How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisinal Craft of Pencil Sharpening

By Cory Doctorow

On the surface, David Rees's How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants is just a protracted mockery of the mania for "authenticity" and "artisanship" -- poking fun at the pretense of snobbish reworking of everyday objects and tasks into extremely precise and expensive amusements for the bourgeoise (ultimate milkshakes, high-priced hand-roasted coffee beans, small cask liquor). John Hodgman's very funny and acerbic introduction certainly hints at that, and by the book's end, that's what Rees is getting up to, with chapters like "How to Sharpen a Pencil With Your Mind" and "Mastering Celebrity Impression Pencil Sharpening (CIPS)."

And yet. The first 100+ pages of this book are, for the most part, an incredibly detailed and often loving obsessive's guide to putting a really, really fine point on a pencil. Notionally this is the outcome of Rees's "Artisinal Pencil Sharpening" business in Beacon. But there's just a little bit too much detail in these sections to just be a parody. I'm left with the inescapable conclusion that Rees just fucking loves sharpening pencils. Really.

And like everyone who puts a lot of attention into something that we do without any conscious thought, Rees has, in fact, found something marvelously obsessive and fascinating at the heart of the everyday. As silly as it seems, there really is something deeply satisfying about a really sharp pencil.

It's this genuine obsession at the heart of the mockery that makes How to Sharpen Pencils more than a predictable, bitter indictment of "hipsters" and the world's delight in hand-crafted, attentive care in the everyday. Because for all that Rees is poking fun, he's also there, at the coalface, unquestionably putting dozens (hundreds?) of hours into getting his writing implements into a state of deadly pointfulness. From his vantage-point atop Mount Obsessive, Rees is able to see far and wide, and the picture he paints there is both true and very, very funny.

If Rees's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the guy behind Get Your War On (AKA "My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable" and "My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable") -- one of the greatest political webcomics of all time.

Rees's publisher, Melville House, was kind enough to supply a PDF of chapter 2 for your delectation and edification.

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants

Published 6:35 am Fri, Apr 13, 2012

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

33 Responses to “How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisinal Craft of Pencil Sharpening”

  1. Christopher says:

    This is more of a side note, but when I first saw Picasso’s portrait of Rimbaud I wondered what the large scribble down the right side was. Later I learned that someone (unfortunately the name escapes me at the moment) who collected portraits of Rimbaud by well-known artists asked Picasso for one. Picasso produced it right there and then, and the scribble was how he sharpened his pencil.

    Prior to that it never occurred to me that one way to sharpen a pencil is to use it.

    • Rickenbacker4001 says:

      When I worked in construction, I would watch carpenters pull out their knives to sharpen their pencils.
      Then a young kid working with us dropped down to the concrete and sharpened the pencil by rubbing it against the floor.He commented that was how they sharpened the popsicle sticks in his troubled teenager camp he went to.

      Smartest guy on the job site…..

  2. When you’re completely useless at everything else in your life, best to start with small victories.  #Taoofthipster

  3. Bookburn says:

    Nearly everyday I watch as frustrated middle school students try to put a fine point on a cheap crap pencil that they’re dad bought in a discounted bulk pack at the beginning of the school year.  Most days I can get by with cringing and offering some suggestions from across the room.  Other days I’ll offer my German hand sharpener over the junk school crank sharpener that has had everything from pens, crayons, dowels, spaghetti,  and glue-sticks through it.  But when I’m most irked, I yank the pencil out of the kids hands, snap it in half, and hand them a new Black Warrior (my teaching salary simply does not allow for me to be handing out Palominos).

    After reading that excerpt, I think that I’m going to make How To Sharpen Pencils required reading for all eighth graders and having a big poster of the figure Irregular Pencil Points – a Taxonomy printed and pasted above that whore of a crank sharpener.

    • Preston Sturges says:

      In college I liked a #2.5 Wallace Lockbound sharpened with a box cutter, and there was a a funky little office supply store that sold pencils in bins. 

      The Chinese dollar store wooden pencils can have a decent lead, but you must supply your own eraser. 

  4. Ben Ehlers says:

    Hey! I just heard an interview with this guy on the ol’ CBC. 

    1) Download the latest episode of WireTap, “The Best Perfect Day Ever”
    2) Prepare to have your mind blown. 

    (in all fairness though, this isn’t the strongest episode–but it’s still pretty good as far as 30 minute radio shows go.)

