David Rees: Sharper Than A Pencil

Feb 6, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 2:54 pm

To David Rees, sharpening a pencil is far more than a mundane task — it's an art. After the cartoonist, author and writer discontinued his satirical comic Get Your War On — which ran in Rolling Stone until 2009 — he discovered a love of the school-age writing utensil while working for the U.S. Census Bureau. Rees now specializes in artisanal pencil sharpening, offering "really sharp" pencils sculpted with the use of box cutters, pen knives, sanding blocks, and other objects. If you're looking to revisit the joys of a hand-sharpened pencil, look no further than his new book, How To Sharpen Pencils.

Rees takes a break from cranking out his product to chat with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg and explain what exactly customers can expect to receive from him. Each package comes complete with a sharpened pencil in a protective case, the shavings, and a label showing the tools he used to sharpened the pencil, among other things. "It's like this whole suite of objects that they can either choose to utilize, or share with friends as an inspirational talisman or conversation piece." He adds, "I've found a void and turned it into a niche." So we thought it would be only fair to pit Rees against a man after his own heart — fellow pencil enthusiast and sculptor Dalton M. Ghetti — for an Ask Me Another Challenge. The stakes? The loser must sharpen the winner's pencil. Find out who's No. 1, and who's No. 2.

About David Rees

David Rees first came to fame as the author of Get Your War On, a Bush-era comic strip composed from clip-art that he emailed to friends. It was eventually serialized by Rolling Stone magazine, collected into three successful books, and turned into an off-Broadway play. He is also the author of the workplace satire My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable. He lives in Beacon, New York.

In the video below, Rees demonstrates a step-by-step process for the perfectly-sharpened pencil.

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Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm your host, Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is author and writer of the Rolling Stone comic strip "Get Your War On," as well as the very hilarious yet very instructive manual, "How To Sharpen Pencils." Please welcome David Rees.


DAVID REES: Hi, everybody. Thanks.


REES: I'm happy to be here.

EISENBERG: You do a lot of things: cartoonist, writer, author, comic, artisanal pencil sharpener. When people ask you at a party "what do you do," and you want to give them like a one-line answer, what are you saying?

REES: I say I don't make much money.


REES: I just say I struggle. I'm a struggler.

EISENBERG: I always used to say I just try a lot.

REES: But I was on a Caribbean cruise and I was in a hot tub with an elderly woman and she asked what I did. And I told her that I had a pencil sharpening business, and that was kind of the paradigm case for that type of conversation, which is that, number one, I was in a hot tub with an elderly woman.


REES: And number two, there was like a few bewildered back and forth and then she actually got really interested in the business, the pencil sharpening business and had questions about techniques and pencils and stuff like that. So that's usually how it goes.

EISENBERG: Let's just take our listeners through what this means. So you have an artisanal pencil sharpening business, and what do you offer?

REES: I offer a really sharp pencil at a premium.


EISENBERG: How is this pencil sharpened?

REES: Well, I have a variety of tools in my toolkit. You know, I have everything from a box cutter, a penknife, to the world's most expensive double burr hand cranked sharpener, to single blade pocket sharpeners, you know, to sanding blocks, all manner of devices and techniques.

And then I also bag and return the pencil shavings along with the pencil, and they also get a certificate. The pencil is placed in a shatterproof display tube, with a label showing the tools that I used to sharpen the pencil, the conditions under which the pencil was sharpened, the date of the sharpening, the sharpness rating, all these things.

So it's like this whole suite of objects that can either choose to utilize in a very industrial instrumentalist way or something they can share with their friends as an inspirational talisman or a conversation piece, something like that.


EISENBERG: You've found a void and you are fulfilling it.

REES: I basically found a void and turned it into a niche.

EISENBERG: That's right.


EISENBERG: Maybe next it will be...

REES: That actually is a really elegant way of expressing my business model and I'm totally going to steal that.


REES: And in 20 years, when MBA students at Harvard are studying my business model and my success, that's the catch phrase that they'll all get tattooed on their foreheads.


EISENBERG: Why? Why did you decide to be an artisanal pencil sharpener?

REES: Well, as you mentioned, I used to be a left wing political cartoonist, and eventually I got tired of all the money, and the babes and the cocaine and...


EISENBERG: You were in hot tubs in the Caribbean, my friend.

REES: I decided that I would quit cartooning when Bush left office. And then I quit cartooning with no backup plan, and that happened to coincide with the collapse of the global economy. And so I didn't have much money, and by much money, I mean any money.

And so I got a job working as a doorknocker for the 2010 census, and I just went around knocking on doors as part of the census bureau. And on the first day of staff training, they had us all sharpen number two pencils because the census forms are filled out - they're scantron sheets, and so they're filled out using government issued number two pencils.

And we sharpened those pencils with government issued single blade pocket sharpeners. And so, on the first day of staff training, they had us all sharpen pencils by hand, and it'd been a long time since I'd sharpened a pencil and it was really satisfying and really nostalgic and...


REES: And so I said I'm going to figure out how to get paid to sharpen pencils.

EISENBERG: So how long do you see yourself being an artisanal pencil sharpener?

REES: My only goal with the business initially was to not lose more money.



REES: Because I'd just stopped hemorrhaging money with all my little projects.

EISENBERG: Excellent business model.

REES: And so the original goal of my business was to recoup my initial investment costs, which were more substantial than you might think. Like, I have about a thousand dollars worth of pencil sharpeners.


REES: And then my goal was, I wonder if I can get 100 people to pay me to sharpen a pencil? Then, of course, it was, I wonder if I can get 500 people? And then, you know, the book "How to Sharpen Pencils" came out and then I passed the 500-pencil threshold.

