Pencils haven’t changed much over the last century, at least not for the General Pencil Company, one of the last pencil manufacturing companies in the US. While they do use conveyors and other machine shop tools, the pencils crafted there are still made by hand and have been done this way since the company opened its doors back in 1889 in Jersey City, New Jersey.
The process of handcrafting pencils begins with graphite—chunks of it are placed, along with clay, into a giant rotating drum where they get pulverized with rocks into a fine powder. Water is then thrown into the mix, which is then blended for three days, after which, the water is squeezed out, and it becomes a sludge that’s air-dried and hardened after four days.
The dried mix undergoes another pummeling into dust with more water added to make a soft paste, which is then extruded like pasta into thin rods, which are cut to pencil length and air-dried on a conveyor where they head to an oven and baked at 1,800 F. This process makes the rods (known as leads) smooth and hard- perfect for making writing points.
While the graphite process takes place, machines cut blocks of Incense Cedar Wood for the pencil’s barrel into wide slats with eight shallow lengthwise grooves cut into each. The graphite rod is then placed into each slot with another grooved slat set on top and glued together. Once the glue dries, the slats are sent to a cutting machine where steel blades trim the wood into round or hexagonal shapes, producing eight pencils from each slat.
The pencils finally undergo a paint job (5 to 8 coats), receive the branded company foil or paint stamp, and a metal band (ferrule) to mount the eraser. From here, the pencils are sharpened (or not), packaged and ready to ship to school kids, artists and trade workers alike.
The General Pencil Company also produces colored pencils in much the same fashion—only instead of graphite, they use pastels to deliver rich and bold colors. Interestingly, they only produce one color per week as it takes too much time to clean the machines before a new color is manufactured. After taking the use of a simple pencil for granted, I have a new found respect after what it takes to make them, which is a somewhat lengthy endeavor from beginning to finished product.