At Curator we talk a lot about painting particularly – sometimes even at the neglect of the trusty and much loved pencil – a medium that every one of us will have used many many times in our lives, and amongst the first mark-making tools that we were exposed to as young children.
We talked to Kirsty Vickers at Derwent Pencils about the history of pencil making, what makes Derwent still such a cool brand after 180 years, and where they’re going next. Did I mention they also own the largest colour pencil in the world? Here goes…
Could you give us a brief outline of the history and background of Derwent?
Pencil making was invented in Keswick in the mid-1500’s, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, following the chance discovery of graphite above the hamlet of Seathwaite in the Borrowdale Valley some years earlier. Legend has it, that on a stormy night the roots of a tree upturned and black lumps of material were found by shepherds. They at first thought it was coal but when it wouldn’t burn they marked their sheep with it. Graphite became very valuable as it was used in medicine and most importantly as moulds for cannon balls. During the reign of Elizabeth 1 the Borrowable mine was put under armed guard to protect the supply of graphite. It was worth (in today’s money) £1500 per kilo. After many years of turmoil, black market trading and plundering of the mine operations ceased in 1890.
In 1795, Nicholas Conte discovered how to mix graphite powder with clay, fire it in a furnace, and produce an equivalent to the Borrowdale material . Pencil makers quickly adopted this method meaning there was less need for the Borrowdale graphite.
Early pencil manufacture took place in the homes of local people , they grooved pieces of wood out by hand. The graphite lumps were sawn into strips and inserted into the wood, then glued together.
When and who was Derwent established by?
The business was established in 1832 by Hogath and Hayes. They became insolvent in 1912 and was bought by Charles Greenwood the local ironmonger. It was renamed the Cumberland Pencil Company in 1916. Today Derwent are owned by Acco, an American company who specialise in office products such as shredders, laminators, white boards, staplers, plastic pockets etc.
Is there a particular reason why Derwent is based in Cumbria?
Because graphite was found in the Borrowdale Valley. We manufacture all of our products here and run our business of 90 employees.
Are there rare natural materials there that are perfect for manufacturing pencils?
Borrowdale Graphite was unique in the world, as it was found in large solid lumps. Elsewhere it existed in shale form only.
Could you describe to us the process of how pencils are made?
To make graphite pencils, Sri Lankan graphite is mixed with clay, fired, soaked in wax to make it write then extruded into strips. California Incense Cedar wood (chosen because of its ability to sharpen well) is purchased in slat form. These slats are then shaped with nine or eight grooves, glue is placed into the grooves and the strips are placed into the wood. A pencil sandwich is formed as a second slat is placed on top. The sandwich is then shaped and either eight or nine pencils are shaped from the sandwich in either a hexagonal or round barrel. The process is the same for colour pencils except the mixing stage we combine high quality pigments with china clay, gum and wax. Coloured pencils are not fired but gently dried.
Is there a certain art and skill to manufacturing them?
It is a highly skilled process, we make 20 degrees and over 500 different coloured types of pencil. Each colour needs to match perfectly to that what was produced 60 years ago. About 30 people are involved in the manufacture and a further 20 to pack the pencils.
How much has this process changed since Derwent was first established?
The process is more automated now but the principles are the same. Many local craftsmen are still involved and we pride ourselves on the quality and length of service our employees have achieved.
How long does it take to make one pencil?
It could be as fast as two days if we really needed a pencil, but on average it take four days. They are individually checked for quality – we subscribe to the ISO9001 Quality System. We have a quality department on site dedicated to ensuring only the highest quality pencils are released for sale.
Why does it take so many people to pack a tin of pencils?
We have four sizes of tin, 12, 24, 36, 72. It takes 4 people to pack a12 tin, 6 people to pack a 24 tin, 8 people for a 36 tin and 12 for a 72 tin. For a 12 tin, one person takes the tin bases out of the boxes and places them on the track. The next two people pack six pencils each in colour sequence. The final person places the leaflet in the tin and the lid on the tin after it has been shrink-wrapped.
How has Derwent evolved since 1832? What makes Derwent so unique to other brands in the art materials world?
Although we are extremely proud of our heritage and traditions, we are a forward thinking company and highly innovative, bringing to market some exciting new products like the Inktense pencils and block, ink in a pencil! We also concentrate on only making pencils, blocks and sticks so we are highly specialised and greatly skilled in this area. We haven’t spread ourselves too thinly!
How has your product range developed? Do you now see yourselves as being more than just a pencil manufacturer?
We have developed new and exciting products. Tinted Charcoal pencil, charcoal with a hint of colour. Graphitint which are water-soluble graphite pencils with a hint of colour – they truly transform before your eyes and of course Inktense the ink like pencil. Next year will see the introduction of our exciting new Artbar – a triangular shaped water-soluble wax bar, perfect for distinctive mark making.
How is Derwent a forward thinking and environmentally friendly band? Have you made any changes to your manufacturing process or your range to help the environment?
We moved to new premises in March 2008, Her Majesty The Queen, accompanied by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, officially opened the new factory on 5th June 2008. This new factory has many environmental features! We operate to ISO14001 environmental standard. Sawdust is collected and used as fuel for our heating system to save gas. We collect rainwater from the roof to flush the toilets. Lights are controlled by daylight and movement sensors to save electricity. We have double rooflight area to maximise daylight and save electricity. And we hold the Queen’s award for sustainable development for a unique, solvent-free painting system.