And then, obviously, the next benchmark was 1,000 pencils. I'll retire when I hit 1,000 pencils. But then there was this great deluge of orders and I didn't have time to put my thumb in the dike, so to speak, and so now I'm at 1,500 pencils. And so, obviously, the next benchmark is 10,000 pencils.


REES: And frankly, at this point, I am charging so much per pencil that it would be the height of folly to refuse a pencil order.

EISENBERG: How much are you charging for pencils?

REES: $35 a pencil.



EISENBERG: But I ask you this, for those people who do think this is an elaborate parody, what is your response?

REES: Send me your money.


REES: And wait and see what comes in the mail.


EISENBERG: I'm sold. I'm going to give you 35 bucks; I promise you that. But let me ask you this right now, how would you like to engage in a little ASK ME ANOTHER competition? Try to stretch your puzzle mind around pencils and more.

REES: Nothing would please me more.

EISENBERG: All right.

REES: I'll do that.

EISENBERG: Let's do it. Let's give you an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge. Thank you so much, David Rees.


EISENBERG: And let me reintroduce our puzzle guru John Chaneski.



EISENBERG: And our one-man guitar band, John Roderick.


EISENBERG: Now, David, obviously, you're obsessed with pencils, but how do you know about trapper keepers? Actually, all you need to know is they trap and they keep. So we are going to do a pencil quiz, of course. We have found a very special competitor for you. Please welcome Dalton M. Ghetti.


EISENBERG: There is recognition. They are hugging. There is an embrace.

CHANESKI: Yes, that is...

EISENBERG: David knows exactly who he is.

REES: I thought - yeah, this is...

DALTON GHETTI: I do exist.

REES: Much respect to ASK ME ANOTHER. If you people don't know who this is, your friends have sent you the link of the little sculptures carved into pencil leads, the alphabet, the chains, the hammers, Abraham Lincoln. This is the guy.


GHETTI: It's a pleasure to meet you.

CHANESKI: He's so stoked. He's so stoked right now.

EISENBERG: Dalton, we are so happy you could join us. Thank you so much.

REES: This is insane. Really. This is insane.


EISENBERG: I know some of your works take like months and more to make, so I know that we are stealing time from whatever you're working on right now.

GHETTI: Correct.


REES: We got to tour. If we tour, oh, we could make so much money.


EISENBERG: All right, so we are going to give you guys the definitive quiz about pencils.

REES: See you in hell, Dalton.



EISENBERG: Okay, let's go. Let's start easy. What is the metal ring that holds the eraser on a pencil called?



GHETTI: Ferrule.

EISENBERG: That's correct.


CHANESKI: Very good, ferrule.

EISENBERG: Since the early 1900s, what type of wood is most commonly used to make pencils?



GHETTI: Cedar.


EISENBERG: Should we double check to make sure yours is working?

REES: Yeah, let's do that.




REES: All right.


GHETTI: You got to be fast.

EISENBERG: In the U.S., a pencil's hardness is indicated by a number, with the number one being the softest. In Europe and Canada...

CHANESKI: Oh no, we almost made it through a whole episode without mentioning Canada.

EISENBERG: But we did not. A letter system is used. What is the European or Canadian equivalent to a number two pencil?




EISENBERG: That is correct.

REES: Yes.


EISENBERG: And what does it stand for?

REES: Hard black.

EISENBERG: That is correct. Before the invention of the rubber eraser, what food product was commonly used to remove pencil marks? David drops the buzzer. Dalton, do you have an answer? What food product was used to remove pencil marks?

GHETTI: Food product. I have no interest in erasers.


REES: Of course. He only works on one end, folks.

EISENBERG: Bread, it's bread. If you think of it, the next time you eat bread, it is just like an eraser.


EISENBERG: The draft of which of these famous documents was partially written in pencil: the Gettysburg Address, the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence?



REES: The Gettysburg Address. It was said to have been written by Lincoln, using a German pencil, although that's unconfirmed, actually.

EISENBERG: That is correct.

CHANESKI: That's correct.


EISENBERG: All right, we're going to end with a music question. John Roderick, would you like to take it away?



RODERICK: Hey, I heard you missed us. We're back. I got my pencil. Give me something to write on, man. Woo.

EISENBERG: Name that tune.

REES: It's...

EISENBERG: David is thinking. Dalton?

RODERICK: Name that Van Halen tune.

REES: Yeah, it's...

EISENBERG: All right, give you a couple more seconds.


RODERICK: Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad.

REES: Hot for teacher. Oh, sorry.




EISENBERG: There you go. David, you did it by one point. You are the winner of this ASK ME ANOTHER pencil round.


EISENBERG: And our prize is we asked each of our contestants to bring a pencil and the loser will have to sharpen the winner's pencil.


EISENBERG: So Dalton, you...

GHETTI: I couldn't bring my knife. They wouldn't let me in.

EISENBERG: No, that's true. You will have to...

GHETTI: I got almost arrested.

EISENBERG: You will have to do that and send it to him, but make sure you put it in a shatterproof tube in case he wants to hang it on his wall.

GHETTI: Okay, and I'll send it back to him.


EISENBERG: There was a very tight competition, but congratulations, David; you did it. And thank you so much for being our VIP.

REES: Thank you so much for bringing Mr. Ghetti to be here. This is, to me, as a pencil enthusiast and as someone who has had his photographs sent to me a thousand times, where I have to say "no, I'm not him. He is doing something different." It's such a thrill and a pleasure to meet Dalton Ghetti. I mean, I have so much respect for you, so this is amazing.

GHETTI: Yeah. Thank you.

EISENBERG: Pleasure.


GHETTI: It's been a pleasure to be here. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.