We test out carpenter’s pencils as art instruments rather than as woodworking tools. We look into their history and try to solve the mystery of why graphite carpenter pencils are flat or square. And how do you sharpen these odd shaped things anyway? This and many more carpenter’s or construction pencil tricks are explored in our review of an unusual art tool.
Reviewing the Koh-I-Noor and General’s Sketching Carpenter’s Pencils
Samir: Welcome to Stationery Test Drive. Today we are going to be talking about the carpenter’s pencil. But before we get there, I am Samir.
Vishal: I am Vishal.
Minjal: This is Minjal.
Vishal: And, now to the matter at hand, to carpenter’s pencils, which if you’ve never seen them are weird and they’re oblong, I think is the term or rectangular rather than hexagonal or round like most pencils are and in fact even the lead that’s in them is rectangular.
Samir: And sometimes oval and depending on the brand.
What is a Carpenter’s Pencil?
Vishal: So, why is it a carpenter’s pencil? Samir?
Samir: It’s a carpenter’s pencil for a couple of reasons. As far as the use of it is concerned it’s actually mostly to do with the difference in the actual graphite that’s used in it. As you can see with what Vishal is doing it’s actually a fairly light line compared to a normal pencil.
Vishal: Except on the edge, that edge is hard to maintain.
Minjal: These are actually like broad nibbed calligraphy pens like a pilot parallel pen.
Samir: Very much so.
Minjal: It’s the perfect combination of broad and thin edges.
Samir: I think you were telling me that there’s a reason why they’re this shape.
Minjal: Carpenter’s pencils, surprisingly or not are shaped in this particular rectangle or oblong like Vishal was saying because carpenters are busy people, they’re multitasking and they don’t want pencils that will just roll off. Hence, they’re shaped in this particular format and the graphite inside is also rectangular shaped graphite.
Vishal: I’ve actually seen, since I watch a bunch of woodworking videos from carpenters, just for fun, I’ve seen people use these almost like a guide. The flat edges of them work, if I can demonstrate with a pencil very badly. So I see a lot of people doing that where it’s easier to keep it flat than a round-edged pencil by keeping this edge against usually a piece of wood or a piece of metal or something to mark another piece of wood or something like that. So I think that also either was a design or a just a happy evolution of things?
Samir: There’s an interesting story behind the evolution of these but I think first let’s show people what we’ve made.
Landscape Sketch with the General’s Sketching Carpenter’s Pencil
Vishal: Yeah, so we’re not carpenters, we are artists and calligraphers so we made art and calligraphy and in one case calligraphic art is the best way I can describe it. Now, generally I should say that I did not have a good time with this one and I can see immediately now the problem was not the carpenter’s pencil, which is what I thought, the problem was which carpenter’s pencil.
Now I made this one with this particular pencil, the ‘General Sketching Pencil 531 4B.’ Now I’ve used 4B pencils this is not really a 4B. I’ve never got so gray a line from this and you can see this on our test paper. Now that’s the General’s and this is the other one we have which is a 6B Kohinoor which is miles darker than that.
Samir: But even though it is darker and I think Minjal has used the Kohinoor, this is not a 6B when it comes to a regular pencil.
Vishal: Right. We are used to almost never go past a 2B because that’s enough for most values that I need. I have a 10B purely to lay down lots of really dark values when I need them, but yeah this one and this is on a pretty toothy 200 gsm – 180 gsm paper, getting anything beyond a mid gray here. Yes, I’m not a landscape artist or a sketcher by any means but even I have done better than this! But Minjal you’ve done very well I must say and you’ve used the full range of what this pencil is capable of. So tell us about these calligraphic drawings, I would say.
Calligraphic Animals with the Koh-I-Noor Carpenter’s Pencil
Minjal: There is an illustrator called Andrew Fox, he is London based and he came out with a book called ‘Calligraphic Animals’ and he used the pilot parallel pen to make these shapes. And because the nib, the tip lends itself to a similar shape, I thought I’d use it to make or recreate his animals, pay him a tribute! So do check him out on Instagram, and he’s also made procreate brushes. Obviously I would still continue using the pilot parallel pen to make these but for those who want to take the relatively easier way there is the procreate brush! But this was a lot of fun!
