Last week, Caroline and I had the immense pleasure of visiting our first pencil factory! (Read her heartfelt post about the journey from her first tin of Prismalos to standing in the factory her obsession came from here).
It's hard to describe how hugely important this was for us - of course it gave us a better understanding of how pencils are created and therefore a better understanding of the item itself, but it also was like a spiritual pilgrimage, a place where we could come to worship the item of our affection where it's exquisitely born into the world.
I'll do my best to relay the process, but keep in mind that the process is an incredibly detailed act, and frankly, it's hard to put into words the way pieces of pencil are whirled in beautiful synchronicity around the factory. Just know this: the creation of a pencil in the Caran d'Ache factory is an incredibly precise art, polished over decades into the perfection we know now.
Our tour began with Nicolas Muller, a retired CdA engineer (after 40 years of service!) who very kindly returns to the factory to lead inquisitive fans through the pencil-making process.
We start with the core - the stick of graphite or pigmented wax that will become the heart of a pencil. We learn that the cores of a Caran d'Ache pencil are exact in their diameter to 0.001 millimeters - only the first of many facts to blow my mind on this trip. We watch as a vat of vibrant neon green is smushed satisfyingly through the largest rolling pin I've ever seen (the first of many times I've wanted to touch something), while Mr. Muller tells us that this place is a kitchen and every single pencil in the CdA repertoire has its own specific recipe. It's own recipe! Can you imagine??
This "kitchen" is loud - very loud - with an exquisite series of smells and sights that change as you wander through the steps of a pencil. It's now we totally realize we've stepped into, as Caroline aptly put it, Wonka's factory, a place where magic things come into being.
Though we've just begun, we take a brief detour into crayons, which I feel compelled to describe to you because it reminds me of the first time I walked into CW Pencil Enterprise: It smells like childhood. The smell of wax crayon is so strong and bright, it makes you go wide-eyed and smile ear to ear and recall scribbles lovingly stuck to the fridge. Blocks of hot crayon are forced into shape via a small hole, and then cooled through open vats of water. It's captivating: You watch this long spaghetti of red crayon travel through its bath, before it's cut - chomp chomp chomp - and then wrapped in its corresponding label.
Next stop is forming the core of a pencil. We learn that raw graphite is milled very, very finely, until the imperfections are blended out, then pressed into hard chunks that look like big black pieces of honeycomb (coincidentally, graphite atomic particles are hexagonal shaped like honeycomb, too). After it's been mixed with the appropriate amount of clay and water, the graphite blend is shaped into huge blocks, which, much like crayons, are squeezed through the correct hole, formed into graphite spaghetti and chopped into the correct length.
(And it's here I must mention that not only does each pencil, colors and graphite alike, have their own recipe, each one also has a specific-size hole that the soft mixture is pushed through to form the core. Some cores, like the wider diameter ones for Luminance, must dry for two months before they shrink to the appropriate diameter. Within that magic 0.001mm margin of error.)
At this point, Mr. Muller - and I'm frequently amazed at how often he does this in a factory with so many moving parts - sticks his hand into the conveyor belt, grabs a floppy piece of raw graphite and hands it to us. I'm shocked at how cold and soft it is. It's pliable and smooth, but quickly becomes fragile at room temperature. Graphite must be fired in a kiln until it is hard enough for pencil use.
Next is the most intoxicating part of the process: the cedar. I'd love to tell you this step smells wonderful, like the inside of a sharpener, but at first sniff the smell of the neighboring lacquering step is so strong it drowns out the lovely wood smell.
Boxes and boxes filled with pre-cut slats of cedar (from California's own CalCedar) lay waiting to realize their dream of becoming writing utensils. Soon, wooden friends, pencil-dom is only a few cuts away!
"Cuts" seems like such a small word for the incredible process through which each slat receives the grooves that will become a hexagon. These cylindrical machines covered with tiny nubs whir at 9,000 rotations per minute, scoring grooves into the slats which will become both the outer hex and the inner nest for the core.
Here's my favorite part: the newly grooved slats journey down a conveyer belt, are swiftly brushed with glue, and in what is mind-blowingly one smooth process, the cores are scooped up by a giant wheel and deposited evenly into the glue-wet groove, then smacked together with the slat's other half, all in one rotation.
Now stuck together for life, the glued-and-cored slats are pressed together in a giant vice for hours, until they are set and the slats are ready to be sliced into individual pencils. This, satisfyingly, is the step that wafts the strongest smell of cedar - when each pencil is separated from its siblings to be born into the pencil world.
Lacquer is next, and smells strong and stringent, like a fresh tube of acrylic paint. The pencils disappear two by two into vats of paint, shot through a bath of color like a torpedo. They travel along, two by two by two until each pencil receives 8 coats of paint (including the natural ones, which receive a clear coat).
Caroline and I marveled at the next step, because it's one we're oddly familiar with - stamping. It's incredibly fascinating to watch a machine neatly stamp dozens of pencils with hot foil in seconds, when we're so familiar with pulling a lever and taking ages to stamp just a few pencils. It makes such a satisfying STAMP STAMP STAMP sound as the text is pressed to the pencil.
Belt sanding is after, because Caran d'Ache produces gorgeously long factory-sharpened points. At this point, I'm thinking, "Core, paint, point. This is a pencil now, right?"
Wrong. For many of their premium pencils, Caran d'Ache adds a hard coating on the tip, further adding class to the humble pencil. Pencils are sorted neatly into evenly-spaced rows, and loaded onto a shelf. Each shelf is lowered, painstakingly, into a very level vat of paint, stopping only when each pencil has been juuuuuuuuust kissed with paint. Sort of like a mother's blessing on her beloved child as he ventures into the world to create.
With a quick scribble over waxy paper to smooth the sharp point, the pencils are off to be sorted and boxed and sent off to their new destinations. Like a certain pencil shop we all know and love.
Our trip is not complete without a journey into pens (which I will refrain from describing, but again assure you that CdA put so much love into!), nor without a trip to an upstairs art room, where, incredibly, we re-learn things we thought we knew about drawing and coloring.
Really, when all is said and done and we are nestled back in our cozy NYC shop, it's hard to describe the new level of appreciation I have for an object that I've already spent so much time appreciating. My love for the simple instrument is reborn, and I feel more eager than ever to evangelize the humble pencil.
Image: the original CdA mascot - La Bonne Mine. "Bonne Mine" means both "good face" and "good lead" in French - gotta love the old school pencil pun!