  5. Ben Ehlers says:

    OH!!! And while I am here, WHAT FONT IS THAT ON THE COVER? I haven’t been able to identify it yet, and I really want to do all my Middle school science handouts in a classy 50s engineering font. 

    ….it’s just so detached and calming. Like falling asleep to an old newsreel…

    • joeschwerein says:

       I am not an expert, so take with a grain of salt, but the overall look and the J seem like Futura Heavy to me, if that’s any help.

      • bklynchris says:

        TI is cool, we would all agree, but I think he was joking.  Not that he isn’t going to all of his handouts in it, but the joke was mutually inclusive of active interest.

        • Kier says:

          Like wow, dude.  Even if he was joking, nice design of printed matter matters, you know?

          joeschwerein:  You’re very close.  Futura Bold with a healthy dose of tracking added.

  6. Deidzoeb says:

    Most really good parodies or satires are done by someone with at least a grain of actual enjoyment or admiration for the subject they’re mocking. See also Ween’s country album.

  7. Anne Onimos says:

    Cf.: “I recently sprang for a huge, beautiful, kick-ass KitchenAid espresso machine and I love it, but I was disappointed with the junky plastic tamper that came with it. […] I ordered a brass tamper […] a Canadian artisanal espresso tamper with a global reputation.”

  8. Preston Sturges says:

    “……There’s no need to sharpen my pencils any more. My pencils are sharp enough.  Even the dull ones will make a mark….”

  9. db says:

    Sorry to be that guy but artisanal, only one I. The RSS feed is wrong and there is a misspelling in your text as well, Cory.

    • Charles H. says:

      If we’re correcting mistakes, the publisher’s name is also wrong: it’s Melville House Publishing, not MHP. (As someone who owns both books and non-book products from them, the only place you’ll find them using “MHP” is in their domain name, likely as it’s shorter and therefore easier to remember.)

  10. Paul Renault says:

    Really?  The eraser is on the bottom of a pencil? 

    Are pencils only used to write on ceilings?

  11. Kevin Pierce says:

    David Dreams of Pencils

  12. bklynchris says:

    My inability to get a proper point on a pencil without breaking the lead, led me to spend hours on eBay searching for old school, screw into wall, vintage pencil sharpener. I even considered physical therapy as I felt that maybe the angle of my wrist was breaking the point before I took it out of the sharpener.

    Finally, I would just buy very expensive Blackwings, and other exotics.  And then behold, I was introduced to a proper pencil sharpener here:

    That shit saved my marriage.

  13. millie fink says:

    Reminds me of the guy in Baker’s The Mezzanine. Lovely book for opening my eyes to the glories of the mundane. Like escalators, and straws.

    And is that a photo of Rees?

  14. Mark Dow says:

    I wonder why H. D. Thoreau never commented on pencils. He spent a lot of time using, making, and even improving on them, and was a keen observer of all sorts of technology. But never a word about the stick in his hand.

    “Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family’s pencil factory, which he continued to do for most of his adult life. He rediscovered the process to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite by using clay as the binder; this invention improved upon graphite found in New Hampshire and bought in 1821 by relative Charles Dunbar. (The process of mixing graphite and clay, known as the Conté process, was patented by Nicolas-Jacques Conté in 1795). His other source had been Tantiusques, an Indian operated mine in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Later, Thoreau converted the factory to produce plumbago (graphite), which was used to ink typesetting machines.”

  15. They have these cool things called “mechanical pencils” – no sharpener needed!  : P

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      Also never sharp.

    • DevinC says:

      I too am a fellow barbarian.  But mechanical pencils are only so good.  They’re never quite as sharp as one can get.  For me, that makes no difference, but  someone really caring about something is a Good Thing, no matter how trivial that thing may seem to me.  

  16. mike says:

    Rees lives in Beacon, NY, not Brooklyn.

  17. rollerskater says:

     that cover is a thing of beauty.

  18. Peter says:

    It’s a shame he went straight to the French without reference to the Brits, the UK had a few hundred years start on them.  But this article enabled me to find a new site Anyway I like my mechanical pencils and I now also have this site to admire thanks boingboing

    • oasisob1 says:

       Derwent Factory and Pencil Museum: Did it, got the photos, put the check in the block (in pencil, of course).

  19. oasisob1 says:

    I bought this book and ripped out the bullcrap in the back which ruined this otherwise fine tome. This book, the LAST WORD on pencil sharpening occupies a prominent shelf in my home. I learned much and gave maximum stars on every website that would accept my review. I tattooed my back with chapter two.

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