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!


11 Responses to “Using the Berol Chicago APSCO Single Hole Pencil Sharpener”

  1. Matthias Meckel September 21, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    Thanks for this blog post.
    The wood of the ‘Mexican’ Dixon Ticonderoga looks rather unusual…

    • chainoil September 21, 2011 at 7:11 am #

      Hi Matthias,

      What makes you think that the wood of the Mexican made Dixon looks unusual?

      • Matthias September 21, 2011 at 7:15 am #

        The wood does look a bit like cardboard on the photo – in my opinion. I’ve got some Chinese-made Amos Dixon Ticonderogas here and their wood looks very different.
        …maybe it’s a combination of the sharpener created a ‘fluffy’ surface on the wood and the type of wood used.

      • chainoil September 21, 2011 at 8:28 pm #

        Hi Matthias,

        Would you be interested in trading Dixon Ticonderoga pencils? I can pick up a few Mexican made Dixons and send them your way. It would be interesting for me to see a Chinese made Dixon! Let me know and we can communicate off line from the blog.

  2. Matthias September 29, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    Sounds great. I couldn’t find your email address anywhere, but you should have mine as I entered it when I left this comment.

    • chainoil September 29, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

      I just sent you an e-mail. Check your INBOX (and Spam folder just in case). 🙂

  3. Futural October 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    Maybe, sharpening a real cedar woodcased pencil give us clues to differentiate, if this finish is due to a certain typre of wood or are dull cutters. I remember once using a sharpener at the university, I used to go to the library where I could find this one but It started to sharp the way you show here on your pictures so I look for a doferent one, well the thing is they put a new one and voilà, new finish on all points.

    • chainoil October 3, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

      Interesting comment! Would you be able to tell us which brand of pencils you used to sharpen and over what span of time you are referring to? Perhaps the cutters did get dull quickly due to other students abusing or overusing the sharpener. What make/model of sharpener was it?

  4. Futural October 6, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    I’m sorry if my english is not the best, I’m learning it. Thanks for your patience.
    I used to sharp Miradoes and Mongols, my father’s favorite was the Mongol and at that time he work as academic librarian at the University Of Antioquia -he passed away a few years ago-. I used to visit him at work since I was a Kid, now I’m attending as pregrade student, so that was around 1990. I´m sure that the old sharpener did get dull due to avidly use by the students.
    The sharpener was an old but very good and reliable Boston KS of sturdy construction, different to the new X-Acto KS which feels cheap but I have to say It does a decent work, It is distributed today in my country by Newell-Rubbermaid.

    • chainoil October 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

      I am sorry to read that your father pass away. I hope that every time you use one of those pencils, especially a Mongol, that it brings back good memories of your father.

      Mirado and Mongol pencils are two of my favorites. They were well made and they write smoothly. Is there still a sharpener in the same location you used to sharpen these pencils back around 1990?

      I looked up “Anitoquia” and it looks like you must be in Colombia. Would you be interested in trading pencils? Let me know and we can communicate privately.

      • Futural October 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm #

        chainoil thanks for your kind words, and as a matter of fact some Eberhard-Faber that my father gave me back in the days brings me good memories, when I used to go through his desk.

        Today, there is a X-Acto sharpener in the same location at the library.

        I would love to trade pencils, last year was closed the last pencil factory in Colombia It was from Newell-Rubbermaid they move all woodcased operations to Mexico, so I think I can get something in order to trade, send me an e-mail.

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