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David Rees
Photograph: David Rees David Rees

How to Sharpen Pencils

Gain an appreciation for hand-honed graphite.

By Rebecca Fishbein

Times must be tough for David Rees. The author and political cartoonist behind works such as Get Your War On started a second job in summer 2010, selling hand-sharpened writing implements—complete with a bag of shavings ($15, at On Wednesday 11, Rees, along with not-yet-announced special guests, launches his new book, How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, with a tutorial at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. (He’ll also share secrets with fellow No. 2 enthusiast John Hodgman in a talk at Public Assembly on May 18). We asked him about the art behind his perfect points.

How do you sharpen a pencil artisanally?
It depends on what the client is looking for. The pencil point for someone who wants to draw a still life might not be right for a writer. When I do face-to-face sharpening, I’ll ask the client what they’re going to use the pencil for, and that’ll determine the technique I use.

What kind of equipment do you use?
I have many different [tools]. Everything from my grandfather’s old pocketknife to the most expensive sharpener in the world [a $440 chrome El Casco model], and everything in between. I have a travel kit that has everything I can use to sharpen a pencil.

What do people use them for?
Because I ship my pencils back in display tubes, a lot of my customers keep them as an art object or an inspirational talisman. A lot of parents buy a lucky No. 2 for their kids to use during the SATs. I once had a job where I sharpened about 25 or 30 pencils for a group of fifth-graders who were all about to take the New York State Regents exam.

How do you feel about mechanical pencils?
There’s a chapter in my book called “A Few Words About Mechanical Pencils,” and the entire section explains that mechanical pencils are bullshit. They’re just kind of lame. They’re ugly, you can’t customize them, they’re plastic, they’re wasteful, they’re inelegant, they’re newfangled, they’re alienating. I don’t like them.

WRITE ON! David Rees, Barnes & Noble Union Square, 33 E 17th St between Broadway and Park Ave South (212-253-0810, Wed 11 at 7pm; free.

Where to find other artisanal items:

Casey Rubber Stamps
John Casey can make a stamp of your name, a cityscape or a bedbug. For more than 30 years, he’s turned designs into unique Bakelite molds into which he presses a sheet of heated rubber. Once the rubber cools, voilà! Your stamps are ready. Custom pieces (from $20) require one to two days. If you’re in a hurry, choose one from the hundreds of stock designs ($3–$15) that line the shelves. 322 E 11th St between First and Second Aves (917-669-4151, Mon–Tue 2–8pm, Wed–Sat 1–8pm, Sun 2:30–7pm.

Kremer Pigments Inc.
This art-supply store sells pigment powders created as they were centuries ago. From burnt umber made by pulverizing Cypriot rocks to bordeaux red produced through treating roots with aluminum salt, the hundreds of different shades ($7–$350 for 10 grams) can be mixed to create watercolors, enamels or house paint. These experts source everything from lapis lazuli to cuttlefish for an artist in need of a specific hue or a restorer touching up a Michelangelo. 247 W 29th St between Seventh and Eighth Aves (212-219-2394, Mon–Sat 11am–6:30pm.

The Center for Book Arts
Get the tactile pleasure no app can replicate with one of the poetry chapbooks sold here. The nonprofit’s member artists design, letterpress-print and hand-bind these softcover volumes. After a limited run, each book ($50–$100), by poets such as Kimiko Hahn and Bonnie Jo Campbell, is signed and numbered. 28 W 27th St between Broadway and Sixth Ave, third floor, ( Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 10am–4pm.—Alex Palmer


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