Some could argue that the pencil has been rendered obsolete. It has been superseded by the pen and the computer. At best, it is a product suited for a niche market – children, artists, and carpenters. Even then, for the most part, the wooden pencil would give way to the all mighty and superior mechanical pencil. Like records and cassettes, it’s a technology that will never disappear entirely. Collecting pencils could almost been seen as trying to collect old used metal bottle caps. What’s the point? They’re useless. It’s not worth the effort to crimp it back onto the bottle.
Pencils hold a special place in human history. It has been one of the most influential instruments of all times. Novels, sketches, and drafting were all done in pencil long before the computer, typewriter, and ball point pen came around. Pencils were once a very carefully crafted tool. Each one was made by hand, from cutting the wood to shaping the lead. Pencils were not the only writing implements available during the course of time but it is one of the few that has survived right into modern times. Think about the feather, chalk, and stick markings on a clay tablet. There has to be something very attractive about a pencil in its basic use as a tool for it to still be in use today.
I believe that there are three elements that define the attraction between a person and any object: materials, manufacturing, and perception. By mastering these three elements, the Japanese, for example, were able to take the lead in many industries that were traditionally owned by America. Automobiles are a great example because it’s something that we can all relate to. Think back to the 70s and 80s. Japanese cars used superb materials and the manufacturing processes and their capabilities were superior to that of their American counterparts. This resulted in the Japanese building a highly reliable product with a low maintenance requirement and long product life. They were also more fuel efficient, ran cleaner, and stood up to wear and tear longer. It was a perfect match for a time (like today) of high gas prices. Over the years, a perception built up that Japanese cars are better than the American built equivalents. Statements such as, “They don’t break down as much” and “They use less gas” became synonymous with makes such as Toyota, Honda, and Subaru. Japanese manufacturers made you want to have their car.
Don’t believe me? Ok, which would you rather buy if you had a choice: a 1985 Ford Escort or a 1985 Nissan Sentra? Would you rather buy a 1995 Toyota Camry or a 1995 Chrysler LeBaron?
It took the Americans a while to figure this out and get their act together. Fast forward to the present day and we see American cars have just as good (if not better in some cases) of a record as Japanese cars. Unfortunately, American cars still suffer from a slight amount of poor perception. There is still a lingering doubt about their reliability and durability. The US automakers realize this and they try hard to convince people that their product is superior. Sometimes they invoke national pride. They also invoke the joyous feeling of driving a car styled after a classic design that hearkens back to a time when the American product was perceived as superior.
The same three elements can be applied to a pencil, especially a wooden one. Wood is a fantastic material to build things with. It is easy to shape, inexpensive, and plentiful. Wood is strong, flexible, and nontoxic. I’ve never seen a pencil crumble to pieces on its own accord. Have you? With proper management, it is one of the few renewable sources of energy and material that doesn’t release any greenhouse gases on it’s own. The material is predictable. It can be reliably and consistently processed.
Whether done by hand or facilitated by a machine, the manufacturing process is simple, elegant, and well matched to the material. There’s not much that can go wrong with a wooden pencil if the process is under control. Has a pencil ever been found defective because it wasn’t built right? There are probably some but when you consider the number of pencils made world wide it’s a very small number. It’s like having only two Toyota’s in the world ever breaking down. Have you ever bought a pencil with missing lead? I have yet to see that. The best part about the process, when using modern machinery, is that it can be quick! According to one of Staedler’s promotional videos, over 1.7 million pencils leave their factories every day! Do the math and you will find that Staedler alone produces over 620 million pencils every year! The Chinese dwarf this by producing nearly 9.8 trillion pencils in 2004 according to the Timberlines blog.
Perception. Indeed, the feel of a pencil gliding along a piece of paper is like none other. It is smooth with just enough friction to offer some feedback of a mark being left. Pencils are generally very thin unlike many modern bulky pens. This allows the fingers to better wrap around the pencil. The fingers are closer together, like a fist, and this gives better control. Wooden pencils offer a distinctive feel compared to the hard plastic pen. The wood is compliant in comparison to plastic and allows the pencil to shift slightly as it is being used to write. Wood can absorb the sweat coming off of the skin. Plastic cannot do this so the sweat lingers and becomes like glue. A plastic pen simply sticks to the skin.
The impression created on the paper by a pencil is also like none other. Ink pens can be imitated by modern day printers, quills, and in some cases, even markers. How often do we try to smudge a signature with water or saliva to see if it is real or simply a print? A pencil’s mark is distinctive and irreproducible except by the pencil itself. In this digital age, the wooden pencil also remind us of something old fashioned. Open a box of new pencils and take in that scent! It brings back a sense of nostalgia. Who can forget the feeling of picking up a pencil in grade school and scratching out their first sentences and simple equations? We remember the joy of a freshly sharpened pencil and the frustrations of running them to little nubs. There’s almost something of a romance there. Like your first love, you never forget about it. Compare this experience with computers in the digital age. Do you get goosebumps thinking about the first web page you accessed or the first cell phone you ever used?
I have repeatedly mentioned wooden pencils here and purposefully left out mechanical pencils. A mechanical pencil to me is like a pencil trying to be a pen. It’s still a pencil because it uses lead instead of ink but the main material has changed from wood to plastic. Wood is one of the defining materials of a pencil and it is the material that holds the attraction. Although a mechanical pencil has it’s place in between a wooden pencil and a pen, it does not hold an attraction to me – at least not yet. I see it as something with an identity crisis. It needs to decide whether it wants to be a pencil or a pen because it cannot be both. This isn’t meant as a slam against mechanical pencil collectors. God bless them where ever they are. However, for myself, I will stick with wooden pencils.
Truthfully, pencils can been in an interesting light. However, it’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Like a sense of humor, it’s different in everyone. As long as it remains fun, painless, and interesting then it’s full steam ahead.
So let’s see where this thing goes.