Introduction: A Plywood Pencil Dispenser - a Tale of Hubris Turned to Humility

About: I'm not an expert in anything. I just enjoy making things sometimes for the process sometimes for the end product.

I am not an arrogant person. If anything I continually suffer from imposter syndrome. But, for some reason I went in to this build with unwarranted and unchecked confidence, more on this later.

Let's start at the beginning, while on Instagram I noticed that @Instructables had posted a Plywood Challenge I thought I might see what I could come up with for the challenge. Unfortunately I didn't have any ideas for a plywood project and I didn't have very much plywood on hand. Inspiration hit while my kids were at school, due to the pandemic they are doing online schooling. So I have a lot more interaction with them during the day related to school and school activities. Recently I noticed that my son kept loosing his pencil, we don't live in a mansion but somehow this kid keeps loosing his pencils. On three separate occasions in the last two weeks he has asked me if I have seen his pencil? I tell him, "no" but ask him, "how is it that you lost your pencil?" He shrugs his shoulders and asks me if he can have one of mine. I have a small box of pencils I keep in my shop, which he knows about so of course he knows I have ready supply of sharpened pencils available. After the third time he asked me inspiration struck and I decided I would try to make a pencil dispenser out of plywood. I had a few scraps of 1/2 inch plywood and a long narrow cutoff of 3/4 inch plywood. I also had an 8x10 inch piece of plexiglass that I was going to turn in to a palm router base but never got around to making it. I think this is were the hubris started to creep in; I started to feel pretty good about the materials I had on hand I wouldn't have to go to the store to buy anything and we even had two boxes of pencils from our back to school shopping run. Needless to say I was feeling pretty good about this build, these feelings would not last.

Step 1: Amalgamation of Scraps

The first pic shows the random amalgamation of scrap pieces of plywood and other odds and ends that I used for this project. I took a 3/4 inch piece of plywood that was 1-5/8 inches wide and cut a piece that was 8-3/4 inches long on my bandsaw, this would be the bottom of the dispenser. I then cut two 7-3/8 inch long pieces of 1/2 inch plywood that also measured 1-5/8 inches wide. These would be the left and right sides of the dispenser.

Step 2: Three Become One

I didn't have a big enough piece for the back panel so I cut a strip of 1/2 inch plywood to glue together two other 1/2 pieces of plywood to make one piece that would be large enough to be the back panel. After gluing and clamping the back panel pieces together it measured 9-1/2 inches wide by 7-3/8 inches tall. Once the glue dried I set it aside for later use in the construction.

Step 3: Two Sides to Every Story

I used a 1 inch Forstner bit to make two holes in the two side pieces, these holes would be for the round dowel that would carry and then dispense the pencils. The one inch hole is centered side to side and measures about 1-3/4 inches from the center of the hole to the base of the side piece. You need enough clearance for the pencil to drop out of the bottom of the dispenser.

The last pic shows a quick mock up of some of the construction.

Step 4: Buying Is Easier Than Making

For the pencil carrier/dowel I used a couple of pieces of plywood cutoffs from another project How to Make a Wooden Kettlebell that I glued together to make a blank. These were two corner pieces made up of 1/2 plywood. Instead of using cutoffs you could just buy a 1 inch dowel which I would almost guarantee would work way better than what I made.

Step 5: Square Peg Round Dowel

Once the glue dried I chucked the blank in my lathe and turned it to as close I could get to 1 inch round. I'm a beginner on the lathe so I didn't exactly nail the 1 inch diameter but I got close. Then sanded the dowel up to 400 grit. I would later come to realize that I should have made this piece longer. Buying a 1 inch dowel would be easier and more precise.

Step 6: This Looks Sketchy

This is where things stated to take a turn for the worse. I'll be honest I didn't actually think about how I was going to do this until it came to doing it. I had to make a slot for the pencil to sit in so I used my table saw and a pair of hand screw clamps to make a couple of passes to make the channel. I would later come to realize how important the depth of this cut must be, it is crucial to get this to the perfect depth. I don't have a measurement for it, but make sure that a pencil will sit deep enough in the recess but not too deep so that two pencils could fit in the recessed channel as this would cause a blockage and will not allow the carrier to rotate.

