David Rees's Artisanal Pencil Sharpening Business in Beacon
This guy is sharp: One intrepid artist turns the simple act of sharpening pencils into a craft
On point: Beacon’s David Rees finds art in a common office tool
Photographs by Meredith Heuer
Scan your desk and look at your pencil. Really look at it. Odds are, you haven’t taken the time to study a pencil until this article demanded it of you. But political cartoonist and humorist David Rees has made pencils, sharpening them to be precise, into a high art form. From his home in Beacon, Rees runs Artisanal Pencil Sharpening, a business that — you guessed it — sharpens pencils.
So how does a guy fall into this most unusual profession? Rees says that it began during 2010 when he was working for the U.S. Census Bureau out of the Poughkeepsie office. “They had us sharpen our pencils on the first day of staff training,” he says. “I found it really fun and wished I could get paid to just do that instead of knocking on doors.” Fast-forward two years; Rees now has a Web site (www.artisanalpencilsharpening.com) and has operated on approximately 800 pencils. His customers range “from artists and writers to parents who give them to their kids as a lucky pencil before the SATs.”
Before getting down to work, Rees dons a pair of industrial magnifying goggles that help him spot imperfections the naked eye might miss. Then he selects the appropriate tool: Should it be a single-blade pocket sharpener, a hand-crank sharpener, or a plain old pocket knife? It depends on the type of point and shavings the customer wants, since Rees returns the shavings to the client in a small bag. “A pocket sharpener makes ribbon shavings like an apple peel, and a hand-crank makes them like sawdust and gives the point a curved, convex shape,” he explains. Basic service costs $20, including the pencil; inclusion of a “certificate of sharpening” runs a few dollars more.
Artisan in action: David Rees sharpens a pencil with a pocket knife (left) and bags the shavings (top left). Top right: the cover of his book
The enterprising entrepreneur has written a 218-page book about his craft. Penned in the style of a traditional instruction manual, the tongue-in-cheek prose covers a multitude of topics, like required supplies (“Pencils. Pencils are crucial to our enterprise”), different sharpening techniques, Rees’s blistering opinion on mechanical pencils (unsuitable for reprinting in our family-friendly publication), and celebrity impression pencil sharpening (Rees does bear a remarkable resemblance to Olympian Michael Phelps).
As far as he knows, Rees is the only person who sharpens pencils professionally, although he does hope his book will “generate friendly competition.” But for now, if you want an artfully sharpened pencil, David Rees is your guy.
Eat, Pray, Sharpen?
Rees’s book is full of testimonials. Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert writes: “Could I sharpen my own pencils? Sure, I could! I could also perform my own dentistry, cobble my own shoes and smith my own tin — but why not leave such matters to real artisans, instead? I trust my bespoke pencils only to David Rees.”