What Makes a Pencil Good or Bad? – Wood Quality

This is the second in a multi-part series. You can read the first post here.


I have never been a woodworker, nor do I have much experience in different wood qualities, but I have watched Parks and Recreation in its entirety multiple times, and in it, through Ron Swanson I have learned to appreciate good, quality wood which you use to create fine objects. (By the way, I still do not yet believe that Nick Offerman, the actor who plays Ron Swanson, is not playing a character, but this is how he really is).

Whether in building a beautiful table, as in the video above, or in a quality pencil, the wood used is a very important ingredient, and often a make or break part of the equation.

The creation of a pencil is a somewhat simple process, at least in understanding the steps taken. First, the pencil maker starts with a block of wood, which is cut into slats, or flat, thin pieces of wood. After that, the slats are treated with wax and stain, and then have grooves cut into them, which will house the graphite cores. Once the cores are placed, another slat is put on top, creating a wonderful little pencil sandwich. From there, they are cut, coated, and then receive a ferrule. Pencils.com has a helpful step-by-step guide of this process, with pictures!

The first thing to look for in a good pencil when concerned for wood quality is if the pencil is made from cedar or not. In my experience, pencils made with real cedar tend to be better pencils on all levels. A great example of this is a the Palomino pencils, wether that be the Blackwing, Forest Choice, the Palomino HB, or Golden Bear. Their pencils are made from Incense Cedar. Incense Cedar was originally used as a replacement for the Eastern Red Cedar that was used in pencils, because it was a cheaper option. However, they found that this type of cedar was ideal for pencil making because they were able to create a pencil with fine precision because of the quality of the wood, and it created a pencil that was great for sharpening. Pencil.com also has a great explanation on Incense Cedar here.

For me, I think pencils made from cedar, specifically the Incense Cedar talked about, makes a better pencil because it can hold up to regular use, and you do not have to worry about it breaking. Also, as stated earlier, it sharpens very well! I never have to worry about getting an uneven sharpen on my pencil.

When you put an Incense Cedar pencil up against one that isn’t, you can really tell the difference. For example, a Palomino HB against a Dixon Ticonderoga. Set aside the differences in graphite quality, they feel so much different. While the Ticonderoga website claims that they make their pencil out of Incense Cedar, it just doesn’t feel the same to me.

A word about forest conservation

One thing that reading men like Wendell Berry has taught me is that we need to learn to appreciate and care for the land that we live on. This applies just as much to farming practice as it does to pencil making. One concern that some people raise is one that is natural, doesn’t making wood cased pencils destroy forests?

Well, thankfully, there are third-party groups that help to ensure that pencil manufactures are using responsible practices when making their pencils, Palomino and Caran d’Ache being among them. Their pencils use, Forest Stewardship Counsel (FSC) Certified Wood.  FSC Certified Wood includes:

  • Protecting fragile ecosystems
  • Respecting native cultures and economies
  • Preventing illegal logging
  • Restricting clear-cutting (removing all trees in a tract) and pesticide use
  • Monitoring the “chain of custody,” or ensuring that the wood in the product you’re looking at really came from the forest that was certified. (find more info here)

One of my favorite things about Palomino is their Forest Choice line of pencils. The Forest Choice pencil is the first pencil to be made that was FSC Certified, leading the way for many other very good, but environmentally friendly pencils. You can get a dozen of them for $3 here.


So, go and get yourself some FSC certified pencils, knowing that you are getting a pencil that is environmentally responsibly, but also that is made out of high quality materials!


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