Step 7: Spin Me Right Round

I needed to make some knobs for the pencil carrier so I used my lathe to turn a couple of plywood squares in to round knobs. The holes that were drilled in the knobs will be used to attach the knobs to the pencil carrier.

Step 8: I Can Fix That

After doing a dry fit I discovered that the pencil carrier/dowel was not long enough so I used some small pieces of wood, they are smaller in diameter than the pencil carrier, that would act as spacers to lengthen the pencil carrier. I used the dimples created by the lathe live center and tail stock to find my center marks. I clipped the head of a nail off and tapped it in to the dimple mark then I pressed the spacer in to the nail to get a center mark for drilling a hole. This allowed me to drill a hole in the center of the spacer and then the pencil carrier. Basically this allowed me to line everything up so it would turn freely. I glued the spacers on to both ends of the pencil carrier.

Step 9: Let's Put the "Fun" in Funnel

*This would be a mistake but I am including it in the process so that I can show how I fixed the problem in later steps.

I knew that I needed the pencils to feed in to the pencil carrier so I cut a couple of small triangular pieces to act as the funnel of sorts. They were attached with glue and a single brad nail. Then I pre-drilled the sides of the main body and screwed them to the base.

I assumed that I might have to take this apart and troubleshoot it so I opted to screw as much of it together as possible as opposed to gluing everything together, this was probably one of the few smart decisions I made during this build.

Step 10: Pencils! Roll Out!!

I came to the conclusion that I need to have a small ramp at the base of the pencil ejection point so that the pencils would roll out. Otherwise when a pencil was dropped from the pencil carrier it would just sit there. So I cut a small 1/2 inch wide strip of backer board and nailed that in place. Then I added a wide strip of backerboard that would sit on top of the small strip at an angle which would allow the pencils to roll out of the base. I sprayed this sub assembly with 2 coats of lacquer.

Step 11: Hindsight Is 20/20

I would later understand how important it is to get the measurement for this part just right. Here I am adding some 1/4 inch plywood strips to the triangular pieces that will funnel the pencils in to the pencil recess in the carrier dowel. These strips where glued and screwed in place.

Step 12: Well That Was Easy

To attach the back panel I predrilled and screwed the panel in place, again I did not use any glue.

Step 13: I Can See Clearly Now

I was lucky and remembered that I had a piece of plexiglass that I had planned to use for a palm router base plate but never got around to making the jig. So instead I used it as the front panel for the pencil dispenser. It was an 8 x 10 inch piece of plexiglass that I trimmed to size. 9-1/2 x 6 inches. I predrilled and screwed the panel in place.

*Be careful when screwing the plexiglass down as it will crack under the pressure of the screw, I suggest using a screwdriver instead of a drill for this function.

Step 14: Length Matters

Next I inserted the pencil carrier and screwed the two knobs to each end. The length here is important as you do not want to the carrier to be too short or the knobs will be too tight and won't allow you to spin the pencil carrier. If the length of the pencil carrier is just right you can tighten both knobs and it will still spin freely.

Step 15: I Can Top That

I hadn't thought about a cover plate for the top of the pencil dispenser but I felt it needed one. So I cut a piece of backer board and a smaller piece of 3/4 inch plywood that would nest in to the opening at the top.

Step 16: Hole in One

The top cover was a little difficult to take on and off of the opening so I used a 1 inch Forstner drill bit to make a finger hole in the top cover.

Step 17: All Your Base Are Belong to Us

Next was making the base but I was running out of plywood so I had to use two pieces to make the base. It would have been better to use one solid piece that was large enough for the bottom but I was trying to only use the materials I had on hand. It was a silly self imposed rule but I was determined to stick to it. I attached the base pieces with some glue and brad nails. I made sure to not nail in to either side of the dispenser so that I would still be able to take it all apart if I had too.

Step 18: Catch Me If You Can

I also use two small scrap pieces of 1/2 inch plywood to act as a stop or catch that would prevent the pencils from just rolling out of the front. The gap is there on purpose it is for your fingers to be able to grab the pencil. This will be more clear when you watch the video of it working.

