Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The EPCON Plastic Pencil

Contributed by Irving J. Arons, Product Technology 1969-1994.

In 1969, Hasbro Toy Company hired the Product Development Section (as it was known at the time) of Arthur D. Little, to develop an all-plastic pencil. Wood pencils were made of red cedar grown in the Pacific North West, while Hasbro’s pencil subsidiary, Empire Pencil Company, operated out of Shellbyville, Tennessee, in the South East.

Wood pencils are traditionally made by grooving half slabs of red cedar; placing ceramic graphite leads into the grooves and gluing the two slabs together. Individual pencils are then hand machined from the glued slabs, painted, eraser ferrules attached, and then packaged for marketing. The idea behind the all-plastic pencil was to reduce product costs by eliminating the hand machining and providing an automated production process.

The ADL effort was led by Richard Merrill. I worked on the composition of the materials for the pencil casing, which had to be as stiff and sharpenable as its wooden brethren, and Richard Merrill, Bob Eller, and Arthur Drennan worked on developing a co-extrusion process wherein a “plastic lead” could be extruded within the plastic casing to make a continuous plastic pencil.

After making and testing hundreds of casing composition formulas, I settled on a mixture of ABS plastic, wood flour (for sharpenability), and aluminum stearate (for lubrication during the extrusion process). (The “plastic lead” was supplied by Empire Pencil.) While the casing compound was under development, several iterations of the co-extrusion processes were tried, until a co-extrusion mold and process was found that could be successfully used to produce the plastic pencils.

About 5 years after the project initiation, in 1974, a casing formulation and co-extrusion process were finalized, and the plastic pencil was born (and patented (1-3)).

A pilot line was set up in Empire’s plant in Shelbyville and. after some fine-tuning, pilot production was set. Soon after, several additional extrusion lines were established, and by 1975, the EPCON pencil began commercial production.

The pencils were produced “by the mile”, painted in-line, cut to length, an eraser and ferrule attached, and packaged for sale.

1. U.S. Patent No. 3,875,088, Pencil Sheath Compositions, Irving J. Arons, Robert Eller, Richard E. Merrill, April 1, 1975.

2. U.S. Patent No. 3,983,195, Pencil sheath compositions, method for making pencils, Irving J. Arons, Robert Eller, Richard E. Merrill, September 28, 1976.

3. U. S. Patent No. 3,993,408, Pencil comprising a marking core and a porous resin sheath, Irving J. Arons, Robert Eller, Richard E. Merrill, November 23, 1976.

Also see: -- Pencil.


Unknown said...

Intersting article.Save wood,Save green, save environment...

Anonymous said...

I loved plastic pencils, too, as a kid in the '70s. I still love them. I have a bunch of Empire Fun d mentals and Yikes that I bought around 1990 and they are a joy to get out and write with periodically. I have fond memories of Empire Choice, Fairmount and other EPCON pencils. Thanks for the wonderful explanation of this pencil technology and history.

FadHaq said...

I'd once tried plastic pencils and I was really caught by how good it actually felt to use. Unfortunately, right now I'm living in a place where they are very hard to come by and the stock I had brought with me are now down to two pencils. I wished they were available all over the world.

Unknown said...

No mention of Dr Harold Grossman?

Unknown said...

Where can I find these pencils? I've looked everywhere I can think of and haven't found them. I used them as a kid and I miss them. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

Irv Arons said...

Unknown, as far as I know, the Epcon pencils are no longer being produced.

Having said that, there are still some plastic pencils being made in India and supposedly in Europe.

Anonymous said...

Eagle made some up until about 2005. They were absolutely horrible - not at all like the earlier versions made by Empire/Berol. They had waxy leads that seemed to have no graphite at all and wore down very quickly, the erasers were terrible, and the barrels were very plastic-like and hard to sharpen. I recall the earlier EPCONS having a smooth, graphite-y lead that wore well.