I make money sharpening pencils. I wrote a book called HOW TO SHARPEN PENCILS. I used to be a cartoonist. Some of my comics include GET YOUR WAR ON and MY NEW FIGHTING TECHNIQUE IS UNSTOPPABLE (one of the first webcomics). Earlier today someone posted a video about my pencil-sharpening business on reddit and it generated some confusion/anger. I would like to put your misgivings to rest.

7PM EST: I will begin answering questions now. I will start with questions that have the most up-points(?). For the duration of this AMA I will be listening to "Work Everyday" by Brother Ali; you are encouraged to do the same.

9PM EST: Thanks for your questions. I will try to answer some of the ones I missed tomorrow, but right now I need to go meet some friends for a beer. TWO THINGS: 1. I will be talking about pencils on CBS Sunday Morning tomorrow 2. I'd really appreciate it if you bought my book HOW TO SHARPEN PENCILS, which is available at your local indie bookstore. Thanks again everyone. --David Rees

11/25 11AM EST: PLEASE NOTE: The user posting as David_Rees is not me. Not sure what to do about this. I will try to answer more questions this afternoon. --David Rees

11/25 4:39PM EST: I'm going to answer some of the questions I missed last night.

11/25 5:39PM EST: This is the end of my AMA. (Between reddit and CBS Sunday Morning, I now have 300 pencils in my queue and I must get to work.) I really appreciate people's interest in my business. I set out to make myself happy; if it makes other people happy, my own happiness is redoubled. If you have further questions about pencils, I can recommend two books: 1. THE PENCIL: A HISTORY OF DESIGN AND CIRCUMSTANCE by Henry Petroski, an exhaustive, fascinating history of the pencil. 2. HOW TO SHARPEN PENCILS by David Rees, the best book ever written and a wonderful holiday gift. Thanks again. --David Rees

Comments: 967 • Responses: 54  • Date: 

AquaFox643 karma

It sounds like your Artisanal Pencil Sharpening business is an art piece--and I love it. It's very different than anything you've done before. What prompted you to make something this elaborate, instead of making a comic on something like this?

davidreespencil785 karma

Please up-point-vote this response, guys, as it will answer a lot of people's questions: In 2010 I was broke (I had quit cartooning) so I got a job working for the U.S. Census. On the first day of staff training, we were told to sharpen our #2 pencils using a government-issued single-blade pocket sharpener. While sharpening my pencil, I thought, "I wonder if I could get paid to sharpen pencils?" So I started ArtisanalPencilSharpening.com with the help of some friends (web designer, photographer, etc.) The whole thing was kind of a challenge to myself: Take something you enjoy doing and convince people they should pay you to do it. In order for this project to work, it had to take the form of an ACTUAL pencil sharpening business, not just a silly web site for a non-existent business.

ThaDinks280 karma

What's your favourite brand of mechanical pencil?

davidreespencil353 karma

I'm not a fan of mechanical pencils.

badredditjoker74 karma

I'm betting on the twist erase III in the .9 mm lead.

davidreespencil333 karma

Listen to yourself. C'mon.

XanderWaterman274 karma

I recently found out that my mother has switched to using mechanical pencils. How do I politely tell her she isn't welcome to my house for Christmas this year?

davidreespencil716 karma

Burn your house to the ground, collect the insurance money, move to a new state, and fail to tell your mother.

hometown414190 karma

I just picked up your book today. As a carpenter I often sharpen pencils with my utility knife. It is honestly a very satisfying experience. What is the origin of the large flat shaped carpenters pencil?

davidreespencil293 karma

Interestingly, the contemporary carpenter pencil is actually the closest thing we have to the original pencil -- that is to say, a flat (rather than hexagonal or cylindrical) mark-making tool. The earliest pencils were simply pieces of graphite sandwiched between two pieces of wood. (We're talking about the mid-16th century here, which is when the first deposit of graphite was discovered in England -- the birthplace of the modern pencil.)

hometown414127 karma

Do any of these exist in museums anywhere?

davidreespencil353 karma

Yes! In fact, the Pencil Museum in Cumberland (UK) has the oldest known pencil in its collection; you can see its similarity to a carpenter pencil: https://uwaterloo.ca/earth-sciences-museum/sites/ca.earth-sciences-museum/files/uploads/images/aelteste.jpg

krzysztofszymon170 karma

As an avid user of mechanical pencils, sincerely, fuck you too.

davidreespencil196 karma

I am not "an avid user of mechanical pencils."

TheJayP45 karma

I think he meant that he was an avid user, not you. The confusing English language strikes again!

davidreespencil339 karma

Yes, I agree. I was trying to make a "LOL," as the obfuscatory properties of English sometimes result in unexpected delights.