Step 19: Haunted by Past Mistakes

I loaded up the dispenser with pencils and gave it a turn. And this is when the cumulation of all my little mistakes reared their ugly little heads. The pencils jammed at the funnel and would not drop down in to the carrier they would get stuck. Every once and awhile it would work but they would jam more often than not. The problem was in the funnel, there was too much space for the pencils to jam. So I would have to remake that portion of the pencil dispenser.

Step 20: We Can Rebuild Him We Have the Technology

After taking the dispenser apart I used an old chisel to remove the triangular funnel pieces and replaced them with larger taller pieces. You can see in the last picture one of the pieces was too small so I had to add a bit of leather to act as a spacer to fill the gap. Ideally you want the gap to be just large enough for a single pencil to fit through it and you also want to make sure that funnel has a steep enough angle so that the pencils will feed in to the opening and not jam up.

Step 21: These Clogs Were Not Meant for Walking

I also had to remove the small strips that made up the previous funnel so I cut a piece of backer board for the back section of the funnel and a used the cutoff of the plexiglass as the front section of the funnel.

After all the glue dried I put it all back together and tested it and I realized that there were too many gaps for pencils to get caught in and that the main compartment was too wide which would cause the pencils to sit an angle and cause a clog in the funnel.

Step 22: Funnel Your Inner Funnel

I added a 1/2 inch piece of plywood in the shape of a wedge to take up some of the space in main compartment on both sides . I added an angle to the top of the wedge to further reinforce the funnel I was trying to achieve. There are better pics of this in the next steps.

It became clearer and clearer that getting the funnel shape just right was essential to getting this work properly.

Step 23: I Like Big Backer Boards and I Cannot Lie

And to get rid of the gaps I added more backer board pieces to the front and back again reinforcing the funnel shape of the main compartment. These pieces were just super glued in place.

Step 24: Living Life on the Wedge

Here you can see the wedges that I added to take up the extra room in the main compartment. These pieces were super glued in place.

Step 25: Testing My Patience

After each improvement I would reassemble the dispenser and test it. I would make changes to correct the new problems that would come up. Ultimately I had to add backer board pieces to the front and back to get the proper funnel shape that would allow the pencils to feed in to the pencil carrier. The last picture shows what the inside of the main compartment looks like after adding all the wedges and funnel pieces.

Step 26: I Felt That One

After reassembling everything again I noticed that the slot in the pencil carrier was just slightly too deep and would cause pencils to jam. So I added a strip of Tesso tape which is used for wrapping electronic wire harnesses, its what I had on hand so its what I used. It has a felt side and a sticky side. Felt fabric would have probably worked just as well but I didn't have any.

*The key point here is to make sure that the slot in the pencil carrier is the correct size for a single pencil to fit in.

I also noticed that the pencil carrier was slightly smaller than 1 inch in diameter on one side which caused it to sit at a ever so slight angle which would cause pencils to jam. So I wrapped that smaller end with Tesso tape as well to remove the gap. I used some paste wax to lubricate the tape for better smoother function.

*The key point here is to make sure that there is no gap between the pencil carrier slot and the bottom of the funnel opening this will ensure that only one pencil can travel through the opening and fall in to the pencil carrier slot at a time.

Step 27: Let's Dispense With the Formalities

Finally after putting the dispenser back together it worked! I thought I would be able to make this project in a couple of hours but it took me more than that over the course of two days. I wasn't constantly working on the piece so much as taking time to figure out what was causing the issue and addressing that specific problem and testing it again. Then finding a new issue and fixing it or taking time to figure out how to fix it and then testing it again. I lost track of how many times I assembled and disassembled this piece but I finally got it to work...most of the time. It works about 90-95% of the time. I still get pencil jams but that I think it is mostly due to the erasers gripping the sides of the main compartment and tilting at an angle which creates the blockage.

I learned quite a bit from this project but first and foremost I learned that I should plan a little more and that a little humility every once and awhile is a good thing, it helps keep things in perspective.

Plywood Challenge

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Plywood Challenge