Over 50 years ago, I saw a pencil leaning against the front porch of a house near my grandmother's. I was enthralled with the scale of the pencil. It was almost as tall as the porch posts! Wow! What fun that would be. Does it write? Does it erase? What is it made of? Why did they make it? Dad, can I have it? The only question that was answered was the last one and that answer was "no" but I took it home with me in my mind.
Now, as a teacher who spent 30 years in public schools and another 11 years after I "retired," operating a tutoring business, I have gone through a lot of pencils with a lot of students. A few weeks ago, as I was explaining some geometry to a student, I used a standard pencil as an example of a hexagon and we walked through the geometry displayed in it. "How many degrees are each angle?" I've also used a pencil to apply ratios and algebra. "What is the ratio of length to width on this pencil?" What percentage of the length is the ferrule?"
I have several things in my tutoring center that play with the mind by using strange proportions. I look for ways to get students to think with a different part of their brain.
I know a man who has a saw mill. He repurposes old power poles. Around here, that means cedar. I asked him to mill some 1/2" boards that were 12' long and 12" wide. Those boards are all bright yellow now.
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Step 1: Building the Body
My first task was to figure out how to build a hexagon with 12" wide sides. Knowing that there are 360 degrees in a circle, I recognized that if I wanted my "circle" to have 6 corners and even sides, I needed to make each angle at 60 degrees. Since 2 boards would meet at each corner, I beveled each edge at 30 degrees. I cut five (5) pieces of 1/2" plywood to the proper size to use as part of the framework for the body, giving me something to fasten the boards to and adding strength to the pencil body.
Next, I ripped 2"x6" boards into strips measuring about 2" on a side with 2 opposing angles being 60 degrees. The resulting parallelograms were cut into 3" blocks to serve as bumpers for the plywood panels. I spaced the first and last panels 2" from the end of the side boards and the middle panels about 4' from each end.
I used good quality wood glue on all edges and nailed the pencil body together with a pneumatic brad nailer.
Step 2: Making the Point
Making the point proved to be a challenge. I recognized that my pencil had a circumference of over 66". I thought about making 33 beveled strips, each 36" long, 2" wide on the body end and coming to a point at the other. It didn't take long to realize that those measurements, there the precision required to make that work was too high for me. If I'm a fraction of a degree off on each bevel, the result will be a point that doesn't meet. Time to look for a better plan.
I began searching for a better plan. I ruled out getting a 24" tree trunk and trying to wrestle it into my lathe, way too big and too heavy.
Then, I came across a mention of someone using a bandsaw to make wooden bowls. The idea didn't make much sense when reading it but intrigued me enough to head to my shop again.
The idea is that by using a "jig", you can set up a bandsaw to cut concentric circles. By tilting the table you can control the resulting angle for the sides of a bowl.
I calculated the desired length of pencil point and the overall circumference of the pencil. This allowed me to come up with the angle for the tilt of the saw table. I made some practice cuts to determine the width of each of the concentric "hoops" so I could stack them up to make the point.
I tried various ways of starting each circle. Because the saw is cutting circles, a narrow blade worked best. Even then, blades did not last too long because they lost the sharpness at their edges. I tried laminating a few layers of the 3/4" plywood I was using so I would have less planing/sanding to do later. That didn't work very well because the thin saw blades wandered as they cut through the greater depth of wood. I recommend cutting one layer at a time.
I also tried using a spiral cut to get from one ring to the next but decided that did not work too well either. Instead, I cut a "blade width" sized slot into the plywood so I could set the depth of the ring more easily. I recommend cutting a 1/4" slot then you can use 1/4" plywood to fill the gap when you glue the rings together.
The pictures below show some of the rejected rings because I forgot to take pictures of the ones I used! The stack of rings pictured shows the results of stacking the rings with the smallest inside diameter of a large ring with the largest outside diameter of the next largest circle stacked on top.
This makes more sense when you realize that the rings are actually shaped as a parallelogram (see last picture in this group).
Step 3: Attaching the Point
I cut 3 layers of plywood to circles, sized as needed, to begin the pencil point with solid wood. Remember, the circle needs to be the same size as the furthest points of the pencil body and as you sharpen the pencil you will cut into the point material significantly at the midpoint of the flat sides of the pencil. If you use rings here you will find yourself cutting into the opening inside the point.
I built the point in several sections. I attached the first layer to the pencil body with screws tapped into the bracing blocks of the body. I also glued and nailed it to the ends of the planks making the sides. Then I glued and screwed the second layer to the first.
I glued the next dozen rings into a stack and clamped them by setting them on the floor and stacking weight on top since this is such an awkward shape to clamp. Once they dried, I was able to clamp them to the first 2 disks with bar-clamps. Keep in mind that the point is open (as pictured). There is a reason!
Next, I glued up another 12 or so rings on the floor and capped these with another full circle. Once there dried, I attached them to the pencil too. To do this, first I screwed a heavy-duty 4" eyebolt into the center of the first 2 solid disks on the pencil. Then, I drilled a hole through the last (smallest) plate on the section I was adding. I inserted a 7" piece of treaded rod through this hole and attached a large, fender washer with a hole drilled near the edge. I used a rubber, "bungy" cord of appropriate length to loop through the eyebolt, then hooked one hook through the hole in the fender washer and pulled the bungy cord up and across the hook that is in the fender washer then took the loose end back down to the eye bolt. This resulted in three strands of bungy cord loosely holding the newest addition to the pencil. This gave me about 7" of threaded shaft which I could use to tighten the cord and thus clamp the new piece to the pencil. Be sure to put glue where the circles are meeting before tightening the bolt. Once tight and glued, I cut off the excess bolt.
