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The Romans gave us the name - the stylus they used for writing on a wax tablet was called a pencillus and was often made of soft metal.  Not only did it write in wax, but it also marked a papyrus surface and the softest of these styli were made of lead.

The marking material in a modern ‘everyday’ black pencil is made of a type of carbon called graphite but we still refer to the weapon as a pencil and the marking material as ‘lead’.

Natural Graphite has been found in many parts of the world, and since the late 1500s, sources of graphite have often been the places where pencil manufacture has taken place.

Very pure Graphite was found in Borrowdale in Cumberland ( Cumbria today ) around the mid 1500s and was used to make marking tools, though without some convenient means of holding the pieces of graphite, the job was very messy.

Graphite sticks were first manufactured from powdered graphite in Nuremburg in Germany around the mid 1600s as they had less pure graphite and needed to process and purify the material first.

It was the Italians who refined the system of wrapping graphite between two pieces of wood to make a convenient writing instrument, and by the late 1700s, pencils were being made in virtually the same way as they are made today, in Italy (Bernacotti) , Austria (Joseph Hardtmuth), Germany (Kaspar Faber and also the Staedtlers ) and France (Jacques Conte).

In the United Kingdom, a cluster of pencil makers in the Lake District established the UK’s first pencil factory in 1832.  

Successors to that business became the Cumberland Pencil Company which in turn became the Derwent company we know today.  Pencils are still made by Derwent in Cumbria, though today the factory is a ‘state of the art’ one in Workington, on the Cumbrian coast.  The Derwent Pencil Museum is still based in Keswick, and you can see the history of Derwent Pencils on the    

 Derwent Pencil Museum  web site.

The most recently established of the big manufacturers in Europe was Caran d’Ache which was established in Switzerland in 1924 as a maker of writing instruments.  

Coloured pencils were introduced progressively and were mainly wax based and sold for children’s use (‘crayons’).  

Water soluble pencils came with the development of copy books and pencils in offices where copies of letters written with the pencils could be transferred into a permanent record ‘copy’  book by means of a damp roller on to a tissue paper page (and read from the back).

In the last 20 years, the children’s art medium has flourished with the development of more refined, permanent and fade proof colours and also with the development of advanced techniques for using coloured pencils.

As of 2015 there are a number of newer companies worldwide joining the older established brands.

Manufacture is now done internationally to reduce costs

Pencils are made in factories on most continents for Faber-Castell. The Japanese Sakura group owns a number of companies in the Netherlands.  There are large USA interests with several companies based in the USA.  

Manufacture is now very refined and pencils are made in a wide range of qualities from low cost to very high specification.

We are fortunate to live at a time when this medium has been developed so thoroughly

We now have a serious artist’s medium capable of producing work to the highest quality.   

Further pages on the web site explore that development.



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Photos of the old Borrowdale graphite workings taken by,

and copyright of, Barbara Murray 2014

Last edit January 2015