The tools of the trade

My postdoc and I sat down to discuss our strategy for addressing the reviewer’s comments in his latest manuscript. On the table we put out a copy of the reviews, pulled out some new data that we planned on adding to the manuscript, got a pad of paper, I took out my pencil and sharpened it on the electric sharpener on my desk. Then, the postdoc exclaimed with shock and surprise:

“WHAT are you doing?!?”

“What do you mean?”

“That, the pencil thing… I don’t think I’ve sharpened a pencil since the fourth grade.”

“Then how do you keep them sharp?”

“I don’t USE pencils, NOBODY uses pencils, why would ANYBODY use pencils!”

“I use pencils… all the time. And I need to keep them sharp.”

“That’s my point, why not use a pen? Or a mechanical pencil?”

“Because pens fucking SUCK!!!!”

OK, so not all pens suck, except that being left handed limits your pen usage to crappy ball-point pens. All nice smooth and inky pens either smudge too much or scratch the paper when you use your left hand. Mechanical pencil tips either break too often or are too thick. Plus you can’t vary things such as pressure and line width with a mechanical pencil or a ball point pen. I wouldn’t call myself a pencil geek, but I am somewhat picky about my pencils. Ideally, they should be dark and soft. For those of you not “in the know”, graphite pencils are graded by a couple of different scales. The more universal scale splits the pencil world into Hard (H) and Soft (B), much like the sciences. Hard pencils are also lighter in tone, soft pencils are darker. Each category is then ranked, typically from 1 to 9, but I’ve seen higher. The larger the number the harder or softer the pencil is. Thus 9H is the hardest and 9B is the softest. In the middle, you have HB, which is-not-so-hard and not-so-soft. I find HB pencils to be somewhat flaccid. A parallel pencil classification scale exists in which pencils ares simply rated from 1 to 4. A #1 pencil would be a B (or 1B) pencil, while a #2 pencil is an HB pencil. Most generic school and office pencils are #2 (HB) pencils. Hard pencils tend to be used by engineers for generating technical drawings and such, while softer, darker pencils are more common for writing and art. Ideally I prefer a 2B for most things. Its pretty dark and smooth yet tends to keep a sharp tip longer. It’s pretty difficult to find 2B pencils with an eraser on them, I usually get Golden Bear pencils, which are quite nice. Sometimes I use 4B’s, but then I need to carry around an eraser. So there, Mr. Postdoc, that’s why I use pencils. And yes, I do know that I am grossly overpaying for the fancy French notepads with the quad paper that I get from the stationery shop down the street…

Fig 1. My arsenal.

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17 Responses to The tools of the trade

  1. Nat says:

    I remember growing up having a left pinkie always always always covered with pencil or ink.

    Then you’d have to search high and low for the freaking lefty scissors, which were usually a piece of crap.

    Even now, all the pipet aids in the hoods are set up for righties, and some asshole put the left edge of the balance so close to the osmometer that it’s nearly impossible to weigh anything out.

    Blinded to their own privilege I say.

  2. High quality professional mechanical drafting pencils kicke motherfucken asse!

  3. Arlenna says:

    I Loooove a good pencil. And yes, it needs to stay sharp. I do all my class notes in pencil: organic chemistry requires lots of drawings and they often need to be revised and fixed for mistakes.

  4. scicurious says:

    Rock on lefties!!!! Though I switched to ball point pens because I got so sick of my hands being covered in graphite and my pages being smudged grey by my hand traveling across the page.

    Also, in my school in the UK, they forced you to use INK PENS. With real INK. In a NIB. I don’t know how their lefties survive, I was nearly weeded out by horrible smudgy lines and huge blots of ink on my pinkie.

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  6. I was always a pencil junkie and throughout school I always had a complete set from about 5B through about 3H, a couple of each, always sharpened to the max. I find it difficult to find anything but HB (#2) in regular stores in the USA, and need to look for other kinds in art stores or online.

  7. I had a great pleasure to be handed a nice set of pencils of different hardnesses and a pad of nice drawing paper last night at a party. So inspiring. I drew a horse leaping out of water.

    • Namnezia says:

      Lucky you! I was actually thinking of how I need to replenish my pencil supply soon. I also wanted to get my daughter a nice set of high-quality colored pencils.

  8. Now I am hooked (again). Need to find an art store. Or an online store and get myself the ENTIRE set!

  9. Namnezia says:

    Fortunately around here there are a few well-stocked independent art supply stores. I recently discovered watercolor pencils, which are a lot of fun.

  10. ZOMG, today’s my wedding anniversary and I got the coolest present from my wife of 18 years: a set of excellent pencils (the entire range from B9 to H9), a set of color pencils, erasers, sharpeners and three drawing pads of different sizes! Heaven!!! She must be reading your blog!

  11. I will! I thought about it! Thank you!

  12. Nat says:

    Happy Anniversary Bora!

  13. Zuska says:

    That photo is awesome. Makes me want pencils…

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