The Beauty of Simple Tools



I love pencils.  If you’re reading this, odds are you do too.  And one of the great joys that many pencil enthusiasts share is an admiration for the unassuming elegance of our tool of choice.  Whether it’s candid workstation shots from a fellow scribbler on Instagram or the best pencil romance shots a cell phone can create in an online stationery group such as the Erasable Podcast Community on Facebook, looking at pencils–actually seeing them in action–plays a big role in our hobby.  Because of this appreciation of pencil aesthetics, I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Alex Hammond & Mike Tinney’s The Secret Life of the Pencil: Great Creatives and their Pencils, a compendium of some of the most enjoyable pencil photography I’ve seen published in one place.

How can a 16th century writing utensil still captivate us all these lifetimes after its invention?  The book is an attempt to offer answers to that question by documenting the magic of (mostly) wood and (mostly) graphite in words and pictures.  The book has three main sections: an introduction by William Boyd, a collection of pencil photographs, and a 30-page portion at the end containing brief interviews with over 20 creatives who favor pencils.

The introduction by Boyd, an author whose first ten novels were drafted longhand in pencil, sets the tone for the book.  I found myself nodding in agreement when in a candid moment he reflected on his own tendency to purchase new pencils for which he has no immediate need.  His conclusion: his pursuit of better pencils is part of his pursuit of a better self: “…it is because only with a pencil can you really establish what your true handwriting is like….Your sense of yourself, as reflected in your handwriting–which is unique, after all–is best defined by a pencil.  Your pencil–in a very real way–is you.”  These lines resonated with me, even as they put me in the mindset to examine the photographs that follow not just as beautiful images of simple tools but as an act of biographical documentation as well.

And the photos are spectacular, figuratively and literally.  From the knife sharpened pencils of creators such as David Bailey and Julia Quenzler to the simple yellow pencil ensconced in a beautiful brass extender belonging Thomas Heatherwick, the photos are striking, even as they convey something about the person who uses them.  And don’t all tools tell tales about us as a culture?  About what we value, about how we approach our work, about the care we put into creation?  For me, the answer rings a clear yes, and that’s what these photos capture: pencils yes, but also biography, also values.

(Note: Rather than poorly recreating the photos contained in the book here, I suggest you pop over to LeadFast’s post about the book, which contains some great images.)

The book closes with a collection of interviews with creators whose creative processes prominently feature pencils. Unexpectedly, I found myself drawn in by these short narrative vignettes.   Even when I didn’t know the author or artist being interviewed, reading their thoughts on their own work with pencils, some of which is featured alongside their interviews, was a treat.

Sound like your kind of scene?  The Secret Life of the Pencil is worth a look and is available from C.W. Pencil Enterprise for $15.00.




Stationery Subscription Services

Sometimes even the CartoGraphite crew grows weary of sleuthing for quality graphite in the wild.  In those moments, our tireless detectives sometimes turn to a subscription service that brings delectable pencil treats and more directly to their door.  Here’s a roundup of some of the subscription services that will allow one to get their stationery fix on a monthly or quarterly basis.

The subscriptions generally fall into two broad categories: brand-based limited editions and theme-based grab bags.

Brand-based limited edition subscriptions:

Blackwing Volumes: The Blackwing Volumes consist of quarterly releases of limited edition pencils that “honor and celebrate cultural icons and events.” For each edition, subscribers receive a dozen pencils in a gift box, a collector’s pencil sealed in a nifty plastic tube, and  one or more subscriber extras. The subscription costs $99 per year plus shipping. After all subscribers are taken care of, the pencils go on general sale at $24.95 per dozen until they are sold out.


Field Notes: The Field Notes Colors subscription consists of quarterly editions that explore “various themes, new papers, printing processes, and colors, frequently adding special packaging and other extras.” Subscribers receive two three-packs of each release, occasional subscriber extras, and two three-packs of the original Kraft Memo Books. Colors editions go on general sale after subscriptions are filled, and they often sell out quickly.


Write Notepads: Through their membership program, Baltimore, Maryland based Write Notepads releases quarterly limited edition pocket notebooks. Each member will receive an initiation kit including two variety 3-packs, two current limited edition 3-packs, a membership card, and various extras. In each subsequent quarter, subscribers will receive two limited edition 3-packs of the current release. Memberships are currently sold out; however, we have it on good authority that they will be available again in limited numbers in mid-May 2016. The first limited edition, “Lenore,” commemorates American author and Maryland native Edgar Allan Poe.


Theme-based box-o-stuff subscriptions:

ArtSnacks: ArtSnacks offers a monthly box of items geared towards artists: pens, pencils, markers, paints and brushes, and papers. A subscription costs $20 per month including US shipping. Discounts kick in for subscriptions of 6 months or longer.

SCRIBEdelivery: SCRIBEdelivery offers monthly shipments of stationery items including pencils, pens, and notebooks “designed to inspire you to use them.” The cost is $29 per month.

Maker Monthly: Maker Monthly is another monthly box of creative supplies. Each monthly box features a premium notebook accompanied by a set of pens, pencils, art markers and accessories. The cost is $20 per month, including US shipping.

Rad and Hungry: The Rad and Hungry subscription includes “Lo-fi goods from low-down travel.” Each monthly box is filled with office supplies locally sourced from around the world. Subscription prices vary from $25 per month for a single issue, to $18 per month for a yearly subscription. US shipping is an additional $7 per month.

Moustache Stationery: Moustache Stationery provides a monthly box of high end stationery items, carefully selected by a crew of self-proclaimed Paper Geeks who “live and breathe paper and other stationery products.” Each monthly box costs $39.95, with US shipping included.

iPen Box: iPenBox is a curated subscription box for the pen, paper and ink enthusiast, delivering a monthly box of products to your door. Each month, this mystery box will be filled with new, unusual, and innovative items from the pen, paper and ink world.

If you know of any others, please let us know or share in the comments.

A Glossary of Graphite

One of the great joys of pencildom is sharing your passion for the hobby with other like minded enthusiasts.  It is out of such exchanges that pencil-lover extraordinaire, Wendy L., has compiled a glossary of graphite, which outlines many of the pencil-related terms that come up in regular discussion in the Erasable Podcast Facebook group.  The list is truly a collective endeavor, with members of the community contributing entries for words and phrases they have encountered.  Have a graphite goodie that isn’t on the list? Stop by the group, join the discussion, and let us know!