Samir: We’ve already covered the pilot parallel pen in a previous episode, do check that out. What I really like about using the pencil the way you’ve done is that it makes it look like a blended ink from the pilot parallel pen. It really has this nice range of values.
Vishal: And we’ll put up a better version of this on the video but there is a great deal of value and texture in across the board here that you cannot get I think even with a procreate brush. I’ll check his brushes out but I think you’ve got so much out of this that I did not think possible, certainly not with the General’s Sketching Pencil which is not good for sketching maybe it’s good for Generals!
Minjal: The other realization I had was that I actually started out on the cartridge paper and I didn’t really have the same gradation that I managed with this paper.
General’s Sketching Carpenter’s Pencil vs Koh-I-Noor Carpenter’s Pencil
Vishal: Yeah, see, look I’m using the General’s pencils right now and this is the Kohinoor and the General’s puts down a very pleasing gray I must say but I would not use it on its own. The exercise that we are doing on this series is to mostly use a single medium whenever possible but I would use this General’s Pencil for laying down that very nice mid-gray and then I would go in with a better pencil and then put in details and things or then use a eraser to pull out details and whites. So, yes, pick out a pencil that is actually good for your use and what you’re used to.
Horse Sketch with the General’s Sketching Carpenter’s Pencil
Samir: I think you’ve actually hit on an important reason or a use for the carpenter’s pencil. I actually quite enjoyed using it. It’s not as you said a finished drawing and I think the fact that it says sketching pencil is actually indicative of what it should be used for. I found, I think these are exactly diametric opposites as far as subject matter is concerned. I think this carpenter’s pencil is great for doing organic forms. It’s probably going to be great if I want to do like a quick study of a figure.
Vishal: Because we put down light and dark values very quickly.
Samir: Not just that but because it’s not a single point and it has this nice broad wedge, you are kind of, and Minjal’s work is kind of against what I’m about to say, but you are kind of forced if you are sketching to let go of control when it comes to this pencil. What Minjal has done is extremely controlled and that’s great that you can do that as well with this but because it’s not a specific point you can control it a bit when you use the edge but then as soon as you start using the broad part of it you kind of have to let go and as you can see especially in some parts of this horse’s legs, you just kind of go with the flow of that shape rather than trying to render it perfectly.
I don’t think it works very well when you’re trying to render something perfectly as you would with an architecture or a landscape. So I think, this would look great if I was drawing dancing figures but it’s not going to look great if I’m trying to render a building. So it’s very much a medium that’s maybe suited better for a particular use rather than general use.
How to sharpen Carpenter’s Pencils?
Minjal: Did you’ll actually end up having to sharpen the pencil? Because I struggled with that.
Vishal: I used a craft knife to sharpen this towards the end just to see if I could get any hard edges out of it, and the hard edges, the blacks from the Kohinoor are clearly better but like I said with the gray of the wedge you can you can get something good out of it. But as Samir said you need to lean into the organic quality of it rather than trying for precision, at least in the way that we draw. Minjal clearly got something better out of it. It’s decent enough for lettering as well which is why the parallel pen.
History & Design of Carpenter’s Pencil
Samir: Yes, and that’s where I’ll dip into some of the history of this. So the carpenter’s pencil is kind of a later post rationalization in some ways. I’m saying that because if you go back to the 1700s, this would have been just called a pencil. This is the only kind of pencil that existed.
Vishal: So you’re telling me that caveman Flintstones joke about, all whales being square and then them inventing round wheels is an actual true thing that happened?
Samir: Something like that because when graphite was first discovered somewhere in the 15 or 1600s, they didn’t have the machining to make 1mm thick, perfect cylindrical rods of graphite, that just did not happen. All they could do is make wedges probably even bigger than these and then encase them in wood in the rectangles, so a pencil looked like this!
