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For the person who has everything: artisanal pencil sharpening

August 11, 2010 |  7:20 am

Davidrees_atelier

David Rees, the man behind the popular political comic Get Your War On, wants to sharpen you a pencil. Slowly. Attentively. And with a carefully selected sharpener or blade that suits the pencil best. If there are movements for slow food and slow reading, why not for slow writing implements? 

"With an electric pencil sharpener, a pencil is meat," Rees said. "It's this thoughtless, Brutalist aesthetic. For me, it's almost a point of pride that I would be slower than an electric pencil sharpener."

This is how Rees' artisanal pencil sharpening works: You might send him your favorite pencil, but Rees more often selects and sharpens a classic No. 2 pencil for his clients, he promises, "carefully and lovingly." He slides the finished pencil's very sharp tip into a specially-sized segment of plastic tubing, then puts the whole pencil in a larger, firmer tube that looks like it belongs in a science experiment. Throw it at a wall, he says, and it won't break. The cost? $15.

Rees lives in New York's Hudson Valley, a region full of tiny vineyards and cheese makers and old-school butchers and bookbinders. It's a place where people take the time to create things by hand.

He packs up his blades on Aug. 20 for a show in Massachusetts at the Montague Book Mill, whose motto is: "Books you don't need in a place you can't find." For those who do find it, Rees will be sharpening pencils on stage as part of a show with "Daily Show" correspondent John "I'm a PC" Hodgman, author of "The Areas of My Expertise" and "More Information Than You Require."

Rees will appear wearing his safety goggles and a dust mask, and sharpen pencils live. "I will be making people happy," he said. He also says that at performances like this, he may shave a bit off the pencils' price.

Why would a man whose cartoon was made of clip art turn to the pencil? "I've always loved the iconic No. 2 pencil," he explained. "When I was working for the 2010 census, we were each issued No. 2 pencils and a manual sharpener. We all sharpened our pencils on the first day of training, and I was like, 'I'm feeling this. This rules. I like sharpening pencils.' It had been a while since I had done it. And the more I thought about it, the more I was like, 'If I could figure out how to get paid to sharpen pencils, I would be happy.' So I decided to become an artisanal pencil sharpener."

Rees opened his website storefront about a month ago. Many customers order a limited-edition print -- the newest one depicts Rees in a man-versus-machine pencil-sharpening showdown -- and an artisanally sharpened pencil together for $60. The orders have been coming in regularly, but Rees admitted, "I hope that it will pick up as fall approaches and school starts. I think it will be a nice way to kick off the school year, with a super-duper sharp pencil."

So far, Rees is the leader in the field. "Nobody else is doing what I do," he said. "I guarantee an authentic interaction with your pencil. What mechanical pencil sharpener can say that? The X-ACTO XLR 1818? The Royal 16959T?  Don't make me laugh."

"I'm going to have this nice, authentic, considered reaction with your pencil," Rees said. "I just want to treat it with respect. And get it really freaking sharp." 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: David Rees at work. Credit: Meredith Heuer


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