Pencils and Architects

July 2, 2012 — 34 Comments

The other day I was attempting to clean up my desk a bit and I moved a very large stack of drawings that was laying on top of about 50,000 other things. As I moved the drawings, a bunch of pen’s, highlighters, and a single pencil fell out from the pages. Despite the fit that I really like working in pencil, I hardly ever do it anymore. In fact, I haven’t bought any pencils for myself in probably 10 years … all of the pencils I buy now are for my daughter and they are typically quite flamboyant. Long gone from my pencil cup are the plain yellow Ticonderoga’s or the blue Staedtler pencils, now a days most of the pencils I use have zebra patterns or Halloween pumpkin images, etc. on the outside. That’s okay, I still like using pencils.

pencil tip black and white


Here are some interesting facts about pencils (none of which I knew):

* More than 14 billion pencils are produced in the world every year – enough to circle the globe 62 times.

* One pencil will draw a line 70 miles long.

* Pencils don’t really contain lead. That gray matter is graphite and clay.

* Two billion pencils are made in the United States each year.

* The pencil was invented more than 400 years ago, in 1565.

* Famous novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck used pencils to write their books.

* Pencils didn’t have erasers on them until 100 years ago because teachers felt they would encourage children to make mistakes.

* It would cost $50 in labor and materials for a person to make a 10-cent pencil.

* One million pencils are used annually on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

* The average pencil can be sharpened 17 times, write 45,000 words or draw a line 70 miles long.

* A good-size tree will make about 300,000 pencils.

* Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” in pencil.

pencil tips black and white

In America, the number on a pencil indicates the degree of hardness or softness of the writing core. The writing core is made from graphite and clay. The more graphite in a pencil – the darker the mark. The more clay in a pencil – the lighter the mark. Europe uses a different grading system. They use letters to refer to the hardness or softness of the writing core. The more graphite in a pencil – the softer the grade. The more clay in a pencil – the harder the grade. For example, H is hard, B is black, F is a fine point, and HB is hard and black.

1 / B – (extra soft / black)
2 / HB – (soft / hard black)
2.5 / F – (medium / fine)
3 / HF – (hard / fine)
4 / 2H – (extra hard)


Another interesting fact is with regards to Dalton Ghetti. You may not know the name but it’s quite possible you are familiar with his work:

Dalton Ghetti pencil alphabet

Dalton Ghetti sculpts items from the graphite within pencils … these are not assembled but rather carved using x-acto blades and sewing needles. Each of these sculptures can take several months to carve …

Dalton Ghetti pencil saw

I was familiar with these carvings but not the sculptor who had created them. As it turns out, Dalton Ghetti was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, came to the U.S. in 1985 at the age of 24 and earned an Associate degree in Architecture from Norwalk Community Technical College in 1994.

These days he works as a carpenter and house remodeler.

Dalton Ghetti pencil heart

One last fact that I find remarkable about these carvings and the man who created them is that despite world-wide attention for his work, including several on going exhibits and shows … he doesn’t sell these carvings, choosing to give them away to his friends.

Dalton Ghetti pencil screw

Pretty amazing what a pencil can do and how it can be reinterpreted.  I don’t know about you but there is something inherently creative about using a pencil. Maybe it has something to do with the ability to continually draw over the markings a pencil leaves behind. Maybe it’s the level of control you have just by applying different degrees of pressure of pencil to paper. I’m not sure what it is but every time I end up with a pencil in my hand, I always think “it’s been too long…”












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  • Pablo Jimenez

    I have been using the Stadtler and the Derwent studio in the past and I liked the pigment and graphite consistency
    However, I have tried the Derwent 36 Artist and really don’t like too much, the graphite doesn’t “bite” well and the color set lacks of greys and ochers necessary for the broken colors present in architecture
    I believe next time would try the Caran D’Ache but….which set is more suitable for expressive landscaping architecture?

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  • I still use graphite pencils but I must confess that I became a lead holder snob. I cannot live without my Lyra Crayon Holder (12mm 9B), my Lamy Scribble Drafting Pencil (3.15mm 4B), and my old Cretacolor 43001 (5.6mm 4B).
    My favorite pencils are Staedtler Mars Lumograph (up to 8B and I really like the Lyra Grafit Aquarell 9B. The Lyra Art Design 669 9B is another good option. Sketching is great if you have the right pencils.
    Prismacolor is probably the worst pencil ever, both graphite and color. I regret buying the Prismacolor Pencil Set 120 to my wife. Expensive, terrible wood, muted colors, totally pretentious, I will never buy Prismacolor again.
    Once you try color pencils like Lyra Rembrandt-Aquarel, Faber Castell Albrecht Durer or Caran d’Ache (the best) you will never touch Prismacolor again.
    I have been using a lot the SketchBook Pro (Autodesk) with my Intuos 4 and I really like the results. I must say that I still prefer pencil and paper, and that’s what I use for the initial concepts and for some studies. SketchBook Pro is great for certain things but pencil and paper will always be in my case and that’s what I like to use while I am sketching around.

