Using a pencil

A wooden pencil provides support for an orchid, one of the many uses for the John Steinbeck’s favorite writing tool.

KODIAK — What’s your favorite garden tool? A Japanese hoe? Glove? A gardening app?

My favorite tool is a wooden pencil. I’ll explain in a minute.

Most of us pick up pencils and lose them without giving them a second thought. But pencils are more interesting than you might think. Here are a few facts, a little history and unique ways to use pencils. Yes, even in the garden.

Did you know that modern pencils owe it all to an ancient Roman writing instrument called a stylus? Scribes used this thin metal rod to leave a light, but legible mark on papyrus, an early form of paper. Other early styluses were made of lead, which is what we still call pencil cores, even though they actually are made of non-toxic graphite.

But the history of pencils doesn’t stop there.

Graphite came into widespread use when a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England, was discovered in 1564. Though graphite left a darker mark than lead, the mineral proved so soft that it required a holder. At first, graphite sticks were wrapped in string. Later, the graphite was inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks. And, the modern-day wooden pencil was born. 

About hundred years later, in 1662, the first mass-produced pencils rolled out in Nuremberg, Germany. It was an important mile marker for the industrial revolution.

In the 18020s, another graphite deposit was discovered. This time, in New Hampshire. We can thank the Thoreau family. In the mid-1800s, John Thoreau and his brother-in-law Charles Dunbar built their own pencil factory. The only problem was that New Hampshire graphite was crummy; it smeared and made for pretty poor pencils.

Enter a young Henry David Thoreau. Before retreating to Walden Pond, he worked for the family pencil company. Thoreau perfected a process of using clay as a binder to make the soft, loose graphite harder, which meant fewer smudges. By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered one through four.

On 30 March, 1858, Hymen Lipman received the first patent for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil. What do you call that little metal band that holds the eraser on the pencil? It’s a ferrule, from the Latin words viriola (“small bracelet”) and ferrum (“iron”).

Which wood for wood pencils?

The favored wood for pencils was red cedar. It was aromatic and did not splinter when sharpened. By the early 1900s, though, supplies of red cedar were dwindling. Pencil manufacturers were forced to recycle the wood from cedar fences and barns. Then, during World War II, rotary pencil sharpeners were outlawed in Britain because they wasted so much scarce lead and wood. Pencils had to be sharpened in the more conservative manner — with knives.




John Steinbeck was an obsessive pencil user and is said to have used as many as 60 a day. The largest pencil collection: 19,824 pencils by Tushar Lakhanpal (India). As for the longest pencil: 3,582 feet.




Splint it: A pencil makes a handy splint for a damaged finger. 

Entertain Kitty: The perfect play toy.

Lube a lock: Rub graphite shavings onto a key’s jagged edge so it will slip easily into a fussy lock. Graphite, a main ingredient in pencil cores, is an excellent dry lubricant.

Do your nails: Use the eraser at the end of a pencil as a cuticle stick.

Rescue toothpaste: Use an old, shortened pencil to roll/squeeze your toothpaste.

Pin it: A pencil eraser is the perfect sized pin cushion for the casual seamstress.



There are several reasons why the #2 pencil is my number one garden tool.

First, you can’t beat pencils for sowing tiny, hard to handle seeds. Here’s what you do: Poke a hole in damp soil, then pick up one or more seeds with the moistened pencil tip. Voila! Then, with a twist of the pencil, roll the seeds into the hole. If you like, use the pencil tips to flick a little soil over the seed. 

A pencil jabbed into the soil is the perfect support for small plants. Use twist ties or clips to pair plant to pencil.

Finally, you can use pencils to grab gross things. Got slugs? I love to use pencils to pick up slugs, chop-stick style. 

Do you suppose Henry David Thoreau pondered pencils at Walden?


Seeds to start (10 to 12 weeks before planting outside)

Celery, leeks, bulb onions, globe artichokes, chives, oregano, mint, yarrow, parsley, pansies, lobelia, coleus, impatiens

Overwintered plants: Check on geraniums, begonia bulbs and other plants that you brought inside last winter. Do they need water? It’s almost time to think about bringing them back to life by transplanting them into new soil and pots.

Prepare raised beds: Something best done in the fall, but better late than never. Build or repair raised beds. Collect and stockpile well-shredded kelp and old manure for turning into the top 4 to 6 inches of soil when it’s possible. Consider making a compost pile. If you think a how-to article on composting would be helpful, drop me an email through my blog.

Marion Owen has over 30 years of experience as a teacher and columnist. She’s on a mission to help busy people enhance their daily lives. To contact Marion or to sign up for her “Goodness from Kodiak” newsletter, go to her blog at

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