Sharpener Shootout : APSCO vs. the Ranger 55

21 Sep

I have now heaped praise and rosy commentary on two sharpeners, my APSCO single hole sharpener and my Boston Ranger 55. The APSCO was tested with four different pencils and they turned out somewhere between terrible and bad. Three General’s Semi-Hex pencils were fed into the Ranger 55 and the results were finally something you could write home about. Now I would like to use the same make/model of pencils in both sharpeners and compare the results. I’ll also do a comparison of the cutters and the operation of the two sharpeners.

For the sharpening test I will go back to the General’s Semi-Hex pencils. These pencils are made of California Incense Cedar in the US. They are a step above the typical cheap Chinese pencil available in bulk at the local office supply store but they are not so upscale that they are a luxury product. I would consider them “good pencils” for someone who is looking for “quality”. These pencils are for people who don’t buy the cheapest option because you may get what you pay for but also won’t go premium because they may think they overpaid for what they want.

I set the tip adjustment on the Ranger 55 to M(edium), sharpened a General’s Semi-Hex, and then sharpened another General’s Semi-Hex on the APSCO. Here are the results.

The top pencil is from the Boston Ranger 55 and the bottom pencil is from the APSCO.

Both pencils came out generally centered and the tips are as pointed as should be expected. The wood on the bottom General from the APSCO looks a bit more textured like an orange peel compared to the pencil on top from the Ranger 55 which looks considerably smoother. I would say that the bottom General is similar in appearance to what we saw previously with the Mexican made Dixon Ticonderoga.

There is some tearing of the wood near the end of its tapering where the pencil transitions to the lead – more so on the APSCO sharpened pencil than the Ranger 55 sharpened pencil. It’s also interesting to examine the lead tip itself very closely.

The tips look somewhat rough and chiseled. Can you almost imagine the cutters spinning around and scraping away the lead? The cutters hit the lead according to the spacing of the individual blade and it flattens the lead. Where there is a gap between the individual blades nothing happens. Hence we get that chiseled look. If there were more cutting blades on the helical assembly then our chiseled look would be less pronounced. Do the blades have somewhat irregular surfaces and heights along their length? In some points along the blade the cutters must dig in more and in others they might dig in less. Maybe some of the blade is even chipped away?

Let’s start examining the cutters on both sharpeners.

The Boston Ranger 55 cutters are on the left and the APSCO cutters on the right. Please note the scale on the measuring tape. Inches are on top and centimeters are on the bottom.

You’ll have to excuse my photography. It was difficult to capture the cutters without making shadows. Both sharpeners are screwed onto my desk so I need to perform some serious yoga to get in position for the pictures.

Let me begin by counting the blades. There are 16 cutting spiral blades on the Ranger compared to the 12 on the APSCO. The gear ratios between the inner frame gear and the gears on the cutters are the same on both sharpeners. There are 24 teeth on the frame gear and 11 teeth on the cutter’s gears. One revolution of the crank will make the cutters turn:

Gear ratio = 24 teeth ÷ 11 teeth ≈ 2.182 times.

I sharpen my pencils by turning the crank on average at approximately 2.333 rotations per second (RPS). Yes, I did time myself and it’s not hard. Just turn the crank for 15 seconds and count the number of times you turned. Divide the number of turns you counted by 15 and that’s your rotating speed. With a gear ratio of 2.182 times, the cutters turn at:

Cutter revolutions per crank turn = 2.182 times × 2.333 RPS ≈ 5.091 RPS.

Assuming it takes around 15 seconds to sharpen a squared off pencil to a point, the Ranger will have performed:

Ranger cutting operations = 5.091 cutter RPS × 15 seconds × 16 spirals = 1221.84 cutting operations.

The APSCO, with everything the same except for the number of spiral cutting blades performs a lot less cutting operations.

APSCO cutting operations  = 5.091 cutter RPS × 15 seconds × 12 spirals = 916.38 cutting operations.

What a difference! The APSCO misses out on 305.46 cuts over 15 seconds. To make up for this you would think that the APSCO would take longer to sharpen the same pencil but it doesn’t seem to. I’m sure there are differences in each instance of how I hold the pencil, how much force I use, etc but there is no noticeable difference in sharpening time between the two sharpeners. Having fewer cuts in a sharpening cycle is like using rougher sandpaper in a woodworking project. That could explain the texture of the wood on the APSCO sharpened pencil being rougher.

Now let’s zoom in on the blades and look at the blade surfaces. Maybe we can explain the rough tip textures. Let’s start with the Ranger 55.