Ceyd130 karma

I see you hate the mechanical pencil, but how do you feel about the pen?

davidreespencil346 karma

I like pens. I rarely use pencils, actually -- as a left-handed person, they smudge the side of my writing hand.

tynosaur101 karma

Are you looking for an apprentice? I've been inspired by your work ethic and appreciation for the little things. I'd be honored.

Note: No, I am not kidding.

davidreespencil106 karma

Thanks for your kind offer but I don't work with apprentices.

petrobot7895 karma

Are there any pencil sharpeners you look up to? Is there a Michael Jordan of sharpening pencils? Thanks for doing this AMA!

davidreespencil152 karma

I'd like to meet Dalton Ghetti, although is practice is quite different than mine. I've heard he's a really nice guy.

AgonySpecialsauce82 karma

David Rees, you are my goddamn hero. Seriously. Filing Technique and Get Your War On have genuinely made my life funnier. My brother and still I quote from your comics with some frequency in our day-to-day joking activities. I saw you lecture once in San Francisco, and you were self-effacingly hilarious. You are fucking awesome.

Also, my what the fuck happened to my fucking database mousepad wore out and my scotch tape computer mug finally broke. You should sell more merchandise bro! <3

davidreespencil64 karma

Thanks for your kind words; I'm really flattered you quote those comics. I'm sorry about your mug and your mousepad (does that date us very much, by the way?) but I no longer sell comics merch.

render13376 karma

Who makes the best overall pencil?

davidreespencil186 karma

My clients get a General's Semi-Hex #2 pencil -- it's the only yellow #2 pencil still made in the USA. The General Pencil Co. is a family-owned business in Jersey City. I toured the factory a few months ago. Good people; many of the employees have worked there for decades. I have #respect for General Pencil, no doubt. (Having said that, the Mitsubishi 9850 is a beautiful pencil.)

badredditjoker41 karma

Ticonderoga. If your looking for a woody.

davidreespencil105 karma

Ticonderogas are no longer manufactured in the USA. Still, they're the best pencil you can buy at a big box store like Staples.

dabedpost45 karma

What's your opinion on Blackwings? I've got a box of1966 vintage I'm considering using.

davidreespencil136 karma

I would hold onto those original Blackwings. They will only become more valuable with time. Save them for your children's children.

neurosie1973 karma

What should I do if I have some pencils with that plastic stuff on them for designs and it keeps ripping when I sharpen it, leaving the unsightly white plastic beneath?

davidreespencil429 karma

I don't fuck with those pencils. Throw them in a can, for they are garbage.

ByCromsBalls72 karma

Do you feel like you could become TOO good at sharpening pencils where it looks close to machine sharpened? Or do you in fact purposefully keep the flaws and inconsistency that would make yours unique?

davidreespencil314 karma

One of the pleasures of a hand-sharpened pencil (that is to say, a knife-sharpened pencil) is that there's no mistaking it for an electrically sharpened pencil. HOWEVER I recently taught a pencil-sharpening workshop at MaxFunCon and one of my students produced a hand-sharpened point that was so fine, so flawless, that it could have passed for machine-sharpened in low light. I was flabbergasted. And enraged.

AcidfartProductions69 karma

About how much per year do you make?

davidreespencil124 karma

Sharpening pencils pays me about $60/hour, but it's not a full-time job by any means. I usually process orders in batches of 10.

sniffles_snort55 karma

In the video you say you charge $15/pencil. Has that changed?

davidreespencil275 karma

I recently increased my fee to $20/pencil in order to slow demand. That plan failed as of this morning's reddit story.

SharpPencils62 karma

I sharpen pencils at my university :). What do you think?


davidreespencil122 karma

Not bad! Limited graphite exposure might be an issue depending on what use is intended for the pencil, but I like the neatness of the collar. #respect

delphi_ote60 karma

I thought I was the only person who felt the way I did in the aftermath of 9/11. GYWO reminded me that I wasn't losing my mind. My country was. I really can't thank you enough for that.

davidreespencil62 karma

I really appreciate you telling me that. A lot of people have said that over the years and it makes me happy because the whole point of that comic was to remind myself that I wasn't losing my mind.

cryosearedduckbreast57 karma

Are your customers all businesses, or do you get people who ask you to sharpen one or two pencils just for themselves?

davidreespencil163 karma

I've never had a business client. Most of my customers order a single pencil. The biggest single job I ever did was sharpening 25 "lucky pencils" for a class of 3rd graders who were about to take the NY standardized exam. And I didn't invoice the teacher. (I'm a lousy capitalist.)

dextrosity53 karma

How long did it take to invoice 25 3rd graders?

