Talking to professional pencil sharpener David Rees: On his new handbook, hisupcoming visit to Book People and the art of graphite
Odds are, you don’t take enough time out of your day to appreciate the art of the pencil, your office’s most basic supply. Making up for the masses’ lack of awareness, the artisanal pencil sharpening movement celebrates the implement’s indispensible function — and you have a chance to check it out for yourself next week at Book People.
David Rees is well known for his long-running Rolling Stone cartoon, Get Your War On, and the similarly clip art-inspired series, My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable. But after a stint as a census taker several years ago — a role requiring frequent use of a classic yellow #2 — Rees developed a love for the handy tool that would steer him in a new professional direction.
He began offering pencil sharpening services to clients via mail order, while also pursuing his own comprehensive study of the industry. The result? The handbook How To Sharpen Pencils. (The full title is How To Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice.)
GQ describes the guide as both “an exhaustive reference book for anyone interested in sharpening pencils in any manner” and “an increasingly bizarre journey into the persona of the author,” who enlisted friend John Hodgman to write the book's intro.
"Pencils can’t do everything, but what they do they can do really well and really efficiently at a minimal cost, and that’s why I’m a fan of the pencil."
You can read an excerpt from How to Sharpen Pencils, “Psychological Risks Associated With Pencil Sharpening,” over on The Awl.
Rees will be visiting Book People at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 17 to expand minds and offer advice. We caught up with the author to talk technique, inspiration and what to expect at the event.
How did you celebrate your publishing day?
I actually spent most of the day cleaning my garage, so that was pretty exciting. Since I’m heading out for a few weeks I wanted to get a bunch of house cleaning stuff done before I hit the road. It was fun. My parents called, and that was nice, and I got some nice emails from people who said they had ordered it, that made me feel good. We will see. I have no idea what’s going to happen with this book.
What can people expect to experience at the Book People event?
I’m going to demonstrate some esoteric pencil sharpening techniques that I use in my practice. I’m going to demonstrate different pencil sharpening technologies. And hopefully I’ll be answering questions from the audience; I really love doing Q+As on pencil sharpening. A lot of people have questions about this stuff, so I’m going to travel the country and put their mind at ease.
Are you self-taught in these techniques?
I used pencils a lot growing up, doodling and drawing and making cartoons. And then as an adult, I kept cartooning but I started doing it all digitally, with clip art, so I kind of stopped using pencils. So when I started my business, it was because I had forgotten how satisfying it is to sharpen pencils and I wanted to get back into it. I did a lot of research on equipment and techniques and technologies, and practiced a lot, and over the last two years I’ve done a lot of pencils for customers, I’ve done almost 500.
"I’ve sharpened pencils at different events for all kinds of people, I’ve gotten really nice feedback from my customers and my clients. I think it makes people happy and I really enjoy doing it."
You’re not just sharpening them; you send them back with certificates?
They get the shavings in a bag, they get the pencil in a display tube; everything is labeled and initialed, and they get a certificate of sharpening, that is correct.
Did you have to legally become a business — incorporate as an LLC, all that?
It’s a home business, so it’s not incorporated, it’s not an LLC. I assume all liability. I didn’t want to limit my liability with an LLC. Bring it on, that’s what I say.
You’re often asked whether this is a serious project; regardless, it’s definitely a good lesson that you can make your most esoteric interests pay off. Is that a message you’re trying to get across?
The business is a real business, and I always wanted it to be an actual business. I could have just made the website, and then people would have been like, “Oh, it’s a joke, he’s making fun of the artisan movement.” But I literally thought to myself, how can I get paid to sharpen pencils? And everything just grew out of that initial vision. Every step of the process I was just like, let me see if I can take it to the next level, you know, keep growing the business; let me see how far I can take this experience of sharpening #2 pencils.
So the business is completely serious. I’ve had almost 500 customers, I’ve sharpened pencils at different events for all kinds of people, I’ve gotten really nice feedback from my customers and my clients. I think it makes people happy and I really enjoy doing it.
Do you think most of your clients are using their pencils? Is graphite a dying medium?
Well, I kind of only have anecdotal data for that, because I’ve never done a comprehensive survey of my clients. But I when I asked clients to send me testimonials for my book, a lot of people said that they keep the pencil just as kind of a token or a nostalgic thing, or an art object or as an inspirational object on their desk. A lot of people get the pencil and the shavings and the certificate framed.
But other people actually do use them pencils; I’ve heard from journalists who like the pencils, because a pencil can write in really cold weather, a pencil can function in a wider variety of conditions than a pen can. It’s one of the things that people forget about pencils and how cool they are. They’re a really elegant and efficient and flexible tool, and it’s the result of hundreds of years of engineering and intelligence, so I’m proud to celebrate pencils by sharpening them.
How much time does each pencil usually take?
It really depends. First you have to inspect the pencil, make sure the graphite is centered, make sure the shaft is straight, make sure there’s no excess paint on the end of the pencil. Then you have to figure out what device to use — whether the client’s made a request or what you’re feeling like using that day. Then, you need to bag up the shavings, you have to label everything and print up the certificates. I would say it can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to fully complete a pencil and get it ready to ship to the client.
Do you ever see the same pencil twice?
Originally, my conception for the business was that clients would send their pencils, I would sharpen them, and when they got dull through use, they would send them back to me and I would make a lot of money for every pencil. But I think most people are just content to order a new pencil, and then I supply it. So I usually send them a yellow #2 pencil.
"They’re a really elegant and efficient and flexible tool, and it’s the result of hundreds of years of engineering and intelligence, so I’m proud to celebrate pencils by sharpening them."
Sometimes, when people send me a pencil, it’ll be, like, an old pencil from their childhood that they’ve held on to, that’s really dull and beat up, and that’s really fun and really satisfying to put a new point on a pencil like that, get it looking really fresh and clean and dangerous.
But usually, when I sharpen pencils, because it is about nostalgia at least in part, I use yellow #2 pencils, just your basic pencil that everybody’s familiar with, because its such an iconic object.
You mention that they’re dangerous.
Even on my certificate, it says “a sharpened pencil is a dangerous object, use with care.” Because they can be dangerous, and I’ve had people tell me about, like, how they have a piece of graphite embedded in their skin from when someone stabbed them with a pencil 30 years ago. It’s not a toy.
What advice would you give to someone trying to decide between using a pencil or a pen?
Well, you have to find out what they want to use it for. It’s a tool, and you have to have the right tool for the job, right? So if they want to draw or sketch, they should probably get a pencil. But if they want to label their clothes before they go off to summer camp, they should probably get a sharpie.
Pencils can’t do everything, but what they do they can do really well and really efficiently at a minimal cost, and that’s why I’m a fan of the pencil.
Are you looking forward to visiting Austin?
I am. I hope a lot of people come out to the event; there's nothing sadder than a man sharpening a pencil in an empty room.
David Rees appears at Book People on Tuesday, April 17 at 7 p.m.