Pencil Sharpeners


Ever since I started thinking about pencils earlier this summer, pencil related topics keep occurring to me. And as to write with a broken pencil is pointless, what every pencil lover needs is a pencil sharpener.

Pencil sharpeners come in all shapes and sizes and are a popular novelty item but they don’t all sharpen equally well. I pitted a classic hand-crank sharpener against a small single blade wedge sharpener using two identical unsharpened 2H pencils.

Just a note about these vintage pencils, they are called Pedigree by Empire and were made in Canada. The Empire Pencil Company was founded in 1900 and in 1986 purchased the Berol Corporation. It seems odd that you can still buy Berol pencils but it seems they have dropped the Empire brand.

Now for the sharpen-off. First up is the Staedtler 510 27 single hole wedge sharpener. This small metal sharpener was made in Germany and according to the company website is “for standard-sized blacklead pencils up to 8.2 mm with a sharpening angle of 23° for clear and accurate lines”. I like how this sharpener has fluted indents along the side for ergonomic gripping. In my opinion, it is the little design features that really elevate humble tools. It took 39.92 seconds to sharpen the pencil with this sharpener. It created a sharpened point 2.5 cm long and a lovely ruffle shaving.

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Next up is the Giant Type 3A Cutter Assembly made by the mysterious Apsco Products (Canada) Ltd. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. While there is still an Apsco company in Scarborough, I couldn’t find out anything about it. It seems like there were many Apsco Giant pencil sharpeners made, some labelled Chicago, others with Los Angeles, California or Rockford, Illinois. This single-burr hand-crank sharpener was found in the basement of a 1950’s era house and would be familiar to many as the type of pencil sharpener attached to classroom walls. It took only 12.75 seconds to sharpen the pencil and left a much longer point (over 4 cm) and a pile of sawdust.

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I carried out this experiment with my sister’s assistance in her basement. She had a strong preference for the pencil sharpened with the hand-crank sharpener (well she would, wouldn’t she, it was her sharpener). I am not as convinced of its superiority. The portability and simplicity of the Staedtler is appealing to me and I can’t really discern a difference in writing between the two pencils.


If you truly want to learn more about pencil sharpening I suggest you read How to Sharpen Pencils:  A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, With Illustrations Showing Current Practice by David Rees. It may seem hard to imagine how you can stretch this topic into an entire book and even the author seems to be reaching a bit by the end. If you are little bit interested but don’t really want to read the book you can watch a short film of him expounding on artisanal pencil sharpening (CLICK HERE). Please note that what he calls a #2 pencil is what the rest of the world calls a HB. Make sure you watch right to the end of the credits where he expresses my opinion on mechanical pencils perfectly. According to the CBC, he gave up his pencil sharpening business over a year ago. (April 2016)

If a pencil sharpener was a person, they wouldn’t have any tolerance for either personal sloppiness or fuzzy thinking. They would get right to the point and demand you shape up immediately.


HB Pencils

I have a fairly extensive collection of pencils and as it turns out, quite a few fall into the vintage category. In fact, I have so many I can’t cover them all in one blog so this week I will focus on my HB pencils. In the United States they call this a #2 pencil but for everywhere else in the world pencils are graded on a scale from Hard (H) to Black (B). The softer the pencil, the blacker the mark. HB pencils fall right in the middle. This all sounds very standardized but actually there is a difference between the various HB pencils I own.


Berol Turquoise – This Canadian made pencil is a vintage one as I don’t believe there are any more Canadian pencil factories. The Berol company goes way back to 1856 when a Bavarian immigrant to the US, Daniel Berolzheimer, founded the “Eagle Pencil Company”. Much later on (1969) the company changed its name to a shortened form of Berolzheimer but the family connection ended in 1987 when there was no 6th generation successor. I love the turquoise colour with the silver ferrule. I found that this was one of the darker HBs.                                 20170709_Dixon.jpg

Dixon Ticonderoga – This is another old American company. It was founded by Joseph Dixon who in 1873 bought the American Graphite Company based in Ticonderoga, New York. This classic yellow painted pencil was launched in 1913. It seems to me that all the pencils we used in school were yellow and this one is probably meant for a student because of the pink eraser on the end. I have a soft spot for this company because at one time they had a factory in Canada and when I had a job acquiring furnishings for the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village around 1990 they kindly donated some unpainted pencils that we were able to use in our school house.


Koh-I-Noor Toison D’Or – Koh-I-Noor pencils are made by the Czech Hardtmuth company, founded in 1790 by Joseph Hardtmuth of Austria. I consider this an art pencil but of course it could be used for writing too. Pencils are versatile that way. 


O’BON – This is a unique pencil with a body made from recycled newspaper rather than wood. It was purchased at a local store called Carbon. Not only does recycled newspaper save trees, the company claims it also protects the lead from breaking. I think it is cool how you can see the colour variation when it is sharpened in the part between the lead and the paint.      


Staedtler – Staedtler is another old pencil company, founded in 1835. It may not be made from recycled newspapers, but the wood is from certified, sustainably managed forests. I have two Staedtler HBs, the Norica 13246 (blue) and the Tradition (black and red). The Tradition is their higher quality line but I don’t notice a significant difference. In fact, I find the Norica a bit darker and it has a handy white eraser on the end.                             


Venus – The Venus was originally made by the American Lead Pencil Company but that company was eventually taken over by Faber-Castell. This vintage pencil was made in the US and despite its unassuming appearance, I find it one of the nicer pencils to actually use and it has a handy pink eraser.

The word “pencil” comes from the Latin penicillus meaning a “little tail”, so I think if a pencil was a person he would be a man. Tall and skinny, he is a bit old-fashioned and don’t let the bright coloured suit fool you, he is no dandy. He changes his mind easily so whether you think that makes him open-minded or wishy-washy is up to you.