Friday, August 20, 2010

Back to School with Twig Walkingstick: The Pencil Tree

Twig lives in and around the Wooster campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, where he enjoys the prairie plant in Secrest Arboretum. His alter ego is Kurt Knebusch, one of our super-talented writers and editors on campus. Each month, look for Twig to answer a reader questions and some additional interesting facts below. After Twig's post, we will be providing some ideas and suggestions on how to incorporate the info in Twig's column into fun science learning for your students and children.

Q: Dear Twig, What kinds of wood do they make wood pencils out of?

A. My feathered friend Weezerbird told me something at lunch last week. (He had grubs. I had leaves.)  

He said, “That place you work at (Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, part of Ohio State University) has the biggest incense cedar tree in Ohio.”

I said, “What’s an incense cedar tree?”

He said, “The tree they make pencils out of.”

And he was right. I checked. (He actually usually is.) (Don’t tell him I said that.) 

American pencil companies make their pencils out of wood from California incense cedar trees. Reasons: The wood is soft. Soft for a wood, that is. So pencil-makers can shape it into pencil shapes easily. It sharpens easily, too. It doesn’t make splinters. And also it smells good.

Incense cedars are coniferous evergreens. As, for example, pines are. Incense cedars grow in the wild out West. But people plant them in other places, too.


P.S. Find Ohio’s No. 1 incense cedar in Ohio State’s Secrest Arboretum!

The California incense cedar is a specific species: Calocedrus decurrens. There also are species that have the common names Taiwan incense cedar and China incense cedar.

One hundred or so years ago, U.S. pencil-makers made pencils out of eastern red cedar trees. But those got used up and scarce. So the switch was made to California incense cedar trees, which were and are easy to come by out West, including now in managed plantings. In other parts of the world, people make pencils out of eastern red cedar relatives.

Secrest Arboretum is part of Ohio State’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.

Follow these links to learn more about Ohio’s biggest trees and pencil-making details.

Using this information for education:
Students (and especially their parents) spend a lot of time getting ready to go back to school, and one of those traditions is back to school shopping. But have you ever considered talking about those purchases and supplies your students will be using throughout the year as an educational topic and not just a tool?

In our last post we talked about the importance of teaching economics. This is another great (and fun) example of a product to talk about. This example also shows how production has changed over the years based upon factors like the supply (and demand) of specific varieties of trees!

Want to know more about these pencil trees? Here are some follow up questions Twig answered when this column first appeared in September 2008:

Q. Dear Twig: I know something else they make pencils out of. It isn’t plastic, either. It’s paper!

A. Excellent! You’re right. There are companies that make pencils out of recycled paper. (The part of the pencil you hold, that is. Not the graphite.)  Some of that paper is recycled newsprint — newspaper paper. Some of that paper is recycled money — worn-out bills (dollar bills, etc.) that the government took out of circulation (collected to keep people from using anymore) and shredded. There are pencils made out of sawdust, scrap cardboard and blue-jean scraps, too.

Whatever the case (The pencil case! Ba ha ha ha ha ha heeeeeeee!), a strong glue holds it all together so it looks and is shaped like a normal wood pencil. Making new pencils from thrown-away stuff puts trash to good use and saves trees.

Did you know you can make pencils out of twigs? Twigs from trees, that is, not me. You cut them, drill them, and fill them with graphite. I’d find that a bit uncomfortable.


P.S. Q. Why did the elephant use a recycled-paper pencil? A. His pen broke. Heeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Makers of really nice twig pencils include John Wyant of Minnesota,  (crayons, too!)and Roger Plant of England.

Q. Dear Twig: So what are those recycled pencils like?

A. Pretty much like regular pencils. You hold them the same. You write with them the same. I have one here in my hands. It’s made out of recycled newsprint. It’s painted green. The paint feels smooth. The graphite, the “lead,” is normal gray.

I sniff the pencil. It doesn’t smell like a regular pencil (which owes its scent to incense cedar wood.) I smell a tiny paint smell, though. But you have to have the pencil up your nose, or at least right under it, to detect it.

I taste it. Myem, myem. I doesn’t seem to have any taste. (Spit.)

I sharpen it. I stick it into an electric sharpener. Rrr. The graphite comes out nice and pointy. The sharpened-down paper around it looks white.

I sharpen another one (same kind). The sharpened-down paper on this one looks white. But also: The white has these wavy red, blue and black lines in it. Neat.

That’s all I have to say about pencils.


P.S. Hardened glue holds them together, so recycled pencils can be harder to sharpen.

Recycled pencils come painted in other colors besides green, of course. And the graphite/lead in them comes in other colors besides gray.

People have different opinions about the environmental benefits, or not, of recycled-material pencils, no matter if the material is newsprint, scrap wood, old money or old blue jeans. Making recycled pencils takes energy, of course — for grinding, shredding, forming them, etc. — plus non-”green” stuff like paint and glue. So there’s that.

Pencils made out of trees, meanwhile, need cutting, shaping and so on. They also, ideally, should be sustainably managed. That means making sure that both the supply of trees and the health of the forest both stay good pretty much forever.

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