For most artists, pencils are the first tool we learn how to use. Pencil sketches are one of the few drawing exercises that stay relevant throughout every artist’s education and learning process. They’re so common that few people stop and realize how complicated they are to make. If you’ve ever wondered how pencils are made and how the graphite pencil-making process varies from how colored pencils are made, come along with us on a journey to find out.
How Graphite Pencils are Made
Most pencils are made of cedar or basswood trees. Their wood is solid and rigid, but just soft enough to sharpen easily. Cedar and pine are popular for premium pencils, thanks to their softer wood and even grain that make for easy sharpening. Basswood and similar woods are for budget pencils.
Pencil manufacturers (at least the large ones) have their own tree farms to source their wood. When the trees reach 14 years of age, they’re ready to be used. The trees are felled and logged, then cut into 19-centimeter blocks (the length of the average pencil). Those blocks are cut into thin slats, which are then treated to dry and soften the wood to make it workable. This also makes the end product easier to sharpen.
After resting for 60 days, the manufacturer cuts parallel grooves into the slats. This creates a divot where the graphite will go.
How Graphite is Made
The pigmented part of a pencil is called the “lead,” but the core is actually made out of graphite. Graphite is a soft, dark-colored mineral. To make pencil leads, graphite and clay are blended together and crushed into a fine powder. This is blended with water to form a sludge, which can take up to 3 days to fully incorporate. After this stage, a special machine squeezes out any excess moisture, leaving a paste.
A metal extruder forms the paste into the recognizable thin rod shapes you’re used to seeing in the center of a pencil. A machine cuts them into the right length and dimensions and sets them on a conveyor belt to dry. Later, they’ll be cured in a 980°C oven. This makes the graphite smooth and hard – exactly what you want to get a perfect fine point.
Putting It All Together
When the leads are finished, they’re ready to be glued into the grooves on the wooden slats. A second slate is placed on top of the first slat, sandwiching the graphite rods in the middle. This is then heated and compressed to fasten the slats together (which is why sometimes you can see the two separate halves of a pencil being 2 different colors of wood, but you won’t usually see them pulling apart or splitting).
A machine cuts the wood block into individual pencils (the standard length is 7 millimeters). A different machine mills each pencil into the shapes we’re used to (usually either hexagonal or circular). Each pencil is then coated in multiple layers of paint, varnished, sharpened, and given any distinguishing marks or stamps of the manufacturer. This is also the part of the process when erasers and ferrules (the metal band that keeps the eraser secure) would be added.
Inside The Pencil Factory!
The video below gives you even more of an insight into how pencils get made, and the materials and process used. Plus, it’s always interesting to get a sneak peak inside a factory.
How Colored Pencils are Made
To make colored pencils, the wood undergoes the same process as traditional graphite pencils. But instead of using the graphite-clay paste as the core, colored pencil leads consist of a mixture of pigments, adhesives, resins, and binders. In general, higher-quality pencils have a higher concentration of pigment in the lead. The paste can be made with wax or oil, depending on the type of pencil and the desired texture and artistic effect of the final product. Water-soluble colored pencils (like watercolor pencils) have other ingredients as well to give them their effect.
Colored pencil leads don’t have to be heated to the same extreme temperatures as graphite leads, since their recipes are formulated to give them the right consistency from the get-go (and they’d melt in an oven anyway). The pigments, resins, and other ingredients are mixed into a paste and pushed through an extruder into the pencil lead shape. They’re squeezed into a white core and cut to the right length, then dried out to remove excess moisture. The dry cores are then dropped into a vat of color for extra pigmentation.
When the leads are ready, they undergo the same journey to be made into colored pencils that graphite pencils go through.
Why Does Any Of This Matter?
First of all, isn’t it just fun to know? Pencils are such a commonplace part of most artists’ everyday lives that they’re usually taken for granted. But they’re surprisingly complicated to make.
But more importantly, knowing where your art supplies come from and how they’re made is valuable information for artists. Understanding the process can help you differentiate levels of quality between different sets of pencils. Knowing indicators of quality can help you choose the right supplies for whatever project you have in mind. It gives you the language to articulate what makes a particular art supply good or bad for whatever you’re using it for.
Understanding all the labor and resources that go into any art supply, including the humble pencil, can give you a bigger appreciation for your tools. And it never hurts to have a few fun facts in your back pocket at your next artist meetup.