Canadian Woodworking

Let’s talk about our pencils

Author: Rob Brown
pencils

Rob learns which pencil to use for projects around the home.

While my contractor friend and I were working on the basement reno the other day I asked him if I could borrow his pencil. “Sure,” he said, and handed me what looked to be a completely unsharpened pencil. Right away, I wondered why this pencil was so beat up even though it hadn’t been sharpened or used. Was it a new type of artisanal distressed pencil that was pre-patinated? Then I realized it actually had been sharpened, but only to a very blunt tip.

A Wide Array of Pencils
Pictured here is the blue pencil my friend lent me initially. With a tip that looked as sharp as the opposite end, I wasn’t surprised it didn’t mark an accurate line.

pencils


I looked at it for a second, and refrained from commenting on how dull it was. I also held back laughter. I just politely put it to use. Sure, it would mark a line, but only within about 1/4″ of where I wanted it. Over the next 20 minutes I used it about a dozen times and I’m pretty certain I wasn’t able to get any of those marks where I wanted them. I adjusted my cutting to account for the inherent ambiguity of each pencil mark I made, and the cuts all worked out in the end, but I’m not saying the pencil did its job. Really, I had to rely on guessing and luck to make those cuts properly, and that would surely get old quickly.

As I reached for that pencil over those 20 minutes, I often used the wrong end as often as I used the right end. The sharpened end was so blunt, and the other end had a bit of wear and was missing blue paint. This caused me to regularly mistake the unsharpened end for the sharpened end.

Using it further, I realized I literally couldn’t even see the sharpened tip of his pencil when I was using it. The cut angles on the tip were so steep, and the lead tip so blunt, that the sides of the pencil obscured my view of the lead while I struggled to mark a line.

Time to ask

After a while I asked my friend what his approach to pencil sharpening was and how he sharpened his pencils. At first, he was surprised at the question. The confused look on his face said, “Are you unable to operate my pencil?” After letting him know I usually use a much sharper pencil he grabbed the pencil from my hand, whipped out his knife (if I thought his pencil was dull, it had nothing on his utility knife), took a few passes here and a few passes there, then handed it back to me and said, “There, sharp as new.” I honestly didn’t think it was any sharper. It might even had been duller.

He then reached into his tool caddy and gave me a traditional carpenter’s pencil to try. After using it a few times I assumed it was just a way to further increase inaccuracy while also ensuring it’s uncomfortable in the hand. It doesn’t roll away easily though, so I will give it that.

It’s all in the mechanics

I use a 0.7mm mechanical pencil for all my workshop needs. Almost everything I do in my shop revolves around building furniture. I regularly work to 1/32″ tolerances, and usually get as close as 1/64″. There are times when that’s not even close enough.

Sure, my mechanical pencil gets dull, but two seconds and one click later it’s sharp as a tack and ready for action. The lines it leaves are thin and precise, allowing me to quickly hone in on the exact dimension I’m aiming for while machining.

I remember a time when I used a standard wooden pencil to mark up all my workpieces. I spent a fair bit of time at the sharpener refining the pencils as each day would go on. Standard wooden pencils wear down quickly and as soon as they’re leaving marks that have even a medium amount of width to them, they frustrate me and back to the sharpener I go. When I tried a mechanical pencil, it was a beautiful thing. It had loads of accuracy and it also reduced time spent walking to and from the sharpener. I knew I had found my forever pencil.

Back to the stubby pencils

My friend told me he’s never had a problem with his approach to marking a pencil line. He’s always doing home improvements where tolerances aren’t as tight as in furniture making, so that is likely a big part of the reason. I think he just knows the marks his pencils leave aren’t to be trusted, and he also knows exactly how far off they are. To him they really are as accurate as they need to be for the work he’s doing. I’m not calling him a sloppy tradesman. I’m just saying that the work he’s usually doing doesn’t require him to work to 1/64″ too often.

He will look at the line, then cut on one side of it or the other as he cuts the 2×4, sheet of plywood or length of trim. The work that’s inherently completed in a home improvement setting rarely needs to be as tight as in a furniture making setting. And on top of that, maybe I’m just not as flexible and adaptive a worker as so many pencils of the world are telling me I need to be.

I can see the benefit his pencils have when it comes to marking masonry, rough plywood or other more textured materials. Having said that, I think we would all adapt to using a mechanical pencil in those situations, too, if we had to. And if we all got rid of our wooden pencil, manufacturers would start producing thicker mechanical pencils that mark a decent line on just about any material. I think a world where each tradesperson had multiple mechanical pencils, all of varying width, in their tool belt would be a good one.

So, what’s the moral of this story, you ask? Simple. Have two pencils handy; a mechanical pencil for accurate and careful work; and a thick, poorly sharpened, blunt-ended wood pencil for when you want to make your buddy laugh.

Invisible Lead
While in use, the tip of the pencil wasn’t visible. The sidewalls of the pencil hid the stubby lead. Not fun. Or accurate.

invisible lead

All in the Tip
There’s about 10 times more lead in the blue pencil than my mechanical pencil, and likely about 50 times more lead in the carpenter’s pencil, but I can’t make either one of them mark a proper line.

lead pencils
Published:
Last modified: July 28, 2022

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.



More from Rob’s Bench
Clicky