Tag Archives: pencil

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?