The springs and arrows (don't cost) outrageous fortune

by Scribble Monboddo

So, how does one sharpen a pencil? An innocent enough challenge, you might think. To twist, or not to twist? That is the question; whether it is nobler in the office to rotate, or to take arms against a sea of pencils...

Alright, enough of butchering the Bard. It's a serious question, though, especially for those of us who were trained in the days when children had to prove ability with a pencil before graduating to a 'proper' pen (and you know exactly what one of those is). I remember still what a long trek it seemed to be, all the way across the classroom to join a queue so that my poor old teacher could sharpen a battered Staedtler Tradition with a desk-mounted cranked sharpener - and, to my shame, I recall the many alternative strategies I found to regain some sort of writing tip without all that palaver. But rest assured we won't be engaging in any of that nonsense here. It's a serious question because picking the wrong sharpening solution makes pencil use such an inconvenience that there's even a danger of falling into ballpoint use instead (the horror!), while finding the point-restoring ritual which works for you can make for a pleasant contemplative break in between pages of text or sketching.

Now this does mean ranging slightly beyond the Nero's Notes catalogue on occasion, but there are more than a few handy widgets right here too, never fear. I'm just going to be up-front about what works for me. It won't, I promise, be as insanely over the top as the instructional video on 'Artisan pencil-sharpening' - although a glance at that is a salutary reminder of what happens when obsession takes over...

One of my handy stand-bys for years has been the excellent Grenade. It's brass, which I happen to rather like the look and feel of, it's pretty much indestructible, it makes for a properly sharp pencil point and a bit of affordable German engineering from Möbius+Ruppert is a cool thing to have in the pencil case. Here I've used it to sharpen a Blackwing Pearl, and as you can see it's done a more than adequate job. Blackwing do make their own too, and Nero will supply you with one in the blink of an eye; I'm sure it's very good, but having to sharpen each pencil twice (one twist for wood, another for the graphite) just doesn't happen to appeal to me.

But what if you prefer the look and feel of a bit of good old lignite? It's hardly surprising, if you favour a wood-cased pencil. Well, there Nero does have something rather tasteful to offer, or rather Viking does. The Viking sharpener is very reasonably priced, looks very cool, and works exactly as well as the Grenade - quite possibly because M+R make it for Viking in the first place, but that's hardly a bad thing.

So, where to go if the humble but reliable pocket offerings of German engineering don't do it for you? A big, expensive, desk-mounted crank-handled machine the size of a coffee grinder is an option, but that always seems a bit de trop to me. There are some novel approaches coming through, like the miniature carpenter's plane made by Høvel - and I shall give that a road test as soon as I can get my hands on one, of course. But to my mind, a good old pen-knife (ironically) is just as satisfying - and for big chunky carpenter's pencils, it's a necessity. My most recent haul of carpenter's pencils came with a pocket sharpener with a rotating sleeve, which seemed a clever idea but was not built to sufficient tolerances to work well - so I've reverted to a more peasant solution. No, that wasn't a typo.

The first thing you'll need if you go down this particular rabbit-hole is something to sharpen the sharpener. OK, OK, I know, but I didn't promise this was going to be simple, did I? Thankfully, a portable answer comes from the splendidly named Eze-Lap (apply an Amurkin pronunciation, if you please), who make a four-pack of diamond stones which even fits neatly into an A5 space, as demonstrated here with a little help from Clairefontaine. See, I managed to get some paper into this piece too, even if on this one aberrant occasion I'm not actually writing on it.

Then, finally, you need a handy little blade. Here in the UK we have strict but fairly sensible laws about these things, intended to ensure that if, in a moment of distraction, you happen to take your pencil case to the pub it won't contain a weapon. Complying with said laws in no way impedes the humble art of pencil-sharpening; one is required simply to ensure that the blade is below a certain length, doesn't 'lock' stiff, and lacks any spring-loaded jiggery-pokery. The peasantry, of course, have no need for such things anyway, which is why the sharpener of choice on display is just that; a Svord Peasant Mini. This is based on the simple pocket knife wielded by the peasants of Bohemia in the middle ages, and now made in Mordor New Zealand - well of course it is. The blade is carbon steel, named not for its facility in whittling rods of carbon but for the specific variety of metallurgical alloy, which sharpens well and holds its edge. Handles are available in more exotic materials including wood and brass, but this one here is mine so, naturally, it's purple plastic. Pop out the Peasant, swivel smoothly, and about eight strokes on even the fattest pencil you can find will produce a satisfyingly organic cone which does the job to perfection. It might not be everyone's answer, but it works for me - and I bet you the owner of Nero's Notes is working out where to buy one already!