Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Panda Pencil Company

On a Thursday afternoon in November, 2013, I received an email from a woman saying that her family’s business, the Panda Pencil Company, was closing after 70 years, and she wanted to know if I was interested in buying “some lead.”

Panda, she said, had manufactured pencil lead for most of the American mechanical pencil industry from the 1940s through the 1990s.  The equipment was sold for scrap years ago, she said, and now that the building had been sold, it was time to get everything else out before the keys were handed over.  Everything else included several million sticks of remaining lead.

We didn’t have long if we were to do something – the keys were being handed over the following Monday.   Her father simply hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it yet, and with just a couple days before the new owners were to take possession of the building, she decided to take charge of the situation and see if she could find someone who might be interested in old mechanical pencils and the leads that make them work.

You can’t swing a dead cat on the Internet without hitting me.

Fortunately, Panda’s building was in Trenton, Ohio, near Cincinnati and just a couple hours’ drive from home, so that Saturday Janet and I made a road trip to see what was down there.  We were looking for 600 Pierson Road, Trenton, Ohio, and while finding Pierson Road was easy, we must have driven past the unmarked building three times before deciding by process of elimination that this must be the place:

Inside, we met Panda’s president, Richard Esposito, and the former plant manager, Bill Brown.  The building is much bigger inside than it looks, and it pained me to think of the wonderful, irreplaceable machinery that once occupied the space and turned out products that simply aren’t being made anymore.   Panda Pencil, Richard explained, manufactured lead using a traditional clay and graphite process, mixed in different proportions to make the different hardnesses of lead.

When skinnier leads became popular, this formulation doesn’t work – clay/graphite leads in thicknesses smaller than .9 millimeters (.036 inches) is generally too fragile.  As the Japanese began importing thinner polymer-based leads, Panda experimented with the process and found that the cost to retool for the polymer manufacturing process was simply too great.  After 1992, Panda quit producing mechanical pencil leads and manufactured wood pencils exclusively, mostly for the advertising market.

He then dropped a bombshell: Panda made the leads that were being sold by several companies, including Autopoint, Dur-O-Lite, Eberhard Faber and . . . Eversharp.  In the 1940s, Panda was quietly purchased by Dur-O-Lite and run as a subsidiary.  I say “quietly” because Dur-O-Lite wanted more than just ownership of its supplier – it wanted to continue the business of supplying its competitors.  And it did.

Richard was the man who told me about Milton Reynolds’ visit to Mrs. Faber in a New York hospital sometime in 1945.  Eberhard Faber was one of Panda’s biggest customers, and the timing of the Eberhard Faber story dovetails perfectly with Panda’s.  Of the big four customers Panda supplied, Eversharp was purchased by Parker in 1957, and while Panda supplied lead to Parker for a short time afterwards, in the end it couldn’t keep Parker’s business.  Autopoint went into serious decline and, after the company started producing UTL leads and went through several changes in ownership, the company started using imported polymer leads, so that business also went by the wayside (the company, however, remains very much alive -- although it still sells imported polymer leads under its brand name).  Eberhard Faber was sold to Faber-Castell in 1989.  Dur-O-Lite, Panda’s owner, ceased manufacturing in 1993.

Twenty years later, Panda finally called it quits, with millions of sticks of lead in remaining inventory on hand:

There wasn’t time to sort through it all, so I bought everything.  Heck, I thought to myself, I could store this stuff and maybe someday, I’ll open a little lead business on the side to supply hobbyists with the stuff they need to fuel their pencils – stuff that is getting harder and harder to find.  In the short time since, I’ve noticed that about half of the people who approach “the pencil guy” at shows are asking whether I have any lead – and most of the folks who are looking for pencils want to know if they buy one, whether they will have lead enough to continue using it.

So, what I initially thought might be fun to putter around doing in retirement has turned into something I’m puttering around with when I’m not doing my day job: I’ve started the “Legendary Lead Company.”

At the Ohio Show in November, I had seven varieties of lead on hand; for the Philadelphia Show, I expanded the selection to ten.  All but one of the varieties are .046 inch (1.1 millimeter) diameter leads, with the last being a larger .055 inch (1.4 millimeter) lead.  They are:

Piledriver (4H)
Hard Days’ Write (H)
Hubba Hubba (HB)
Existential (2B)
Sun Don’t Shine (4B)
Vix Stix (.055 inch)
Bluenose (Blue)
Damn Scarlet (Red)
Easy Bein’ Green (Green)
Lemon Lead (Yellow)

Leads are packaged by the dozen in plastic vials with screw caps.   All of the .046 inch varieties are $3 per tube or 4 for $10, plus shipping; the .055 Vix Stix are $5 per tube.

Am I simply repackaging lead manufactured by someone else?  Yes -- but just like Autopoint, Dur-O-Lite, Eversharp and Eberhard Faber were doing.  Besides, there's a lot of things I like about this stuff:  it is without question made in the USA, and it is authentic lead for vintage pencils.  It was packaged and kept such that it is in great condition -- more than can be said for a tube of vintage lead you find at a flea market.  One other thing:  the lead in vintage containers may or may not be what was originally packaged in that tube.  This stuff is straight from the manufacturer, still in sealed shipping containers.  I believe this to be the largest and most reliable source of vintage lead in existence today.

I’m still going through a bewildering array of colors and sizes, and many, many more varieties will be available in coming months.  By the DC show, I’ll have a line of .036 inch (.9 millimeter) leads on hand, for example, and I’ve already found .120 inch lead for the Wahl “120" pencils.


Michael Daigle said...

Simply Awesome !!!! :-)

eddbagenal said...

What a find- I've been looking for a supply of 2.4mm -ish lead for an Eberhard Faber Ponyclip pencil if you find any I'd love to trade/buy some!?

Jon Veley said...

eddbagenal, I've got some ponyclips and I'll see what I have to fit them. Since the Ponyclip was a leadholder that clamped down around a stick of lead, that should be an easy task.

Daniel said...

Any chance of buying lead from you if we can't make it to one of these shows?

Jon Veley said...

Yes, Daniel - leads are available through my website using paypal. The address is http://www.jonathanveley.com/legendary-lead.

Richena said...

Jon, you sure were the right guy to take charge of our old inventory! I'm so pleased we were able to connect and this stock is happily finding its way to new customers. It sure beats sending it to the landfill, which would have been our last recourse.

(Former VP Panda Pencil)

Donald said...

I'm a bit surprised about your Eversharp disclosure, because in their catalogs they claimed to make their own lead.

Anyway, a great find. I have no trouble finding .046" lead, but would like to find .075" for my Eversharp 75 pencils.


Jon Veley said...

Good news, Don - I've got "Mighty 75" lead stocked and ready to ship.


The picture shows just black, but if you want other colors too, let me know what you are looking for by email.