Is it truly possible to create miniature carvings in pencil lead?
Yes, these pencil lead carvings are a real art form! There are a handful of skilled artists who are internationally-known for carving sculptures out of graphite. In fact, pencil lead carving is relatively affordable and only requires a few tools.
To explore this new and exciting form of carving, keep reading! We’ll explore why it’s easy to carve pencil lead and how you too can do it too. Learn more about the famous artists who’ve left their marks in graphite and what other household materials you can use to practice your carving skills.
What Exactly is Pencil Lead Carving?
Go to your nearest grocery store around the beginning of August. You’ll see a lot of families getting ready for the new school year. School supply lists in hand, parents will be loading up their carts full of markers, crayons, paper, glue, and much more. Months of learning will begin soon, and it’s important to have the right tools at hand.
What you might not realize is, those same supplies hold a unique and wonderful form of art. While it’s theoretically possible to create art from almost anything on the planet, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to spend a fortune on supplies. In fact, your next piece could only cost you a standard pack of wooden pencils.
In this day and age, most pencils are mechanical. Rather than looking for that bubble-gum pink eraser and angled body optimal for grip, students choose a reloadable plastic utensil. After all, you only have to buy lead when you run out. No need to purchase a whole new pack. However, you can still find your typical wooden pencils, but the time of traditional pencil sharpening is soon coming to a close.
Well, sharpening as we knew it. Artists are now trimming their pencils with flair and repurposing a tool most of us take for granted. You might even be familiar with the blocky pencil most carpenters use. These types of pencils are also being reborn.
To learn more about this new type of carving, keep reading! We’ve got more information for you on why graphite is a great medium to work with, despite being relatively fragile, and how you too can create pencil lead carvings.
Why Carve Graphite?
You might be wondering, why use graphite when the pencil itself is made out of wood that can be carved?
It’s a fair question, but the reason why graphite is great to carve with is simple. Like most woods, graphite is soft enough to carve, but solid enough to withstand the various pressures each carving tool applies. That means you can shape it easily, without having to expend too much energy creating your desired design.
Lead is also relatively abundant and therefore cheap. Graphite is, of course, easy to find within the structure of a pencil. Most pencils these days, if you can still find wooden ones, won’t cost you very much at all. You could hypothetically pick up a pack of 12 at your nearest supply store and have a dozen potential pencil lead carvings waiting to be revealed. Just be sure you measure your cuts. Graphite, while perfect for carving, is still fragile in such a miniature state.
After considering how easy it is to obtain the materials to carve pencil lead, you might wonder why this type of carving hasn’t been done before. Really, it probably has, and you’ve just not been made aware of it. However, in the past few years, social media has done a lot to improve exposure for a number of artists, from those who are just starting out to the already-established, well-known names most people are familiar with.
Before we talk about some of the best-known pencil lead-carving artists out there today, take a moment to consider why these carvings are so incredible.
Pencil Lead Carving Popularity
A quick Google search will deliver pages of “pencil lead carving” images, but what makes this art form so popular? Let’s consider a few characteristics:
- Size: Beyond the fact that these pencil lead-carving artists are so talented, the sheer size of the carvings themselves is worthy of awe. The ability to evoke such detail within a space the size of a human fingernail is mind-blowing. It truly is a unique skill that takes incredible patience.
- Novelty: Most of us associate carvers with wood you’d pick up from your local hobby store—not the supplies we take for granted each time we sit down to write. This unique way to transform a commonplace item into something marvelous is a large part of the draw of pencil lead carvings.
- Talent: While it’s hard to pick out who first “invented” pencil lead carving, there are quite a few names out there of artists who’ve turned pencil lead into “that’s carved from the tip of a pencil?!” Learning their process and understanding their motivation is part of conceptualizing the unique nature of this type of carving.
One look at a pencil lead carving and you’re hooked. You can’t stop scrolling down the screen to see what miniature sculpture the artist has created next. This ability to evoke curiosity and spark the imagination is truly what sets pencil lead carvings apart.
As a society, we’re fascinated with creating and innovating as much as possible. This drive for the next best thing is what keeps us moving forward. So how did such talented carvers come to sculpting graphite, and how have they made a mark with their pencil lead carvings?
The Original: Dalton Ghetti
Around the age of 25, Dalton Ghetti began what would perhaps be the impetus for the pencil lead carving movement. From an early age, Ghetti had an aptitude for carving anything he could get his hands on, from typical tree bark to soap and chalk. Growing up in Brazil, he learned how to sharpen pencils for his schoolwork. At the age of 9, his parents gifted him a set of carving tools. He eventually decided pencil lead was his favorite medium and has been anointing the tips of pencils he comes across with tiny figurines ever since.