You don’t even need to zoom in far to see the chips in the cutter blade surfaces. Just for the heck of it, let’s really zoom in! 🙂

It looks like someone punched out some bits of the steel along the cutter length. Strong stiff steel can be brittle. Are we seeing that here? Perhaps. The steel could have been softened but then it’s life expectancy would be lower. How does the APSCO look?

You don’t need to zoom in to see that there are no chips along the blade but the blades are about as straight as a road paved by a drunk in some places. Let’s zoom in more.

In some places, especially in the left hand side of the picture the blade is wider and in others it is narrower. Look closely and you’ll see in some places it tends to meander. This is in contrast to the Ranger 55 cutters which may have been chipped but they were uniform and straight. I think it’s these kind of imperfections that tend to rip wood and roughen up tips.

The assembly of the sharpeners is different too. Going back to the side by side picture of the cutters of the two sharpeners you can see that the cutters in the Ranger are supported at two points in the frame. The APSCO is supported at only one side. You can remove the handle of the Ranger and the cutters stay in place but the handle on the APSCO is what holds everything together. The APSCO is definitely a lot less sturdy in that regard. It is also interesting to note the gear design in the frames.

The Boston Ranger 55 is shown on the left and the APSCO is shown on the right.

The gear in the Ranger 55 is an integral part of the frame. It’s cast as right into it. The APSCO gear is a separate ring that is crimped into the frame. Both designs have their pros and cons. It just depends on what you want. The Ranger 55’s integral cast gear makes for a sturdy design. But, should the gear wear out then it is harder to replace half of the frame than a simple crimped in ring. To help with the wear issue, the Ranger 55 uses softer brass for the cutter’s gears. Those gears would wear out against the hard steel frame gear. The user would then have to replace the cutters as a whole which may be easier than replacing half of the frame. The APSCO could allow for a more universally adaptable design. Different sharpeners could use different cutters which may require a different gear ratio. The frame is universal so just make a new ring and crimp it in place. Done! Replacing the cutters is easier too. Just unscrew the handle and the cutters pop right out. But, the ring fits loosely and it does have some slop in it. It is necessary because the collection can is rather rigidly attached to the frame in comparison to the cutters and the frame gear. The system needs to be able to realign itself with the hole in the collection can since that hole can’t shift. The result is only one point of support for the cutters and the cutters wobble around with the ring.

Obviously, both sharpeners work but both produce a different quality of cut. Neither one is perfect but perhaps we are looking at this too closely. If you looked at your hands under a microscope even after you washed them you would see that the surface is teaming with bacteria. Under your fingernails would be a colony of vermin and disease! Yet, at some point we say our hands are clean enough and we move on. I think that’s what we have here. In my opinion, with all of its imperfections the Ranger 55 produced a superior cut. As a fan of pencils and sharpeners, I prefer the design, construction, and quality of the Ranger 55. It’s a premium product for a premium lifestyle for sure. If all you want is a sharpened pencil, like for kids to use in projects at school or home, then the APSCO may be your workhorse of choice. It can be abused, overused, and neglected yet it will still work. Think of it like a farmers old truck that smokes and sputters. It may do all that but it will work forever! The sharpener is cheap and readily available on eBay. Perhaps it’s good to have both and use them differently. Coloring pencils and cheap Chinese hardwood pencils go to the APSCO. The Generals, Palmominos, and Tombows go to the Ranger 55.

What do you think?

The Legendary Boston Ranger 55 – Part II

12 Sep

Probably the single most important quality of the Boston Ranger 55 is it’s ability to brilliantly sharpen a pencil to three different levels of sharpness with nothing more required from the user than to flick a lever and turn a crank. The Ranger 55 was not the first sharpener to offer the ability of choosing the sharpness of a pencil point. Inventors had been tackling this challenge since the 1800s. Some people want a super fine tip for detailed work with their light touch. Others, like myself, prefer a duller tip that is less fragile because our hands are heavier. Most of the ideas people came up with to selectively sharpen a pencil seem complicated and medieval compared to today’s working knowledge. The early sharpeners would have some strange system of angling and rotating the pencil against a grinding disc. Helical rotating sharpeners used complicated steps to change the spacing of the cutters and used additional auxiliary blades. What the inventors of the Ranger 55 did was essentially what Apple did with the iPod. There were lots of portable digital music players before the iPod but the user experience was clunky and harsh. Apple recognized the opportunity to offer a unified hardware/software/service experience back in the late 90s and early 2000s when no one else did. Within 10 years the iPod did to CDs what CDs did to vinyl. So, Apple wasn’t the first to make a portable digital music player. They simply did it better.

