What is there about that piece of cedar, graphite, and varnish that says “the master fashioned me?”

My pencilled revision of a quote attributed to M. Aldric,
who was originally speaking of Stradivari instruments.

A sense of loss imbues many of the posts on this blog, in varying degrees of intensity and transparency. It can take the form of outright disappointment, or nuanced nostalgia. It can be interpreted as obstinacy about the future or as deference to the recent past. All of it, however, is largely unquantifiable—it’s as intra- and interpersonal as it is intra- and international. But there is something tangible at risk of being lost to history, and the rapidity at which it may happen only amplifies the magnitude of its potential loss: centuries’ worth of pencil-making knowledge and craft.

I am speaking primarily of American pencil-making—the houses of Faber-Castell and Staedtler et al. seem as healthy as ever. But to say “American” pencil-making is in effect to include Europe since several of the most well-known manufacturers have familial roots that reach deep into European soil and history. With the virtual collapse of the American pencil industry, the artistry and science founded in long years of practice could all but disappear. Ironically though, this is in large part the fault of the pencil-makers themselves.

Rightfully so, the specifications, formulae, and techniques developed and employed by manufacturers were and are considered trade secrets, which were literally and figuratively kept “in the family.” Manufacturing plants in 19th-century Germany were run more like feudal cities, where no one worker would be taught more than he needed to know in order to complete his specific task. This way, no one could piece together enough of the “secret”, then share it with other manufacturers, or even start a company of their own. Very few technical papers on the engineering aspects of pencil-making have been presented at conferences or published in peer-reviewed journals. This culture of secrecy makes sense from a business standpoint, especially since it concerns an item as generic as the pencil. But with so few people in-the-know, and with so many great companies having folded, it’s much easier now for that knowledge to die with the remaining few who have it.

For example, the American side of the Eberhard Faber Company. Where is all of their “stuff?” You know, all of the templates, graphics, research, prototypes, catalogues, signs, product samples, photographs, etc. I would imagine the family has a great deal of it, but is the rest all gone? What did Sanford “get” as part of their deal in 1994, or Faber-Castell in 1988? Where does it all go? That’s more than 150 years of history—not only of Eberhard Faber and pencil-making, but of America too. Where is it?

To be honest, I don’t really know what the explicit benefits are in attempting to document this information. Instead it’s just more of a gut feeling: knowledge that has been acquired through long years spent in patient dedication to craft, which was then made manifest in sublime achievements of artistry and engineering, should be preserved. I don’t mean some kind of International Pencil Museum in Den Haag (though that’s something I’d probably like to visit), but rather some centralized and concerted effort dedicated to preserving the history, craft, and science of the pencil.

Maybe there already is such a place; other than in our hearts, that is.