How Pencils Are Made : NPR Ed The classroom writing implement has roots in exploding stars, the French Revolution, the British crown jewels and Walden Pond.
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Trace The Remarkable History Of The Humble Pencil

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Trace The Remarkable History Of The Humble Pencil

Trace The Remarkable History Of The Humble Pencil

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We're now far enough into the school year that students are taking tests. And what do you need to fill in those answer bubbles - the good old No. 2 pencil. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed Team visited one of the few U.S. factories that still makes pencils the old-fashioned way. And get ready because at the end of this, there will be a quiz.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The General Pencil Company in New Jersey started making pencils in 1889. Most No. 2s are made in China, but they're still cranking them out here. To get a look at how they do it, you have to head to the basement.

HELMUT BODE: So this is the dungeon where we make our graphite and charcoal cores.

NADWORNY: That's Helmut Bode, who oversees the factory. He's been in the pencil industry for nearly 40 years. And did you hear what he said - graphite, not lead. Helmut wants to get one thing out of the way. Lead was never part of the pencil - well, maybe in the paint.

BODE: Then when they found graphite, it kind of acted like lead, so they used the Latin word plumbago.

NADWORNY: Plumbago translates as acts-like or resembles lead. Over time, the acts-like part was dropped, making people think pencils were made of lead. Down in the basement, the graphite is squeezed out into dark gray rods that look like uncooked spaghetti.

Then Helmut and I follow the cores upstairs. The two pieces of wood are glued together to hold the graphite in place, and then they're cut into individual rods. They finally start to look like pencils but not quite. They're still brown. They need paint.

Cue the conveyor belt. The pencils get loaded up then dipped in paint, then spit back out on the belt, which brings me to Helmut's next fact - why classroom pencils are yellow.

BODE: Yellow is the traditional color to show quality because it was the most expensive and most difficult color to paint.

NADWORNY: After painting, the eraser is added, then the General Pencil logo and the final stamping - a shiny No. 2. So here's my big question. Why do students always have to use No. 2?

BODE: It's not too hard. It's not too soft, so you can write without having to sharpen it constantly.

NADWORNY: And those test-scoring machines agree.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny. And as we promised, she is now here in the studio with a pencil quiz. Hi, Elissa.


SHAPIRO: Fire away.

NADWORNY: True or false - a pencil can write underwater.

SHAPIRO: I cannot imagine a pencil writing underwater. I'm going to say false.

NADWORNY: You would be wrong because...

SHAPIRO: I'm wrong. Really?

NADWORNY: Yes, pencils can write underwater.


NADWORNY: Helmut, my pencil guy in New Jersey - he goes sailing and he uses this pencil to, like, mark up whatever's wrong with the boat or if he sees something underwater.



SHAPIRO: OK, question number two...

NADWORNY: Before erasers were made out of rubber, what food product was used? A is stale bread, B - marshmallows. C is dried apricots.

SHAPIRO: I'm going to guess that before erasers were invented, the only one of those three that was actually around was stale bread.

NADWORNY: And you are so, right, yes.


NADWORNY: Yeah. It wasn't till the 1700s that they used gum from trees.

SHAPIRO: All right.

NADWORNY: OK, so question number three - before people started using graphite for writing, it was used, A, as an early form of eyeliner; B, by shepherds to mark their sheep or C, a spice that added flavor to coffee or tea.

SHAPIRO: I don't think it was a spice because people still use pencils for eyeliner. I'm going to say eyeliner.

NADWORNY: And you would be wrong. It's B. Shepherds used it to mark their sheep.

SHAPIRO: Wow, OK, well, NPR's Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed Team, thanks for the info on pencils.

NADWORNY: You're welcome, Ari.

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