In Chris Schwarz Blog, Joinery, Marking and Measuring

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In the shop, my mechanical pencil is as important as my eyeglasses. I use a mechanical pencil with a 0.5mm lead to darken in my knife lines when cutting dovetails, tenons or other joinery.

I like the really thin lead because I can usually drop it into a knife line and , with just light pressure , the lead will mark only the right and left sides of the knife line. That makes it easier to split my pencil line when sawing.

I know you are beginning to think I have an engineering background. Really, I’m not all that fussy.

While I like my mechanical pencils, I’ve always hated three things about them: the pencil mechanism itself, the lead and the eraser. Oh, and the pocket clip is flimsy, too.

I generally buy the Pentel pencils, which are the top of the line here in Kentucky. Their mechanisms tend to jam; I get about six months out of a pencil. The eraser is as effective as a gummy bear. The lead breaks too easily.

But heck, that’s what you get, right?

Today I was at Staples looking to replace my latest ex-Pentels when I noticed something I’d never seen before: “Super Hi-Polymer Lead,” which is supposed to be 25 percent stronger. (Stronger than what? Stinky cheese?)

I picked up a pack of the stuff with my new soon-to-be-dead pencils and used it to mark half-blind dovetails all afternoon. You know what? It really is stronger than the regular lead. I didn’t snap a single lead through six sets of dovetails. That is a record.

So if you’re a mechanical pencil dweeb like me, check out the Hi-Polymer stuff next time you need a refill. Hey, now I only hate two things about my mechanical pencils.

– Christopher Schwarz


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Showing 23 comments
  • James Watriss

    I haven’t seen this may responses about anything in a long time.

    I smell a new tool review.

  • Ken Buddha

    FYI, Wet Paint Art (www.wetpaintart.com) out of Minnesota, sells the Fixpencil for about $11 cheaper than Lee Valley. And shipping is about the same, if not cheaper.

  • Matthew Holbrook

    Chris:

    May I recommend to all the Fixpencil (Swiss made) which is sold by Lee Valley / Veritas. I ordered one of these mechanical pencils to replace one that I lost several years ago when working on the restoration of the steam locomotive cab woodwork for Engine #253. The lead is about 2 mm thick, but the Fixpencil comes with a nifty (very effective) sharpener that fits in the cap under the eraser. You remove the cap to sharpen the lead. You can sharpen the lead to a fine point suitable for enhancing your dovetail layout lines. The lead is also thick enough that it will not break when you mark those squiggles on rough lumber to show where you need to handplane.

    Regards,

    Matthew Holbrook
    Sunrise, FL

  • Sean Durkin

    Chris,

    In case you aren’t aware, Pentel mechanical pencils have a lifetime warranty. With two sets you could have a rotating supply forever.

    /S

  • Christopher Schwarz

    Ryan,

    It’s the cover project for the next issue of Woodworking Magazine. Here’s the prototype:

    https://www.popularwoodworking.com/techniques/joinery/festool-domino-the-six-month-report

    The new one looks even better….

    Chris

  • Chuck Nickerson

    Mike – in the session I saw in Berea, Frank was asked why he used a pencil instead of a knife. He answered "I use a pencil." Frank’s answer contained information, just not the information the questioner was seeking.

  • Mike Siemsen

    I can’t believe 16 posts about pencils!
    I had to laugh at WIA Berea when Frank Klause was asked what type of pencil he used for laying out dovetails. He curtly replied, "I use a PENCIL!" I am afraid to buy a good pencil because there is a vortex or something in my shop that sucks them up, They disappear at an alarming rate! My pencils are wood, average 3 1/2" long and have teeth marks in them. I use a good old fashioned hand crank pencil grinder.
    Mike

  • Chris F

    I too have been using those leads for some time.

    I’m partial to my old Staedtler automatic pencil. Rubber grip, retractable metal point, etc. Unfortunately it’s no longer available.

    I also like the Koh-I-Noor Rapidomatic. Knurled metal grip, avaiable as narrow as 0.3mm.

  • Kip

    I picked up a .07 Draftmatic at an art supply store about 8 years ago when I was just setting up and it’s still going strong. A superior pencil! Round barrel, not faceted and the lettering has worn off, making it more beautiful.
    My bronze 102, 4" starrett combo square, marking knife and mechanical pencil- you could bury me with these objects over my heart. They are old friends.

  • Ryan M

    I sure hope us magazine subscribers get to see where all these dovetailed drawers are going… what are you building?

    Ryan

  • Sam

    Yes, 0.5 mechanical pencil is ideal for darkening knife lines. That, plus a raking light, has helped me improve my sawing a great deal.

  • Mike

    Or, simply use good ol’ pencils and a good sharpener. Both are available from Lee Valley. Their pencils are available in a range of hardnesses. The sharpener is good and stout.

  • Jason Weaver

    Chris,

    I too am a mechanical pencil geek, and I have a new favorite.