Anyone who follows that kind of path to success stands on the shoulders of those who fell before them. Creative Labs and Diamond Multimedia all had media players before the iPod was introduced but neither are around today in any significant force despite their initial success. We can trace a similar story of sharpeners. Many tried to do what the Ranger 55 does. Unfortunately, they disappeared in the pencil dust left behind by the Ranger 55.

Let’s begin with US patent 839,806 issued January 1st, 1907 to Frederick Edward Vesey Baines of Great Britain. Baines placed an adjustable stop pin in the path of the pencil as it is fed forward. Once the tip reaches the edge of the pin, the pencil can no longer be sharpened. With the pin all the way toward the sharpener frame, the pencil can be fed further which results in a narrower and finer tip. More of the cutters cut away at the pencil. With the pin all the way away from the frame, the pencil feeding is limited and the tip is blunter. This is a fine idea except the adjustment of the pin must be done inside the sharpener with the collection can removed. The pin does not have any preset stops so getting a repeatable setting is not always possible. Still, this was a good first step.

A significant leap was shown in US patent 2,438,628 which was granted on March 30th, 1948 to John A. Yerkes of the USA. Yerkes moved the adjustment of the stop mechanism to the outside of the sharpener. There is now a massive geared lever that allows the user to select the tip quality. The stop pin is now a stop blade that sits between the rotating helical cutters. In addition to stopping the pencil it also cuts and scrapes the pencil tip. While this effort should be applauded, there are two complications here. First is the massive geared lever mechanism. By sticking out so much I see it as something that could get damaged during operation, especially in a school setting. Second is the mounting of the blade. It sits between the two closely spaced cutters and it is supported from a shaft which sits in front of them. There is a good possibility that the blade could get caught between the cutters and chew up the system.

Yerkes’ idea was simplified by Edwin J. Markvart of the US who was granted US patent 2,571,738 on October 16th, 1951. Markvart changed the sharpness adjustment mechanism from a geared lever to a rotatable knob which moves a similar auxiliary blade back and forth. The knob isn’t what we know of on the Ranger 55. This knob allows for an infinitely adjustable blade between two extremes. Markvart filed a variation on the patent which replaces the auxiliary blade with a more simple stop pin. It’s operation is similar to what we see in Baines’ patent. That patent is US 2,572,875. Personally, I don’t see the novelty here. Using a stop pin is what I would call prior art. Maybe the patent examiner thought otherwise during the review process. Whatever the case, there is still something in between the primary cutters that I can see getting jammed. Markvart even accounts for this by saying that the auxiliary blade is of a softer steel than the primary cutters. Being softer would mean that the auxiliary blade would be self-sacrificial in the case of a jam and the primary cutters should escape unscathed.

And here is where the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company of Camden, New Jersey pulled an Apple. On January 7th, 1958, the company was granted US patent 2,818,834 which describes “an improvement in a pencil sharpener and, more particularly, relates to the provision of a pencil sharpener having a novel stop.” The patent lists two inventors, Horace Keech and Donald Lehr. Keech and Lehr first took the stop mechanism from Baines and Markvart’s second patent. Secondly, they combined that with with the crank mounted adjustment idea of Markvart’s first and second patents along with the preset adjustment positions of Yerkes. Thirdly, they added a simple three position spring loaded cam mechanism which adjusts the position of the stop. This cam has three positions: B(lunt), M(edium), and F(ine). Yearkes’ 10 positions looks impressive but how useful are they? Having the three positions answers the question of what would 90% of the users want 90% of the time. Good enough! Think about this way. How many software programs have you tried only to be frustrated with because they were too complicated for what you wanted to accomplish?

Here is a close up of the stop pin in the Boston Ranger 55 at three locations. Left - B(lunt), Middle - M(edium), Right - F(ine).

The simplicity of the sharpness selection coupled with the mechanical reliability of a single set of cutters doing all the work in a sturdy housing was the first half of the formula of success. The second half comes from the quality of the tip. Let the pencils speak for themselves.

Top to bottom: three pencils sharpened by the Boston Ranger 55 at B(lunt), M(edium), and F(ine) settings.

