Biz Features

Discover The Lost Art Of Pencil Sharpening With David Rees

by . October 9th, 2015

How do you sharpen a pencil?


For average people like us, we probably just use the ol’ run-o’-the-mill pencil sharpener. The slightly more well-off might use a hand-cranked sharpener, while the rich use the electric one. It’s a non-question.

But for David Rees, it’s serious business.

Once, he was a cartoonist whose works were published in Rolling Stone, GQ, The Nation, Harper’s, and many other publications. He gave that career up to pursue his dream—to learn the finer points of artisanal pencil sharpening.


(Photo credit: Pricefilms)

2010 was a hard year for David. “I was broke (I had quit cartooning) so I got a job working for the U.S. Census,” David said in his Reddit AMA. “On the first day of staff training, we were told to sharpen our #2 pencils using a government-issued single-blade pocket sharpener. While sharpening my pencil, I thought, ‘I wonder if I could get paid to sharpen pencils?'”

So he started with the help of some friends (web designer, photographer, etc.) “The whole thing was kind of a challenge to myself: Take something you enjoy doing and convince people they should pay you to do it. In order for this project to work, it had to take the form of an ACTUAL pencil sharpening business, not just a silly web site for a non-existent business.”

“You can sharpen a pencil without a pencil sharpener, but you can’t sharpen a pencil without a pencil.”—David Rees

Starting at $40, you can have your pencil sharpened the traditional way, shipped back to you complete with the shavings and signed and dated certificate authenticating that it is now a dangerous object. It is marketed to artists, writers, and standardized test takers.

Also, he only accepts a #2 pencil.


(Photo credit: Ape Lad)

“A lot of people think they know how to sharpen pencils,” said David in his appearance on a short film How To Sharpen Pencils, “but they don’t, really.” The mini-documentary shows David in his workshop, dressed in his artisanal apron and elaborating on the practical and theoretical treatise on the artisanal craft of pencil sharpening.

David covered the supplies needed and the methodology for starting an artisanal pencil sharpening business. It was a like seeing a master imparting hidden wisdom to a willing student. “You can sharpen a pencil without a pencil sharpener, but you can’t sharpen a pencil without a pencil.”

But the steps can be too technical for the amateur pencil sharpener. For example, David emphasizes the pencil lead placement in choosing which pencil to sharpen. “Make sure the graphite of the pencil is in center within the barrel or shaft of the pencil. If it is off-center, it’s gonna be harder to make a consistent conical point.”

At this point, you might be wondering if this is a joke. I assure you, it is not.

David continues “There are super abundance of pencil sharpening technologies available to us these days but it makes sense for us to pick up these tools and maintain the consistency of this old-timey practice. It connects us to our forebearers, to our ancestors and it also teaches that there is nothing to be afraid of and there is not to be ashamed of when it comes to sharpening a pencil with a straight blade.”

David Rees has since written his own book on pencil sharpening, HOW TO SHARPEN PENCILS, which the New Yorker dubs as “the standard to which all future pencil-sharpening textbooks must now aspire.” He has also appeared on the National Geographic Channel program Going Deep With David Rees.

“Don’t look back. Ever onward. That’s our motto.”

Interested in availing David’s artisanal pencil sharpening service? Comment below!


Kevin is a reader first, a writer second, and a gamer somewhere in between. When not rooting for Tyrion Lannister for the Iron Throne, he's probably writing some morbid short story. He enjoys some surreal art, clever advertising campaigns, and a warm cup of coffee while reading Murakami.