Basics: Categories of Vintage Mechanical Pencils

The world of mechanical pencils isn’t what it once was.

If you visit a stationery or office supply store today, you will generally find two sorts of mechanical pencils: click, and clutch. A click pencil is the one with skinny little leads, which are advanced with a “click”, by pushing the end button. Clutch pencils are usually found in the drafting tools, and hold a hefty 2 mm lead. When you push on the end, three claws push out of the end, releasing the lead.

But once upon a time, there were more. And they are there still, waiting to be discovered.

However, there can be some confusion as to how to operate vintage mechanical pencils; how to fill them; how to care for them. Hopefully this article will help to clear up some of the confusion.

Although mechanical pencils became popular, there was always a place for the simple clutch pencil, essentially unchanged for two hundred years. Much to the irritation of those in love with them, they will be ignored in this article, and we focus on their more complicated cousins, the true mechanical pencils.

Beginnings: Sampson Mordan
1822 Mordan Patent Drawing

1822 Mordan Patent Drawing

In the early 1800s, a silversmith named Sampson Mordan filed a patent for what would become the basis of almost all mechanical pencils: the helical drive. This began a renaissance in pencils, and thousands were produced, modified, and adapted, throughout the world.

Type One: Propelling Pencil

While all mechanical pencils push the lead out&#0151in fact, it can be argued that this is their very character—for some, that is their limit.

The earliest pencils, such as the Mordans, are simple, propelling pencils. The lead is manually pushed down a tube of matching diameter, and is friction-fit. A small rod inside pushes the lead forward, as needed, usually with a twist action mechanism. When done writing, the user twists the mechanism in reverse, and manually pushes the lead back down into it’s socket.

Fancy Propelling Pencil

Fancy Propelling Pencil

Some of these pencils are simple, some are fancy. With lead-storage compartments, erasers hidden inside the finial, or even finial-mounted engraved jewels, there was something for every income level. But until the early 20th century, they were generally all just plain, propelling pencils.

Type Two: Propel-Repel

At some point, someone became understandably irritated with having to push down the lead in their pencil. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” we imagine them saying over dinner, “ if the darned thing would just go back in on it’s own?” And so the propel-repel pencil was born.

Where the previous incarnation of the pencil had the lead freely sliding in and out of a closely-fitted tube, a new innovation approached the problem a little differently. The end of the lead firmly fitted into a socket, and the socket—attached to a shuttle—moved up and down the length of the barrel.

This was an excellent and convenient solution, and users around the world sat at their desks, twisting the mechanism back-and-forth, watching the lead go in-and-out, solidly held in place.

Until the lead broke off, right at the socket. Then the only solution was to get out a very small drill bit, and ream out the socket, scattering graphite dust everywhere. Obviously more innovation was needed.

Type Three: Propel-Repel-Expel
Yard-o-led Mechanism Detail

The pinnacle of pencil design!

In the 1930s, a true innovation took place. Rather than simply wedging the lead into a socket, a propelling rod was placed inside the socket; one which travels only far enough to push remnants of the lead out of the socket, doing so only when the mechanism is at the furthest point of travel along the barrel.

This design was truly revolutionary, and is still in use in fine mechanical pencils today. It became eloquently known as the propel-repel-expel pencil.

These three main categories—propel, propel-repel, and propel-repel-expel—are not comprehensive. You may come across variations, and combinations, of two or all three varieties. But keeping these basic design types in mind may prevent you from trying to, for example, pull out a propelling rod, thinking that it is a piece of lead stuck inside. Or it may help you to recognize that more is wrong with that Vacumatic pencil than is first apparent.

No matter the mechanism with which your pencil is equipped, the action should be smooth and easily worked. The lead shouldn’t fall out in use, and it should be back in the barrel when you are done writing. It should be reliable and clean.

Not bad, for a two-hundred-year-old design.

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