Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Making a pencil

Back in 2007 I talked to Tim Taylor of McAlester. I wrote to him at the time on my plans to make a pencil. At that time I wrote:

I have been told that you have a lecture where you state that there is a high likelihood that there is no person who could make a pencil from scratch.

I would like to put myself forward as the exception for you. I have been called an academic junkie, but I have studied all that is required to do this and also other skills. I learnt how to make charcoal using a medieval clay burner last year. I learnt iron smelting and blacksmithing over a decade ago. Woodwork is a hobby. I have qualifications in Organic Chemistry – so the rubber is easy.

Although I agree that this is not generally useful knowledge, it does help drive home the point of where we are and what society (and yes the economy) really means.

I could have a pencil produced in under 6 months from start to finish if I dedicated my time and was in an iron or bronze rich area. At my current rate it is unlikely that anyone would pay me my current rate, but I do believe that I could manufacture from scratch at least 8000 pencils pa continuously from the point of being setup after 9-12 months – assuming somebody else takes care of food.

I do understand that I will still not make my own pencils however, not only is the quality poor, but the cost is excessive.

I was wrong at that point in thinking I could have completed a pencil and gained the knowledge in something so simple in only six more months (and with my existing knowledge built over a decade). I was not wrong in being able to make a pencil from scratch.

In learning this, I have learnt to smith, to make tools and smelt and many arts that have been neglected by many people.

I have grown my own understanding of many topics and at the root it is other technologies that have allowed me to comprehend a simple item such as a humble pencil.

Tim had stated at the time in an early email:

Thanks for your charming note. The pencil example is from a famous (to teachers of economics) essay written back in 1958. If you want to check it out, it's available on the web at <>.

When I'm citing the noone-can-make-a-pencil example in a classroom context, I sometimes(but not always) say: "OK, there's probably someone who can prove me wrong out there -- some professor of metallurgy or chemistry who has an offbeat set of personal hobbies." But in roughly 20 years of using this example, you are the first one to call me on it!  When I next use the example, I'll have to be sure to add that I've heard from one person who can do it. This will lead naturally into the next major subject of the introductory class, which is comparative advantage, and why it wouldn't make economic sense for you to do it. So you see, for a teacher, everything is grist for the mill.


At that point I could make a pencil, but not from first principles. This required learning all of the following skills to an adept level:

  • carpentry,
  • forestry
  • geology
  • mining
  • mineral processing
  • black smiting (and I am no artist)
  • Coking
  • Making bricks
  • Steel work
  • and so many things it is not funny. Wait to see the publication.

I ended up doing the standard HB composition.

  • Graphite 68%-wt, Clay 26%-wt, Wax 5%-wt

My beneficiation process is extremely rudimentary but it does work. Making a screen is not a simple process in itself and is one that modern methods can easily improve on the efforts of one person.

I started with  a "Gesner pencil" and slowly gained the level of skill to progress to the Nicholas-Jacques Conte version. In this, the speed of discovery has been amplified and made less expensive through the growth of the Internet. YouTube has a remarkable number of How-Too videos that have accelerated this process and changed the dynamics of the exercise.

I also needed to use other resources. Mixing graphite in a kiln sounds easy, and as my ex-wife had a kiln for pottery, it was. Making a kiln was a separate exercise. Moving from an electric kiln to a Raku pottery kiln I make myself was a large step. Even here I cheated. I made Forty three bricks before I decided to use the other hundred or so from a commercial maker. If I had to make all the bricks I would have needed more time and effort.

Ritter’s paper was essential to this exercise. It started the process of discovery. The part I have not replicated in a natural manner and could not is the sourcing of the knowledge, something like the pencil we take for granted. I have never met Steve Ritter, but owe a debt of gratitude to him and hundreds of people posting on blogs, webpages and lastly via video on YouTube.

Tight now, I am starting to write this on a computer connected to the Internet. The pencil was something I could copy. A piece of 18th century technology. What I could not ever hope to do is to replicate all the knowledge required for a pencil in a single life span without the aid of technology.

So, even now we have something more to add to the process.

I am writing this process up now. I have spent a little over 12 years researching pencils and once I have finished the publication, I shall put them to rest.

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