Sharpening the classic carpenter’s pencil

Imagine my surprise, when some years ago, as I was going through the check out at a major hardware mart, I noticed a new pencil sharpener that promised to put a conical shape on the classic carpenter’s pencil.  My immediate reaction was, WTF!  Why would anyone pay for a carpenter’s pencil and then shape and sharpen it like any other pencil.  This was clearly a solution in search of a problem.  Hey!  Save your money.  Steal a regular pencil from your kids or your wife!  Then it dawned on me.  Maybe there are a lot of people who just don’t understand how to use a carpenter’s pencil to one’s best advantage.

Of course, the pencil is a marking tool.  And the carpenter’s pencil (like any woodworking tool) works best when it is sharp.  The traditional method of sharpening a carpenter’s pencil is to create four trapezoidal surfaces, thereby presenting a knife edged lead.  This allows the user to strike a very fine line. A further benefit of this method is that sharpness can be maintained by simply rubbing the lead on a bit of fine sand paper.

My friends in the timber framing craft, many times opt for a somewhat different and very useful method of preparing their pencils.  The method below allows for very tight marking of both large and small joints. But, more importantly, it allows one to use the pencil as a scribing tool.  The long, angled surface can be created and maintained with a knife, chisel or plane.

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The only caveat here is to be careful not to cut the long, angled surface so close to the lead as to weaken it’s position in the wooden stock of the pencil.

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And, for goodness sake, if you bought one of those sharpeners, throw it away or hide it.  Pretend you never had one and then proceed to show all of your woodworking friends how you do it.  They’ll be very impressed with your practical knowledge.

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2 Comments on “Sharpening the classic carpenter’s pencil”


  1. I learned that trick from a French journeyman twenty years ago, only he planed the long flat on the flat side of the pencil, thus creating a chisel edge. Paring the lead (remember when architects used pencils?) is the only way to get really thin, and that carbon will quickly dull an edge, plus gets your hands dirty.
    Working trim and cabinetry, I use the same method with regular wood pencils (break the plastic ones into little bits…). A chisel edge on a #2 lasts longer than a conical point.


  2. I was also taught by one of my timber frame instructors who learned from a French guild trained timber framer to plane a long taper on the back of my pencil. This is called the “board” of the pencil. The French have a pencil very similar to the Dixon 997 Hard that I use, but they are closer to a foot long to start with. I keep my edge the full width of the lead, which makes it last longer between touch ups. In French scribe layout, you often need that long “board” to carry the dimensions from the plumbette string to the timber.


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