It is a known fact that lead is dangerous, so many wonder how is it possible that something like a pencil, which everyone, even children, uses almost regularly contains it? What is pencil lead made of? Were they the same as the one used in the past?
We decided to shed some light on this subject and talk about what is the lead all about and also briefly talked about the rich and deep history of the pencil.
What Is Pencil Lead Made Of?
Pencils do not and have never had any sort of lead in them, but people have taken a very long time to realize that the lead in the pencils we use regularly is not even the chemical lead, to begin with. In fact, this “lead” is basically a mixture of clay and graphite. Let us understand this better by looking into how these pencils were discovered and made.
Pencils are some of the oldest and without a doubt, widely used writing tool that originated in pre-historic times. These were charred sticks and chalky rocks used together to draw on surfaces such as cave walls and animal hides. It wasn’t until the 1400s wherein the direct and earliest ancestor of the present-day pencil was developed.
Nicholas-Jacques Conte first introduced the modern-day pencil in 1795. He was a scientist who was serving in the Napoleon Bonaparte army. The materials he used were a form of pure carbon that we now call graphite.
This was discovered first in Bavaria, Europe during the beginning of the 15th century, but it was used hundreds of years earlier by the Aztecs. Back then, this was believed to be a type of lead or even black lead.
However, this was completely incorrect and only in 1789 when it was called graphite, which is a word derived from the Greek term “graphein”, which meant “meaning to write”.
Pencil, on the other hand, is an older word which was derived from a Latin word called “pencillus” which means “little tail”. This was used to describe the small brushes of ink that were used for writing through the Middle Ages.
The Early Graphite Pencils
Originally, graphite was used as it is as an artist’s materials with just a string entirely wrapped around it. This string was basically incorporated to protect your hands from getting messy and preventing the graphite from breaking as they were very brittle.
It took centuries to discover the process of mixing powered clay with powdered graphite to create stronger and cheaper pencils. Faber-Castell is believed to be the very first pencil which was made of two, small planks of wood glued together with a stick of graphite inside.
Back in the day, these pencils were known to be a luxury item. These pencils were made originally by cabinet makers or any person who was skilled in woodcraft. Enclosing something so small in small planks of wood was not an easy process, especially by hand.
The pencil was considered to be a massive step-up from the then-modern pen, which was basically a quill that always needed a bottle of ink to be carried around with it.
How Are Modern-Day Pencils Made?
Modern-day pencils are made by grinding up graphite and clay inside a large-sized metal drum filled with rocks. This drum is rotated continuously so that the clay and graphite can be pulverized into a fine powder.
After that, water is added and blended for up to three days. When it reaches the right consistency, the water gets pressed out, and the muddy mixture left behind is left to dry and harden.
This is then ground up again. Another round of water is added to make a malleable paste. Pencil makers add more carbon to this mixture if they want to make the pencil lead darker.
That soft paste is then forced through a thin metal tube that has a small opening. This opening is the right size to make a perfectly round lead that is later put inside mechanical and wooden pencils.
The lead is cut in appropriate sizes and then heated in a kiln at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit until they come out hard and smooth. These are then dipped in either wax or oil so that it can be created into a smoother writing tool.
Finally, these are inserted into small wood planks, making it into a pencil. Alternatively, they can also be used in mechanical pencils.
Different Types of Pencil Leads
Other than the classic graphite pencils, there are quite a few types of pencil leads that are used for different purposes. They are:
- Charcoal Pencils
Artists typically use these. They are another famous form of the black lead pencil.
It is made from a different kind of carbon and not graphite, which is a lot like coal. These offer richer and darker marks on paper.
- Colored Pencil Leads
These are also used by artists but are very popular among children and students. These are made using a similar process of creating a blend of wax, pigment, and China clay. All of this is then extruded into a lead.
You will find several basic colored pencil sets that come in 12 or 24 colors in a carton. High-quality sets that are typically meant for artists can come up to 150 colors in one carton.
- Water Colored Pencils
These are colored leads but come with an additional feature of being able to wash in water. Thus, producing a result very similar to watercolor paints.
- Cosmetic Pencils
Cosmetic pencils are exactly what their name suggests. These are special colored leads that are used for make-up. These include products such as lip liner and eyeliner.
- Pastel Pencils
These are another kind of colored pencils that make markings that resemble chalk. These look fantastic on dark papers.
For everyone who ever wondered what is pencil lead made of and how is it safe for us to use, you can rest assured that the lead is basically a combination of graphite and clay. This is undoubtedly one of the best discoveries that we are highly benefitting from even today.