How Are Pencils Made?

More than 14 billion pencils are produced in the world every year, enough to circle the earth 62 times.
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How are pencils made? Take a look at the writing end of a brand-new wooden pencil before sharpening it; it appears that the wood casing is one solid piece. This might lead you to believe that pencil-makers bore a hole straight down the middle of the wood and then slide in a rod of lead. Although early pencil makers constructed individual pencils in this manner, it is not how most pencils are mass-produced today.


Is It Really Lead?

Before discussing how the lead is put into the wood casĀ­ing, let's clear up what the actual lead is. The lead found in a traditional or mechanical pencil is not actually lead; it's a combination of powdered graphite and clay, mixed with water and pressed together at high temperatures into thin rods.

We call it lead is because the Englishmen who first discovered graphite believed they had found lead. According to the Cumberland Pencil Museum, in the mid-16th century, a violent storm knocked over several trees in Borrowdale, England, uncovering a large deposit of a black substance that was first thought to be lead.


More than 200 years later, an English scientist discovered that the substance was not actually lead, but a type of carbon instead. The substance was named graphite, after the Greek word meaning "to write," since that's how people used the substance.

A Brief History of Pencil Shapes and Designs

Early pencil making designed graphite pencils that would be considered crude versions of the pencil stock modern professionals are familiar with. The first pencil was just a chunk of graphite used by carpenters and artisans to make markings without denting their materials.

The pencil making process quickly evolved. Eventually, a craft pencil maker designed a new writing tool made from a graphite chunk wrapped in sheepskin. That was followed by a string-wrapped graphite pencil, the first pencil with a rod-shaped graphite core. To use one of these pencils, the writer would have to unravel the string as the graphite wore down.


The next major leap in design was hollowing out a stick of cedar and sticking graphite sticks down the hole, an idea often credited to the Italians. The English embraced this idea but simplified the manufacturing process considerably.

Instead of hollowing out a piece of wood, they simply cut a groove in the wood, inserted a piece of graphite and broke it off level with the top of the groove. They then glued a small slat of wood on top, encasing the graphite.


Touring a Modern Pencil Factory

The pencil manufacturing process has indeed come a long way. Today, most wooden pencils are mass produced from large blocks of cedar cut into slats. A machine cuts eight grooves, half as deep as the graphite-clay rod is thick, into the slats, and then places rods in each groove. Once the rods are in place, a second grooved slat is glued on top of the first.

When the glue dries, the slats are fed through a cutting machine that cuts the wood into various shapes and divides the slats into eight separate pencils. The seams where the two slats are joined are sanded down and several coats of paint are applied to the pencil, giving it the appearance of a solid structure.


According to Musgrave Pencil Co. Inc, more than 14 billion pencils are produced in the world every year, enough to circle the earth 62 times. This pile of pencils includes a wide variety of styles and widths. If you've ever have taken a fill-in-the-bubble test, you're probably aware that pencils vary in darkness.

The number printed on the side of the pencil indicates hardness and darkness of the graphite core: the higher the number, the harder the graphite core. Because a hard core leaves behind less of the graphite-clay mixture on the paper, it will have a fainter mark than a softer core.


A Bit About Coloring Pencils

While the history of the standard pencil is fascinating, let's not forget its vibrant cousins: colored pencils. A favorite tool for artists, illustrators, and children alike, these pencils add color to our black-and-white graphite world.

As early as the 19th century, artists sought a portable, precise medium for coloring. They began experimenting with wax-based crayons and oil pastels but yearned for something that provided more control. Enter the coloring pencil.


Instead of the graphite-clay mixture that makes up the standard pencil barrels, coloring pencils contain a core made from pigments, binders, and fillers. The binder, typically wax or oil, holds the pigment and gives the pencil its consistency.

Frequently Answered Questions

What is the lead in pencil?
The lead in a pencil is a thin core of graphite.
Are pencils made of lead still?
Pencils are made of graphite, not lead.
Is lead in pencils harmful?
No, lead in pencils is not harmful.