Pencils go through a tipping machine, which attaches erasers, at General Pencil Company in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Courtesy of Christopher Payne/Esto/General Pencil Company (tipping machine); Flashpop/Getty Images (boy)

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Engineering the Write Stuff

Peek inside one of America’s last pencil factories

Since my first day of kindergarten (almost 20 years ago!), I’ve been writing with a pencil. But I had never thought about how they are made. (Have you?) That changed when I visited one of America’s last pencil factories, in Jersey City, New Jersey.

General Pencil Company was founded in 1889. It’s been making pencils for more than 100 years. General Pencil is the oldest pencil company in America. It’s also one of the last standing. Nearly all U.S. pencil companies have either gone out of business or they have closed their factories in the U.S.

The sights, smells, and sounds of the factory make it an exciting place to be. When I visited, machines were cranking out about 3,000 pencils an hour! “We love making pencils,” says Katie Weissenborn Vanoncini, president of General Pencil.

My first day of kindergarten was almost 20 years ago. Since then, I've been writing with a pencil. But I had never thought about how they are made. (Have you?) That changed when I visited one of America's last pencil factories. It's in Jersey City, New Jersey.

 General Pencil Company was founded in 1889. It's been making pencils for more than 100 years. General Pencil is the oldest pencil company in America. It's also one of the last standing. Nearly all U.S. pencil companies have either gone out of business. Or they have closed their U.S. factories.

The sights, smells, and sounds of the factory make it exciting. When I visited, machines were cranking out about 3,000 pencils an hour! "We love making pencils," says Katie Weissenborn Vanoncini, president of General Pencil. 

Inventing the Pencil

People have been using writing tools for thousands of years. More than 5,000 years ago, ancient people known as Mesopotamians invented the world’s first writing system. They created a writing tool called a stylus. (Fun fact: They were also the first to document the solving of math problems.)

People have been using writing tools for thousands of years. Ancient people known as Mesopotamians invented the world's first writing system. This happened more than 5,000 years ago. They created a writing tool called a stylus. (Fun fact: They were also the first to document the solving of math problems.) 

After that, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all wrote with styluses too. Sometimes styluses were made with lead, which is why the idea that pencils contain lead remains today. They don’t. They contain graphite, a mixture of clay and black carbon.

In the mid-1500s, farmers in England used graphite to mark sheep. By the end of the century, people began placing sticks of graphite into wood sleeves. The pencil was born.

After that, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all wrote with styluses too. Sometimes styluses were made with lead. This is why the idea that pencils contain lead remains today. They don't. They contain graphite. That's a mixture of clay and black carbon.

In the mid-1500s, farmers in England used graphite to mark sheep. Later, people began placing sticks of graphite into wood sleeves. The pencil was born.

Engineering a Pencil Factory

Most of the graphite for pencils came from England
and Germany through the late 1800s. Edward Weissenborn (Vanoncini’s great-great-grandfather) learned how to make pencils in Germany during this time. He moved to America in 1854. He wanted to create the country’s first pencil factory.

Weissenborn trained as a mechanical engineer. He used his knowledge to build pencil-making machines. In his lifetime, Weissenborn came up with 360 machine designs for different parts of the pencil-making process. Many parts of the process are still in use.

Weissenborn opened his pencil factory in 1860. People really liked his work. Four members of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet complimented him on the quality of his pencils. Later, Weissenborn’s son started a new factory that became the home of General Pencil.

Most of the graphite for pencils came from England and Germany. This happened through the late 1800s. Edward Weissenborn is Vanoncini's great-great-grandfather. He learned how to make pencils in Germany during this time. He moved to America in 1854. He wanted to create the country's first pencil factory.

Weissenborn trained as a mechanical engineer. He used his knowledge to build pencil-making machines. In his lifetime, Weissenborn came up with 360 machine designs. They were for different parts of the pencil-making process. Many of these parts and processes are still in use.

Weissenborn opened his pencil factory in 1860. People really liked his work. Four members of President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet complimented him. They wrote letters about the quality of his pencils. Later, Weissenborn's son started a new factory. That became the home of General Pencil. 

Making Pencils Today

Inside General Pencil, thousands of pencils in dozens of colors are produced every hour.