  • fatima yasir

    soO useful title…..lwant know what the letter “H” .Band F …mean?????

  • Peter

    Hey Bob, thank you for posting all these nice pictures and
    explaining in detail what a pencil is. I do not remember when the last time I
    saw one of these. Very soon the only place to see a pencil will be in the
    museum. Then the pencil will truly
    change its purpose from being a simple utilitarian tool to a piece of art –
    just as you show it in your blog. …

    Just kidding!

    But with the risk to prove my kids’ right while thinking that
    I am too old, I will tell you the story of my personal interaction with The Pencil.

    The Pencil helped me to live my personal mark in the world
    ever since I was able to grasp onto something and long before I was able to
    speak. Later on while drawing a picture of my father and mother holding me by the
    hands, I used The Pencil to analyze an express the relationships in the world. The
    Pencil helped me write my first letters and numbers.

    Only at second grade of the elementary school we were
    allowed to use ink. Around third grade the ball pens appeared and it took about
    a year before they were used at school. At the technical school we still used The
    Pencil to draw. I spent two years in
    preparing for the admission exams in the University while drawing with The Pencil.
    (There were five admission exams and two of them required artistic pencil drawings.)
    All work at the Faculty of Architecture was done by pencil before being put in ink.
    We used The Pencil for all sketching and artistic drawing and sometimes for
    renderings and presentations.

    Fast forward several
    years of practice – I got my first computer. Then the tings speeded up: DOS,
    AUTOCAD 10, 11, 12, 14…Photoshop, MAX… Thinks were speeding up ever since…
    Nowadays my kids do not use pencils any more – they type. They do not even
    speak to me – they text messaging.

    I told my students that if they choose to become architects chances
    are they would never do a single pencil drawing. All work in the studio
    nowadays is done digitally. But ideas are still born in the architect’s heads. While in the resent past The Pencil drawing was
    a “natural expression” of the architect’s thoughts, nowadays between the ideas
    and the results more and more “technology” is plugged in – hardware, software,
    databases… We experiment, we play, we do algorithms, and we do not control the results
    any more. We expect the machine to do the hard work. But in this way more and
    more architecture becomes a hybrid playful result of the interaction between the
    human and the technology. In the studio the
    “technology” gets over. One of my colleagues said that now that we have REVIT “the
    program would do The Design”.

    Will it? With all the advent of the intelligent program and devices
    make the architectural profession obsolete? The Pencil is a great tool of
    expressing thoughts on surface. Just imagine this: 70 miles of thoughts put
    down by a single pencil! But pencils are disappearing from the studio. Nowadays
    we are paper-less and pencil-less architects. This is great! We save the forests!
    But what does this mean for the way we think? How much reverse influence we get
    from the machine and is it all good? Will
    the history of The Pencil mark the raise and the fall of Homo Sapiens and the evolutionary
    victory of Homo Digitalis?

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  • cnielsen56

    Great post! If I remember correctly, the letters H and B come from the German words for “hard” and “soft”, which I can’t remember right now. I liked designing with big, fat 6Bs, and used 9H for fine, very sharp reference lines. I remember going to buy replacement (H leads and the salesman was out but said “I can sell you a nail”.
    A few typos, though…. you need an anal proofreader…

    • Hard and soft in German are “harten und weichen” so I’m not sure where the black would figure in – I always heard that it stood for “hardness” and “blackness” which made sense to me.

      I didn’t have any typos show up when I spell checked it but honestly, it there wasn’t something wrong, you couldn’t be sure that I actually wrote it.

  • What great trivia and love the pictures. Who knew? I’m a 0.5 Pentel P205 fan. Love a mechanical pencil. 🙂

  • I once got up in the middle of the night, drove to a convenience store in freezing temperatures, bought a pencil and tablet and stayed up the rest of the night sketching. The urge I felt that night, to draw an actual graphite line, on an actual piece of paper, is something I will probably never escape. There is nothing else like it on earth.

  • Jane

    cool post!

