When David Rees started Artisan Pencil Sharpening nearly two years ago, he knew how his sales pitch would initially sound. That’s why he created a section on his website that answered the question, “Is this a joke?’’
“I wanted to make it very clear that this is not a fake business,’’ Rees said.
No, it’s not. For $15, Rees will professionally sharpen your pencil.
“Sometimes people get really mad,’’ Rees told TODAY.com. “Some people will argue this proves how inequality is so insane in America that rich people will pay a guy $15 to sharpen a pencil, and then other people will say, ‘This is why we need to abolish the welfare state because if people just are entrepreneurs, they’ll come up with a business for anything.’’’
In an economy where the country is collectively looking under the couch cushions for change, $15 to sharpen a pencil raises some eyebrows.
“It is unusual, so you just have to assume that not everybody is going to take it in the same spirit in which I take it,” he said.
Rees, 39, began Artisan Pencil Sharpening, based in Beacon, N.Y., in the summer of 2010. For $15, he will use a variety of instruments to sharpen a pencil, usually General Pencil Company’s Semi-Hex #2 pencils, unless the buyer supplies one. He sharpens the pencils for the specific needs of everyone from journalists to cartoonists to contractors.
“You don't know if he's pulling your leg or if it's something real and sincere,’’ said George Mansfield, a general contractor and city councilman in Beacon who was one of Rees’ first customers.
“Personally, I think it’s equal parts of both. There’s something absurd about it, but also something extremely genuine and sincere about it. With the smell of graphite and the cedar shavings, it’s a really evocative tool, and it brings back memories that future generations possibly may not share. I think what he's doing is funny but profound.’’7-year-old pizza tosser calls Internet fame 'surprising'
Rees will use anything from general sandpaper to a $450 machine to achieve the desired result. The pencils are returned in a display tube with the shavings in a separate bag along with a certificate of authenticity.
“It depends on what the client wants to use their pencil for,’’ he said. “That determines the most appropriate pencil technique. Some buy them as inspirational tokens, and others for nostalgic memories of classic No. 2 pencils. There also are journalists who prefer my pencils to pens especially in really cold weather because a pen will freeze up, whereas a pencil won’t.’’Video: Go fish – for golf balls?! (on this page)
“A pencil is one of the most valuable tools we bring to a job site, and it’s always the first thing to be stolen or lost,’’ Mansfield said. “The beginning of any contracting or construction job starts with a pencil, if that pencil line were to be too fat, it could basically throw off the entire job.’’
Previously, Rees was a popular cartoonist, and his work appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ and other major publications. He came up using pencils for his drawings before doing them digitally. He quit cartooning and took a job in the spring of 2010 with the U.S. Census Bureau, which planted the seed for his current business.
“On our first day of training they had us all sharpen pencils because the (census) forms have to be filled out in pencils,’’ he said. “So we’re all just sitting there sharpening pencils over a trash can, and I realized that sharpening pencils was really satisfying. It was something I hadn’t done in years. I told myself that I had to figure out a way to get paid to sharpen pencils because it was so much fun.’’
Rees’ initial goal was to recoup the start-up cost of the equipment he purchased while trying to learn different techniques because there was no real how-to manual on learning the craft. Then he wanted to ship pencils all over the world, and he has received orders from as far away as Germany and Finland.
Since the company’s inception in the summer of 2010, Rees said he has received orders to sharpen 500 pencils, which is more than he thought he would get.Video: Freefalling for big bucks (on this page)
“It lets me know that there are at least 500 people out there who know it’s not a joke, which has been heartening,’’ he said.
The response has also led him to write a 224-page book, “How to Sharpen Pencils,’’ which was released Tuesday. He also is going on a 17-city tour starting April 11 in which he will demonstrate his techniques to the public.
“I did want to empower people through the book to do it on their own,’’ he said. “I give away all my secrets. It’s fine with me if other people start their own pencil-sharpening businesses. If they think they can do a better job at a lower cost, then I say go for it. I welcome the competition.’’Story: At 95, ‘Creeky’ is the world’s oldest performing clown
Rees patterned the book after old instruction manuals from another industry that values craftsmanship.
“I modeled it after an old ship-fitter’s manual from the ‘40s that was a technical guide for people who were learning how to build and repair steel ships,’’ he said. “I wanted it to feel like a mid-century instruction manual.’’
While logic might dictate that Rees would have repeat customers, that has not been the case. Most of the buyers are one-time only, as they give them as wedding presents or for good luck to students taking the SATs or state exams. Mansfield has his prominently displayed on his office wall along with a limited edition poster for the business that Rees made when he first started.
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“That’s what makes me so sad,’’ he said. “Initially I thought I was going to become rich because I assumed it would function they way old-time knife sharpeners functioned — someone would pay me to sharpen the pencil, they would use it for a while, it would get dull, they would send it back to me, and I would re-sharpen it and refresh the point.
“I thought as that went on over the lifetime of the pencil I would make like 150 bucks per pencil. I think frankly that was a naïve business model.’’
Rees is enjoying himself now, but is not sure what the future holds in the pencil sharpening market.
“I want to see what happens with the book,’’ he said. “I really like this business and it’s really fun and I’m glad to have done it, but it’s not something that I could see myself still doing in 20 years. I think that after a while, once I’m convinced that America has learned to sharpen pencils on its own, then I’ll probably shutter my business.’’
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