First, machines make the graphite core. They mix clay, water, and carbon. Pigments get added for colored pencils.

Then machines bake the graphite core into a broad cylinder. It’s called a pencil cake, but you wouldn’t want it for your birthday. The cake is cut into small rods. These become the pencil cores.

Meanwhile, workers load flat pieces of wood into another machine. The factory uses cedar because it doesn’t splinter like other woods do. The machine carves grooves into the wood to fit the graphite cores. Another piece of wood is attached on top. The result? It’s called a pencil sandwich.

Finally, machines cut the pencil sandwich into individual pencils. Each is painted and then topped with a metal band and an eraser. Then they’re packed and shipped across the country.

The factory makes about 24,000 pencils a day—almost 9 million pencils a year! The fall is one of the company’s busiest times. “Lots of people want new pencils when they head back to school,” Vanoncini says.

Inside General Pencil, thousands of pencils in dozens of colors are produced every hour.

First, machines make the graphite core. They mix clay, water, and carbon. Pigments get added for making colored pencils.

Then machines bake the graphite core into a broad cylinder. It's called a pencil cake. But you wouldn't want it for your birthday. The cake is cut into small rods. These become the pencil cores.

Meanwhile, workers load flat pieces of wood into another machine. The factory uses cedar because it doesn't splinter. Other woods splinter. The machine carves grooves into the wood. This is meant to fit the graphite cores. Another piece of wood is glued on top. The result? It's called a pencil sandwich.

Finally, machines cut the pencil sandwich into individual pencils. Each pencil is painted. Then it's topped with a metal band and an eraser. Then, the pencils are packed and shipped across the country.

The factory makes about 24,000 pencils a day. That's almost 9 million pencils a year! The fall is one of the company's busiest times. "Lots of people want new pencils when they head back to school," Vanoncini says.

The General Pencil factory operates 5 days a week for 8 hours each day. You want to find the number of hours the factory is open over 5 weeks.
Which sentence best describes what you want to solve?

A. 5 plus 8 times 5

B. 5 times 8 plus 5         

C. 5 plus 8 plus 5

D. 5 times 8 times 5  

The General Pencil factory operates 5 days a week for 8 hours each day. You want to find the number of hours the factory is open over 5 weeks.
Which sentence best describes what you want to solve?

A. 5 plus 8 times 5

B. 5 times 8 plus 5         

C. 5 plus 8 plus 5

D. 5 times 8 times 5 

Use your answer from part A to write an expression.

Use your answer from part A to write an expression.

How many hours is the factory open over 5 weeks?

How many hours is the factory open over 5 weeks?

Rewrite your expression in words.

Rewrite your expression in words.

The factory makes about 24,000 pencils a day. How many pencils will the company make during 4 5-day weeks in September? Write an expression.

The factory makes about 24,000 pencils a day. How many pencils will the company make during 4 5-day weeks in September? Write an expression.

An art class gets a delivery of 6 boxes with 2 dozen pencils in each, 3 boxes with 1 dozen pencils in each, and 24 erasers. Write an expression with parentheses for the number of pencils in the delivery.

An art class gets a delivery of 6 boxes with 2 dozen pencils in each, 3 boxes with 1 dozen pencils in each, and 24 erasers. Write an expression with parentheses for the number of pencils in the delivery.

How many total items are in the delivery?

How many total items are in the delivery?

Turn each description in the tables below into an expression. Then evaluate the expressions to show which group of pencils is greater.

Turn each description in the tables below into an expression. Then evaluate the expressions to show which group of pencils is greater.

No. 2 pencils come in boxes of 4, 10, 12, 24, and 36 pencils. A school wants to buy enough pencils so that each of its 120 fifth-graders has one for a test. The school wants to buy the fewest number of boxes, with no pencils left over. Write an expression for the quantities and types of boxes the school should buy.

No. 2 pencils come in boxes of 4, 10, 12, 24, and 36 pencils. A school wants to buy enough pencils so that each of its 120 fifth-graders has one for a test. The school wants to buy the fewest number of boxes, with no pencils left over. Write an expression for the quantities and types of boxes the school should buy.

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