Perfecting the Pencil - Entrepreneur Week


Photo by Dvortygirl.

Written by Danielle Pittner

Do you remember the last time you sharpened a yellow #2 pencil? You may not, but David Rees does. In fact, he may have sharpened that pencil for you last night. Yes, that one right there you’re holding.

Rees is the first of his kind — an Artisanal Pencil Sharpener. That’s right, he sharpens pencils for a living. And not just any old pencil taken from some random corner of the world but Yellow #2 General’s Pencils from Jersey City, the last of the American made pencils. Rees uses the term “artisanal” in a serious way, right in line with breadmakers, cheesemakers, and candlestick makers.

“If you take care and time and try to do something really right; doing it by hand, researching best practices, things like that, I would say I fall into the traditional definition of artisanal,” Rees told BTR.

His artisanal pencils come at the artisanal price of $15 per pencil, comprising of: one hand-sharpened pencil (Rees averages about 4 pencils an hour), one pencil tip tube, one indestructible display tube, one bag containing the sharpened pencil’s shavings, and one signed and dated certificate authenticating that the pencil is officially a dangerous object.

David Rees with a few untouched pencils. Photo courtesy of David Rees.

Not only is Rees serious about the word artisanal, but he’s serious about his craft. Known for his political cartoons, Rees has many skeptics questioning the sincerity of this venture. Some think it’s a joke, which is understandable given his history of fake HTML websites and general antics. One of the very first things you’ll read on the Artisanal Pencil Sharpener website answers the number one question: “IS THIS A JOKE? If you start a pencil-sharpening business, you can expect to hear this question a lot. The short answer? No, this is not a joke. You pay David Rees money and he sharpens your pencils. It actually happens.”

The eureka moment for Rees occurred when he worked for the Census Bureau as a door-knocker. On the first day of staff training, everyone was given #2 pencils to sharpen and Rees found the experience of pencil sharpening rather satisfying, not to mention that it made him nostalgic for the old writing tool. “A #2 pencil is simpler,” Rees says, “more flexible than a mechanical pencil and the design hasn’t changed fundamentally in hundreds of years. It beats [a] mechanical pencil on its own without being showy. I wish my life was that simple. I guess the only similarity is that I’m tall and narrow like a #2 pencil.”

Rees is celebrating the #2 year anniversary of his pencil sharpening business this month. He has sharpened 500 pencils to date with a current back order of 40 and counting. Not bad for an idea that seemed unmarketable to most.

“The client base is broad,” says Rees, “ it includes artists and writers, contractors, school children who want a lucky pencil before a standardized test. Some want the pencil to use, some to keep on their desk as a sculpture, or to remind them to do a good job.”

Despite the surprising demand for artisanally-sharpened pencils, Rees can’t quite make a living from it. “It’s more of a lucrative hobby,” Rees said. And to pay the bills, he continues freelancing in both the writing and cartooning worlds.

Rees published an 18 chapter book about the history and art of manual pencil sharpening titled, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants. More than a guide to the best practices of manual pencil sharpening, the book is also a celebration of pencils.

“I’m trying to make people happy,” he says. “There’s no deep hidden meaning to it.”

He is currently touring the nation reading from his book, sharpening pencils, and living the life. Rees says he enjoys going on tour for reasons such as people showing up with their childhood pencils for him to sharpen, meeting people who have ordered pencils, and seeing others’ reactions to the book.

So after starting a business, writing a book, and traveling the country on a book tour, what’s next for Mr. Rees? “People have said I should write about erasers next. I’m not really interested in erasers.”