Do Pencils Contain Lead?

We all know what pencil lead is, but there's a myth surrounding this humble and widely used material that needs busting! 

Pencils have never contained lead. Ever....well not as we know pencils today.So where did the lead in pencil come from and if it doesn’t contain lead, why is it called that? There are many things that have been passed down over the centuries. The meaning of the word 'lead'has been misconstrued for a number of reasons, the most common being the fact that English can be a confusing language.

Despite all the speculations about the origin of the pencil lead, no one actually knows who did it first. Some speculate that the term lead pencil comes from the long thin styli that were made from metal or lead. This is because the Ancient Romans used this for writing and drawing on tablets made from stone covered in thick wax. The styli even had a flat rounded end, like a spatula, that was used to smooth out any mistakes much like an eraser. Eventually, the Romans were introduced to papyrus which was much more forgiving and easier to transport. Metal styluses were ditched and their lead cousins were favoured to workwith papyrus (an old form of paper made from plants), as they were able to make light markson the papyrus.

A similar but elevated version of the styli was used by Renaissance artists. They called it Silverpoint, this was made of silver, gold or lead. No matter how much you pressed or went over this medium, it didn’t allow for creating depth or texture so artists would use it to create a sketch that was later painted. Artists that were starting out were often taught silverpoint because it was suitable for practising and taught patience. Leonardo Da Vinci was taught this way and subsequently taught his students the same technique. 

Over the English Channel and fast forward to 1564, something amazing was found. A huge deposit of a natural mineral called graphite was found in Cumbria, England. Although graphite was already used at this point, it was difficult to come by and not easily accessible so this discovery came at an ideal time.

Fun Fact: If you put graphite under immense pressure, you can turn it into a diamond but before you go stamping on your pencils. It takes around 200,000 times atmospheric pressure!

Record keepers and artists alike loved graphite for its mark-making abilities. This was because it was much more versatile than lead, but the mineral was almost too pliable and easy to break, so it required a holder to use. So people started wrapping their graphite sticksin string then the graphite was inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks which were a bit clunky but they were a predecessor to the modern pencils we use today.

 Names we all know and love: Faber-Castell, Lyra, Steadtler were the first to start mass producing quality pencils for the public. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, the hardness of the graphite rod could be modified.Therefore, we have pencils today which are ergonomic, safe and come in so many variations. We are so fortunate! 4B has to be my favourite grade, what’s yours?

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