The last section of rings to be added had an opening which was just big enough for me to get my hand into to start a few screws to hold it to the pencil. Once all of the rings were added, I glued and screwed one final circle to the end of a section of cedar 4"x4" which serves as the "lead" then glued and nailed that circle to the pencil.
Depending on how carefully you plan, you may now have a fairly smooth pencil point or you may have, like I did, something resembling a circular "step pyramid"! I tried using a power planer I have but found that it tended to tear fibers out of the plywood too much. I chose to use my 3" belt sander instead. Ear protection, dusk mask, sawdust catcher and a ceiling-mounted sawdust filter all help but this is one messy job.
The hardest part of the job was getting the pencil point to meet the flat sides of the pencil. The flats extend several inches towards the point from the largest circle.
Step 4: Point Painting Details
Once you have the point sanded as you like it, you are ready to paint. This is one place your attention to detail will really show. If you don't take the time to sand the flats of the point rings your paint will make the errors jump out.
The tip of the pencil is quite strong. The pencil isn't extremely heavy so I was able to lift one end off my bench using the point. I mounted a flush-mount table leg on the opposite end to serve as a handle there. I was able to suspend the pencil between two sawhorses using these which allowed me to rotate the pencil and paint it all at one time rather than only painting the sides that were not on the table.
The color I used is called "Hawaiian Passion" by Behr. It is high gloss. The color/s I used on the exposed wood of the point are not as easy to define.
I found some small sample jars of paint on close-out at the local hardware store and chose three, 6 oz. jars of various tans and light browns. I dumped them into one container but did not mix them. I also kept a bit of each in the lids. As I painted the point with a small brush, the color varied greatly. When it wasn't "greatly" enough I dipped into the lid and slapped on a grainy stripe.
The "lead" I painted with a combination of flat black latex with a touch of semi-gloss, gray porch and deck paint.
Once the paint was dry, I was ready to tackle the ferrule.
Step 5: Every Pencil Needs a Ferrule
The metal ring which attaches the eraser to a pencil is called a ferrule. The biggest problem I had making my pencil ferrule was one of proportion. If the thickness of the ferrule were made to the same scale as the rest of this pencil it would be about 1/4" thick. I chose to compromise on the size of my ferrule. It stands out a bit further from the flat sides of the pencil than it should but it also sets into the corners a bit further than it should. If it were as thick as its scale calls for, it would be really hard to work and very heavy to move. Instead, I chose to use 24 gauge galvanized metal. I purchased three strips, each 72" long. Two of the pieces were 11" wide and the third was 13".
First, I rolled each piece until it made a 23" diameter circle. To add some dimension to the pieces, I rolled the 11" pieces through a double roller, putting the rolls about 1 1/2" from the edges. For the 13" section, I used a metal brake to make a series of bends, each 2" apart. The bends were made at 15-20 degrees which required that I bend one, pull the metal out and turn it over, put it back in and bend the next one then remove the metal...and so on.
Initially, I tried using a spot-welder to join the three pieces but galvanized metal does not weld well. I ended up using pop-rivets on much of it. The bead I rolled in and the way the sections joined gave it quite a bit of strength. More on that in a moment...
In order to mount the ferrule to the pencil, I had to round the corners of the pencil. This gave some good, strong mounting points. I built a frame of 2" x 2"s and plywood. I screwed and glued four pieces of plywood to two 10" lengths of 2" x 2" in such a way that two of the 2" x 2"s were on each end of the plywood and the plywood formed a box between the two pairs of 2" x 2"s. I repeated this three times to build structure between each section of the ferrule.
I cut three disks of plywood to fit inside the ferrule. One is positioned at each end of the center section. In the last photo you can see the lip formed where the sections meet on the inside. The third one was fastened at the edge of the bead near the top in the photo. If the ferrule were transparent, you could see one plywood box fastened to the end of the pencil with a plywood disk on top, followed by a taller plywood box in the center section with another plywood disk and then one more plywood box and a final disk. Building it in this manner allowed me to fasten the first plywood box and disk to the end of the pencil before I slid the ferrule in place. Then I built the next box and screwed it in place so that the 2" x 2"s of it lined up with the ones in the first box for added strength. All joints were glued and screwed. Then I was able to reach down inside the ferrule to screw the center box into place then screwed the next disk in place. Next was the last box followed by the last disk.
At this point. my project looks like a pencil but is lacking an eraser. There is a plate of plywood about 2" below the rim of the ferrule which will allow an eraser to be mounted.
Step 6: Final Touches
With the ferrule in place it was on to the eraser. I am not totally satisfied with the eraser as it is right now. It will most likely change when my funds improve. As a temporary eraser, I used rolls of bubble wrap for a base then covered them with pink, Polyethylene foam. The Polyethylene is closed cell so it will not absorb water. I glued all of this together with aerosol adhesive. The photo shown was taken before the last layer of Polyethylene was applied.
After applying some appropriate lettering, I placed a roll of paper towels on the pencil to show perspective and snapped a photo.
All that was left was figuring out exactly how to move and display the pencil.
Step 7: What's the Point of a Giant Pencil?
Lucky for me, my wife has a very stout, old pickup and she let me use it. I built a rack for the truck and hoisted the pencil into place. The pencil is about three feet longer than the truck.
When I showed a picture to a friend, he said, "It looks like your weapon of mass instruction!". I like that name so that's what we call it. I hope to find a permanent place for it at my tutoring center in the near future. But in the meantime...
Prepare to launch!