The 2014 Anarchist’s Gift Guide: Day 1 - Popular Woodworking Magazine

The 2014 Anarchist’s Gift Guide: Day 1

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs


Full disclosure: The following gift ideas are 100-percent unsponsored. I bought all these tools myself and would buy them all again – that’s why they are on this list.

First on my list for 2014 is a tool you don’t see much in woodshops, but you should. It’s called a “lead holder” by artists and architects and it basically what a normal mechanical pencil would look like if you were hit by a shrink ray.

A lead holder grasps a long stick of lead that you can sharpen or carve to any shape. The lead is robust and difficult to break. And it leaves a bold mark even if you use little downward pressure.

A student in Germany turned me on to these marking devices about four years ago and I use them constantly to mark lumber throughout all phases of a project – from crosscutting rough stock to circling areas of tear-out that need to be removed before finishing.

Unlike a carpenter’s pencil, this thing is almost unbreakable and never needs to be carved back. And it’s easier to use than a lumber crayon.

After burning through a few different kinds I did a lot of research and bought this one from Art Alternatives. It is shockingly well made for an $8 item. Mine has been all over the world, dropped, kicked and accidentally thrown across the floor. And it still works.

The lead holder comes with extra lead and a metal case (which I now use to store coping saw blades).

Highly recommended.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 13 comments
  • EternalApprentice

    Couldn’t agree more, Chris. These were part of the required kit when I went to art school and I immediately bought one just for my toolbox. I use the Koh-i-nor brand as well. I recommend if you want one that you buy a lead pointer as well, though you can get a decent chisel-tip with fine sandpaper, the pointer is my preference because it’s quick and uses up less sandpaper. They’re available from DickBlick:


    When I took my mechanical drawing class in 1957, I bought a couple of lead holders to use, along with a paddle that had stacked sheets of sandpaper on it for sharpening. In those days, we ground the lead to a “chisel point” (i.e., flat on two sides) so that our lines would have a constant width. We used art gum erasers and “scum bags” to dust rubber shavings onto our drawings so our tools would move easily on the paper without leaving marks.


    I’ve had a couple Staedler 2 mm lead holders in the shop for about 18 mo. The first has 2B lead for marking most woods. The second has a white lead for marking Walnut. Then I got a 3rd with HB lead for using on paper. The HB and 2B used together are good for doing furniture sketches. Love those things.

  • oltexasboy

    Like “duckfarmer” I also learned the value of a mechanical pencil in drafting class. you need one of the small lead sharpeners and you might try using “HB “lead works, well and you don’t have to press as hard, less indention to sand off.

  • mccp

    Any idea if the Art Alternative is the same product as in the Czech Republic (for your EU readers)?

    • Christopher Schwarz
      Christopher Schwarz

      I cannot say. However, several people told me the Koh-I-Nor and Art Alternatives seem the same inside and out.

      I have not seen a Koh-I-Nor, so I’m not certain.

    • Straightlines

      I’m an architect and find that my favorite brand of “lead holder” — the proper technical name in American English, BTW and should be used in product searches — is in fact the Koh-I-noor product line. My preference is for the heaviest and most robustly built model, which is the way we typically like our hand tools and for the same reasons. Staedler-Mars also has decent offerings.

      Some key things to know about lead holders: A) they have no eraser; B) they REQUIRE a specialized “lead pointer” for sharpening, which can in fact be a simple pad of 80-grit sandpaper as long as you don’t mind the mess. To solve limitation “A” I buy a “stick eraser,” which comes in either a peel back pencil format or as rubber refill sticks that fit into an eraser “holder” that resembles the lead holder but is fatter for the larger diameter erasers. To solve “B” my favorite pointer is the Koh-I-noor “Precision Pointer,” which is about the same format as a largish lipstick and is comprised of 4 tiny internal carbide blades and a capsule for dust capture; this pointer fits nicely in the hand and one’s pocket very nicely without making a mess of things.

      I suggest patronizing your local good drafting/art supply store, and this is NOT “Michael’s” or other similar national chains, because these are rather specialized and old-school tools. The right places to look are generally near a university or community college. For sure, you want to pick one up, handle it, draw/write a bit, get its feel, because they are all different in the hand. Try out different leads in the store so that you can buy the softest lead that doesn’t crumble under the weight of your personal writing style — my favorite hardnesses are B & 2B. While you’re in that drafting store, you’ll likely find some very wonderful adjustable triangles and stainless steel rules that are often cheaper than those from machinist and woodworking suppliers.

      I’m biased because I draw a lot, but feel confident saying that I view a proper writing instrument to be the single most important tool in the entire shop (other than the brain), as it is the means by which our thoughts land on the paper and sometimes the wood.

      • Seenya

        I believe that Dick Blick has them.

  • rellison

    I spent the summer of 2013 at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. Of all the tools required for the course, this is the one most used – then and today.

  • duckfarmer27

    I have to laugh Chris. Guys my age (over 65) who took mechanical drawing in high school, worked as a draftsman or engineer remember those all too well. Still use at my drawing table in the shop all the time but have never happened to use at the bench on wood – have several, non probably newer than the 70s. Might have to try the ‘dual use’.

    Just goes to show how you can use something for 50 years and still find a new use.


  • Frank Vucolo


    Thanks Chris

  • DannyC

    I use the same thing – I have several – I also have one from Rockler that is LARGE but works just fine as it is easy to grasp and doesn’t roll. It (and the others) sharpens in my rotary desk sharpener.

    I can put a blunt point or needle point or anything in between on it.

    • REFFI

      Since my earlier reply, I was gifted with a “Fat Boy” mechanical pencil. They were being given out by Fast Cap at Sam Maloof’s place. The design is very similar to the lead holders I own, but the lead is 5.5 mm in diameter. I’ve not tried marking with it, but in using it to write with, the lead is fairly hard (maybe an H or 2H). The point is tapered to a fairly sharp cone and doesn’t seem to wear very fast. Fast Cap also gifted me with a new 16′ tape that has a built in sharpener for the fat lead (or a regular pencil). I checked Fast Cap’s website and found that they also make a red crayon “lead” for this pencil for marking on darker wood. I’ve not used this tool sufficiently to render an honest evaluation (nor am I in anyway affiliated with Fast Cap) but the design looks sound, it appears sturdy and it comes with an eraser under the thumb release. The fact that it was free is also a plus.

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