Derwent Pencil Museum, To put a finer point on it

Did you know that on average a pencil can be sharpened 17 times, draw a line 35 miles long and can write 45,000 words?

As an arts educator and mum of two young children, we have many pencils in our house. However, I didn’t realise how little I actually know about pencils until we visited the Derwent Pencil Museum in Keswick yesterday. By the end of our visit we had discovered so many new pencil facts!

The word pencil comes from the old French word ‘pincel’ meaning small paint brush, and the word graphite is taken from the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning to write.

We visited the Museum as an intergenerational group of two children, two parents and two grandparents, discovering that there was something there for everyone. The Museum staff were very friendly, and after purchasing our tickets we each received a free Derwent HB pencil. My children were given a junior quiz sheet, and when my father jokingly commented that he would like one too he was surprised to be given an adult version.

The graphite grading scale is known as the ‘HB Scale’ with ‘H’ indicating hard, ’B’ referencing black, and ‘F’ signifying that the pencil could be sharpened to a fine point.

To begin, we entered the Museum via a dimly lit replica graphite mine. This was an exciting way to start our visit and a clever way to break up the Museum building, which is one large space. There is a workshop area with temporary display at one end, the main museum displays in the middle, and the Museum’s reception with shop and cafe at the other end.

In 1650 graphite became more valuable than gold, so it had to be protected and was transported to the Tower of London by armed stagecoach.

World's longest pencil

The first thing we spotted, and could not fail to miss, was the world’s longest pencil. Accompanied by a Guinness World Records certificate, this pencil is 7.91m long and weighs 446.36kg. The first text panel introduced us to where and how the first primitive pencil was made, accidentally by shepherds in Borrowdale. More panels told us that from the 15th century graphite was used for both writing and drawing, but the manufacture of pencils only switched from a cottage industry to a commercial venture in Keswick from 1792. The transition from hand production to manufacturing took place circa 1760 - 1840 during the Industrial Revolution.

The phrase ‘black market’ comes from when graphite was smuggled, marking the smugglers’ hands so that everyone could see what they had been up to.

The Museum’s object that particularly caught my attention was the World War II Secret Map Pencil. This unique pencil has one of four different maps rolled up inside and a miniature compass hidden under the rubber. Several text panels, a video and a display case presented the story of Charles Fraser-Smith from MI5 - the original ‘Q’ as featured in the James Bond films - who in 1942 tasked certain staff members at the pencil factory to a secret mission. The map pencils created were given to RAF pilots to aid their escape behind enemy lines. I found this so fascinating that I was even tempted to buy a replica one in the Museum’s shop.

World War II Secret Map Pencil

Breadcrumbs were used to erase pencil markings before the rubbers were invented.

Other highlights included the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pencil - one of only two ever made with the Queen owning the second, a cabinet of pencil sharpeners collected by one person over 50 years, and a number of miniature graphite sculptures depicting numbers, letters and shapes carved into pencil points by artist Jasenko ?or?evi? from Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

14,000,000,000 pencils are made every year and if laid end to end these would circumnavigate the Earth 62 times.

After about half an hour, my children had finished their quiz and looked around the Museum, so they sat at the small tables and chairs to do some drawing using the activity books provided. At the end of our visit each of our completed trails was swapped for two lovely Derwent colouring pencils, so off we went home with the inspiration and materials to continue drawing.

It used to take up to three days to make a pencil but now it only takes eight hours.

The Museum is located on the outskirts of Keswick with paid parking onsite. It is next door to the derelict Cumberland Pencil Factory as pencil production relocated in 2007 to Workington, on the West coast of Cumbria. We spent about an hour at the Museum so I would suggest combining it with a trip into Keswick town centre or a walk up a local peak. The Museum is open every day from 9.30am to 5pm, with last admission at 4pm. For admission prices take a look here:

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Rachel Moss

Rachel Moss is a freelance consultant for arts education and evaluation. She originally trained as a primary school teacher before doing an MA in Museum Studies. She has worked in museum and gallery education for over twenty years, including posts at the National Portrait Gallery, Serpentine Gallery and Tate Modern. Current freelance clients include the Royal Academy of Arts, Tate, the Courtauld Gallery, the Whitechapel Gallery, Art on the Underground, Freelands Foundation, and Little Angel Theatre. To find out more about Rachel visit