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Living Simply with Less Energy – Pencil Sharpening


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This is the first of a new series – “Living Simple with Less Energy.” It will feature some of the thousands of ways we can live simply and well with less or no energy! Unlike other series, this one will have many authors – any member who wants to share an idea or example on the subject is welcome to submit a blog (400 to 800 words is best).

I was told by the boss to, “pick up a pencil sharpener.” The kids need sharp pencils to do their homework. We had a pencil sharpener – a cheap electric sharpener that dimmed the lights whenever it was used. I think Charlie ran a few crayons through it. After less than two years, it no longer worked. But it was cheap!

I got to thinking, just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. This applies to so many of life’s little details, like sharpening a pencil. Just because we can build an electric, nearly effortless machine to automatically sharpen pencils doesn’t mean we should. Think about it – most of us don’t need no stinking electric pencil sharpener!

The point is that we don’t need that level of complexity and the use of electricity to sharpen a few dozen pencils each week. We had a perfect solution to sharpening pencils and it has been around for nearly a hundred years – a mechanical pencil sharpener!

Old on benchOver 35 years ago I bought such a pencil sharpener for my shop. It still hangs, tucked out of the way at the end of my work bench. It has sharpened countless pencils. This is a simple Boston L model, for standard pencils only, with two spiral cutters (two are definitely better than the cheaper single cutter version). I expect it will continue serving as it has for many years to come.

So, why not another simple, mechanical device? I wondered if they still made such a thing. I was afraid not. First there was an array of electric units. Then I found mechanical plastic and very cheap – not inexpensive, just cheap! But on the bottom shelf, peeking out, I saw something that looked very similar to what I had bought long ago – a boxed, Boston pencil sharpener. Still all metal construction, still with the Boston name. I gleefully bought it ($22 w/ 10 year Warranty) and took it home to investigate – was it really the same?

Well, the company is no longer Boston. Boston was bought by Elmer’s Products, as in Elmer’s Glue, and is sold by the office products division – X-ACTO. And, they are no longer made in America, but now in China. The unit looks very similar but the design is somewhat different, but if you believe in internet marketing, “X-ACTO is pleased to offer the timeless Boston pencil sharpener. It's the quality you remember, re-engineered for even better performance.” The cutter (the spiral sharpening blade) does seem of good quality and it better be because it is no longer replaceable as a component, like the old one was.

School Teachers with thousands of pencils experience, please comment on this subject!

A little cruising the internet shows there are many who are nostalgic about good old pencil sharpeners and most say the new products are not as good, but I will withhold my judgment until I’ve used the new unit a few years, at least!

Old-new composit

Of course it would be great if I could buy a new sharpener built exactly like the “best old one” built by American craftsman, but things change and as we demand cheaper and cheaper we get cheaper and cheaper – built where labor rates are lower and floated across the ocean. We need to be more careful about what we ask for!  Still I am glad they seem to have a similar all metal design – hopefully it will prove as durable…

Getting back to the point of this blog – we can sharpen pencils with a simple mechanical device that does not use electricity! I think we are better off, and besides the obvious, here are a few other reasons I’m glad I bought this simple mechanical device:

  • We can sharpen our pencils when the power is out.
  • We don’t need complexity and power for such a simple activity.
  • A good mechanical pencil sharpener will last 20 years or hopefully many more! You will be lucky to get ten out of an electric unit.
  • A good mechanical pencil sharpener costs about half what a “good” electric sharpener costs.
  • A good mechanical sharpener has a lot less embedded energy and less plastics then an electric sharpener (there is no label or website data on this, but I believe it is true).
  • If something goes wrong (unlikely but possible) with a mechanical pencil sharpener, you or someone you know who is handy with small mechanical devices will probably be able to fix it. The mechanical sharpener has less than 20 parts, while an electric sharpener has many more, most of which are not easily repaired or replaced.
  • A good mechanical pencil sharpener takes up less space than an electric unit and it can often be “hung” in a convenient out of the way spot.
  • This may be reaching, but there is some exercise in manually sharpening pencils, especially if you’re doing a bunch.
  • Finally, there is something satisfying about sharpening a pencil by hand – no flow of electricity, no grinding motor noise, just the very tactile feel of a pencil going from dull to sharp!

Want even simpler? How about the little cube sharpener - insert pencil, twist, sharp! Like all things manufactured, there are some that are better than others. Curtis Lumber offers one for carpenter pencils. Pretty neat, very simple!

Please write up and share your ideas and tips (lawn mowers, can openers, hand tools, etc.) on how you are living well with less or no energy. Send them with a picture and I’ll post them under your name.

Dan Gibson is the Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community (www.OEIC.us). Previously he performed home energy audits for five years in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program and new home ratings in the New York ENERGY STAR Home program. He is currently building a 100% Solar Home. He can be reached at DanG@OEIC.us.


Comments on "Living Simply with Less Energy – Pencil Sharpening"

  1. OEIC default avatar David Hauber May 01, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    This example seems trivial.  However, if we add up all the appliances that require power even when they are off, we waste $5B/year in US housholds alone.

  2. Dan Gibson's avatar Dan Gibson May 01, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Yes, thank you David.

    We have invented so many ways to needlessly use energy…and it does add up!

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