We recently covered the 250th anniversary celebrations of Faber-Castell, who have been making pencils in Nuremberg, Germany, since 1761. Nuremberg has played a major role in pencil manufacturing, including other famous names such as Schwan-Stabilo. However, the Nuremberg company laying claim to the longest tradition of production is actually Staedtler, who can trace their history back to 1662, when first references to Friedrich Staedtler as a pencil-making craftsman were made in the city annals. Faber-Castell have the longest-established formal company however, and the two companies are friendly rivals. The current Staedtler managing director, Herr Axel Marx, was an honoured guest at the Faber birthday celebrations.
The earliest pencils were simply solid sticks of graphite originating from the only known source of solid graphite, in Borrowdale in the English Lake District. As the popularity of this useful new tool spread more convenient handling methods started with simple cloth or sheepskin wraps, and then hollowed-out wooden holders. At some point it was realized that the best method was to use two shaped pieces of wood with a channel cut out into which the graphite is inserted. The two halves are then glued together — et voilà! — the modern pencil is born and that method is still pretty much intact today.
The only substantive change since then was the move to lead made from powdered graphite, which is a much more common source of the material. This method involves baking a mixture of graphite and a clay binding agent, and was discovered by Nicholas Conté, whose name is still on a great pencil brand today. Varying the proportion of these materials gives us the relative hardness or softness of the lead. See our lead hardness information page for details.
Pencil ‘lead’ contains no actual lead (the metallic element) of course, but you know that. Graphite is a form of pure carbon, non-toxic and very stable. Fascinatingly a single atomic layer of graphite has some extraordinary properties and is the new wonder-material du jour, graphene.
Anyway, where were we?
Ah yes, scroll forward several hundred years and we find ourselves on Staedtler’s stand at PaperWorld 2011, Frankfurt, where there was a demonstration of semi-authentic 18th century pencil manufacture by a semi-authentic 18th century craftsman. Batches of wood pencil halves with channels cut through; lengths of extruded lead; some glue; press the halves together; bind with some string and apply a little wax seal to hold the string and brand the product. The poor chap was there for several days manufacturing these things whilst wearing a silly hat, but somebody’s got to do it. Our hand-made pencil now has pride of place here at Cult Pens Towers.
So, all terribly interesting we hear you politely say, but what’s in it for us? OK, listen up: Staedtler produced a little commemorative make-your-own-pencil kit which they opted not to bring to the UK. However the lovely people at Staedtler UK are nothing if not obliging and we’ve managed to get hold of five pencil kits to give away to lucky participants in a little give-away. The set, it has to be said, is pretty simple but it's presented in a nice tin and would make a great gift for a child for a little painless craft + history lesson, or just as a nice Staedtler collectors’ item.
OK, you're going to have work just a little bit for this one.
We'll award a kit each to four people who post the best comments to this article - that interest, amuse, educate, entertain or baffle us on the subject of pencils. No essays required - just one sentence could do it! A fact, a memory, an observation, an opinion, a haiku, a joke, or whatever. For the terminally lazy and/or uninspired, the fifth kit will be awarded at random to someone who retweets our announcement of this competition - check out @cultpens.
**Competition now closed - thank you for all your entries**
The overall winner, as determined by popular vote at the Cult Pens office, will receive a load of extra Staedtler goodies.
Small print: We'll even post these internationally, so everyone's eligible. You can enter as many times as you like. Closing date 31 August 2011. Judges decision is final. No penguins.
Meanwhile, in other Staedtler news you can currently pick up a sample of their excellent 308 Pigment Liner drawing pen from us for just 10p or qualify for a free set of 4 Lumocolor markers when you spend £25 (both offers have now expired).
Cult Pens stocks the widest range of Staedtler products in the UK, and probably the widest range in the world. Great company, great products. (Yes, yes, we’re shamelessly begging for another birthday invitation to Nuremberg! We miss the bier und bratwurst.)
17 August 2011