Also, did they pass?

oreng103 karma

Followup: Would you rather invoice 25 3rd graders or 3 25th graders?

davidreespencil88 karma

3rd graders are the best. Here are some of the thank you cards I received: http://www.mnftiu.cc/2011/06/03/thank-you-cards-from-kids-re-pencils/

hittheskids56 karma

You donated money from the sales of the GYWO books to anti-mine efforts, didn't you? How much ended up being donated?

davidreespencil132 karma

I donated the author royalties from the GET YOUR WAR ON anthologies to a team of deminers in Herat (Western Afghanistan). The team were mostly ex-mujahideen who wanted to clear the land of unexploded ordnance in order to farm it. They worked with bomb-sniffing dogs. In the end, we raised about $100,000 for the team.

naner_puss54 karma

What do your close friends and family think of this endeavor? Do they support you in your actions? Do they understand what is really going on?

davidreespencil90 karma

My parents were a little confused at first. They were worried about me. (The business started during a stressful time in my life.)

fingerguns53 karma

When will you bring back Friday Face-Offs?

davidreespencil94 karma

FINALLY someone mentions the best thing I've ever done. I will TRY to post a Friday Face-Off before the end of this year. Thanks for your support of good music!

Garroxx37 karma

Are you for real?

davidreespencil142 karma

Yes I am real. I am talking to you on the internet right now.

modeliste37 karma

From your experience, do you find any truth in the "10,000 hour rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell? Do you think it applies to the domain of pencil sharpening?

davidreespencil221 karma

I don't believe anything Malcolm Gladwell says.

Grannygoiter35 karma


davidreespencil10 karma

It was actually a red pencil. I've worn a bunch of red pencils down to stubs over the course of my business.

vandalgrr35 karma

Why on God's green Earth would somebody pay you $15 to sharpen something that constantly needs to be sharpened? I'm fucking perplexed.

davidreespencil104 karma

I charge $20, not $15. Price of the brick went up.

justjoshingyou34 karma

do you ever have moments of doubt in what you are doing? do you work through them or do they just never surface?

davidreespencil129 karma

My life is defined by moments of self-doubt. That's usually when I turn up my stereo.

guhnats34 karma

respect from a 589er. You said on How Was Your Week this week that you're quitting artisanal pencil sharpening after 1,000 pencils. How many are you at now? How much longer will take to get to 1k? How has your technique/method/setup changed since the first pencil?

A general update on the Rolling Jubilee would be great too! Have you folks purchased up any more debt?

davidreespencil65 karma

RE: The Rolling Jubilee, we've raised more than $420,000 which will abolish $8.5 million of distressed medical debt. (For people who don't know what I'm talking about, you can read more here: http://rollingjubilee.org)

davidreespencil46 karma

True, I'm thinking about shuttering the business when I hit the 1,000 pencil mark. It's actually a lot of work, and it makes me fairly anxious. However, the demand stays high I'll work to keep my customers satisfied.

LongTooth2533 karma

What do you think about Staedtler pencils? They're my personal favourite

davidreespencil44 karma

Germans make good pencils, as do the Japanese.

modeliste32 karma

Did you have a mentor? How did you first start to pick up the skill?

davidreespencil282 karma

I'm like ODB: There's no father to my style.

modeliste29 karma

Have you considered going the Thomas Kincaide route, and hiring a bunch of low-paid workers to do most of the sharpening, and then you come in and put the final touches on the pencil?

davidreespencil92 karma

People have suggested this before, and as much as I love the idea of opening weird Artisanal Pencil Sharpening kiosks in malls so as to part fools and their money, I feel it would undermine the credibility of my business.

Teklogikal26 karma

David, your comics are some of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life. I have had one of them hanging on my wall for years. How did you come up with the idea of using clip art to create comics?

davidreespencil44 karma

Thanks for your kind words. I started using clip art in my comics when I had a series of boring temp jobs in Boston. I would make comics in MS PowerPoint and print them out on the office printer when nobody was looking. (I used to draw comics but I didn't like the labor involved -- the penciling, inking, lettering, etc. I was always more interested in the dialogue than the imagery.)

ninefivedelta26 karma


davidreespencil37 karma

I've heard this a lot. I've never seen "Heroes" but Zachary Quinto seems like a good guy, what little I know of him.

illusion_michael25 karma

What's one small thing we all can do to enrich our pencil experiences?

davidreespencil51 karma

Pay close attention to the sharpening process. Basically, be mindful of this humble act so that your enjoyment may increase thereby.

bluesplitter25 karma

You already have made it obvious that being a sincere "artisianal pencil sharpener" is no joke(anymore), but is the deeper meaning behind this a satirical take on how our economy is becoming service based?(with considerations of the potential ramifications of such a sentiment, in terms of both economic viability and living a "full filled" lifestyle i.e. being able to do what you want with your time/life)

davidreespencil55 karma

Honestly, I didn't give any thought to satire when I started this business. I mean, I thought it would be cool/funny to call it "Artisanal Pencil Sharpening," but I wasn't really trying to take the piss out of anyone. I just thought it sounded bad-ass.

