Most people have had to sharpen a pencil at some time or another. Pencils break and become blunt with use and need regular attention to remain useful. It is for this reason the pencil is often overlooked and replaced by the common ballpoint pen. The only attention a pen requires is cap removal or a click and you are away. The pencil is still with us, most likely due to its useful ability to be erased, and for artists like myself, the tonal range that can be applied with varied pressure in application. Also without going into too much of a science lesson, the graphite that the ‘lead’ is composed of is a very pure carbon that is very closely related to the carbon of a diamond and it will not fade over time like most ink will.
Maintaining the point of a pencil is a very important part of being a pencil user. The most common way this is done is with the pencil sharpener. There are countless varieties available that are manual, mechanical and electric. The bulk of these will give a very standard point that limits the pencil in its usability. I have many of these sharpeners, but they are for the most part an ornamental part of my pencil collection. The only way to sharpen a pencil is with a knife. I have 5 reasons why I believe this.
The standard point of a pencil is limited. Using a knife to cut away the wood and sculpt the point can make a pencil so much more useful. For one thing, a pencil can be coaxed write for a longer time between the sharpening. By exposing more of the graphite core than a standard sharpener, and tapering this longer lead to a point, many pages can be written without having to stop. There is also a sandpaper block that can be used to help with this shaping process, but I prefer the knife, as scraping the graphite is more accurate.
Pencils came in a range of hardness grades. There is the H, which is hard, the HB in the middle of the road and the B, which is soft. Writers usually use the HB as it suits their needs for the task. HB pencils are not too hard (hard pencils leave a very light mark), and not too soft so that it will not hold a point for reasonable amounts of time. As I use pencils mostly for drawing, I have the full range of pencil grades, but the standard point just will not do. Most people know that artist’s paintbrushes come in different shapes and sizes. I use knife sharpening to give pencils a similar variety of shapes and sizes. My standard point is long and sharp, so I can use the point for detail and the side to render areas of tone. I also sharpen short, wedged and flat angles. Pencils being wood and graphite can be shaped in any way the user sees fit.
There are good pencils and there are bad pencils. Using a knife to sharpen will illustrate the difference in a number of ways. The wood a pencil is made from varies from cedar, which is soft and fragrant, to cheap pine variants, which are hard and inconsistent. The same can be said about the lead, or graphite core of a pencil. The core of a graphite pencil is usually made from a combination of clay and graphite that is fired much like pottery. A good pencil applies its lead smoothly without effort; the bad can be scratchy, brittle, and even damage the paper. Knife sharpening a quality pencil is easy and feels effortless. Knife sharpening a cheap pencil is like having a saw get stuck in a piece of wood, the effort and frustration are the same. A good pencil sharpens perfectly 10 times out of 10. It must also be said that the twisting action of a pencil sharpener can break brittle lead, where a knife will not as the scraping action is gentle.
I personally enjoy the ritual involved when I hand sharpen pencils. The knife I use is a part of this as I try to keep it as sharp as possible. I will spend a little time sharpening, as it is a little like meditation. I focus upon the repeating stokes of the knife on the sharpening stone and I quiet my mind, much like chanting a Buddhist mantra. A standard pencil sharpener does not connect me to the pencil as much as the knife. The pencil sharpener is a little machine that cuts for me, unlike the knife, which is under my direction, and my own hand makes every shaving. Having this ritual element helps me focus more clearly on the task of creating with the pencils I sharpen.
My experience with pencils and the knife sharpening is quite personal, but experiencing the pencil in the way I have has helped me explore the infinite possibilities a pencil represents. Knife sharpening has given me the pencil experience that I need to be able to do what I want the pencil to do. I admit that I am a pencil fanatic. I have a collection that is near 2000 that are both vintage and modern. I have also spent much time looking into the history of the pencil. What is undeniable is that behind countless inventions, innovations, writers, artists and thinkers, there has been a pencil. The pencil is a direct conduit between the mind and the amazing ideas that have become physically manifest throughout history. I thoroughly recommend the experience of knife sharpening pencils, as it will make you think more about the point of a pencil.