Most people consider the small scale of Ghetti’s work and think he must have a killer set of magnifying glasses—and a steady hand, as it were—but that’s not the case. Ghetti works without a magnifying glass. Or any special tools, for that matter. Simply arm him with a sewing needle, a razor blade, and a sculpting knife, and within a span of time the tip of that pencil can no longer be used for writing.
It just goes to show you that if you put your mind to it, you can achieve it. Though Ghetti only carves for about 1-2 hours a day, and it may take him several months or up to a couple years to finish a carving, rest assured those finished products are worth every passing second. Ghetti began carving pencil lead as a way to challenge himself, so he carves out of passion and love. As far as it appears, Ghetti doesn’t necessarily carve for payment. He simply recognizes the forms within the pencils he encounters and does his best work to reveal them the only way he knows how.
Salvat Fidai: YouTube Sensation
Enjoying the creation process and partaking in each step funds a large portion of YouTube sensations these days. There’s a reason why chocolatier shops have large glass windows that showcase the chocolate-making process. We experience the world through our eyes. Anyone who can recognize that characteristic and capitalize upon it probably has earned themselves quite a large nest egg by now.
What separates Salvat Fidai is that you can watch him carve pencil lead on YouTube. From the angle of the camera, it almost feels as if you are the one carving the lead yourself, but never mind your technical skills. Simply watch in awe as a shave here and a bit of pressure there results in two heart-shaped chain links bound together forever.
Like Dalton Ghetti, Fidai uses simple, readily-available tools you can find at most any hobby or home improvement store. X-ACTO knife in hand, Fidai peers through a microscope and begins his incredible work. He considers it to be akin to “meditation and a challenge: to make a micro-sculpture and not break it! It is indeed very fragile and tiny and that excites me the most.”
Fidai’s sculptures have gone viral because he depicts popular subjects, from superheroes and the Game of Thrones cast to famous structures like Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower. Even his most commonplace subjects are striking. Though successful as a lawyer and businessman in the past, Fidai knows his true passion lies with creating art. He now devotes hours and days at a time to carving his next project.
If you’d like to learn more about Salvat Fidai, search him on YouTube or check out his website. Watch alongside him as he carves the many sculptures he’s famous for, and one day perhaps you too can carve on a miniature scale!
Cindy Chinn’s “Elephant Walk”
Commissioned by the Epiphany Elephant Museum, based in California, Cindy Chinn’s “Elephant Walk” is an awe-inspiring piece. Miniature elephants walk the length of a pencil, with similarly-scaled trees to add a sense of environment. Chinn also carved a tiny train, which disappears into the wooden casing of the pencil and then reappears further down. Rather than sticking to only the tip of the pencil, she has broadened the spectrum by challenging herself to work with the shape of the medium.
Chinn came across pencil lead carving much like most readers probably did: via the internet. After browsing various pictures and studying the viral images in 2015, Chinn figured her style of taking tools and performing similar shaping acts could translate to pencil lead as well. Truly, metal is much harder to cleave than wood or graphite, but as is evident by her elephant and train sculptures, it seems Chinn has made the transition easily. Though she had planned to reveal her carvings at a local gallery, a photo she shared online of her train carving went viral. Buoyed by this reaction, she continued to experiment and learn about pencil lead carving.
According to Chinn, “trial and error are the best teachers” and “not every subject will translate.” It is important to understand how much pressure the graphite can take and realize that just like any other type of carving, achieving an acceptable result is all about patience. For every finished product, there are a half dozen—perhaps if not more—preceding attempts.
Pencil Lead Carving vs. Traditional Hand Carving
Feeling inspired? Pencil lead carving is achievable with the right set of tools, time, and of course, the proper mindset. Before we discuss how to carve lead, how does this type of carving differ from traditional forms?
Hand carving has been the favorite pastime of many people over the course of history. Each carver is unique in their skills and tools. The true defining element is the materials they use and the concept they’re able to execute.
You may not categorize hand carvers alongside pencil lead carvers, but they are more similar than you may think. In fact, sculpting pencil lead is a form of hand carving. Just on a teeny tiny scale, really. No matter the tools or the size of your end product, as long as you’re using your hands, you are technically hand carving. This definition gets a bit fuzzy when you talk about chainsaw carving. Really, if you’re able to control a machine like that and achieve super-fine details, all the more power to you!
Pencil lead carving isn’t really too far off from what traditional hand carvers had in mind. Keep reading, because we’re going to talk about those tools next. You might be surprised—you could be carving a pencil lead too!
Pencil Lead Carving at Home
Pencils, a magnifying glass, and a carving knife: these are the only tools you’ll need to start carving pencil lead. In fact, you may choose to work without a magnifying glass. Whatever your preference, the first step to carving pencil lead yourself begins with assembling these tools.
This is a great hobby/Xacto knife set that I use for everything. It would work great for this as well.
The next step is drawing out what you want to carve within the lead itself. You don’t have to sketch out exactly what you’re going to carve; just plan ahead a bit. Especially if you’re just starting out in carving. Establish an image of your carving in your head before you make your first cut. That way you’ll have a sense of direction as you carve.
