Calocedrus decurrens
Calocedrus decurrens

The Write StuffJudging by tone of the emails in my inbox last week, passions are running high. Most were about stuff non-related to wood, unless I want to write about gun stocks. Perhaps I'll get a guest blogger to write about that; I know several gunsmiths who are amazing with the quality of their stocks.

But there was one letter, one of those chain things that never die, forwarded to me by Go Wood reader Tom O. that tweaked my interest, and I had to check it out. Here's the message (why are they always in BOLD and ALL CAPS?)




The Write StuffNow, unlike the radical Tom O. (you know the IRS is reading your emails, don't you, Tom?), I enjoy doing my patriotic duty by overpaying my "fair share" to the ruling, uh, taxing authorities. So I didn't find it humorous to poke fun at or slander our fine Space Administration. The truth is that the above story is another of those internet "urban legends" that has a tiny kernel of truth and a whole lot of exaggeration. From the urban myth debunking website we learn that a "space pen" was in fact developed, but by a private entrepreneur at the cost of $1 million, not $12 million, and that he ultimately sold 400 of the space pens to NASA for $2.95 apiece. Not a bad deal.

But my initial reaction to the story was not outrage at taxes, or even dubious curiosity at the supposed efficiency of Russian space engineers over American engineers. I, of course, was drawn to the pencil.

Haven't you ever wondered how such a thing was ever invented? Or how they get that lead (graphite/clay, really) in there?

...Back sometime before the year 1565, in a remote northwestern corner of England, some local sheep herders, gathering up their sheep after a torrential downpour, discovered an outcropping of a dark mineral that blackened their skin and clothing as they climbed across it. This outcrop turned out to be the largest deposit of pure graphite found anywhere in the world, and it remains so to this day.

Shepherds being a thoughtful breed, they thought of using the dark, greasy stones to mark their sheep inventory. No use counting sheep if you can't mark them when they're counted, right?

Within a hundred years, and a lot of counted sheep, smart folks began to discover other uses for the mineral, which was called "plumbago" at the time. One of these smart people was a certain Kaspar Faber, a cabinet maker who figured out how to make a clean, wooden holder for the messy ore.

In 1761 cabinetmaker Kaspar Faber settled in Stein, near Nurenburg, in Germany to make his first simple pencils. Graphite was cut into narrow sticks and glued between two pieces of wood which were cut and planed smooth. The family dynasty of pencil makers had begun.

The Write Stuff

In 1839, Lothar Faber, the great grandson of Kaspar Faber, began to transform the pencil industry. He mechanised production, using first water, then steam power and achieved a production rate and consistency of quality previously unheard of. He invented the hexagonal pencil and created standards for the pencil size and grades of hardness still in use today. His products were marked A.W. Faber, the first ever brand-name writing products and amongst the earliest branded articles in the world.  

Today, the Faber-Castell Group produces approximately 1.8 billion wood-cased pencils per year and is the world's largest pencil manufacturer. 


Pencils of that early time were quite expensive, and only the most qualified people could afford the technological marvel. Young surveyor George Washington surveyed much of Virginia and Pennsylvania with an imported writing stick, to which we owe nearly all of our knowledge of the young Virginia gentleman.

The war of 1812 emphasized the need for increased national security through American-made products and self-sufficiency, and a cabinet-maker in Concord, Massachusetts, William Munroe, rose to the challenge and began making pencils. At that time, Northern white cedar, Thuja occidentalis, was widely used for shakes, shingles, and posts in New England, and it may have been Munroe who first discovered that cedar made a nice pencil. He settled on cedar for his newly-found pencil business.

Munroe had then made a business out of making lead pencils. He made the graphite formula for his pencils in secret, with only the help of his wife. The business was quite successful. By 1814 he had made nearly 175,000 pencils, which sold for about six thousand dollars, a very large amount of money at the time. When the war with England ended there were better pencils available from Europe and his profits were erased by these better imports. Munroe figured it was pointless to try to compete against these superior products so took up his normal trade of cabinet-making. He also made tooth brushes and watchmaker's brushes, also the first made in the United States. During this interim time he went back to the drawing board to do further experimenting with his secret lead pencil paste. One thing led to another until he came up with a powdered graphite paste product that would make its mark.

Munroe decided in 1819 he would go into pencil manufacturing full time. He no longer desired to be number two. He made a square deal with his employees then to sell them his furniture business. He contracted with them to make his cabinet maker’s squares and pencil blanks for payment of the shop business. Munroe in turn then produced the unique graphite paste for his pencils, of which only he and his wife knew the secret formula. He rented an old textile factory building and there fabricated pencils on a large scale. In 1835 alone he made over 5 million pencils. He took the lead out to become the best manufacturer of American pencils.

Munroe figured that the best way to make pencils was by starting with a quarter inch slab of cedar wood. He then would cut the slots for his special formula graphite paste and fill them. He would let the paste air dry. The next step was to glue an eighth inch veneer of wood over the slots. The final step was to saw the slab into pencils. This resulted in a wooden lead graphite pencil that was just under a half inch thick.

The business was a struggle at first, however in ten years' time he had sharpened his skills to perfection. He figured out how to make his machinery fabricate the wooden pencils efficiently in the old textile factory, creating the first and the most successful pencil company in the United States. Munroe took the lead in manufacturing pencils in the United States from that time forward as long as he was in the pencil business. He also make ever-pointed-pencil leads that were very popular.

As pencils became more affordable and common in the country, Eastern red-cedar, Juniperus virginiana, became the pencil wood of choice, and the rolling hills of western Virginia and Tennessee were harvested heavily of red-cedars for decades. This was the heyday of the wooden pencil, and millions were produced and used in every factory, home, schoolhouse and office of the day. Eventually, the Eastern red-cedar forests were depleted, and pencil manufacturers, like other wood products companies of the past, looked west.

They found what they were looking for in California. And like most things out West, it was big. The Incense-cedar, Calocedrus decurrens, made the Eastern red-cedar look like a shrub. It grows to over 200 feet (60 meters) high and the wood has a soft texture that sharpens easily without splintering. And it has that famous smell that we all grew up you know what Incense-cedar smells like.

The real story lies in the technical properties of Incense-cedar which make it uniquely exceptional for use in pencils and various other applications. It’s unique physical characteristics allow for close-tolerance, precision machining that provide a very smooth machined surface and exceptional ‘sharpenability’ in finished pencils. It’s thermal characteristics are also among the best for all softwoods. This provides dependable, predictable resistance to heat buildup which improves machining performance as well as gluing and drying.

Incense-cedar also stands up to wider variations in temperature and humidity without warping, cracking or shrinking (which is important for pencil factories in many regions of the world where there are varying climates and for pencils shipped around the world). Finally, the smooth surface and relative lack of resin canals and pitch pockets assure that cedar pencils can be easily painted or stained with lacquer or water based stains to a fine, smooth finish without bleeding or other problems. 

Incense-cedar is also interesting in that is mostly grown naturally in stands of mixed conifers: Douglas-fir, Ponderosa pine, Jeffrey Pine are the predominant species where sometimes 5 to 20 percent of the stand may be Incense-cedar. They are sustainably managed in these mixed stands, not in plantations as you might expect for a species with such a specific market value.

Now if you've read this far, you've got to be really interested in pencils...or you're still wondering how they get the lead in there. So you're in for a treat. Watch the following's a great documentary on how pencils are made. And it's amazing.

And that's the story of of the best wood products that everyone has used but almost nobody ever notices.

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