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There’s a saying in the tool world: Sharp tools make for better work.

Or something like that.

I’m sure some chisel-sharpening god from the age of hand tools coined it. The point is that this not only applies to irons like chisels, bits, and blades, but to the thing we all probably take for granted: the lowly pencil.

Yet, like so many seemingly simple things we take for granted (like breathing or taking out the trash each week), taking a pencil from dull to useful is a journey I’ve seen many undertake. And let’s just say they’re taking the long way home. If they even get there. Sure, many shops have pencil sharpeners on the wall, but if you’re building a compost bin in your back yard (which you should, just sayin’…perhaps a story for another day) or a firewood rack in your driveway or you’re adding shelves in your basement, you need a sharp pencil when and where you need it. In other words, wherever you’re standing when it gets dull.

OK, now that I’ve over-talked that poor point, here’s the idea: There’s a way to sharpen a pencil. It’s easy but does require a bit more finesse than just throwing a blade at the wood and hoping for the best.

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  • Grab the pencil near the point, like 1 ½-inches back from the end. Like a guide hand in basketball, this stabilizes the pencil.
  • Next, position a sharp* utility knife about ¾-inch up and begin to remove wood. Expose graphite by pushing the blade through the wood with the thumb of the hand holding the pencil. The hand holding the knife mostly just holds the knife at the optimum angle. Work your way around the pencil.
  • Once the graphite is showing somewhere about 3/8-inch, I like to hone it. I do this by keeping the steel of the blade on the graphite and keeping a really low angle so I’m not removing too much material, almost like polishing. No need to go crazy for rough work like pallet stuff, but if you’re doing anything where precision matters a bit, a sharp point pays off.

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* A good indicator that the blade in your utility knife is dull is that it doesn’t cut through pencil wood easily.