If you’re going to be carving the tip of the pencil lead, like Salvat Fidai does, you’ll want to sharpen the pencil a bit to get started. Break down the top layer of wood to gain access to the lead beneath. From there, you can remove excess wood and graphite as you choose. Depending on what shape you’re carving into the lead, you’ll want to make either broad or small cuts. Just keep in mind that the graphite is much softer than the surrounding wood, so any time you transition between the two materials, make sure you adjust the amount of pressure accordingly.
It’s probably best to begin with simple shapes in either the pencil lead from the tip, or the lead nestled inside the length of the pencil itself. Become familiar with how the graphite responds to your cuts. Experiment with shapes and once you’re comfortable with the medium, challenge yourself to create something unique. You can certainly follow Fidai along as he carves his pieces, but don’t limit yourself.
That’s it! That’s all you need to begin carving from the comfort of your own home.
What Else Can You Carve?
Not sure about what other materials you can carve? Here are a few ideas you can try out for only a few bucks. Like the various woods on this planet, there are a variety of materials out there today that you can use to carve anything you can shape with your hands. If you’re looking to push the envelope a bit further, look around! Pick out something you pass by daily without a second thought. Ask yourself, “Can I carve that into something?”
If you’re looking for inspiration, here are a few variations on the pencil lead carving movement. Many of these types of carvings are affordable as well, so branch out and see what’s out there. Figure out what you enjoy working with and see what you can create from it!
If you’re not sure about carving graphite, but still want to experiment with pencils, Tony Wispinski has a solution for you. He uses various pencils to create “wood spirits.” Similar to a totem pole type of carving, these wooden sculptures create a unique pencil you might not want to use to write with anymore. However, they do make great gifts and will teach you a lot about carving wood on a small scale.
Wispinski includes a number of pictures depicting the process of carving one such wooden spirit. After removing the outer layer of paint, Wispinski exposes the wood beneath. He then draws a simple outline that will be his guide. As he carves, Wispinski rotates the piece to gain multiple dimensions. Working in small cuts, the spirit carver begins to evoke a face, with beard and hair twisting about the length of the pencil away from the emerging visage.
Though Wispinski finishes this carving with realistic paint, it is entirely possible to stain the finished product or simply leave it exposed. Complete the carving how you best feel it requires finishing.
Carving faces within a pencil is a great way to practice your hand carving skills and create unique treasures you can share with family and friends. Again, it is a cheap and relatively simple project to start with. Pick up a pack of pencils today and see what kinds of carvings you can come up with. After all, they do make great homemade Christmas presents.
Another way to practice your hand carving skills is to use crayons. Like graphite, wax is solid enough that it will hold its shape, but malleable when carved. Pencil lead carvings use just the pencil tip but crayons can theoretically be used in their entirety. This does make the piece a bit harder to carve, but just be aware of handling each part. Work gently and with intent.
If you’re looking to try your hand at carving crayons, check out this step-by-step guide. Complete with supply list and pictures for each step in the process, this guide is a great way to fill an afternoon, either by yourself or with your children. It’s important to practice proper safety procedures when handling a knife, so educate your children before you begin. Once they understand how to handle the knife, simply let their imaginations run free.
Carving crayons can be a great way for kids to learn about hand carving and practice various techniques. In fact, beginning with crayons may spur your kids to graduate to wood and/or other materials. As is often said, there are visual learners and there are those who learn best by using their hands, so encourage your children to pursue hobbies that take advantage of their learning type. Nurturing creativity helps your children succeed as they grow.
Carving Household Items
Though many kitchen utensils these days favor a silicon makeup, you can still find wooden spoons and a number of other wooden instruments. In fact, many crafters have taken to painting wooden spoons and creating a variety of figures from their rounded shapes. Crafting is, in a way, all about taking what materials are available to you and manipulating them into a new form, with new purpose.
This is, in essence, the spirit of carving pencil lead: taking something most of us have lying around the house in a drawer and repurposing it to improve our lives. If you find that carving pencil lead is not for you, that’s okay! Each carver has their own preferred medium and you should work with what responds best to your hands.
With that in mind, consider the materials stacked in your garage or piling up in your junk drawer. What sculptures could you fashion from those binder clips and rubber bands? Would those saws look better on the shelf if they were painted with a peaceful landscape? Maybe you don’t want to get rid of that rusty old shovel. Could you perhaps carve a little figurine into the handle and spear the blade into the ground near your garden? Scarecrows are fine and dandy, but what about a garden spirit carved from the very tool that made it possible?
What Can You Carve?
Embrace the possibilities around you and seek out new forms in the objects you own. Call it creativity, brand it ingenuity, or remark that it’s resourcefulness; developing the materials you have on hand can be a great way to relax, keep your hands busy, and enjoy in the company of others.