Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

I appreciate a good pencil. I usually have a short one tucked behind my right ear while I'm in the office working. It's a quick, easy place to keep one, so I always know where it is and can get to it when needed. My preferred pencil is a Dixon Ticonderoga HB2. I didn't know what all that meant until recently. I just knew I liked the way it wrote and sharpened. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to sharpen a pencil only to find that the lead keeps breaking, or the wood splinters, or the lead is off center, making it difficult to achieve a point not covered by some wood. It turns out there is a lot that goes into something as simple as a pencil.

The history of the pencil can be traced back to ancient Rome, when scribes carried around a piece of lead called a stylus. The stylus left a light mark, but it was legible. This is why we still say pencil "lead" to this day, even though pencils haven't contained lead since the 1500s. Someone in England found graphite and discovered that it wrote much darker. It probably didn't hurt that, unlike lead, graphite didn't poison you either.

Initially, people would wrap string around the piece of graphite, because it was so fragile that it required a holder of some sort. Eventually, the graphite shafts were put into hollowed-out wooden sticks, and the modern pencil was born. Pencils further evolved when people began mixing the graphite with clay to make the material easier to shape and to control the color. There is a whole scale devoted to the intensity of the pencil. Most of us are familiar with just one though – the fabled No. 2 pencil.

As I alluded, not all pencils are created equal. Some are just better. I learned that some areas of the world are renowned for their high-quality graphite. One of the highest quality graphite deposits is in China. The quality became so renowned that pencil manufacturers wanted to advertise that they used Chinese graphite. So, they started painting their pencils yellow. In China, yellow represents royalty and respect. Most pencils are still painted yellow today, regardless of where the graphite comes from.

Other key elements that combine to form the perfect pencil are the wood, the shape, and the craftsmanship. The best wood is incense-cedar from California. There are many shapes, but the most common are round, hexagonal, triangular and rectangular. Round pencils are great for providing an easy grip, especially for youth, so they're common in schools. Hexagonal pencils are my favorite. They make for a comfortable grip, and they don't roll away as easily. Triangular pencils offer an even more ergonomic grip, with even less roll. And the rectangular pencil, commonly known as the carpenter's pencil, is almost assured to never roll away while you're working on your projects.

Finally, there are a few countries that are known for producing the best pencils in the world today. The Japanese are noted artisans and often supply the best pencils in the world. England still crafts great pencils. Germany makes a great pencil and is also known for pencil sharpeners. Other great pencil-making countries include Switzerland and the United States, although there are fewer pencil manufacturers state-side today.

Whatever you do, selecting the best instruments, parts, valves, or tools can help you create your masterpiece.