Humble history of the pencil

An image of a pencil.

I am feeling nostalgic for the humble pencil.  There is a comfort and warm familiarity whenever I pick one up (rarely these days).  Pencils are inexpensive, portable, simple to operate and the marks that they make are easy to erase.  Unlike other writing tools, they do not run out of ink or skip — just sharpen them once in a while and they are ready to go.

The history of the lead pencil goes back more than 2000 years to Greek and Roman times.  In fact, the word for pencil is derived from a Latin word pencillus meaning “little brush”.  The pencil, as we know it, may have evolved out an ancient Roman stylus (a thin metal rod) which was used to scratch the papyrus, which left a light but readable mark. Other early writing tools were made out of lead.  Lead is a substance that will make its mark on almost anything.  Although the mark that it leaves is faint and not very dependable.

Discovery of Graphite

In the fifteenth century, a new material was found that could be used in place of lead.  This substance is called graphite.  The large deposit of graphite was discovered near Borrowdale, England in 1564. It is a form of carbon and a very useful material.  Besides its use in pencils, it is an ingredient in lubricants, certain kinds of steel, paint, brushes in electric motors.  In my early 20’s, I worked at a large bakery.  I remember lubricating the conveyor belt chains for the oven with a semi-liquid graphite.  It was used instead of oil as it could withstand the high temperatures inside the oven.

Graphite by itself, however, is as unsuitable for pencils as lead. To keep the graphite from wearing down too quickly, it is mixed with a fine clay.  And it is the amount of clay that determines how hard the pencil lead will be.  A hard lead will have more clay in it than a soft lead.  Coloured pencils contain no graphite at all, and are a mixture of clay, was or chalk and colouring materials.

Fun fact

1800 — Massachussets school girl creates a pencil using crushed graphite and a hollowed out twig. (Very resourceful, and easier to transport than a quill and ink pot.)


To make a pencil the useful tool it is, it needs a wooden sheath.  And the most common wood used for this purpose is cedar.  More than 70% of the world’s pencil makers rely on Lebocedrus deurrens  — the California incense cedar tree — for their wood. A slat of cedar is cut into proper pencil lengths and about nine pencil widths.  Grooves are then cut in a lengthwise direction.  After placing the leads in these grooves, another slat of cedar is glued on top, making a sort of pencil sandwich.  The whole thing is then cut into nine pencils.

After pencils are cut, they are sanded, painted and varnished and the name of the marker is stamped into them.  If they are to have an eraser a brass rim is to be added.  The eraser is fitted in and the brass rim is squeezed tight so that the eraser does not fall out the first time that you use it.

Recent History

By the beginning of the twentieth century, two systems for identifying the grade of pencils had been established.  European pencil makers were using a combination letter-number system.  Most American pencil makers use a number only system.  The combination letter-number system is the one that is most recognisable today. Usually consisting of 9H, 8H, … 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, …, 8B, 9B. “H” represents Hardness and “B” represents Blackness and is softer.  Harder pencils are most often used for drafting, and the softer pencils are most likely to be used by artists.

teamSimon is a Sydney based digital designer. He is the Director of a boutique digital design studio, Bailey Street Design located in the vibrant inner west suburb of Newtown. Simon studied graphic design at Shillington College and specialises in web design for small and medium size businesses. Simon and his team (Toby the studio dog) are passionate about visual communication in the digital environment.


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