For the above photograph I sharpened three General’s Semi-Hex HB pencils. The difference between the point shapes and sharpness are obvious to see. Would anyone argue that they need something blunter or something in between the steps we see above? If you need something blunter than B(lunt) then get a piece of scratch paper and doodle a bit. If you need something in between the steps then start with closest setting and doodle down that tip. Or, use a prism pencil sharpener. I think for the most part these three settings and the resulting tips provide plenty of versatility. At the B(lunt) setting, the Ranger 55 does not allow the pencil to feed far enough to get the pin point tip that we see on the bottom pencil which was set to F(ine).

Keech and Lehr probably had no idea what their idea would have spawned. Did they ever think their sharpener would be sought after as a classic collectible on eBay? Would they have predicted how many thousands, or maybe even millions, of school children would sharpen their pencils using their designs? The Keech and Lehr patent was filed on December 17th, 1954 and the first commercial use of the “Ranger 55” name was January 25th, 1955 (hence the “55”). That makes this sharpener design 60+ years old.

Once the patent is filed, the invention is protected. The inventors can release the product while the patent is being reviewed (known as “patent pending”). At worst the patent is rejected and the application becomes public domain along with the design (which is what happens when the patent expires). Otherwise, once granted, the invention is protected for a period of time, which I thought was 17 years from the date of issue depending on the type of patent. So, from 1958 to 1975 nobody else can copy the design verbatim. After that the patent enters the public domain and anyone and everyone is free to make their own Ranger 55 under a different trademark name. The rationale here is that the state of the art should have advanced beyond Keech and Lehr’s design and it’s just common knowledge by now. The Boston Ranger 55 sold by X-Acto today is basically a public domain design unless they introduced something new. It’s interesting to note that the general design of the Ranger 55 was dreamed up seven years before the patent was even filed. Design patent 152,554 shows an interesting Ranger 55-ish looking sharpener with a hole selection ring embedded inside the frame.

And so the designs of Baines, Yerkes, and Markvart fade to the dusty corners of inventions past. Their designs as-is never made a splash like the Ranger 55 and their names run the risk of being quickly forgotten. Hopefully this blog entry will revive their names, if even for a few minutes, so that they and their contributions are not totally forgotten.

The Legendary Boston Ranger 55 – Part I

9 Sep

The American made Boston Ranger 55 of the past is almost legendary. A quick glance on eBay helps to confirm this. At the time of writing this blog entry there aren’t too many completed auctions to sift through but enough to give us a feel. Used units can run as high as $30, which can be equal to or more than what the new X-Acto version of this sharpener retails for. New-old-stock units could run as high as $80 which is significant. There are lots of other “old” things on eBay, especially “old” pencil sharpeners and they don’t reach these prices. Why? Because nobody wants them. But, for some reason, people want these Ranger 55 units!

Perhaps it’s just nostalgia. I think a large majority of people used one of these sharpeners during their school years. Sharpening a pencil was an excuse for a break and a good reason to get up. We put the dull old pencil in the sharpener and after a few cranks we get a shiny new one (although it’s a bit shorter than before). The process of creating a tip and molding something sharp was satisfying back then and the memory of it today even more so when we consider just how virtual and digital our world is. I think people are hungering for something physical and mechanical today.

We could also consider that the sharpener was a prominent symbol of American power. Think of it this way. A large part of America was developed after WWII by some very hard working intelligent people who had brilliant ideas. With a pencil, a piece of paper (or two.. or three), and a sharpener great people with even greater minds designed transistors, aircraft, automobiles, and homes. Yes, a majority of that was done with a pencil writing on paper with a sharpener of some sort near by. There was no computer or fancy Texas Instruments electronic calculator. Once production of the basic tools like pencils, paper, and sharpeners went off-shore it was sort of like the original American spirit went with them. Sure, we have computers, tablets, and fancy monitors but a lot of times the new instruments add a layer of isolation between the designer and the product. You may know something but do you feel it?

We live in a much more global environment today. Materials come from one place to be transformed into something else at another place. That newly transformed material goes to a second place where something is added. The process continues and pretty soon you have a global product but you don’t know where it came from, who built it, and to what standard. China is probably the only country in the world who can still build something from raw materials to finished product. That capability is what gives China it’s symbol of strength and what many economists fear.

