Round Hex is short for rounded hexagon—the shape of most modern-day pencils. When we first discovered the history of the pencil, the story resonated with us as it parallels the approach and work of Round Hex. Given the important role the pencil plays in our design process, the name seemed appropriate. Ordinary as this object may seem, the pencil’s shape-shifting over the last 452 years is a remarkable parable of design and its process.
Spiral In the year 1560 in Borrowdale, England, or so the legend says, an old oak tree toppled over during a storm. Two shepherds investigating the tree discovered an unusual substance beneath its roots.They found that the substance, graphite, was an excellent way of marking their sheep. Unfortunately, it was also excellent at marking their hands, so they wrapped string or sheepskin around the chunks of graphite to keep their hands clean. And thus was the first pencil made.
Circle Artists soon realized the advantages of graphite in their work, and began putting strips of it inside hollowed-out sticks. It was natural for them to put the graphite inside of a round stick, as the form resembled something with which they were already familiar: the paint brush.
Square By the 1660s, as people discovered more uses for pencils, craftsmen in Nuremburg were gluing sticks of graphite between two slats of wood. These pencils were square cores of graphite inside square cases of wood. The leads were square because that was how they were sawed off of the high-quality Borrowdale graphite, and square leads required that only one of the wood slats had to be fitted with a groove. The second slat was a flat piece of wood glued to the top of the lead and grooved slat. The square form-factor enabled pencils to be mass-produced and they soon became commodities.
Octagon But the square shape was not very comfortable to hold. Some pencil makers started making octagonal pencils by cutting the corners off the squares, and they might have caught on, if not for Napoleon.
Slatted circle At the turn of the 19th century, at the height of the Napoleonic wars, the French and the Austrians no longer had access to high-quality English graphite. They each independently discovered a method of combining lower quality graphite dust with clay, forming it into a rod, and then firing it in a kiln. These round cores, though, also required that both wood slats be fitted with grooves. While this required more tooling, it also created less graphite waste, as the graphite no longer had to be sanded down to accommodate the top, ungrooved, slat. And since both slats now had to be tooled anyway, pencils were usually round. But round pencils roll off tables. Who exactly invented the hexagonal pencil is unknown. Some, usually Americans, say a man named Ebenezer Wood created the first one in New England in the mid- 19th century. Others, usually employees of Faber-Castell, claim it was Lothar Faber.
Hex We will probably never know for certain, but hexagonal pencils are less likely to roll off of tables. And, perhaps more importantly, because the hexagon is such an efficient shape, one could make nine hexagonal pencils with the same amount of wood required to make eight circular ones.
Triangle Hexagonal pencils were efficient, but not very comfortable. Some argue that the most comfortable pencils, and those least likely to roll off tables, are triangular. Companies have been making triangular pencils since at least 1897 when Sears & Roebuck had several brands listed in their catalog. But, they were also nearly 12 times as expensive as the round or hexagonal ones because their shape was not easy to make from the standard “sandwich” used to make other pencils.
Round hex As John Steinbeck wrote, “Pencils must be round. Hexagonal pencils cut my fingers after a long day.” Thus, we have arrived at the shape of most pencils today: the rounded hexagon. A compromise between utility and comfort.