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The importance of care and concentration on details

Not all pencils are created equally, but people don't always know what makes a good pencil nice and supple, or why inferior pencils are so scratchy. "Quality" is a much-used everyday term but what exactly does it mean when it comes to pencils and how is quality produced? Faber-Castell’s Technical Product Manager Helmut Zeilinger provides some insights into wood quality, pigment, and how important it is to have the right sharpener.

You have to take your time for quality.

Helmut Zeilinger, Technical Product Manager at Faber-Castell

Do you have childhood memories of sharpening a pencil and suddenly feeling a slight resistance? This is because pencils are glued together from two pieces of wood. If one of these pieces is softer than the other, the harder half needs more effort to sharpen, hence the resistance. So, if the manufacturer takes the trouble to use two almost identically soft pieces of wood, this moment of resistance won’t happen. "That's quality," says Helmut Zeilinger. 

Quality is not something that comes about on its own. "You have to take your time for quality," Zeilinger insists. This starts with thinking about what exactly is needed for a pencil: Wood, a lead, glue – all set? "For the wood alone, our specifications at Faber-Castell are almost as detailed as for individual parts in car production," says Zeilinger. When he started working at Faber Castell headquarters in Stein in the German state of Bavaria in 1997, one of his first projects was to specify which wood should be used for Faber-Castell pencils: how long, how wide and how dense should it be? Of course, the wood must be delivered without knots, knot lines or blue rot – because only such details can guarantee that a pencil meets the high quality requirements.

There’s no need to skimp on quality! 

The aforementioned short feeling resistance when sharpening a pencil may be an unimportant annoyance for some users but it is just one example of how careless workmanship and negligent planning can lead to an inferior product. A pencil should not splinter and the lead should not break or separate from the wood. "Some people may still have had pencils like this in school, where you could push the lead through and use the wood as a blowpipe. I remember those," says Zeilinger. Just as he remembers pencils and colour pencils that scratched when they touched the paper, when they had hardly any colouring power, or when the lead constantly broke while the pencil was sharpened. Today he knows that all these disturbing factors are signs of poor quality. 

Zeilinger has delved into the intricacies of sharpening pencils and gained some insights – some of which he found surprising. He found that: "Hardly anyone thinks about sharpening." Some people buy high-quality, expensive pencils but use the same sharpener for many years. "The sharpener gets dull over time, just like any razor blade or kitchen knife," Zeilinger explains. A dull sharpener tears the wood and damages the lead. With careful analysis and calculations, Zeilinger's team discovered that the sharpener should be replaced after about twelve pencils have been sharpened into stubs.

Finding right angle for an optimally sharp pencil

Zeilinger also found that pencil and colour pencil leads require completely different sharpeners. "The sharpening angle is crucial," he says. "If I sharpen colour pencils too sharp, for example, the lead breaks more easily because it is softer than the graphite lead of a pencil." That's not only annoying, but it’s also ultimately a waste of material if you have to constantly re-sharpen. Zeilinger's "baby", as he calls it, is therefore the Grip trio sharpening box. This sharpener has three different sharpening holes and blades, each of which is positioned at a different angle – from an angle of 23 degrees for pencils to 30 degrees for jumbo colour pencils. "Common universal sharpeners usually try to cover all pencils with the same 24 degree angle," he says. That, too, is part of the search for quality: changing a sharpener’s slant slightly with lasting effect for the pencils.

Research and development are also vitally important for creating quality. On the one hand, quality means something timeless: "Customers who held a Faber-Castell pencil in their hands 40 years ago and found it supple and valuable should feel exactly the same today," says Zeilinger. Indeed, the basic formulas that Lothar von Faber designed some 180 years ago still apply today, especially as far as the degrees of hardness he determined are concerned. On the other hand, however, the quest for quality can never stand still. With every new discovery about materials or processes, there are also new opportunities for innovation. Like the discovery that triangular jumbo pens fit better in the hands of novice writers than hexagonal pens. Or like the development of the Faber-Castell Dust-Free eraser that doesn't crumble. "We always set ourselves the task of being innovative," says Zeilinger. "We want to be the first to market with products that no one else has."

Artists need colours that do not fade

In other words, innovation that doesn’t change the essence of the brand. Customers must be able to rely on getting quality when they buy a Faber-Castell brand pencil, says Zeilinger: "I don't think about what the engine block of my car is made of, I expect it to work.” Customers should be able to buy Faber-Castell with a clear conscience. Which brings us back to the beginning: the importance of care and concentration on details, even before production begins. "Process reliability," Zeilinger says, "means that the standards we have set are definitely adhered to in every single pencil. Without standards, there is no quality." For example, colour pencils should not contain too many fillers that weaken the colour: "Otherwise you spoil the fun and joy of colouring for children.
This is crucial for an important target group: artists, i.e.: professionals who put particularly high demands on their colour pencils, or more precisely, on the pigments within them. "Pigment production today is very high-tech," Zeilinger explains. Pigments are analysed and tested in the laboratory to ensure that they do not change, even when exposed to sunlight: "Artists attach great importance to durable colours, after all, they want their works to be preserved for posterity," says Zeilinger. And artists also expect the colours to be perfectly accurate – i.e.: not contaminated by the smallest amounts of other colours because a different colour was previously produced in the paint mixing kettle. That, too, is process reliability. "Professionals then naturally spend more money on a pencil if they can rely on these parameters," Zeilinger adds: "With colour smears and mixing ratios, or with 'mixed texture' techniques such as mixing watercolour and polychrome, being able to rely on identical colours is what really counts."

No lead shall break

The pencil, which appears so simple at first glance, therefore, consists of a multitude of details, decisions and process steps that can make it high quality – or not. Faber-Castell has opted entirely for the first variant. Quite in the spirit of the company’s former CEO Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell, who passed away in 2016: He was renowned for the performances he would give for visitors when he would throw 166 pencils down from the top of the castle tower at company headquarters. 25 metres down. Back on the ground, he would then cut open the pencils lengthwise to show that none of the leads had broken. "That is quality," says Zeilinger.