Lastly, the design of the sharpener makes it a classic. The sharpener is big, heavy, and made almost entirely of metal. It’s sole plastic component is the crank handle grip and I’m sure that using plastic back then was “cool” and “high tech” compared to the “old” wooden handle grips. The shapes, contours, and lines that make up the Ranger 55 are all very smooth and pleasing. There are no rough edges. Everything is beveled and rounded. Nothing sticks out funny. Nor does anything rattle and shake other than the collection can so it can be removed for emptying. In some ways, I think it is was an iPad or iPhone of it’s time. It meant to be a beautiful, functional, and durable product. This design was meant to change the way you looked at a manual pencil sharpener. Compare that to today’s expectation where we know that people get bored with things and throw them away. After a two year cell phone contract, the provider expects you to upgrade to something new. Clothes are flimsy because designers know that you’ll toss today’s fashions for next years new colors. Computers need to be cycled through regularly to keep pace with the ever increasing complexity of new software. Probably the only thing you can keep for 10+ years is a car most people trade up (or down) within 5 to 7 years. Our life is disposable today. The only thing disposable about this sharpener is the pencil dust.

Getting some pencils!

8 Sep

Two days ago I placed an order at for a box of Palomino Blackwing 602’s and for a box of General’s Semi-Hex’es. Will these work better in my sharpener? Stay tuned! 🙂

Using the Berol Chicago APSCO Single Hole Pencil Sharpener

5 Sep

Although my Berol Chicago APSCO pencil sharpener is more than 20 years old and has seen some use, it still “works great” but saying that is very subjective. Let’s try to sharpen some pencils and see how it does. I picked four pencils for the test.

Going top to bottom we have:

  1. A Mexican made Dixon Ticonderoga
  2. A Chinese made generic from work called Officemate
  3. An American made Papermate American Classic
  4. A Chinese made Foray

These pencils are representative of what I would consider “a standard pencil” – meaning, 90% of wooden pencil users would use something like this. All the pencils are hexagonal wood cased units with a standard coating of paint for the black or yellow color. The exception here is the Foray which is not hexagonal and it has a soft rubber-like overcoat instead of the traditional paint.

The left to right order follows the top to bottom order from before. If the cores look off-center to you it’s because they are. The Dixon on the far left and the Foray on the far right are the worst offenders. Only the Officemate generic (middle-left) and the Papermate look reasonably centered. My concern here is that the sharpened point will not have an even height of wood covering it. Another thing to notice is that the ends of the North American produced pencils look like they have paint on the ends. The Asian made pencils are clean and neat on the ends. Also, the cores of the North American produced pencils are slightly inset whereas the Asian made pencils have cores which are perfectly flush against the ends. I don’t think this matters much except for perhaps an attention to detail and a different manufacturing process between the plants. After the first sharpening this should all disappear anyways.

All the pencils are inserted into the sharpener with the logo facing up. This is what I call the “top view”. Each pencil was sharpened until the sharpener’s automatic stop concluded the sharpening.

Sharpening the Dixon Ticonderoga

The off-center core of the Dixon caused some problems. From the top view (so you can see where the name of the pencil is stamped) there is plenty of core shown.

The bottom view (so the stamping is on the surface of my table) shows almost no core at all.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to compensate for this during the sharpening process such as angling the pencil. It’s not like anyone can see the tip in real time even if the collection can is removed. There’s too much motion and dust flying. Now let’s zoom in and take a look at the texture of the wood and the tip.

The tip is sharp and pointed enough to be considered “sharp” but it is just blunt enough to ensure that it doesn’t break on the first use. You can see the marks on the tip from the rotary motion of the cutters. I think it’s interesting to see that the surface of the tip is also a bit rough. With the speed of rotation of the cutters you would think this would be super smooth. Is then an indication of a blunt set of cutters or is that just how the wood reacts to the cutting motion? This is not something you would notice easily with the naked eye and feel with your fingers unless you were paying attention. Notice that the transition from wood to core is very smooth.

Despite all these rough surfaces and the off centered core, the pencil did get sharpened. We can’t rush to judgment yet on this sharpener because we don’t have enough data. Let’s sharpen the second pencil and see what we get.

Sharpening the Officemate Generic

The Officemate generic is made in China. It’s one of those pencils you get can in a pack of 100 for a buck or two. I consider it the bare bones minimum of quality, construction, and form which can still be called a pencil. How does it come compare against the Dixon? Let’s take a look at the top view.

If the Dixon looked rough then this one looks painful. It looks like it was sharpened with a sandblasting machine. Same pencil sharpener, different pencil, different wood. To it’s credit, the amount of exposed core is more equal top and bottom. Let’s see what the bottom looked. Here’s an artsy shot.

There is a bit less on the bottom than on the top but this is a significant improvement over the Dixon. Let’s look even closer at the texture of the wood and the point. I have a feeling this will make some of you grimace.

