The leadholder was revolutionary in one small way: It didn't shrink. Before leadholders, most architects drew with pencils that got shorter as the day wore on. Wood pencils required near-constant whittling to expose the lead for sharpening. But leadholders, with spring-loaded engineering that reached perfection in the mid-20th century, kept lead exposed at a consistent length with no wood shaving required. Desks got a little cleaner too.
For a tool that transformed the day-today life of the architect, it is quickly being forgotten. In most architecture offices today, leadholders are about as common as bow ties. But a few fans of the instrument, scattered as far apart as the United States, Russia, and Japan, have set up websites devoted to collecting and cataloging leadholders.
Credit: DENNIS SMITH
German manufacturer A.W. Faber introduced the first leadholder in an 1862 catalog advertising "New Artists' Pencils with Refillable Lead Suitable for Design, Architecture, and Office." The leadholder's popularity grew in the 20th century as reprographics improved, allowing architects to print directly from pencil drawings rather than inked sets.
The appeal is not in ornamentation, which is usually limited to foil-stamped markings like those on classic wooden pencils, but rather in the leadholder's historic utility and retro cachet. Or so says Dennis Smith, an M.Arch. graduate of the University of Michigan and the founder of www.leadholder.com, an “online drafting pencil museum.”
Smith believes the appeal is catching: “Leadholders used to be just part of the flotsam you'd get when you bought a lot of drafting tools off eBay. Now they are often the star of the show.” Prices for a single mechanical pencil hover between $20 and $100. For certain rare leadholders, the price can reach up to $400.
Many pencil manufacturers claim to have invented the mechanical pencil, so Smith is spending his free time writing a history of leadholders: hunting down patent applications, translating vintage pencil catalogs from around the world, and pressing older architects to recall not what they drew, but what they drew with.
Lured from architecture practice to an internet startup, Smith still writes with a leadholder every day. “I just like using a good, sturdy instrument,” he says. But he doesn't forecast a comeback for the humble tool, noting, “Drawing is a software problem now.”