At the start of every school year, I inevitably find myself standing in the pencil aisle seething that the specific brand on my son's supply list is once again out of stock. The shelves runneth over for other brands, but there's not a single package of No. 2 Ticonderoga yellow pre-sharpened to be found. There might as well be tumbleweeds on those shelves.
This always leaves me wondering if I really need to hunt down those elusive, ultra-specific pencils, or can I get away with one of the off-brand that are practically taunting me from their well-stocked shelves?
Since I am nothing, if not a rule-follower, I opted to order Ticonderogas online, but I polled some friends for their take. Turns out that many parents are as befuddled as I. A pencil is a pencil is a pencil, right? Wrong, according to all the teachers I spoke with. Wrong, wrong, wrong-ity wrong.
"[Ticonderogas] sharpen consistently without breakage and have the longest staying power when writing," says Ashley Johnessee, Ph.D., assistant principal at Lambert High School in Suwanee, Georgia. "They also have the best erasers."
"Ticonderogas are better but this teacher is just happy to get pencils!" adds Jodi Sorrells, who teaches fifth grade at Kennedy Elementary School in Winder, Georgia. "It is a bonus if they are already sharpened and a double bonus if they are that brand."
I reached out to Dixon Ticonderoga, the company behind these pencils for its take on what makes a pencil special. "Ticonderoga pencils are produced with premium wood from certified sustainable wood sources," Becky Trudeau, a product manager at Dixon Ticonderoga, said in 2017. "Exacting standards are used to produce pencils that write smoothly, without the scratchy feel of other pencil brands, and deliver consistent results. There is no need to worry that a No. 2 Ticonderoga will deliver the marks correctly on scantron test sheets used widely in schools, which is one of the reasons Ticonderoga is the brand overwhelmingly preferred by teachers."
Making a good pencil is not as easy as it may seem. Henry Hulan literally grew up in the pencil industry, with his Tennessee-based family business, Musgrave Pencil Company having celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016. Musgrave pencils are still made in the U.S. (Ticonderogas are now manufactured in other countries.)
According to Hulan, picky pencil-users should look first at the type of wood being used. California incense cedar is the premier pencil wood; however, it is growing more expensive to process. So, people should also look at basswood pencils as another good option — with some caveats. "There are different grades of basswood because some of it is waxed and some is unwaxed," Hulan explained in 2017. "When it's hard to sharpen you're probably getting an unwaxed slat. It's cheaper but unwaxed."
The graphite mix inside a pencil (it's not lead) also makes the difference between a good writing experience and a bad one. "If you've ever written with a pencil and it gets scratchy that means the graphite and clay haven't been mixed long enough," Hulan said. "It just takes days sometimes to get a real fine mix of the graphite and clay in order to extrude a really good graphite core."
Lastly, some cheaper pencils are outfitted with erasers that just smear the paper rather than rubbing out any markings. Hulan said this quality fail is due to one of two things: "They didn't use good materials to make that eraser or it's an older eraser that had been exposed to light for a while."
So, is it absolutely 100 percent necessary to purchase that ultra-specific brand your child's teacher requested? Probably not, but at the very least look at the wood and wax finish before buying.
If you want to know more about how pencils are made, watch the video below:
This story was updated to reflect the addition of a statement from Dixon Ticonderoga.