Looking at this picture makes me want to take my Norelco shaver and trim those hairs! It’s interesting to see the transition area from wooded to exposed core. Look closely and you may see a section of non-sharpened core before the tapering begins. This makes me think that the wood was ripped away rather than smoothly cut down. Ideally, there should be wood all the way down to where the tapering begins.

So while this pencil is perfectly functional, it does look a bit ugly – more so than the Dixon. I want to believe that this sharpener could do better if we could only find the right pencil! Let’s try our third pencil.

Sharpening the Papermate American Classic

The Papermate American Classic seems to sit somewhere in between the Dixon and the Staples generic. While it is smoother than the Staples generic, it is not as smooth as the Dixon. Let’s take a look at the top view.

The amount of exposed core is more equal top and bottom than the Dixon but not much better than the Staples generic. I had high hopes for this one.

The wood did get ripped off pretty bad in one spot that can be seen between the top and bottom views. Could the Papermate the Staples generic be using the same species of wood? Here’s a high resolution picture of it.

Yeah, that had to sting somewhere along the sharpening process. As I go through this comparison, my opinion of the Dixon is softening. If only the core on the Dixon wasn’t so off-center!

Sharpening the Foray

Finally, we come to the Foray. My expectations were low here so I wasn’t too disappointed. The top seemed fine, except for the rough cutting of the wood.

When I turned it over I saw the same profile as the Dixon. Where’s the point? Or, maybe I should ask, what’s the point?

Of all the pencils I fed into my sharpener, this is the worst of the bunch. I might as well have been sharpening a dowel. To make this pencil useful you would need to break the point off and resharpen. That is a waste of material!


I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed after this experience. With only two of the four pencils getting any sort of useful point on them, my success rate was only 50%. I have never had such a hard time sharpening a pencil and getting a point. And, I’m not even trying to concern myself with the rough texture of the wood. Let’s just get a working pencil here! I decided to take a look at the cutters.

There’s a bit of dust on them which isn’t unexpected but could this dust be part of the cause of the rough cuts? Perhaps the dust is getting in between the cutter and the wood, essentially dulling the cutter. Let’s zoom in a bit more.

Click on the picture for the big high resolution zoom-in. Take a look at the cutters. The edges are jagged. This tells me that the cutters will cut at different depths along their length.

Now let’s put this all together. The jagged edges could be giving the rough, orange peel surface texture, especially on the Dixon. But what about the “hairs” on the other pencils? If the wood in the other pencils is too hard then the cutters will have a harder time shaping the point. Rather than shave the wood, the cutters would rip the wood off. They would grab too much, tear, and bounce the pencil. If the wood hardness is important then it’s important to pick the right pencil for this sharpener. Dixon says that their Ticonderogas are “crafted with premium wood from well managed forests”.  The Officemate simply says it’s simply a “woodcase pencil”. Papermate shut down their wooden pencil manufacturing so there’s no web info. The original packaging simply says “real wood”. Pencil Revolution says that the Natural subset of the American Classic is made of Jelutong or Pulai, both which are considered hardwoods. Unfortunately, I do not have the original packaging to the Foray and there is nothing online I can find. California Cedar, which is used in pencil manufacture, is considered to be a softwood and being soft may go a long way in helping to make the pencil easier to sharpen. Could the Dixon be made of California Cedar which makes it the easiest to sharpen?

So for as rough as this sharpener could be with some of these pencils, the performance is consistent. Did “hardwood” pencils exist in the abundance 20+ years ago as they do today? They may have been a small minority in the past and sharpeners weren’t designed to take those pencils. This sharpener may have been designed for something like California Cedar and nothing else. Does it still “work great”? I guess I could complain about it with today’s pencils but I would rather complain about the pencils I’m feeding. Let’s solve this performance problem by using a pencil whose core is centered and is made of a softer wood like California Cedar!

Planetary Geared Sharpeners

1 Sep

I really enjoy using my Berol Chicago APSCO sharpener.  As a small boy I’d remove the collection can and slowly turn the crank. I’d watch the cutters rotate around their axis and watch the entire assembly rotate around with the crank. Then I would insert a pencil to sharpen and watch it go at full speed! A huge mess would be made from the dust flying everywhere but the mess was half the joy too!

