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Mechanical Pencil Month – Day 2: The life cycle of the pencil

Today’s post follows our plucky lump of graphite as it embarks upon the long journey of metamorphosis into a fully-fledged pencil. Issued by the Cumberland Pencil Co. Ltd. of Keswick, which proudly proclaims itself “The Original Home of the Pencil Industry”, this case of specimens illustrates ten stages in the manufacture of one of the firm’s “British Drawing” pencils.

Detail of the Cumberland Pencil Co. Ltd. case of specimens

Starting with a test tube filled with graphite and another of finely-powdered clay, the accompanying text describes how the resulting mixture is extruded through sapphire or diamond dies before being fired at temperatures in excess of one thousand degrees Celsius.

The prepared leads are then sandwiched between two cedar slats that have been treated and grooved in readiness for the graphite strips.

After being machine shaped with the help of two guide marks top and bottom, the raw pencil is successively coloured, polished, trimmed and stamped with gold lettering before it is finally ready for use.

I particularly like the half-finished slat of shaped pencils, as if caught in the act of emerging from their cedar cocoons.

As mentioned yesterday, the Borrowdale graphite deposits had been completely mined out by the end of the nineteenth century, a fact that is dryly acknowledged by the admission that “the graphites used are all imported, chiefly from Ceylon, Mexico and Korea”. Likewise, the cedarwood was brought in from “Kenya Colony”, a designation that was used between 1920 and 1963. Based on the design of the packaging and the style of the finished pencil, I would guess the sample case was produced somewhere around the middle of this date range.

Three stages of finished pencil from the Cumberland Pencil Co. Ltd. case of specimens

By sheer coincidence, I also happen to have a retail box of the same “British Drawing” pencils with their distinctive red livery (perhaps a reference to the traditional red coats of the British army?) acquired quite unintentionally some years ago.

Retail box of "British Drawing" pencils from the Cumberland Pencil Co. Ltd.

I had originally intended to offload them on ebay, but fortunately never got around to it, which means they finally get to have their fifteen minutes of fame here.

Open retail box of "British Drawing" pencils from the Cumberland Pencil Co. Ltd.

I briefly considered sharpening one for demonstration purposes, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Like a butterfly, the beauty of a pencil lies in its fragile transience, heightened by the knowledge that its ultimate destiny is oblivion.

Tomorrow: Slide Rule Saturday!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Edd

    This is all so great! Thanks for posting

  2. Alan Williams

    Thanks Edd, I’m glad you’re enjoying it – although I don’t know what possessed me to attempt twenty days of mechanical pencil related posts! At this point, tomorrow’s is still vapourware…

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