How to Make Colored Pencils

Read Time: 3 minutes

Colored pencils are a sure way to brighten your day, especially with the many options for adult coloring books. If you’ve bought colored pencils, you’ve probably noticed that they all color a bit differently. That’s because the quality of a colored pencil is mostly dependent on the amount of pigment in the lead. But how exactly are these lovely tools made?

It All Starts in the Forests

Large companies that produce colored pencils may have their own tree farms, such as Crayola. These trees are grown specifically to become pencils, which is a great way to minimize the environmental impact of logging. It’s necessary to use this process because pencils require a certain kind of lead.

They must be solid enough not to bend under the pressure of a person’s hand, but soft enough to be sharpened. Trees like cedar and basswood are grown for several years before being chopped down and sent to the sawmill, where they’ll dry, have the bark removed, and be whittled down into the casings for the colored pencil lead.

Lead Is a Pigment

Lead is an interesting term to use for colored pencils, and it’s not entirely accurate. The “lead” in colored pencils is actually a pigment, mixed with different extenders, binders, and, of course, water. Binders are usually gums, resins or waxes that help to pull everything together. Extenders, meanwhile, are used to adjust the texture. Although they’re usually solid, they are small enough that you shouldn’t notice them when using colored pencils.

The Pigments Are Premixed

They premix pigments in large batches, so they’re available to produce more colored pencils. The ingredients are then mixed in different, usually secret, recipes to create a company’s signature colored pencil lead.

They combine ingredients until they reach a dough-like consistency; it’s rolled out flat and then mashed into long, cylindrical shapes called cartridges. Next, they pass through another machine that squeezes them into the length and diameter of pencil lead. In this case, the machine is called an extrusion press. Finally the lead is dried in an oven.

The Lead Is Tested

It’s important to test the lead before it’s used to make colored pencils. One test is a stress test, where they apply pressure at a single point until the lead breaks. This helps ensure that the lead is strong enough for the company’s standards. Another common test is a drawing test, where the lead must draw continuously for a certain length. A lightfastness test guards against fading.

If the randomly selected piece fails any of the tests, the entire batch fails. This is why lead is made one batch at a time and not mixed with others at any point.

A Colored Pencil Is Created

They cut slots in the wood and place the lead inside. The same machine that inserts the lead also puts a thin layer of glue on the bottom half. After they secure the top half of the wood, the colored pencil is bound together and left to dry before a machine slices the individual pencils out of the sandwiches.

The Pencils Are Painted and Packaged

The last step is to paint the now-dry colored pencils. The paint will coat an o-ring, which is a small paintbrush that can paint the pencils in one stroke. After they are dry, the company paints the ends either white or the color of the lead. Lastly, the company’s logo is branded on the side and filled with a metallic stamp. Once they’re dry and labeled, they’re rolled across an abrasive surface to sharpen them.

The pencils are sorted into the proper color sets and placed into their trays. Finally, the colored pencils are shipped to sale points. Remember, each company’s recipe for their colored pencils is secret, so don’t be surprised if you prefer one over the other.

Next time you use a colored pencil, think about all the work that went into that single, small object. It’s a long process to get your pencil all the way from the forests to your door.

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Category: Everyday Science

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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.