It’s amazing to me when I think about just how old this design is but how well it still works. Most, if not all, of today’s rotary pencil sharpeners follow this design. This is what a timeless design means to me. So just how old is this design? According to the online Early Office Museum this design came about during the early 1900s (check out their Antique Pencil Sharpener page). The site says that the A. B. Dick company was a granted a patent for a planetary geared pencil sharpener. There is a picture of this sharpener on that site. If you look closely you can almost see what looks like a date! Is that the date of product introduction? Or, could it be the date the patent was issued? I Google’d “A. B. Dick Pencil” and selected the Images search function. To my pleasant surprise I found some nice close ups of the sharpener (vs. some other pictures that could have appeared). One of the best comes from the Cowan’s Auctions site. I am including a local copy of the picture in this blog.

Now we see the date better. It looks like Mar 17th, 1896 or maybe 1898. With this date in hand we hand can start searching for the patent itself. The patent document can provide some insight on the design. It also reminds us of the state of technology at the time. The US Patent Office has no search capability for older patents because the patents are just scanned images of the paper documents. Google can help us once again here with their own patent search engine. It seems that Google ran an optical character recognition algorithm on these graphic images of the paper documents and created a searchable database! Bravo! Using their Advanced Patent Search page it’s pretty easy to narrow down the search criteria. Pick your date range and fill in the key words. After a few mouse clicks and keyboard taps I found US Patent 556,709. You can retrieve it from Google or download my local copy

But this sharpener isn’t of the design that ultimately prevailed in the 20th century. It was merely the start. There are two cutters which rotate around the pencil which is held stationary but the gears spin around and over the pencil. Notice that the cutters are not cylindrical either. They are circular and their centers are offset from each other. Still, George Ballou gets credit for this massive step forward. I say it is massive because we have to consider what was state of the art back then. Search around and you will see sharpeners that are nothing more than glorified disc sanders. The pencil would have to be carefully rotated at an angle to get a smooth, round, even cut. Now you can sort of “plug and grind”.

I think the big leap to what we know as the modern day sharpener occurred with US Patent 640,846 which was granted to John Webster on January, 9, 1900. You can retrieve the document from Google or download a local copy here. Webster made several improvements to Ballou’s design. First, Webster moved the gears to the frame of the sharpener. Now they sat in front of the pencil point rather than over the pencil body. Secondly, Webster replaced the circular grinders with a cylindrical cutter. The center of rotation of the two cutters we know of today and the center of the stationary pencil sit along the same line. This results in a very compact form factor. One of the first commercial implementations of this design was the Olcott Climax. According to the Early Office Museum, several other commercial implementation followed from companies such as Boston, APSCO, and Koh-I-Noor. The free market soon whittled down the competition down from a large handful of players to two major ones: APSCO and Boston. Over the decades many other sharpeners took on this design as their central core with incremental changes along the way. A second cutter was added. Multiple pencil diameters were possible with one sharpener. Collection cans were modular and easily removable. As this is now the year 2011, we can say that  Webster’s design has lasted for 111 years!

It’s amazing to think how much influence Webster’s design had on the 20th century. Countless millions of school children all over the world sharpened their pencils with Webster’s design. This design sharpened the pencils of great writers, artists, designers, and scholars. Wars were fought, machines were built, and complex mathematical problems were solved with a sharpener like this near by no doubt. Even the electronic revolution (pun intended) leveraged this hearty mechanical design. How would have history shaped up without this design?

Berol Chicago APSCO Single Hole Pencil Sharpener

30 Aug

Try saying that title as fast as you can. It’s not exactly a tongue twister but it sure can give your vocal chords a spin!

That’s the pencil sharpener I have on my desk right now. It’s rugged, simple, and “aged”. I say “aged” because it’s not “old” like some vintage sharpeners from the early 1900s but it’s been around enough and used enough to prove that it works. And, works it does and it does so very well!

I remember when I my father brought a few of these sharpeners home from work when I was a boy. His workplace was littered with these things. I know this because I was lucky enough to visit him at work. It was a different time in America and security was different. I could wander around and explore. There was a corridor with a huge shelving system that contained every office supply item you could think of: pencils, hole punchers, staplers, erasers, notepads, etc. It was all there for the taking. Whatever you needed was easy to get as long as it helped you do your job. Each office was therefore fully outfitted with every tool and utensil possible. There was no desktop computer to rave about or to take space on your desk. So, you had office supplies! I also remember how neat everyone’s desk was at the time. Every little bit and scrap was smartly organized. A place for everything and everything in its place.

