As designers, who among us doesn’t always have A few pencils handy, yet how many of us know much of the humble pencil’s history?

According to Caroline Weaver, the story begins with the discovery of graphite in the 16th century. Among the many uses that graphite was put to, the pencil must rate as the most significant for artists and designers, even though its history is relatively unknown.

Who knew that Burrowdale mine in England was the most significant source of graphite for pencils, and remained so for a couple of centuries? In its raw form, the graphite was blended with clay, and then encased with suitable timber to form what we know as a lead pencil. Although lead was never a component of the pencil, the name has remained in use to this day.

In the early chapters Weaver takes the reader on an easy, well-researched journey into the development of the wood cased pencil, noting the 18th century saw the emergence of some of the companies that we are familiar with today, such as Conte, Staedtler, and Faber Castell.

As well as the developments in technology and manufacturing, she weaves a tale of family feuds and jealousies right the way through to the 19th and 20th centuries.

By the 21st century there were many improvements and the manufacturing processes took on a more varied international style.

Towards the end of the book the author takes a particular interest in the USA and the pencil’s development there. This it not surprising as we learn more about her own business, a small shop on the lower east side of Manhattan. Her personal investment in collecting pencils shows in this labour of love resulting in this fascinating hardback publication.

If there is any criticism to be made, it is that the entire book is illustrated by only one person–Oriana Fenwick. Her work gives the book a graphic style and some unity, but it also means that a wide range of expressive, creative work is absent.

The photographic influence on the style of the illustrations makes them appear too much like warm, soft-focus photographs. Some expressive and divergent “works on paper “could have demonstrated just how versatile the pencil can be in the right hands. The capacity to use a variety of pressures and the right grade of pencil guided by a beautiful eye often tells us how talented artists sketched out the foundations of many famous artworks using the pencil.

Despite this criticism, the hardback book is nonetheless a well-designed publication that gives the reader so much information about the humble drawing implement that we call the lead pencil. It’s a good book for all art and design students, and a reminder that not all communication devices involve a computer to start with. After all, the pencil is still the perfect tool to pick up first for nearly all artists and designers.

Photo credit:

All images from Gestalten.

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