The Carpenter's Pencil
As a boy, I had a brief yet intense period of time knowing my Dad. Over the years, at first unexpected and then with regularity thereafter, a small set of objects and places has triggered pleasant feelings about this guy. Model airplanes and ships, which he loved building and painting. Wissahocken Park, where he loved taking me hiking. A stack of notepads and pencils from his old place of employment that still hang about a drawer in my grandmother's house.
Shortly after becoming a home owner and, therefore, a regular customer of hardware stores, I was confronted with another treasured object from a lost part of my youth: the carpenter's pencil, that flat, thick, rectangular pencil that is often sitting at the checkout counter, separating the real men from the boys among DIY impulse buyers. You know, they make sharpeners for these pencils now, but every time I see them next to these special pencils I only think about buying, I scoff at the idea of the sharpener and wonder how any real woodworker could cheat him- or herself the satisfaction of sharpening a carpenter's pencil with a penknife or nearby chisel!
Selling lumber was my father's job, and woodworking was his passion. As a young boy, it seemed like he possessed one archetypal carpenter's pencil - and maybe he did. That pencil could be found in his tool box, on his workbench in the garage, in his glove compartment, and sometimes in his tackle box. He could whip out technical drawings for his customers and his home building projects, and he could doodle with the best of them. Thick, bold pencil lines with firm angles. All the pencil-based tricks of gradation. Sometimes I'd sit next to him and doodle along, pressing down with all my might on a thick No. 2 pencil from his office. He was a bit possessive about his carpenter's pencil, and who could blame him? This was the tool of a craftsman, a craft I would show no aptitude for then or now. I'd make a habit, when he wasn't around, of going out to the garage, getting my little fingers around the natural finish of that unnatural writing utencil, and pressing that thick, soft point into his graph-paper note pads. I rarely pulled off a great doodle with that pencil, but it was fun trying. When I was done, my left hand and the paper would be smeared with the almost-greasy graphite. I'd put the pencil back in its rightful place. Heaven!
One of the downsides of maturing to the point where I was first trusted with using a pen is that I would spend less time using a pencil. One of the downsides of the development of the personal computer is that over the last 15 years, I have spent increasingly less time writing by hand. Surely the computer offers its own forms of doodling, but none has developed with the promise of mastering the carpenter's pencil.