I got a peek inside David Rees’s pencil-sharpening kit last week at his appearance in Williamsburg, sponsored by the bookstore Word, at Public Assembly. It was the last stop on his book tour (“How to Sharpen Pencils” was reviewed on Page-Turner recently by Mark O’Connell), and for the occasion he was joined onstage by John Hodgman, who wrote the foreword for Rees’s book, and who read a hilarious piece about wine from his new collection, “That Is All” (“One kind of wine is … RED WINE”), and by Jonathan Coulton, who, at Rees’s request, sang melancholy songs from his new album, “Artificial Heart.”
One of the things Rees keeps in his kit, besides his sharpeners, rags, sandpaper, vinyl tubing, and replacement blades, is plastic bags, for collecting pencil shavings. It was this insight, Rees explained—that the shavings belong to the client and should be returned to the client along with the hand-sharpened pencil—that made him realize that he could make a go of it as an artisanal pencil sharpener. To illustrate, he said that he had been so excited about that night’s show that he’d gotten a haircut, and when the barber began to sweep up the clippings on the floor, he insisted that those clippings belonged to him. He produced from his kit a large baggie of gray-brown locks.
This reminded me that I once asked my hairdresser if he would bag up the hair on the floor for me as a surprise for a friend who was using human hair to keep deer out of the garden. (Urinating along the perimeter of the garden daily is also effective.) Before I return from this Martha Stewart-like digression, I should add that Rees told the audience that he once worked for Martha Stewart, as a fact-checker at Martha Stewart Weddings, and he gives Martha Stewart latent credit for inspiring his venture into artisanal pencil-sharpening. He calculates that his pencil-sharpening business was the second-to-last to cash in on the market for all things artisanal: next came the Dunkin’ Donuts artisanal bagel, and then “the door came down.”
Rees went on to develop the analogy of the human body to a pencil. The head, of course, is the point. The hair, like graphite, has to be trimmed to stay sharp. The body is the shaft—in his narrow black craftsman’s apron, Rees could be described as pencil thin—and the feet and shoes are erasers, as evidenced by the fact that soles are often made of rubber and feet are used to back out of a room after making a mistake (he shuffled backward), thereby erasing one’s humanity.
I had found a pencil that morning in Tompkins Square Park, where I went to meet my acupuncturist to practice Tai Chi and learn some new upper-body moves. Actually, the acupuncturist found the pencil before I got there and was about to pick it up when he remembered whom he was meeting and left it for me. (He has a deep insight into his patients’ needs.) The pencil had been decapitated—it looked as if a squirrel had mistaken it for some kind of nut and tried to crack it open. I carried it with me on the L train to Brooklyn, along with my new Palomino long-point handheld sharpener, hoping for an opportunity to show it to the master.
But first I watched as Rees demonstrated his technique for Celebrity Impression Pencil Sharpening (Robert De Niro and Sean Connery are favorites) and took suggestions from the audience for pencil-sharpening improv, a new direction for him. You’re at a funeral and you’re broke: “I’ve got an idea—I’ll sharpen pencils for a living!” It’s Hanukkah and euphoria is in the air: “Somehow the conversation turns to … pencil sharpening!” There was also a Q. & A., during which we learned that there are two styles of classifying pencil lead: the American system, which uses numbers (1, 2, 3), and which was developed by the father of Henry David Thoreau, and the European system, which uses letters (HB = Hard Black).
Then Rees took up a position at a table at the back of the room and I got in line to have my book signed. My copy of “How to Sharpen Pencils” is already showing signs of wear.
“You’re using a Blackwing!” I said when I got to the head of the line. Because Rees specializes in the artisanal sharpening of No. 2 pencils, I was surprised to see on the table in front of him two Blackwings, reduced by about two-fifths of their length, along with a candy-apple-red Carl Angel-5, a Japanese mechanical sharpener, with little pincers, like rabbit ears, above the hole, for stabilizing the pencil.
“It’s soft, so it’s nice for signing,” he replied.
I showed him the pencil I had acquired that morning in Tompkins Square Park.
“Is that a Papermate?” he said.
“It is,” I replied. I got out my Palomino long-point handheld.
“I have one of those,” he said, and lifted from his kit a polished wooden box with his name etched on the lid—DAVID REES—and pointed out the Palomino long-point in its customized compartment. I was dazzled: he keeps his collection in what looks like a jewelry box for socket wrenches. He couldn’t resist unpacking the El Casco, a Basque pencil sharpener that may be the most expensive pencil sharpener on the market (“It was a gift”), and demonstrating its suction base.
I asked Rees if he thought the Papermate—a Classic TM/MC HB2—could be rehabilitated. I confess that I had secretly been hoping he would take an interest in my case and perhaps provide his services pro bono. But he saw through me. His face took on a remote look, and he said coolly, “We can talk about it,” from which I inferred that I would have to make an appointment and bring in the Papermate during office hours.
But then I won him back by thanking him for what he has done. By bringing pencil sharpening out in the open, David Rees has lifted a taboo: he has given us all permission to express our love of pencils, to abandon ourselves to penicilophilia—a love that till now has always been slightly embarrassed to speak its name.
“I’m so glad to hear you say that,” he said.
Written originally on hotel stationery from the Eldorado, in Reno, Nevada, with a Palomino Blackwing, May 23, 2012.