Vishal: I think we talked about this in the Staedtler Mars episode that there are basically two pioneering, at least in the 1800s and 1700s, two pioneering modern pencil companies, Staedtler and Faber-Castell. They’re both in the same small town in Germany, they both sort of jointly hold the rights of things as to the technology of pencils and I’m guessing they may have been the ones to come up with that wonderful hexagonal or round shape.
Samir: They aren’t, they perfected it but initially pencils were just a piece of graphite that was put between two pieces of flat wood with a notch in them and that’s how you get a carpenter’s pencil. It’s just two pieces of wood with a little notch in them to put a piece of graphite in.
Vishal: Now and I’m guessing it evolved from just two pieces of wood to hold it so that your hands aren’t full of graphite.
Samir: Exactly, that’s what it started as.
Vishal: And then leashed or lashed together.
Samir: It was I think the French who figured out a way to powder down the graphite mix in clay and that’s how we came up with perfectly cylindrical pencils.
Vishal: That is also where we get the Conte Crayon which is made of clay more than graphite.
Samir: And in fact even the current grades of pencils that you have is actually an indication of the proportion of clay to graphite. So a harder pencil has more clay and a softer pencil has more graphite. So the carpenter’s pencil, essentially, was the pencil and then at some point maybe round pencils took over.
Vishal: People with softer hands, people who like Apple products with rounded corners.
Carpenter’s Pencils and Woodworking
Samir: And at some point carpenters who had started using pencil said hold on those old things were better, they didn’t roll around and that’s how you got this! Of course, the modern carpenter’s pencil also made other improvements to things. So for example these leads are much harder than normal pencils, which is why I genuinely don’t believe that that’s a 4B and this is a 6B that’s equivalent to a regular pencil.
Carpenters generally just call them a number four or a number six and that’s a whole different gradation system. Maybe these are closer to regular pencils but they don’t look like it as far as the darkness is concerned.
Vishal: I am starting to warm to this stupid gray.
Samir: And it’s very interesting that you brought up the fact that this is essentially a broad nib pen. Because, and I have to find this book, because in 1921 there’s an entire book on the artistic uses of a carpenter’s pencil and one of the uses which you have to try Minjal because this is right up your street.
So a little background, a carpenter’s pencil, generally if you look it up is sharpened with a knife as Vishal did but because they’re carpenters it’s also then ground down against sandpaper to get exactly the kind of point you want. Now the other way that carpenter’s pencils were used and this book from the 1920s which I need to track down suggests this use, is that once you have this nice broad wedge, you take a very thin file and then you make a little dent on one side so you have a broad bit and a thin bit and then you can do two line calligraphy which you have that thin stroke and the broad stroke in one shot.
Vishal: That’s almost trying to do what you’re talking about, now imagine if this was the same lead but you have a thin bit and a hard bit and then you can do that, but closer and together.
Samir: So you could do this very fine classic English lettering with two strokes.
Vishal: I’m sorry General’s Sketching Pencil Company that is not a 4B, not next to a 6B.
Mechanical Carpenter’s Pencils
Minjal: Also, what I’ve come across recently on amazon is that now there is also a mechanical carpenter’s pencil. There is a brand called Swanson, they are the ones who’ve launched this product.
Vishal: Just as a a non-carpenter but as a person who uses mechanical pencils and loves them I’m guessing the problem might be that there’ll be too much clay in the lead because even the best of clutch pencils and mechanical pencils are nowhere as rigid as just bonded wood.
Samir: I’ve seen pictures of what Minjal is talking about, it’s essentially a clutch pencil but with a much sturdier kind of metal holder and a clip so that you can keep it in the pocket, which you’d need if you were working on things. The other thing that you really need to realize about a carpenter’s pencil, the reason that it’s this shape or rather the reason this shape was taken on by carpenters is that it’s harder, so it’s really not made structurally the actual graphite, the actual lead is harder than normal pencils, so it’s not meant to give you the full darkness on paper because paper is too soft. It’s meant to give you the full hardness on wood.