As the decades wore on, computers found their way to the desks and traditional office supplies started to be displaced. Where there once stood a paper file a monitor appeared. Binders in front of workers were replaced with keyboards. The cup of pencils lost it’s special place in the center of the hutch and was replaced with a box of floppy disks. Once you stop using pencils then you stop using pencil sharpeners. That was the beginning of the end.

I kept visiting my fathers workplace throughout the years and I saw another phenomena: downsizing. Offices that had busy and motivated workers were soon empty. Cleanliness turned into clutter as other workers began dumping “their crap” in those empty offices, which included pencil sharpeners. There were loads of these single hole sharpeners. Some were neatly mounted on blocks of styled wood. Others must have been held down with a C-clamp. Most were in decent shape after decades of solid use. A few were thrashed and trashed from defiant abuse.

After I grew up and graduated college, the workplace was consolidated with another office. The building was leveled and the rubble was hauled off. In that rubble lay several hundreds of these poor, sad, abandoned sharpeners. I feel fortunate that my father sneaked his small stash of three when he did. Mine was barely used and for many years it sat as New Old Stock. Sometimes it was on my shelf and sometimes it was tucked away in my closet. When I needed a pencil sharpened I would pull it out, use it, and then tuck it away again. I pulled it out about four years ago and gave it a new permanent home on my desk. It is one of my cherished possessions as it holds a lot of memories for me. I suppose one could argue that the demise of my father’s workplace is tied to the demise of this sharpener. Would the office have survived longer if my father and his coworkers did not take things like this home? Or, were there greater wrongs afoot here? Can an illicit pencil sharpener or a notepad compete against the evils of large scale corporate waste or the ever increasing tide of cheap imports from China? Taking the sharpener probably didn’t help things but leaving it there wouldn’t have stopped the inevitable.

Is the tie to the demise of the American pencil sharpener even more closely reflective to the demise of the American and global economy?


27 Aug

I have always caught the tip-tail end of every good thing. Vacuum tubes, electric typewriters, records (both shellac and vinyl), and mechanical timepieces are precious and priceless to me. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The disillusioned early adopters fade away and I see those who stayed the course for the long term. These people have been my mentors. They have filled me with their stories, their own dreams, and the lessons they learned along the way. It has helped me realize that there are simple solutions to many problems – elegant solutions!

And so that brings me to pencils. We live in a very digital world. Paper and physical markings are slowly starting to fall off a cliff to make room for a world of ones and zeros. Books are now files on an e-reader. Mail doesn’t require postage. Photographs are just pixels now. Yet for as virtual as the world is today, the simple wooden pencil endures. In fact, I would dare say that the structure is resilient! It became obvious to me when my five year old son came home from one of his first days of kindergarten. He didn’t spend the day on a computer or iPad. It was at a desk with a fat pencil and a piece of paper. He drew, he wrote, he doodled, and, most important of all, he expressed himself!

A self-portrait, his name, and a number five to signify his age. It was done plainly without thinking of what to click on and if the right color in the palette was selected. The act was spontaneous without any premonitions of doubt or failure. And it wasn’t just him. It was 20-something other kids doing something similar. There was nothing foreign about the medium, how to use the tool, or what it was for.

I would argue that it is this simplicity and elegance that make the pencil unique, enduring, and endearing. And so, I would like to have my own little blog dedicated to the art of the pencil and the pencil sharpener. It is impossible to not think of pencils without pencil sharpeners. Excluding the sharpener is like keeping the gas out of the tank. Half the joy of using a pencil is sharpening it. It is a purely mechanical action where the user is sculpting and forming the perfect tip to make the perfect line for their perfect moment – all spontaneously and intuitively, of course. I remember as a boy loving the Boston Rangers in my classroom. They were sorely abused and coughed pencil shavings and dust everywhere. The cutters would seemingly strain and heave against the wood until I stopped rotating the crank and then it would let out a wheeze of relief. I pulled the pencil out and I had my perfect tip. It wasn’t super sharp so that it would be brittle and break but it was sharp enough to make a confident mark. Some would say “blunt”. I say it was enabled!

One thing I will not focus on too much here is paper. Don’t get me wrong here. I love paper and the sensation of gliding my fingers and hands across its surface. The tactile feel give me a connection to a “some one” behind the “some thing”. Holding something in your hands makes that thing feel a bit more real and valuable than if it were virtualized in some abstract digital format. Obviously, I will mention paper but I’ll let someone else focus on it. Otherwise I will get too distracted and fail in my mission here.

So, yes, a pencil and a pencil sharpener. Make your point and stay sharp!