  • bilel

    very nice

  • M.Hendawi

    Very interisting and great artistic jobs go ahead

  • Paul Anderson

    In the old “hand” days, I was and F and H or 2H man. I like an HB for sketching, but not when it came to drafting – If I interpret your pencil points ( pun intended ) correctly, a pencil can draw a line 70 miles long but the average pencil can draw a line only 35 miles long . . . I surmise the average pencil only gets half used before what . . . the clothes drier gets a hold of it?
    Thanks for another illuminating and enjoyable post!

  • Ahh, the familiarity of a pencil. It certainly brings clarity to my mind when I draw or write manually. I’ve grown up in the weird divide between hand, and cad drafting, but it still feels like a “coming back to basics” when I draw with a pencil.

    Hey, 2H pencil! We used the European system also. 2B (and the odd 3B) pencils were for shading, and 2H’s were for guide lines. I still have a few of them somewhere.

    Great facts about pencils. I didn’t know erasers on pencils were a fairly recent addition. Thanks for all the info!

    Lovely sculptures. I hope Mr Ghetti’s friends keep them under glass.

  • Thanks for the informative post. While I’ve been familiar with the letter system since the 8th grade I never knew where they came from. I use lead holders now (.07HB for thick fat lines, .05F for medium lines and .05H for fine lines) but have always enjoyed pencils. And FWIW, for years the Smithsonian museum of American history and Technology had a pencil making machine in operation!

  • Annchitect

    Very informative blog sir!

  • Emily Beuschel

    I am currently a student, and even though I am married to the computer, I’m still in love with hand-drafting and sketching. Just something about drawing a crisp, dark, precise line, or shading the contours just right, is so soothing….

  • Wow, what interesting stuff! Thanks for sharing.

  • Karen Highland

    I have always been nostalgic about a good ball point pen… the way it feels when it rolls properly across the paper. I suppose it has to do with a persons formative years of writing. When I was in school, we were encouraged to use pens, not pencils. I used to hate to have to stop writing to sharpen the pencil… it felt like a rude interruption of my thoughts… not so with a pen:)

  • Ian Salamanca

    I can’t believe you didn’t find the fact about the YELLOWNESS! I included the link for reference, but way back in the day, Yellow was associated with Royalty because it was the most expensive color to make. When mass produced pencils came out, they decided to paint them yellow to give the holder the idea that they could be royal. Now it’s almost synonymous with our little lead lovers!
    Great post!

  • Nice post reminding us all of the joy of putting pencil to paper. Where do you stand on lead holders? Only a few people in my studios in college used them, but one respected classmate swore by them, so I started using them and have always enjoyed them. I still carry one in my bag every day; I just need to make myself use it more regularly these days.

  • I’m an architect- I still draft with pencils. For me, life is too short to spend it with my face glued to a computer monitor. I’d rather have drafting tape stuck to my elbows and eraser shavings all over my sweater.

    • I graduated from college in 1992 and spent the first several years hand drafting – but it was using lead holders, not actual pencils. The younger folks in my office used to give me the business about how fanatical I was about pen weights … it’s a dying art I’m afraid.

      Thanks for leaving a comment

  • Jim

    Bob, this entry reminded me of how my dad and grandad sharpened their pencils with a pocket knife, something that I still do 60 years later. Also my Grandmother kept a couple of cigar boxes full of pencils at our bakery in Amarillo and every time I visited I got to take one home with me. I still have loads of pens and pencils, but none o them have an artist flair like these by Ghetti. Thanks for slapping me up side the head and knocking those memories loose.
    Jim Kollaer, FAIA, LEED AP

    • anytime you need a slap upside the head … I’m your man!

      There is something cool about pencils sharpened by pocketknife isn’t there?

  • The Sanford Draughting 02237 formally know as the 314 Eagle are the greatest sketching pencil invented. To quote the late Charles Moore, FAIA ” If the black pencil isn’t a 314 Eagle I lapse into sullen unproductively”.

    • I had Charles Moore as a professor in college, you think I would have known that little fact.

      Thanks for sharing

      • When I wrote this I was curious if Professor Moore was at Texas during your matriculation.

  • Only one thing I need – self sharpened pencil… not automat, but regular pencil, and always sharp)… O! and another thing! It should not be eatable…)))

    • I agree about having a sharp pencil but am confused about pencils being non-edible… do people eat pencils where you are from?

  • Ken Weinert

    Thanks for the info – but you seem to have conflicting info on how long a line a pencil can draw. Or did I miss something along the way?

    • it was a conflict so I sent off an email to confirm my info – all is now right and well in the world (at least with regards to how long a line you can draw…)


  • kimchi_mom

    I just bought a box of Ticonderoga pencils b/c I got sick of the leads constantly breaking on those “flamboyant” pencils.

    Love those pencil sculptures…