Rooting for the Underdog

One of my favorite things to do at my job is to shop for office supplies. As the marketing and operations director of a small office, I would rather not get office supplies delivered regularly — for me, it’s therapeutic to go out, take my time at Office Depot or Staples, and find the right things to buy. And, of course, my visits always take me through the pencil aisle.

Unfortunately, that aisle seems to get smaller and smaller each year. At least, the ratio of mechanical pencils to woodcased pencils become more extensive — in the mechanical’s favor.

Maybe that’s why I felt an urgency to get a pencil blog up and going again. Although collectors and aficionados of wooden pencils are a tight-knit and loyal group, the average user of pencils prefers mechanical. Why? Well, it’s easier. You never need to sharpen it, and the lead retracts, never leaving graphite on your shirt pocket.

But I feel I can speak for most pencil users when I say that it’s more than convenience. The act of writing itself can be a cathartic, metaphysical experience. Why shouldn’t your writing instrument be that as well?

Wooden pencils are made, more or less, out of natural, elemental ingredients. The barrel? Wood. The core? Clay and metal. The eraser? Rubber from a tree (well, in the old days, that is).

When a wooden pencil lays down a mark, it leaves behind a piece of itself. You can’t refill it like a mechanical, no — its permanently gone. But sadly, the mark itself isn’t permanent. That can be erased easily on a whim. Such is the tragedy of  the woodcased pencil. Often, as human, we are that pencil — we spend time, energy, and invest ourselves in things that can be undone in a matter of seconds. And we never get that that piece of ourselves back.

I love most everything that has to do with the process of writing. Not just pencils, but paper, pens, typewriters, erasers, computers, word processors. Typewriters, especially, because they’re an anachronism — a relic of what “high tech” used to mean. Maybe I love wooden pencils because they seem to be disappearing.


A Zebra mechanical #2. I like it because it looks like a wooden pencil.

I don’t think writing with graphite will go away, at least not in the forseeable future. People will need to scribble erasable notes longhand for a few more years, and erasable pens just aren’t, well, good at marking or erasing. I think our mechanical pencil overlords will thrive. But hopefully, our little wooden friends will stick around a bit longer.

Don’t get me wrong; I use a mechanical pencil every once in a while. In fact, I have plans to feature my favorite, a Zebra #2 (that looks like a wooden pencil, actually) right here on this very blog.

But I think my love will always lay with the little wooden pencil. For some reason, I always have more to write about, and I feel like there’s always so much more to learn. Brands come and go, companies get bought and sold, and with each little variation in pencil production, new discussion is sparked and the pencil blogosphere has something new to chatter about. We just hope that we don’t run out of products and variations to discover!

So join me, friends, and let’s get the little wooden underdog back on top of the writing world!

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4 thoughts on “Rooting for the Underdog

  1. I agree with you about shelf space allocation on the typical office supply store and the variety of mechanical vs. wood cased pencils that are generally available at retail to the average consumer in these outlets. Consumer choice at the office supply retail level for general writing instruments is much better than for wood-cased pencils.

    However which is the real underdog all depends what your definition of being the underdog is. Is it variety of choice, total value of sales or total piece counts? Each of these is much different proportionately.

    As an example shelf-space in stores is not necessarily a good surrogate for total unit consumption on a national basis. US import statistics show that we bring in 5 times the piece count in wood-cased graphite pencils vs. mechanical pencils each year plus about the same ratio in wood-cased color pencils, though these color items may include crayons as well. This is separate from US production which still generally shows similar ratio of prodction of wood-cased graphite vs. mechanical.

    Wood-cased pencils have more variety of distribution channels and are sold in many more pieces per purchase than mechanical pencils so it’s easy to see that wood-cased pencils are not really the underdog when it comes to total unit sales.

    If you assume the average mechanical pencil sells for about the price of the average 10 count pack of pencils then this means the sales value at a 5:1 unit ratio is going to be perhaps 2:1 in favor of mechanicals. But this is really a speculation on my part and would need more checking to get a better feel for relative value of sales. Since retailer margins are likely much higher for mechanical pencils vs. typical wood-cased pencils the wholesale or import values may not be too representative.

  2. Haha, Oh, Woodchuck, how you dirty my pretty words with you business acumen. (-:

    Seriously though, that’s really interesting. In this context, I would say that the lack of variety and innovation in the wooden pencil industry makes it an underdog. CalCedar, of course, is definitely the exception, but I can’t go out to buy that at Office Depot (or anywhere else in Fort Wayne, for that matter). It feel like the major brands are tired, or have stopped caring, or have decided to design and innovate where mechanical are concerned. Sure, we have cool things like the Tri-Conderoga and those interesting little anti-microbial pencils, but for the most part ‚ blech.

    Honestly, though, I am surprised at your figure about pencils consumed in the US. Wooden pencils are, inch by inch, dwarfed by the number of mechanical pencils offered on the shelves. I guess they just have a much higher turnaround then, no? And I would bet that they are disposed of much, much faster.

    I still maintain my underdog position, but perhaps only in a personified, metaphorical sense. You definitely win when it comes to the economics, sir. (-:

  3. Pingback: Bullet pencils: Pocket-friendly utensils from a bygone era | Woodclinched

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