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Why are Carpenter Pencils Flat?

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Carpenter pencil with shavings, nails, and measuring tape.

The pencil’s history goes back five millennia to ancient Egypt.  

By the 16th Century, wooden sticks filled with lead replaced the Egyptian stylus. Soon after, though, pencils were made using graphite.

Even though there is no lead in what is known as a traditional “a lead pencil,” these writing instruments are quite versatile –

  • They are erasable!
  • They perform in any temperature – and upside down or overhead.
  • They are incredibly cheap to manufacture.
  • They are lightweight and easy to grip.
  • They come in many colors to help in low-light workspaces.
  • They can be made with sixteen degrees of “hardness,” determined by the amount of graphite used in manufacturing.

Grades of drawing pencils are organized on a scale based on softness or hardness. An “HB” pencil is found directly in the center of the scale.”

Hard pencils – denoted by the “H,” leave less graphite, are greyer in color, and are generally used for technical drawing.

Softer pencils, denoted by the “B,” are indicative of the pencil’s darkness. In other words, the B represents how dark the line will be. The softer the pencil, the more graphite will be left on the writing surface. Softer pencils are primarily used for artistic drawing.

The traditional yellow pencil I gnawed on in grade school is the most popular type of pencil but certainly not the only kind. These days there are watercolor pencils, mechanical pencils, masonry pencils, colored pencils, and even grease pencils, plus several more.

And then there is the carpenter’s pencil – the infamous flat pencil.

Why are Carpenter’s Pencils Flat?

IRWIN Carpenter Pencil, Medium Lead, 6-Piece (66400)

Like most things in life, this pencil was designed to solve a practical problem – for carpenters, members of the DIY market, and construction professionals.

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As an added bonus, the carpenter’s pencil’s unusual shape and design allow for an easier grip (and larger grip area) than standard pencils.

The carpenter’s pencil can mark/write on brick, wood, or concrete surfaces, etc. The carpenter’s pencil is strong and manufactured using durable solid graphite. The core of the pencil will be less likely to break and splinter.  

The pencil’s non-circular design ensures it stays where placed, so when the carpenter reaches for it again – they can be assured it hasn’t rolled away. This is especially helpful (and a whole lot safer) when perched on a ladder high above a marble floor.

Design

The carpenter pencil’s design shape is nearly elliptical – with pronounced flat sides. However, if you look at a carpenter’s pencil from directly above – it looks like a popsicle stick.

Carpenter Pencil Dimensions

24 Lot Misprint Woodcase Carpenter Pencils, 2 Lead, Bulk Wholesale Lot

Carpenter pencils come in a variety of sizes and shapes. But the size of the most commonly used pencil is –

  • 19/32 inches wide.
  • 1/4 tall.
  • About 7 inches long.

To provide some perspective, the pencils that fill my childhood memories, which are now manufactured as hexagons, are about 7 ½ inches long, with a width of ¼ inch or 8/32 – more than half the width of the carpenter pencil.

The dimensions of this pencil are dual purposed – handy marking tools that can be used to measure repetitive spaces.

Masonry & Multigraph Pencils

Multigraph and masonry pencils are manufactured to meet the needs of construction workers and carpenters but for more specific purposes. For example, masonry pencils (Extra Hard Lead in 6H) are perfect for writing on hard or porous surfaces – like stone and concrete. The lines left by masonry and other hard pencils are more grey than black.

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Pepy Aero Graphite Professional Drawing Pencils - Set of 12 7B Pre-Sharpened Black Lead Pencils; Perfect for Drawing, Sketching and Shading, Graphic and Fine Art (1777-0712)

The multigraph pencil (a.k.a., 7B Graphite Lead) is designed to write on surfaces that are smooth – glass, metal, tile, etc.

The standard shape of the multigraph pencil is triangular” – that’s why it’s also known as the triangular pencil. But note, I have seen oval-shaped multigraph pencils as well.

Sharpening a Carpenter’s Pencil

Carmel Carpenter Pencil Sharpener, For Sharpening Flat Woodworking Pencils

The carpenter pencil’s graphite, which is shaped like a thin rectangular, creates a much-needed, wider writing surface. It also helps to prevent it from dulling quickly. However, this doesn’t mean that a carpenter’s pencil won’t break or need sharpening at some point.

There are two ways to sharpen a carpenter’s pencil.

The tried-and-true method is to use a standard utility knife. Many would argue that this traditional way – known as whittling, is still the best. Simply and carefully trim down the wood exterior on the pencil until you reach the graphite. Then sharpen it to meet your needs.

There are also manual sharpeners that fit neatly on a tool belt.  Of course, there are also electric pencil sharpeners designed for the oddly shaped carpenter’s pencil, available at most large retail stores and online.

Pro-Tip – Keep each end sharpened. This saves time if one pencil point breaks during a job.

Professionals stay ahead of the game by keeping both ends of the pencil sharpened at the same time. Smart contractors even take the time to create different-sized point heads. A thicker point-head would create thicker lines, while the thinner point-head could be used for more exacting, finishing work.

Each of these point-head sizes can be used on various surfaces and materials.

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The Take-Away

Carpenter holding a pencil on wood plank.

While the carpenter’s pencil may seem like the odd man out in the writing utensil world, the reality is that they are clever, affordable, and among the list of unsung heroes of carpentry.

They can help mark a project while creating repetitive spaces with remarkable preciseness.

From a simple beginning, the pencil has become a star player in the world of construction, engineering, architecture, and art – with the capacity to measure repetitive spaces precisely.

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