Ode to a Pencil-O-Phile

By Stage, William | The Christian Science Monitor, February 16, 1993 | Go to article overview

Ode to a Pencil-O-Phile


Stage, William, The Christian Science Monitor


GIVE me a pencil over a pen any day. A pencil won't leave a Rorschach blotch all over your shirt pocket, won't skip or clot on the page, won't dry up unexpectedly. Pencils are cheap and easy to handle. To make a fine one requires German clay, Madagascar graphite, cedar from the High Sierras. Thomas Edison liked them short, about three inches, so they'd fit lying down in his right hand vest pocket. Hemingway's novels were first put down in pencil, and Admiral Peary carried yellow Koh-I-Noors with him to the North Pole.

You learn a lot about pencils when you visit Elmer Gerding, "the old tool man," on West Main Street in Warrenton, Mo. Elmer doesn't write much but has more pencils than you would ever need or want in 17 lifetimes.

"Did you know there are left-hand pencils and right-hand pencils?" quizzes Elmer. He picks one from a box brimming with pencils, holds it in his right hand to illustrate the point. The writing is backwards and upside down, but when he switches it over to his left hand the message is properly read. Welcome to the fascinating world of pencils.

"And these here are from China," he says. "The wood is scarce there so they make 'em out of paper." Well, I'll be darned.

One question that puts Elmer into a spin is "How do they get the lead into the pencils?"

"People think the pencil makers bore a hole down into the pencil and then insert a lead - isn't that funny? You could never do that, because those leads are too delicate. No, you have two halves with a groove in the middle. The lead is put into the groove and then the two halves are glued under pressure. That question just boggles my mind."

When you've got a penchant for pencils and your collection runs to around 50,000 pencils, no two alike, you can't just let them languish in shoe boxes; you've got to display them somehow. Elmer arranges them on cloth-covered plywood panels, each one sewed on with four surgical knots so "the kids can't pull 'em off." Some panels have pencils radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel, working Christmas tree lights at the hub. On nice days, when Elmer gets the notion to haul out all his display panels from his antique store to the yard, they stretch out 66 feet and stand six feet tall. …

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