Artisinal pencil sharpening

A political cartoonist discovers that the pencil is mightier than, well, anything

Topics: Imprint,

Artisinal pencil sharpening

Imprint “How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening” (Melville House, $19.95), by David Rees, is not your average book about pencil sharpening. In this digital-desktop age, it’s a keenly rigorous plea for the sanctity of a soon-to-be-forgotten skill. Rees, a veteran political cartoonist and “the number one #2 pencil sharpener,” has penned (or, rather, penciled) a survey of the art and science of getting to the point. I caught up with him over e-mail while he was in the middle of a marathon sharpening session.                                                                                                                                   You are the only person I know who could make an entire book about pencil sharpening.

When Melville House approached me about doing a book, it took me a few weeks to figure out how to structure it. Once I decided to build the text around different sharpening techniques, I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to write enough. In the end, though, we had to cut almost 50 pages from the final manuscript. I love writing about pencil sharpening!

One of the more difficult aspects of sharpening is the little plastic pencil-case sharpeners. It is easy to break the point. And speaking of points, what is the genesis of this idea?

You are referring, of course, to the tyranny of the irregular pin tip, a common complication associated with suboptimal deployment of a single-blade pocket sharpener. This is covered in chapter five of my book, as are other problems like the irregular collar bottom, the “headless horseman,” and the off-axis graphite core. As to the genesis of this project: I rediscovered my love of sharpening pencils while working for the U.S. Census Bureau in the spring of 2010. Our first day of training involved sharpening pencils with a U.S. government–issued pocket sharpener. I decided then and there that I was going to figure out how to get paid to sharpen pencils. I’m happy to report that I have now made more money sharpening pencils than I made working for the census.

You Might Also Like

You’re truly on to something. The other day I was trying to figure out what to do with my Dixon Ticonderoga no. 2. What is it you want to say to your audience?

In this era of iPads and digital styluses, I want to remind my readers that the humble pencil remains an astonishingly efficient and elegant mark-making device, and it behooves us to sharpen pencils as well as we can. I leave it to others to decide whether the entire book is an extended metaphor for living your life as well as you can in the face of frustration and heartbreak. I can scarcely believe I’m capable of such a grandiose meta-textual coup, but I just might  be.

I foresee a run on stationery stores once this book is published. Are you prepared to help get the lead out?

This is an unforgivable pun, and it is only thanks to my professional discipline that I will continue to answer your questions rather than throw my computer out the window in a blind rage.

I see you’ve been experimenting with the position of wall-mounted sharpeners. Do you advise any particular height?

Although wall-mounted sharpeners are usually positioned such that the average user may access the device while standing, urban explorers may encounter sharpeners outside the typical “strike zone.” My book describes three options for using a wall-mounted sharpener located within two feet of the floor; it also describes how to properly deploy a stepladder in order to enjoy a sharpener located within two feet of the ceiling. (I don’t mind admitting that I almost fell from a great height during the photo shoot for the latter strategy. Such are the risks associated with “extreme pencil-pointing.”)

This book does for writers, artists, contractors, flange turners, anglesmiths, and civil servants what “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” did for flange turners and anglesmiths. Since your other books were rooted in current politics, do you have any guilt or remorse in doing a book that is simply about pencils?

I spent seven years as a left-wing political cartoonist, keeping abreast of the latest atrocities and tragedies associated with the global war on terrorism. It was at turns exhilarating and enervating. I turned to sharpening pencils as a respite, and it pleased me to write a book with exactly zero partisan subtext. It is my hope that Red America and Blue America can come together as Yellow America, both sides lending their voices to the chorus of praise due the classic yellow no. 2 pencil (and, by extension, ME).

With the election season coming, are you totally fixated on pencils, or does political cartooning still have a place in your case?

I’ve started making cartoons for Rolling Stone again. “Get Your Vote On” will run until Election Day.

I understand (in fact, you told me) that you want to do stand-up comedy. Does this book get you closer to the microphone?

Alas, no. This book pushes me away from stand-up comedy with great force and extreme prejudice. Sharpening pencils requires a steady hand and a clear eye, two qualities sorely lacking in the typical comedian—a specimen whose job preparation usually involves ingesting alcohol and cocaine with coequal ferocity, thereby compromising fine-motor skills. (One shudders to think of the pencil points conjured by a Sam Kinison or an Andrew “Dice” Clay; the term “beaver-savaged breadsticks” comes to mind.) With this book I turn my back on the prospect of amusing an audience and embrace the humorless passions of the artisanal craftsman.

Search as I might, I could not find anything on that other pencil scourge, broken (or chewed-off) erasers. Do you have a solution?

I’m afraid I can’t help you, as I have no interest in erasers.

This story appears in the June 2012 issue of Print.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>