Why are Carpenters Pencils Flat (& Other Little Known Facts)


The humble carpenters pencil may be one of the most underrated tools in most carpenters’ and woodworkers’ toolboxes. While they might not look like much more than oddly shaped rectangular pencils – they actually possess several major advantages over the standard #2 round pencils we’ve all used in school.

One of the seeming oddities of the carpenters pencil is its rectangular shape. So, why are carpenters pencils flat?

The main reason carpenters pencils are flat is so they won’t roll away when placed on angled surfaces. Carpenters often work on sloped surfaces like roofs, so a flat pencil makes sure the pencil won’t roll away when set down.

There’s a bit more to it than that, so let’s take a closer look at the design behind carpenter’s pencils.

Carpenters Pencil Design

The first thing you’ll probably notice when examining a carpenters pencil is its wide rectangular or octagonal shape. This long flat shape has a number of distinct advantages for carpenters and woodworkers.

Grip

First off, it provides a better grip than a standard rounded pencil. Carpenters and other workers often work with thick gloves on – particularly when it gets cold out or when handling rough materials.

carpenters pencil grip
The wide flat shape makes it easier to grip than rounded pencils.

The wide rectangular shape is much easier to grip with gloves on, as it provides enough real estate for a more tactile feel even when wearing heavy-duty work gloves.

More Lead

The pencil’s wide rectangular shape allows it to contain more lead than a standard #2 pencil. If you look at a cross-section of a carpenters pencil you’ll notice just how large the piece of lead inside it is.

carpenters pencil cross section
Cross section of a carpenters pencil. Note the lead thickness.

The lead core – which is made of actually graphite – mirrors the wide rectangular shape of the pencil. This gives you the ability to shape the lead tip as you see fit for whatever marking task you need to accomplish.

You can sharpen it down to a fine point for precise tasks like finish work or cabinetry, or you can create a wide thick line for rougher work like framing.

In addition to being much wider than a standard #2 pencil, the lead in a carpenters pencil is also much more durable. It can make marks on rough surfaces like brick, stone, and concrete without any damage to the graphite tip.

Try doing that with a standard #2 pencil, and the tip will break off in a matter of seconds!

The stronger lead in a carpenters pencil has a number of additional benefits when marking and scribing materials.

Because it’s more durable, you can draw multiple lines before needing to re-sharpen the pencil. You can also draw long lines without any distortion or change to the line thickness by the time you reach the end.

Sharpening

Another advantage of the wide, flat shape is the ease of sharpening. A carpenters pencil is designed for easy sharpening by hand with a sharp blade or Exacto knife, by carving away sections of wood and graphite until your left with a sharp tip.

sharpening carpenters pencil with knife

Compare this to sharpening a rounded pencil, which requires a special sharpener to remove an even amount of material from the entire pencil circumference.

Just about every carpenter carries some type of blade or utility knife with them at all times. So you’ll never need to run around looking for a sharpener in case the pencil needs sharpening.

While carpenters pencils can be sharpened with a variety of knives and sharp objects, there are also purpose-made sharpeners like the IRWIN Carpenter Pencil Sharpener. This sharpener is made to handle the unique shape of a carpenter’s pencil and will save you material when repeatedly sharpening over time.

Dimensions

Most carpenters pencils feature a standard set of dimensions which makes them useful as makeshift measuring devices. The typical dimensions are 7” long, ½” wide, and ¼” tall.

carpenters pencil diagram

Knowing these dimensions allows you to utilize your carpenters pencil as a spacer or shim when working on decks, installing windows, and other tasks. Simply lay the pencil flat against your work surface and you’ve got a spacer with precise dimensions.

This also allows you to scribe parallel lines at two different offsets without any specialized tools.

Carpenters Pencil Tips & Tricks

There are a few more tips and tricks with carpenters pencils that carpenters and woodworkers have come up with over the years.

Sharpen Both Ends

This one might seem obvious, but sharpening both ends of the pencil will give you two points to work with instead of one. If one end of the pencil becomes too blunt or breaks, then simply swap over to the other side and you’ve a nice sharp point ready to go.

Sharpen to Different Points

Another cool thing you can do with carpenters pencils is sharpening them in different shapes. You can whittle away a lot of material in order to form an ultra-sharp point for fine woodworking, or you can create a thick blunt tip for making thick lines on rough materials.

Carry a Pair of Carpenters Pencils

Another useful tip is carrying a pair of two carpenters pencils when you have to do a lot of marking. This lets you sharpen to multiple point thicknesses as well as use the pair as spacers if the need comes up.

Wrap Up

Carpenters pencils are flat primarily so they won’t roll away when place on slanted surfaces. Their wide flat design also makes them easier to grip – especially when wearing heavy-duty work gloves.

While you can use a variety of pencils, pens, and sharpies for making marks for woodworking and carpentry, you’ll have a tough time beating the durability, versatility, and ease-of-sharpening of the simple carpenters pencil.


Denis Gardner

I've loved tinkering and fixing things for as long as I can remember. So, naturally, I gravitated towards DIY and home improvement when I bought my first home. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or messing around with my newest tool!

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