The Bullet Pencil – “Restoring” a Classic

Lock and load. They aren't called bullet pencils for nothing.

Lock and load. They aren’t called bullet pencils for nothing.

If you’re a collector of these old commercial bullet pencils rather than an end user, please read no further because this post will most likely distress you. I am taking a 1930s bullet pencil and stripping all of the collector’s value out of it – every last drop. This quirky little writing instrument may have survived the ravages of the past 75-80 years, but ultimately it couldn’t survive me with its original finish and character intact. If it makes you feel any better, this bullet pencil is but one of 13 that I have acquired recently. The rest are safely packed away in their original condition and hopefully they’ll remain that way for posterity.

Taking the most corroded of the bullet pencils in my small collection (see photo above, second from bottom), I will strip it back to bare brass, leaving a brushed finish which not only grips acceptably, but should develop a nice patina with age and use. The rubber eraser on this pencil is hardened and glazed, so it remains to be seen if anything can be done with it.

The raw materials:

Vintage 1930s commercial bullet pencil advertising the Eagle-Picher Lead Company of Chicago - one-time purveyors of fine paint which lead-poisoned America and the world for more than a generation.

Vintage 1930s commercial bullet pencil advertising the Eagle-Picher Lead Company of Chicago – one-time purveyors of fine home and industrial paints which lead-poisoned America and the world for more than a generation. The brass barrel of this pencil is heavily tarnished and the eraser hardened and glazed.

The basic components of this bullet pencil - Barrel with eraser, pencil and cap. The pencils are brand new and unsharpened, smelling strongly of cedar wood. It's clear these bullet pencils are unused.

The basic components of this bullet pencil – Barrel with eraser, pencil and cap. The pencils are brand new and factory sharpened, smelling strongly of cedar wood. They are the perfect length. It’s clear these bullet pencils are unused.

First things first – we need to strip the label off the pencil. This was accomplished with a fingernail, and the label came right off. Sadly it would not come off in one piece as the varnish had hardened into a brittle mass.

During the Great Depression glossy paper for these labels would have been too expensive. In lieu, they used normal offset printing paper and "glossed" it themselves with a coat of clear varnish. This would have ensured that the paper label remained readable for as long a time as possible, thereby maximising the advertising value of these pencils.

During the Great Depression glossy paper for these labels would have been too expensive. In lieu, they used normal offset printing paper and “glossed” it themselves with a coat of clear varnish. This would have ensured that the paper label remained readable for as long a time as possible, thereby maximizing the advertising value of these pencils.

With the label removed, we can survey the condition of the barrel. It’s in great shape. The varnish did its job well. The latex in the erasers seems to have reacted with the brass down that end and it’s heavily tarnished.

Time to see if we can salvage the eraser or whether we have to invoke Plan B. With old erasers such as these, we can sometimes find that the rubber is still supple under that layer of glazing.

I don't know what it's called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes glazing off an antique eraser...

I don’t know what it’s called. I just know the sound it makes when it takes glazing off an antique eraser…

Using a light stripping wheel in a drill press, we can remove the dark glazed layer – as well as the tarnish near the end.

A good result.

A good result.

The stripping wheel idea worked and although still a little hard, the eraser works on pencil graphite scribbled onto notepaper.

All that remained to be done was to apply a “brushed” finish to the rest of the pencil barrel then reassemble it.

Here’s the end results:

"Restored" bullet pencil closed up.

“Restored” bullet pencil closed up.

"Restored" bullet pencil in writing mode.

“Restored” bullet pencil in writing mode.

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8 thoughts on “The Bullet Pencil – “Restoring” a Classic

  1. Pingback: The Bullet Pencil – A Timeless Love Story | THE JUNGLE IS NEUTRAL

  2. This is a seriously great post — I, too, have a bunch of bullet pencils, and I’ve been using one in particular just to see what it’s like. It’s built just about like the one you used in the example. While I don’t have a drill press, I do have a dremel with a stripping wheel. I’ll see if I can restore that eraser!

    Quick question, though — why did you strip the label off the pencil? Did you find that it impeded performance or utility in some way? Even if I was looking at it from a non-collector’s perspective, it just looks cool. 😀

    In any case, I’m glad to read more about bullet pencils! I love them. Thanks for posting!

    • After reading your blog a bit more, I may have answered my own question — with the function and aesthetic you’re looking for in your adventure gear, you’re expecting some harsh terrain and conditions to put the bullet pencil through. A label on the pencil just wouldn’t last. Right?

  3. Thanks for the kind words Andy.

    You’re pretty much correct about the label. To me, a paper label and the crappy conditions on the side of a hill in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t necessarily mix.

    What I didn’t count on was the sheer amount of clear varnish they slapped onto the paper – you could store one of those particular pencils in a tub of water for a week and the label would probably be fine at the end of the day.

    They were agricultural/industrial, utilitarian and tough as nails right out of the box.

    • That makes sense. I didn’t realize there was so much lacquer on it! For my modest needs, just carrying it around in my pocket as I go about my day, I think I can handle it on there. I just have to figure something out with the eraser now…

      I saw your earlier post featuring the Midori Brass Bullet Pencil. Do you own one? What do you think of it? How does it compare to this old, restored one?

      Sorry for all the questions. Bullet pencils have been something I’ve been thinking a lot about since I wrote about them on my blog back in September.

  4. I don’t own a Midori pencil, but I’ve played with one. Whereas the Mdori seems to be a cleanly extruded and machined brass object with sleek lines and a modern feel, the old bullet pencils feel like spent rifle cartridges with a pencil stub stuck in the end. I prefer the old one 😉

  5. Pingback: Bullet to bullet: the Midori brass pencil vs. the bulk, blank “umpire pencil” | Woodclinched

  6. Pingback: Biting the Bullet … Finally. | My Pen(cil) Cup

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