Inside One Of America's Last Pencil Factories

Inside One Of America's Last Pencil Factories

A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

Story continues after the photo essay.

Extrusions of graphite are collected for recycling.CreditChristopher Payne
Packing graphite, which is the consistency of sand, is used to distribute the oven’s heat evenly around the graphite cores. Afterward, the packing material will be poured out and recycled.CreditChristopher Payne
Graphite cores cooling after being dipped in heated wax.CreditChristopher Payne
These graphite cores were heated in an oven to remove moisture and harden the material.CreditChristopher Payne
After being heated, graphite cores are placed in perforated cans and dipped in hot wax.CreditChristopher Payne
The pastel cores are fragile and must be carefully placed by hand into the cedar slats.CreditChristopher Payne
The employee seen here has worked at General Pencil for 47 years. The mixer behind him handles pastels and charcoals.CreditChristopher Payne
Pastel extrusions, used for colored pencils, are laid by hand onto grooved wooden boards, where they will dry before being placed in pencil slats. The extruding machine that produced them usually handles a single color each week, after which it is scrubbed clean to prepare it for the next.CreditChristopher Payne
A lead layer drops graphite cores into pre-glued slats.CreditChristopher Payne
Another layer of wood fully encases the pencil’s core. The resulting “sandwich” is clamped together to bond and dry.CreditChristopher Payne
This sandwich still needs to be shaped. A woodworking machine will cut the individual pencils into their desired shape — round, hexagonal or otherwise.CreditChristopher Payne
Editing pencils are sharpened at each end: One makes red marks, the other blue. The trays seen here will be turned upside down and dunked in blue paint by a dipper machine, marking the blue half.CreditChristopher Payne
Ferrules — the metal bands that cinch around the bases of erasers — are loaded onto a conveyor and sent to a tipping machine.CreditChristopher Payne
The tipping machine adds metal ferrules and erasers.CreditChristopher Payne
After receiving a coating of paint, pencils are returned by conveyor for another layer. Most pencils receive four coats of paint.CreditChristopher Payne
On some pencils, a capper installs smooth metal caps — no eraser.CreditChristopher Payne
Pencils are sharpened by rolling them across a high-speed sanding belt.CreditChristopher Payne

Over the past few years, the photographer Christopher Payne visited the factory dozens of times, documenting every phase of the manufacturing process. His photographs capture the many different worlds hidden inside the complex’s plain brick exterior. The basement, where workers process charcoal, is a universe of absolute gray: gray shirts, gray hands, gray machines swallowing gray ingredients. A surprising amount of the work is done manually; it can take employees multiple days off to get their hands fully clean. Pencil cores emerge from the machines like fresh pasta, smooth and wet, ready to be cut into different lengths and dried before going into their wooden shells.

Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.

Payne conveys the incidental beauty of functional machines: strange architectures of chains, conveyor belts, glue pots, metal discs and gears thick with generations of grease. He captures the strangeness of seeing a tool as simple as a pencil disassembled into its even simpler component parts. He shows us the aesthetic magic of scale. Heaps of pencil cores wait piled against a concrete wall, like an arsenal of gray spaghetti. Hundreds of pencils sit stacked in honeycomb towers. Wood shavings fly as fresh pencils are dragged across the sharpening machine, a wheel of fast-spinning sandpaper.

In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion. Think of how many of our finest motions disappear, untracked — how many eye blinks and toe twitches and secret glances vanish into nothing. And yet when you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.

Photographs like these do something similar. They preserve the secret origins of objects we tend to take for granted. They show us the pride and connection of the humans who make those objects, as well as a mode of manufacturing that is itself disappearing in favor of automation. Like a pencil, these photos trace motions that may someday be gone.

Christopher Payne is a photographer who specializes in architecture and American industry. For the magazine, he most recently photographed a Tesla factory. Sam Anderson is a staff writer for the magazine who frequently writes the New Sentences column. His last feature was about the writer John McPhee.

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Published at Fri, 12 Jan 2018 16:45:13 +0000