it’s stronger and more eco-friendly. They also use recycled material in their packaging and send their sawdust waste to Duraflame, which converts it into logs for household fireplaces.
Today, the General Pencil Company employs over 49 workers and owns 28 different patents for the pencil-making process. All their products are made in the United States which gives them the means to meet demand, especially during back to school season. Overall, there’s no denying this manufacturer’s role in producing the pencils we know and love today.
How Are Mechanical Pencils Made?
Sampson Mordan and John Isaac Hawkins experimented with the first mechanical pencils over fifty years before the General Pencil Company opened their doors. However, they had an inferior design to regular wood pencils which stilted their popularity. It also didn’t help that Mordan and Hawkins’s factory was bombed during World War II. Over 160 patents were registered to improve the mechanical pencils design until it was perfected by Tokuji Hayakawa in Japan and Charles Keeran in America in the early 1900s.
Mechanical pencils are divided into three categories: screw, clutch, or ratchet-based. In screw-based pencils, the lead slides down the barrel and is locked in place at the bottom. Clutch-based pencils are activated by pressing the eraser, which opens the jaws inside the tips and allows the lead to drop from the barrels. Finally, ratchet-based pencils hold the lead in place with a few small jaws inside a ring at the tip. The jaws are controlled by a button that causes them to separate and allows the lead to come through. Today, ratchet-based are the most popular, though you can find all three at any retail store.
Pencils From Around the Globe
Of course, other countries aside from America rely on good, old-fashioned pencils. Take for instance Nigeria who made it a goal to produce their first ever homemade pencil by 2018. Although they’ve had their independence for over 55 years, this African nation hadn’t been producing their own pencils, instead relying on imports from other countries. They had everything they needed, including willing workers and rich resources, but they still hadn’t been developing their own writing instruments. Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Ogbonnaya Onu, is leading the pencil pack toward the future.
Meanwhile, across the world in Denmark, the Viking Pencil Company produces pencils with knotholes; Faber-Castell in Germany uses softer woods like linden or basswood; Shahson’s in Pakistan makes high-quality pencils for left-handed writers; and Blackwing in Japan uses a small amount of plastic in their graphite that makes their design less likely to smudge than others. From the west to the east, we are all united by the love we have for high-quality pencils.
The Bottom Line
Whether they’re made by hand or by machine, we rely on a good pencil to get through a number of tasks, from laying down laminate flooring to crushing our friends in a game of Pictionary™. Take the time to appreciate all the hard work and attention to detail that goes into making these writing wonders!
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.
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