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Pencils are related to cannons. Most people know the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Some skilled artists and political cartoonists may do some damage with their powerful drawings, but the common pencil has a less violent connection to historic old cannons.
A typical pencil is made from wood surrounding the inner “lead.” The term lead is not accurate, as pencils have never included lead material. The dark part of a pencil that creates the marks is made from graphite. All-natural graphite is a mined material based on carbon. In graphite, those carbon molecules are loosely bound so that little bits slide apart easily. Drag the graphite across paper and marks are made.
History of Graphite Pencils
In the mid-sixteenth century, a large deposit of the mineral graphite was discovered in England. It was a rare, solid deposit. The graphite was very pure so that it could be sawn into neat blocks or sticks. Soldiers quickly realized the value of this find. This graphite could line the lead molds used to make cannonballs. Of course, then the mines were taken over by the Crown and reserved for royal use.
Local people knew this graphite and favored it to mark their sheep. Small pieces were smuggled out of the mine in spite of the guards. Wrapped in string or sheepskin, these small sticks turned out to be quite useful. They attracted the attention of sixteenth century artists and writers who put the pieces to good use on paper or vellum. Cannons were surely considered more important at the time, but the dark rich graphite sticks continued to be sought for writing and drawing tools.
Wooden Pencils Become Drawing Supplies
Pure graphite is soft and crumbly and needs some kind of case. The string and sheepskin originally used did not hold up well. So long rods of wood were drilled and packed with the graphite. Soon pencil makers discovered an easier technique to construct pencils. Manufacturers carved a groove into two flat wooden halves. Then they placed a graphite stick in the groove. When the two pieces were glued together the result was a seamless long wooden pencil. Even today, pencils are basically made in this same way.
By the 1700s, the solid graphite deposit in England was diminished, but there were other locations of softer, less pure graphite. In 1795, Nicholas Conte mixed powdered graphite with clay. This mixture was formed into thin rods and baked in a kiln. It quickly became a superior method of creating graphite drawing material. Conte’s method is still in use today.
Drawing Pencils as Art Supplies
Graphite drawing pencils are one of the oldest drawing mediums. Pencils now grace the studio workspace of almost every kind of working artist.Nowadays, high quality artist’s pencils are easily found in art supply stores. The pencils continue to satisfy artists for simple sketching as well as highly polished drawings. Though pencils were never made of lead, the lasting beauty of graphite drawings challenges any artist to get the lead out.