Our UV or ultra violet light process is a way of painting pencil barrels without using harmful cellulose paints. A light wave cleanly and automatically coats the pencil with clear laqueur. We also use water based paints to paint the barrels of the pencils. We try to minimise packaging wherever possible and use recycled board if applicable.
People are more environmentally aware these days and we are based in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. So we are also aware of these concerns and doing our best to use sustainable products in our manufacture. Our aim is to reduce, reuse, recycle, recover, return and review. Derwent pencils are made from Incense Cedar from certified sustainable sources. The Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) label is a sign you are buying wood and paper products from well-managed forests, backed by a rigorous, third-party certification audit.
Where does Derwent see itself in the next 5-10 years? Do you have plans for a new range or a new type of pencil? How do you plan to stay on top of being one of the best art materials brands in the world?
We plan to continue to be the best at what we do and to innovative and continue to be forward thinking and to change with the times. We are already working on our introductions for 2013 and we plan to continue to have new and exciting products ready for launch every year after as well.
How important does Derwent believe drawing and sketching is?
We know that 8% of the population in the UK regularly draw and that 16% of the population like drawing or would like to take it up at some point in the future. So we believe it is important to well being of the nation! “Keep calm and draw things” is our motto.
Why do you think drawing rather than painting for example, is the first medium that young children use? Do you think that it is important for children to be creative in their development years?
I personally believe that pencils are more portable and less messy than paints, so parents love to encourage children in their creativity but with the minimum amount of mess. I know as a mother of two children myself how much pleasure children get from drawing with pencils and I have the satisfaction of no messy finger prints on the walls and no spillage and the threat of paints ruining my lovely furniture! But our pencils that turn into paint by the addition of water from a water brush are fantastic and open an endless world of opportunities.
Why do you think that art students are unfortunately encouraged to move away from pencil work? Do you think that drawing is just as important as painting?
I think students are encouraged to try all different types of media, but I believe that drawing is the foundation of all art.
Are there any particular artists that you love who use drawing as their main medium?
How did you pick the artists that you represent on your website? Why did you chose them?
We don’t choose our artists, they quite often come to us. We are the number one brand in the UK and are widely know. Our Facebook page, Twitter and blog forums are widely followed and people actively want to share their work. Quite often people send their work into us and we ask them if we could display it on our web page. Recently we needed a new demonstrator for the ICHF show in Birmingham in November. So we ran a competition for people to enter showing us a video of themselves demoing our product. All the aspiring demonstrators had to do was submit a 5 minute video, via YouTube, showcasing some fast and simple drawing techniques using one of their favourite Derwent pencil ranges. We had a good response with some very high quality entries and we were able to choose a winner, Beverley Haines.
What advice can you give to someone who says they can’t draw? Do you believe that someone has to be skilled at drawing to be able to produce good art?
We firmly believe there isn’t anyone who can’t draw. All everyone needs is a little bit of encouragement, the right tools and some friendly advice. We actively try and encourage people to experiment and provide all sorts of hints and tips available for free on our website. From leaflets to projects, from online videos to full DVD’s. In addition the museum run workshops and free demonstrations throughout the year. We are available to give plenty of advice. Drawing is a skill, but you don’t have to be a great drawer to produce fantastic art. I do not draw well, but I can produce some great images with help and encouragement.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the Pencil Museum? What kind of things do you have on display there? Why would you recommend someone to go visit?
The Pencil Museum is world famous and celebrated it’s 30th birthday this year. We often feature in the national newspapers, television and national radio. Our Manager Alex Farthing talked to Chris Evans about the world’s longest shaving competition, we have also appeared on the Antiques Road show, The One Show and most recently was used in a film set for ‘Sightseers’, a film to be released next year by Big Talk Productions.
We have 80,000 visitors a year coming to the museum. The highlights are the largest colour pencil in the world measuring in at 7.91Metres long, (25ft 11 and a half inches), It took 18 people 4 weeks to make it and 28 people to carry it into position!
The War pencil, in world war two, the managers were brought in to the factory at night to make secret war time pencils. The pencil looked like a normal eraser tipped pencil, but inside it held a secret, a map of Germany and a compass. There were four pencils in the series each holding a different area map of Germany.
There are also many free demonstration events held throughout the year and lots of family fun activities. A quiz trail for the children plus lots of crafty things to make and do. Then of course there is Sketchers cafe with it’s homemade soup and delicious cakes!
Does Derwent hold any exhibitions or events? What would a visitor be likely to see at one? Could you describe the last exhibition you had any what kind of artists had the work displayed at it? Was it a particular style or theme?
Derwent attend exhibitions throughout the year at various venues across the UK and also at a trade exhibition in Frankfurt. At the UK events we have various areas where we demonstrate products for customers alongside a professional artist who and is able to help customers with questions and demonstrate for them. Customers have the opportunity to sit and have a go with any of our products themselves. We are usually promoting a new range so this year we concentrated on our Inktense Blocks range, we display artwork that has been created using this range so people can see what can be achieved with the product. We attended Patchings in Nottingham, Art in Action in Oxford, SAA show in London and also the Art Materials Live show at Birmingham Nec.
Do you have any exhibitions or events coming up that you would like to tell us about?
We have the same listing of events as we do each year so we will be attending Patchings, Art in Action and Art Materials Live show again in 2012 (the SAA show is not taking place due to the Olympics), but 2012 is also a special anniversary for us as the company will be 180 years. We have events planned in our Museum during the May bank holiday to celebrate this alongside the Queen’s Jubilee and we will be holding a birthday party for our distributors and customers on our stand at the trade show in Frankfurt in January.