CarChaseCity22 karma

I was wondering what your favorite brand or type of wood is. I was also wondering if you have any pencils made from exotic woods. Also I was wondering if you ever have the fear of making a pencil so perfect that you must run and share it with the world and fall on it and die by your own beautiful creation. Thanks.

davidreespencil32 karma

The best pencils are made with red cedar, which used to be harvested in abundance in the US. Most cheap pencils are now made with lesser woods, lacking the fragrance and smoothness of real cedar. Sometimes the pencils are even died to resemble the classic salmon-pink of good cedar.

rimmyrim20 karma

What is your favorite piece of classical music?

davidreespencil50 karma

I love Bach. However according to my iTunes, the classical piece I've listened to most is Vivaldi: Beatus Vir, RV 795: XV Gloria Patri, Et Filio. When the full chorus kicks in I get goosebumps. Also a big fan of Britten's Suite for Cello Op. 72. And Country Doctor by Burning Witch ain't bad either.

nikorablin19 karma

What is your opinion on other small-batch artisanal craftsmen?

davidreespencil53 karma

I live in the Hudson Valley (NY), so there's lots of expensive chocolate and cheese and whatnot. My town has a store that ONLY sells olive oil and vinegar. In fact, my friends own a wine store called Artisan Wine Shop. (They let me work there sometimes.) It was this culture that led me to name my business ARTISANAL Pencil Sharpening. As for me, I do most of my shopping at Stop N Shop, which is not really artisanal of me I gues.

BuzzedLiteBeer18 karma

I'm looking for a raw, primal, pencil-pointing experience.


davidreespencil35 karma

Sharpening a pencil with a straight blade (pen knife, box cutter) is really satisfying. Sometimes I teach workshops on this technique and most people come away surprised and impressed with their pencils. Remember that for hundreds of years, this was the only way to point a pencil. For most people it's a lost art. Using this technique connects you to generations of pencil users.

only2shirts17 karma

MNFTIU is fucking hilarious and I used to read it all the time when I was a kid

davidreespencil74 karma

Sue your parents for negligence.

00boyina14 karma

Did you ever seriously consider suing Jamba Juice for infringing on "Get Your War On?" If not, why not?

P.S. - Drink Wine Not Juice

davidreespencil54 karma

I heard from a lot of attorneys who told me I had valid grounds for a lawsuit, but I was more interested in making sure my readers knew I had nothing to do with that ad campaign. I tried to focus on making fun of Jamba Juice instead of trying to sue them. That way lies madness.

The_Vizier12 karma

If you use pencils, what kind of hardness do you use?

2b or not 2b?

davidreespencil17 karma

Most of the time I use a #2 pencil, because there about 10,000 of them scattered around my house. :-)

uconejo11 karma

How much work do you have on a daily basis? And what typical costumer like?

davidreespencil22 karma

I usually sharpen a few evening per week. Things are getting busier now (holiday rush) so I'll probably sharpen every day next week. My typical customer is a stranger on the internet about whom I know nothing. (I have a feeling most people buy the pencils as gifts or inspirational tokens; there is an extensive selection of quotes from satisfied customers in the front of my book).

johngdo9 karma

When we order a pencil from you, will it be hand or machine sharpened? Can someone specifically request a hand sharpening?

davidreespencil16 karma

When you order a pencil via PayPal, there's a field called "Instructions from buyer." You can make your preference known there.

SoooFetch8 karma

I'm inviting you to my birthday party next year.

davidreespencil24 karma

I have sharpened pencils at parties before. It's a fun experience for the guests -- and for me. You can email me at contact at artisanal pencil sharpening dot com to discuss rates.

dextrosity8 karma

Whose pencil do you most want to sharpen?

davidreespencil20 karma

I wish my maternal grandfather was alive to see my business. He was a scientist and a wood worker (he built my family's dining room table). I would love to watch his eyes roll up in the back of his head as I explained what I was doing.

Zoompa6 karma

Have you ever done any sculpts or designs on some of your crafted pencils?

davidreespencil9 karma

I leave that art to Dalton Ghetti.

FrothySantorum5 karma

Have you ever considered a career in comedy? You clearly have the right timing and delivery.

davidreespencil9 karma

I dabble in comedy. My friend and I host comedy shows in our town, and every so often I do stuff in NYC -- although recently, when I'm booked to do a comedy show, I just go onstage and say, "Ask me anything about pencils" and then just answer people's questions for 10 minutes.

Citisol3 karma

What is your favorite sharpening technique?

davidreespencil9 karma

I don't have a favorite technique. In my practice I try to rotate through techniques to keep things fresh. Each technique brings its own pleasures and anxieties.