Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Get the lead out

Collectors always have a pencil handy -- just don't expect them to use one

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There is a reason why pencil collectors don't sharpen their writing implements.

Last month, a Grade 5 student in New York landed in hot water thanks to a free pencil he brought to class. The tool-in-question was a gift from the Bureau for At-Risk Youth and was stamped with the message, "TOO COOL TO DO DRUGS."

Only problem: after the lad employed the pencil for a week -- and sharpened it when need be -- the inscription on it changed somewhat. So when an instructor leaned over to see how the boy was faring on a quiz, she wondered why, exactly, he had a pencil reading, "COOL TO DO DRUGS."

"I do have a sharpener in the house -- somebody gave it to me as a joke one time -- but honestly, if a pencil is sharpened, I don't have much use for it," says Patrick Tackaberry, a pencil collector of some note.

It's amusing the Winnipeg resident should bring up the word "use." That's because Tackaberry, a quality control manager, would never dream of using any of his 400-plus pencils for their intended purposes.

"I don't like it if the eraser end has been touched, either; these are purely for show," he says, inviting a visitor to peruse his colourful cache, which the father of one stores bouquet-like in a series of glass flower vases.

Tackaberry started his collection by chance in the mid-1980s. He was killing time in an antique shop one afternoon when he came across a 50-year-old, advertising pencil originally distributed by C.A. Pillsbury and Company. The mint-condition specimen carried a $5 price tag. That struck Tackaberry as somewhat steep for such a common device. But figuring there might be something more to it, he bought the pencil and brought it home -- where he quickly forgot about it, after he tossed his potential treasure into a kitchen junk drawer.

A couple of years later Tackaberry was on vacation when he spotted a display of souvenir pencils in a gift shop. Remembering the Pillsbury one he already owned, he thought perhaps this was a hobby worth pursuing after all. So he purchased a handful. Soon, Tackaberry began noticing collectible pencils everywhere he went. The rest, as they say, is history. (Speaking of history, the modern pencil turns 450 years old this year; the Pencil Museum in Cumbra, England, is located steps away from where a graphite deposit was discovered in 1564, leading the way for the invention of the world's first wooden pencil.)

Unlike some people who specialize in specific types -- a fellow in Florida, for example, has amassed more than 18,000 golf pencils alone -- Tackaberry's collection runs the gamut. If it's attractive or eye-catching he'll buy it. Or ask friends and co-workers to buy it for him.

"A few people have graced me with pencils through the years; they know I keep them so if they spot an interesting one during their travels, they throw it in their suitcase for me," he says. To demonstrate, Tackaberry reaches for a set of pencils a pal of his brought home from the Louvre in Paris. Vive la difference: in lieu of standard erasers, the Louvre pencils feature miniature, rubber replicas of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Tackaberry's various interests are reflected throughout his collection. He played the clarinet when he was a student at Windsor Park Collegiate, so why not have a pencil in the shape of a woodwind? He's a big sports nut so he has pencils emblazoned with the crests of some his favourite teams like the New York Giants, Chicago Cubs and Manitoba Moose.

Tackaberry is also a bit of a history buff. So pencils commemorating Stonehenge and the D-Day invasion of Normandy were musts, he says. (Tackaberry shrugs when he is asked the significance of a pencil bearing the image of Yogi's pal, Boo-Boo.)

"They're not the sort of collectible that really sets you back, so that's a good thing," Tackaberry says, noting the $5 he spent on his first pencil is still the most he's ever paid. "But there are times when I've wondered, 'Am I the only person in the world who does this?'"

Patrick Tackaberry, meet John Horsting.

Horsting is the president of the American Pencil Collectors Society, an international organization founded in Sterling, Kan. in 1955. The 75-year-old Michigan native's wife told him about the club 12 years ago, after she stumbled upon it on the Internet.

"She called me into the room saying, 'John, come look. There are other people out there who collect pencils,' " says Horsting, who began collecting carpentry pencils about 30 years ago and presently owns in the neighbourhood of 32,000 pencils. (That's nothing, Horsting says, when a scribe asks him to repeat that number; there was an older gentleman in the group, Horsting goes on, who had over 100,000 before he quit the hobby.)

Horsting specializes in left-handed pencils. He explains what those are after a reporter wonders aloud if that's some kind of joke, a la Burger King's left-handed Whopper.

"I usually hand one to a person and say, 'Here, you figure it out,'" Horsting says, from his home in Zeeland, Mich. "On a normal, right-handed pencil the writing starts at the tip, and goes to the eraser. On left-handed pencils, it's just the opposite."

It turns out Horsting is a fountain of pencil trivia. "Did you know pencils contain graphite and clay, not lead?" he asks. No. "Did you know a good-size tree makes 300,000 pencils?" No. "Did you know an average pencil can draw a line 35 miles long?" Uh, you don't say.

The American Pencil Collectors Society stages conventions in odd-numbered years, at which time members gather to buy, sell and trade.

"We have breakfast together, lunch together -- we're together all day really. It's a lot of fun to be with people who speak the same language."

About those people: Horsting says membership is about 70 per cent male and most people tend to be retired or close to retirement age. None took up the pastime with hopes of striking it rich, he adds.

"Technically, pencils aren't worth very much -- even the really old ones. Often at auctions I pick them up for two or three cents apiece and the most I've probably paid is 50 cents," says Horsting, who displays his collection on the walls of his garage, where he divides them into categories like U.S. presidents, American fire stations and bakeries.

"It's funny; whenever I tell people I collect pencils they go, 'What's the matter with you?' But when they come over and see 'em all, they go, 'Wow!'"

For more information on pencil collecting, go to


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 D11

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