    Office Max has a new in-house line of pens, pencils, and markers called TUL (I would put a line over that U if I could). The mechanical pencil comes in 5mm and 7mm, has a one-inch eraser that twists out as you need it (and actually works), the entire shaft is a subtle grip surface, and the tip retracts for pocket entry.

    Here is a link to the pencils:

    http://www.officemax.com/catalog/sku.jsp?skuId=21216177&cm_mmc=GBase-_-Office_Supplies-_-Pens,_Pencils,_Markers_-_-Pencils&ci_src=14110944&ci_sku=21216177

    Peace,
    Jason

  • Che

    Agreed that you need to check out the drafting/arts supply stores. There are some wonderful mechanical pencils around. I’ve had my Koh-I-Norr for 10 years or so without problem.

    As far as led. Standard #2 pencil is 2B Hardness is as follows where H is a hard led that will give a light line and B is a soft led that will give a black line.

    9H,8H,7H,6H,5H,4H,3H,2H,H,F,HB,B,2B,3B,4B,5B,6B,7B,8B,9B

  • Bob Lang

    Just to keep things moving in a geeky, engineering direction you should also try using harder leads. The HB is roughly equivalent to a good old #2 pencil, easy to see but rather soft and prone to smudging and smearing. 2H leads are much sturdier and leave a finer line. 4H are harder still, but the lines can be hard to see.

    Bob Lang

  • Steve

    Chris,

    Where have you been hiding? Super Hi-Polymer leads have been around for years and years. 😉

    One word of caution, though: Over the years, there have been many changes in the Hi-Polymer line-up (the original Hi-Polymer, Hi-Polymer 100, Hi-Polymer 120, etc.), and it’s hard to figure out which one is which. For example, there’s a Premium Hi-Polymer line that’s supposed to be inferior to the Super Hi-Polymer. I’m pretty sure that if you stick to SUPER Hi-Polymer, you’re safe.

  • Brian Ogilvie

    Hi Chris,

    Nice post! I love my Pentel 0.5mm pencil (I do have an engineering background) and keep one in my shop apron at all times. The stronger leads are great.

    Hard to find in US stores, but in Japan and via mail-order you can get 0.3 mm pencils which make a thin, thin line but are really fragile.

    If you are breaking leads, there are really only three things that can be going wrong in my experience:

    1. You can press too hard. Lighten up!
    2. You can have too much lead advanced out of the tip.
    3. The tip has come unscrewed and there is too much play in the mechanism.

    If you have #3, you will be breaking leads up inside the pencil and have lots of little 3/8" long broken bits stuck in the tip. This is what the long needle like thing in the other end of the eraser is for. Take the tip off and clean it out with the pin, then hold the pencil upside down while pressing the button and blow out any little lead bits stuck in the jaws. Reinstall the tip tightly and you are good to go.

    One more tip: When you really need to follow a knife line, "sharpen" two sides of the 0.5 mm lead on little scrap of paper or very fine sandpaper to a chisel-like shape. It will really hug that knife line!

    –Brian

  • Rick Harding

    If you hate your mechanical pencils, head over to the drafting section. I still have several of my pencils from my drafting days in school. They’re heavy, metal, and are just so much more enjoyable to use.

    Ones I still have are like these:
    http://www.amazon.com/DRAFT-MATIC-MECH-PENCIL-0-5MM/dp/B001DKIWM4/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=office-products&qid=1239799233&sr=8-6

    and I used to have one I liked with a retractable tip like this:
    http://www.amazon.com/DRAF-TEC-MECH-PENCIL-0-5mm/dp/B001DKFNNK/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&s=home-garden&qid=1239799233&sr=8-7

    Made for fewer stabs in the pocket.

  • Jason B

    If you want to find a really good mechanical pencil, Look for a Blueprint/Drafting supply store. They’re dying out; but there may still be one in your area. Look for these brands: Berol, Rotring or Rapidomatic. The Rotrings are all-metal construction and really nice, I’ve had one for years and the mechanism still works great. I’m sure you can find them on-line as well.

  • D Grant

    It’ll always be my trusty Staedtler leadholder for me – they use a 2mm lead that’s sure not to break, and that you can shave down to a point easily if need be. I’ve been using the same one for over seven years.

  • Ken Buddha

    Aah, mechanical pencils. They can be addictive if you ask me. Two of my favorite sites… http://davesmechanicalpencils.blogspot.com/
    http://www.jetpens.com/index.php/cPath/340

    Those pentels (203,205,207,209) are very nice, and cheap (around $2 as I recall). If you want that cool factor spend $15 for the Pentel 1000 series!

    I know, I know… they’re only pencils…

  • dave brown

    The hi polymer leads are awesome. If you want a good eraser that will last forever, grab one of the big white drafting erasers. They’re also made of some sort of polymer — no sand.

  • Ed Paik

    Hi Chris,

    I’ve been using the 0.7mm Pentel (blue) pencils for years with great results. Just "re-discovered" the 0.5mm pencil just recently and I agree they are wonderful. I will have to try the stronger leads as the regular ones crumble like a cheap chisel edge…

    Thanks for the heads up!

    Best regards,

    Ed Paik

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