Though we've devoted many Toolbox Tuesdays talking about very cool and "sexy" heavy duty tools such as saws and nail guns, it is important to remember the critical role the smaller and more general devices play in our everyday DIYing. When I think of things I'm absolutely sure to include on my list of "must haves," there are few tools more simplistic, utilitarian, and useful than the flat carpenter's pencil.

If you don't already own and use them frequently, you've probably seen them in your hardware store, or perhaps tucked behind the ear of a general contractor or tradesman. However, it wasn't until I learned about this miraculous little pencil that I realized its true usefulness and function.

The traditional carpenter's pencil has been in use since the late 17th century in Germany and is a thick leaded wood pencil that you can buy in bulk boxes. Unlike a normal round or hexagonal lead pencil, the carpenter's pencil has been specifically designed to be a multi purpose aide when doing woodworking, construction, or just about any DIY project in need of a clearly visible and precise mark.

The first thing you notice is that the typical carpenter's pencil's shape is wide and flat. This flat design allows the pencil to be set down or dropped and it will not roll away from where you are working. Beyond the idea that the shape keeps it from wandering away, it also allows the pencil to be easily placed behind your ear, or in your pocket, tool belt, or tool box and easily found while feeling around.

Though the shape of the pencil helps its convenience, it also lends itself to its excellent function. The measurements of the standard carpenter's pencil are consistent and deliberate, and I had no clue why until someone explained it to me. The width is usually 19/32" (sometimes 1/2") across the flat side, and 1/4" wide on the skinny side. These measurements make the pencil extremely versatile. The fact it is 1/4" wide means you can use it as a standard width spacer for things like decking. Additionally, the center point of the lead and where the edge of the lead falls in relation to the pencil edge means you can use the flat side against another surface to scribe with a 1/16" offset. Essentially, the various widths are there to help you use the pencil as a quick and easy guide when working on your various projects. 

If you don't need precision scribing or lines, the lead of the carpenter's is thick and tough, and it marks rough and non wood surfaces very well. I've used it to mark measurements on cement, cast iron, lead and copper -- well, really just about anything. The only thing that this pencil typically has a problem marking on is damp lumber (but just about anything has problems with that).

However, of all of the usefulness of this great "tool," one of the things that has forever been an issue for me was my ability to sharpen it for use. I've worked with guys who are experts at sharpening them with a utility knife, but I always seem to cut off more than necessary, make the point too dull or too sharp, and end up with a lopsided and off center pencil tip. To solve this issue I found this great carpenter's pencil sharpener. Just like a normal sharpener, but it works with the wide and flat carpenter's pencil. What it leaves you with is a perfectly sharp pencil that have a lead that's right in the center of the pencil, perfect for scribing, measuring, and marking in a consistent manner.

Have you discovered the wonder of the carpenter pencil? How about the carpenter pencil sharpener? Do you have a preferred brand, or maybe an alternate use or pencil preference. Let me know what you think.

Did you enjoy reading this post? Want to learn more about our first-hand experiences with other tools, devices or items used throughout our renovation? If so, check out our complete list of product reviews in our Toolbox Tuesday section

Note: We weren't compensated for this review. We simply want to share good products when we see them, and hope that learning from our mistakes can help save you time, money and frustration.

Comments 4


threadbndr (Karla)
5/3/2012 at 8:39 AM
And if you're a little kid and find your grandpa's box of them, you can use them like Lincoln Logs.

I need to see if I can find the picture of the boy stacking them up - it's one of my favorite candid shots of him at about age 4. He used to follow my dad around like a little shadow, and Dad was always patient with kids "helping" - letting them hand him tools, holding things, and so on.
That story is precisely the type of thing that will keep kids involved in and appreciating the work that they can do when they get older. And a Lincoln Log alternate use for these pencils is essentially perfect. I used to LOVE Lincoln Logs.
Harry Gaertner
6/26/2012 at 8:15 PM
There is a carpenter pencil sharpener that puts a chisel point on the pencil. Made by Keson. Sells for about $3.50. It shaves the flat side to a perfect wedge, and then the edges to a taper, so you end up with a true chisel point. Any other sharpener puts a round point on the pencil and that defeats the purpose of the carpenter pencil.
Harry, thanks for the tip, I'm going to pick one up right away!
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