Introduction: An Easy Way to Extract Lead From a Pencil

About: I have a PhD in biology, but most of this is just puttering around. Old puttering around especially.

While wandering around the fascinating website that is Instructables I found that, though there are a bunch of projects that require the usage of the graphite core of a pencil, there doesn't seem to be any suggestions on how to extract the "lead" besides whittling the pencil down or splitting the pencil in half.

Sure, these methods are okay and all, but for my first attempt at writing an instructable allow me to propose what I find to be an easier way of getting that sweet, sweet carbon center out of the also-carbon-based-but-significantly-less-sweet wooden exterior. My proposed solution can be summed up as follows: light it on fire!

Tools and Materials

A means to start a fire (I find that a lighter works best here)
A pencil (one without paint works best, but pencils with paint also work)
A ceramic plant pot plate with a diameter around the same size as the pencil
A knife (a small, easy to handle one works best)
A cup of water (for dealing with things that are hot)
Optional: A candle slightly shorter than the plate is deep

Since you'll be lighting things on fire here, you'll also want to follow basic fire safety, such as keeping something around to extinguish any errant flames or working in a ventilated, clutter free space. As you can clearly see in the first picture, however, I am a terrible example of the latter.

Step 1: Start the Fire!

If you aren't using a candle:

Light the pencil on fire around the center and then lay the pencil across the center of the plate (see picture).

If you are using a candle:

Light the candle, place it in the center of the plate, and then  lay the pencil across the center of the plate such that it cuts across the candle. If the candle is of appropriate height, its flame  should light the pencil on fire and keep the pencil lit (again, see picture).

Either way:

You'll likely have trouble setting a painted pencil like the one I've pictured on fire because initially only the outer layer of paint will burn. With a little diligence, however, you too can eventually light your pencil on fire.

Step 2: Watch It Burn!

This part is pretty easy: sit back, and watch as the fire consumes the pencil. Though I've never had any flame escape the plate, be careful that surrounding objects don't catch ablaze as the fire meanders towards the ends of the pencil.

Step 3: Extinguish the Fire and Scrape Off the Charcoal

Once the pencil's wood is reduced to blackened charcoal, blow out the fire ad the take the pencil by the eraser (it shouldn't be too hot) and dip it into the water to extinguish any remaining embers. If your cup of water isn't deep enough to submerge the whole pencil just grab the extinguished end and dip the eraser side into the water. 

After extinguishing the fire take your knife and start peeling away the charcoal clinging to the graphite. Though most of the charcoal should come off easily, if any big piece doesn't come off almost immediately simply re-lighting that section for a bit should loosen it up. Since the pencil is wet setting a section aflame again will take a few moments, but if you just keep that part in a fire long enough it should soon reignite. 

Step 4: Break Off the Eraser

Before long you should be able to clean off a majority of the charcoal from the pencil. Once you get to this point all you have to do is just snap off the eraser and you're done! Hooray!

Step 5: Behold Your Goodies!

Besides being (at least in my opinion) a lot easier than just whittling down a pencil with a knife, the "light it on fire" method of graphite extraction also yields slightly more goodies beyond just the graphite in the form of a few bits of charcoal (for example, I like to use it for things like making black powder) and a pretty cool looking eraser.