Vishal: So that’s a 6B, this is the only wood we have here, so we’re trying this out here. “I am a 4B on a 6B.” And yes there it actually looks like a 4B.
Measuring and Scaling with the Carpenter’s Pencil
Samir: And the point of a carpenter’s pencil, the reason the wedge works is that when you are as the saying goes measuring twice and cutting once, when you want to measure something and you want a precise place to do a cut, you can do that on a piece of wood, it’s precise. On the other hand when you want to mark things on concrete, you can do that and because of concrete being so irregular, that will show up as a reasonably sharp line on concrete or as close as you can get.
Vishal: Within margin of error which is I guess why it’s about within margin of error.
Samir: So you measure when you want to do measurements, you do this, and when you want to just indicate something for you know drilling a hole or whatever, you use that. So it is really a very versatile instrument. It’s just maybe not quite what we were expecting.
Vishal: But I think that is the ethos and the spirit of Stationery Test Drive, that we take things that are not necessarily used for or that have seemingly narrow uses and try to plumb the depths of them in other areas, that’s why we go for pieces of paper and art and landscapes and animals and other things. There’s sort of a mini contest that Minjal has come up with where people in the comments are supposed to guess and name all the animals on this sheet.
Samir: And if you guess them all right you get absolutely nothing.
Minjal: No, we could send you the General’s 4B that Vishal really likes.
Vishal: No no, now I love it, so I think I will want to use it again, certainly for more organic and more cartoony experiments. It has a certain almost timeless quality that I strangely enough associate with the last century of illustration and that kind of thing where it’s not actually as controlled because you have preconceptions about how a pencil is going to work that’s why you end up doing things like that when clearly it should be for something that’s even rougher than that, something rougher than that. It’s more modern than you think, it’s older than you think, it’s a time machine of its own weird and wonderful kind.
And I think that’s what we love about this show, that’s why we keep doing it, that’s why we hope you keep watching it. We love finding things and finding the best parts of them and the worst parts of them. See our masking tape episode for that.
Samir: And we love connecting the old and the new and the new again.
Vishal: So tell us about the weirdest pencil that you have ever used. I’ve used these, mechanical, regular. There was this real trend in the 1990s where there were pencils literally of this size and I don’t even know what kind of lead they had on them because you could never sharpen them they were they would just fall apart with it.
Minjal: You could barely write with them.
Vishal: Yes, but you know I think comedically large pencils or comedically large anything is a good place to end on and to ponder for until the next episode of Stationery Test Drive where we might have something comedically large but you’ll have to find that out so subscribe to this channel, like it. Go to inkymemo.com and subscribe to the newsletter and while you’re there have a look at our products. There’s this wonderful prompt heavy but very light to get to use everyday.
Samir: A journal pad, we like to think of it as that as well.
Vishal: Share what you use this pad for. If you put this up on your social media and you’ve used it today or after watching this video you’ve ordered one and got it tag us, we’re on most social media at inky memo. Our individual accounts are linked in the description and they’re up on the screen by now hopefully if I’ve done my job. Try out a carpenter’s pencil, try it out on this notepad, draw some animals, draw some shaky portraits and cartoons and have some fun because you know what that used to be a pencil and it was like a square whale. It’s not the best for most uses but with a bit of effort even a square wheel can get you somewhere. And I think on that note I am Vishal.
Samir: I’m Samir.
Minjal: I’m Minjal.
Vishal: This has been Stationery Test Drive. Go sharpen your pencils!
Get the Carpenter’s Pencils
1. IRWIN Carpenter Pencil, Medium Lead, 6-Piece – https://amzn.to/3IxEpbZ
2. Orange Carpenter Pencil Set – Includes 15 Flat Construction Pencils with Printed Ruler, 1 Carpenter Pencil Sharpener & 1 Clear Storage Container – https://amzn.to/3r7rYhj
3. DIXON Industrial Carpenter Pencils, Medium, Black and Silver, 6-Pack – https://amzn.to/3fWx7SQ