ODDLIFE features David Rees, a cartoonist, humor writer and self-proclaimed pencil sharpening artisan runs a truly unique business. He charges customers $15 to sharpen their pencils to perfections, using a variety of tools, from pocket knives to sandpaper.
I know what you’re thinking – is this a joke? The 39-year-old entrepreneur gets asked that question a lot, so to clarify everything he even created a special section on his Artisanal Pencil Sharpening website telling everyone that he’s actually providing a real service: “If you start a pencil-sharpening business, you can expect to hear this question a lot. The short answer? No, this is not a joke. You pay David Rees money and he sharpens your pencils. It actually happens.” You can supply your own pencil or you can have Rees sharpen his one of his favorite #2 pencils and ship it to you in a in a display tube with the shavings in a separate bag along with a certificate of authenticity that just happens to mention the pencil is so sharp it is considered a dangerous object. To achieve the desired result, the master sharpener uses all kinds of tools, including general sandpaper, pocket knives and even a special $450 sharpening machine. “It depends on what the client wants to use their pencil for,’’ he says. “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.’’
$15 to have a pencil sharpened is a bit expensive though, right? You’re not the only one who feels that way, and David told TODAY.com that his unique business has angered a lot of people. “Sometimes people get really mad,’’ he said. “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.’’’ He admits his trade is a bit unusual, and expects people not to take it in the same spirit he does. But there are those who actually value his services, as proven by the over 500 orders he has gotten ever since he started Artisanal Pencil Sharpening in 2010. Although the business hasn’t been as successful as he originally thought it would be, the fact that so many people understood his service is no joke is heartening.
“In my original business model, I was going to be a millionaire,” David told New York Daily News. “I figured I would sharpen somebody’s pencil, they would use it, it would be dull, I would sharpen it again, and over the lifetime of a pencil I would get like $100.” But that’s not exactly how it all played out in the end. Because his work was so impressive, most of his clients didn’t even used the pens – they just put them on display. So until a year ago, he had had only five returning customers. He takes comfort in the fact that so far he’s had no complaints about the quality of his work.
Asked how he got the idea for his pencil-sharpening business, David Rees said the seed was planted in his head in the spring of 2010, while working with the U.S. Census Bureau. “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.’’ And before long, Artisanal Pencil Sharpening was born. To share his love for manual pencil sharpening with the world, David Rees even wrote a book on the subject, aptly called “How to Sharpen Pencils”. “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,’’ he says.
Although he’s enjoying himself right now and he doesn’t regret starting his business, Rees says he doesn’t see himself doing the same thing 20 years from now.