HackSpace magazine

Make anything with pencils

By Mayank Sharma. Posted

Pencils are amazingly versatile. They can scribble underwater and even in zero gravity, and have been fulfilling our impulse to record, create, and share knowledge for over 400 years.

It’s a common misconception that the core of the pencil is made of lead. The writing bit of a pencil is actually made with a non-toxic mineral called graphite. Modern-day pencil cores are, in fact, a mix of graphite and clay, fired together in a kiln at more than 800 degrees Celsius. The misnomer originated in 1564, when some shepherds from Borrowdale, England stumbled upon a massive deposit of pure graphite. Back then, the material was misidentified as a rare form of plumbago, which is the Latin word for lead ore. It wasn’t until three centuries later, in 1789, that it was rechristened as graphite using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’.

Graphite is very soft and brittle, and back in the day early users wrapped it with string to keep it together. Later on they started sawing it into thin rods placed between pieces of wood. When France declared war in the 1790s, it lost access to Borrowdale’s excellent graphite. With pencil supplies dwindling in 1795, the French Minister of War asked one of his officers, named Nicolas-Jacques Conte, to come up with a substitute. He came back with a kiln-baked mixture of graphite powder and clay, which turned out to be so good that it’s still in use today.

Modern-day pencil cores are produced by first processing the graphite and clay to remove any impurities. A machine then shapes the mixture into large square blocks, which are then either baked in a kiln or squeezed in a machine to remove any moisture. The mixture is then ground into a fine powder and made into a soft paste by adding water. This paste is then shaped through a metal tube into spaghetti-like strands that are cut into pencil-length pieces and dried. Finally, they are soaked in oil or wax to add smoothness. The outer shell of the pencils is most often made from wood – the most common woods used for pencils being incense-cedar and basswood.


Colour pencil ring

Project maker: Peter Brown

If you want a unique piece of jewellery to show your love for pencils, follow Peter Brown’s lead. Peter glued twelve pencils together in two rows of six. He then measured the size of his finger and drilled a hole between the glued pencils using a drill bit. Next he cut a rough shape using the scroll saw to take the edges off and make it easier to turn.

To mount the pencil cut-out on the lathe for turning, he made a quick jam chuck from a piece of pine. While turning, he used chisels to shape the wooden ring. Once he was done shaping, Peter used sandpaper to get a nice smooth feel to the ring and to trim it down. Peter advises you to be careful while sanding the ring so as to not smear the colours. He finished the ring with two coats of spray lacquer.

After the video of him doing this went viral, Peter says he received more than 1000 orders for coloured pencil rings on his Etsy shop. But he hasn’t made another one because he could never figure out how to make them thin enough to be pretty, yet strong enough to last.


Da Vinci bridge

Project maker: iGameMom

iGameMom is a useful blog that’s chock full of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). After witnessing a demo of the Da Vinci bridge, the blog’s creator decided to replicate the marvel of mechanical engineering design using pencils.

They start out the blog post with a link to a video of a father and son duo building a Da Vinci bridge with pencils. When they started to build their own, they failed because the pencils didn’t have enough friction to hold them in place. So they looped rubber bands on the spots where the pencils intersect to create the required friction. They’ve detailed the assembly, along with images as well as tips, to help you build one.

You’ll need a minimum of twelve pencils to build the bridge. Once you’ve got the hang of the basic construction, you can create a longer bridge by adding more pencils. However, even with twelve pencils, the assembly will require two pairs of hands. When completed, the bridge is impressively sturdy: even their twelve-pencil version is strong enough to hold upwards of 3 kg.


Pencil catapult

Project maker: Sarah McClelland

Sarah McClelland also blogs about STEM projects over at her blog called Little Bins for Little Hands. The goal of her blog is to help her readers realise how cool science can be. To demonstrate some basic concepts of physics and mathematics, Sarah built an easy-to-assemble catapult from some pencils and rubber bands.

Sarah takes a handful of number 2 pencils (as explained, the American equivalent of the HB pencil), and ties them together with rubber bands to create a catapult. She has detailed step-by-step instructions on her blog, along with images to help you craft the various components of the catapult and assemble them together in the correct order. In her build, Sarah has used eraser pencil toppers to launch from the catapult, but you can use something else like the cotton balls that Nicola Duffy used when she created the catapult in her craft class.


Pencil crossbow

Project maker: Marie

To keep a handful of boys aged three to eleven occupied during a family trip, Marie decided to build mini crossbows to help their target practice. While she had seen several mini crossbow builds on Pinterest, she decided to make one using pencils for simplicity. Each crossbow is made with four pencils, two thick rubber bands, two push pins, and one binder clip.

Marie has detailed the construction and assembly on her blog with images for every step. The design is simple and can be replicated by anyone in under half an hour. Be careful during the step where you attach the rubber band to the pencil using pins. Marie has used pencils with erasers at the end, so pushing the pin on one side will be easier than pushing it into the wood on the other side. Her crossbow uses a pencil as an arrow, and she advises you to always make sure the eraser points towards the target.

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