Shop Tips – Metal Marking Layout Pencils

Shop Tips – Metal Marking Layout Pencils

The following is an article from the SCABA June 2015 newsletter and I asked the editor if I could share it here.  Yes was the answer!  Enjoy some shop talk about metal marking pencils….

“This is an e-mail conversation started by Jim Carothers regarding methods of marking on metal for shop layout work. The conversation extended into shop notebooks and methods, then finally was punctuated with some shop humor. I found this to be interesting and informative and all of the participants have given permission to include this in the newsletter. I have done some very minor editing to make the conversation flow and fit in the newsletter format but I couldn’t bring myself to edit out ALL of the humor.” – Saltfork Craftsmen Artist-Blacksmith Association Editor Russell Bartling

Jim C. – Have any of you tried the Pieh Tools Welder’s Pencils ( ? I’ve been using a silver Prismacolor or Silver Streak pencil from the welding supply shop and don’t like the way the lead breaks easily and wears off / dulls quickly. Possibly I should use an artist’s sharpener (short conical point) and not the old school house (long point) sharpener for regular pencils? However, these silver pencils seem to have lead that is pretty soft.

Some smiths use what they call an artist’s white chalk pencil for layout work on steel. This then leads to some confusion on my part about the artist’s pencils in “chalk” & in “pastel”. I am told that the pastels are pretty soft.

I have also been looking at:

Knowing Pieh Tools, I don’t think they sell stuff that does not work.

I’d appreciate your comments on what’s a really good layout pencil for our steel work.

Any thoughts on sharpeners or point styles?

CJ Allcorn – All I’ve ever used is what I got from a local office supply store that was around the corner from my shop, downtown and a mechanical pencil similar to an engineer’s (alas it drowned in the washing machine and the silver lead gooed up the works). The art silver pencils (I bought several boxes) have an experience similar to what you describe, e.g. soft. They seem to live thru the washings a few times before the lead gets where it slips out of the wood… 🙂 (I sharpen both ends) I have better success sharpening on my Kalamazoo belt sander than with a standard pencil sharpener. Tommy Dean – I use the Permacolor Silver artist pencil, only had one that the “lead” slipped in. I have great use from them, although it is soft and needs sharpening often if you want crisp lines for accurate work…..If I want it “dead on” I will use my scribe…but I don’t do that detailed of work much anymore! I have “silverstreak” in the flat pieces but they break super easy and more trouble so I don’t use them much. One thing I do with my soapstone is wrap with masking tape with a couple wraps at least. If you happen to drop it you don’t end up with a kajillion pieces! I have done this for 35+years. Rarely use a soapstone holder.

Gerald Franklin – I use the silver pencils (wooden) from, I think, Kayne & Son. I usually sharpen them with an old “school house sharpener in the shop. I also use the artist’s white charcoal pencils from an art supply house like Hobby Lobby. I sharpen them with a little hand-held sharpener that, I guess, is like the one Jim C. refers to as an artist’s sharpener. I believe that the sharpener came with a package of the white charcoal pencils…beware, the pencils (and anything else) from an artists’ store are gonna be pricey so be prepared for some sticker shock. Gordon Williams told me that he buys his white charcoal pencils off E-bay and they are much more reasonable.

The grease based silver pencils crumble, melt, and wear down for me just like they do for you guys but I keep using them for layout work that I have plenty of time for. The white charcoal pencils don’t melt like the silver ones do but they will crumble under pressure (like this old smith does). They will hold up to mark warm/hot material better than the silver pencils do since they don’t melt.

I use soapstone for most things, and like Tommy, I tape mine up so that it doesn’t break when I drop it. Also, the tape keeps it from wearing down as fast in my pants pocket. It’s usually in the same pocket with change, etc, and the hard stuff tends to erode the softer soapstone. The tape is easier to feel in a pocket full of change, so I don’t have to fumble around trying to find the stone in amongst a bunch of nickels and quarters.

I have seen the re-fillable silver pencils in welding supply stores but I just can’t seem to make myself pay $12-$13 for a stinkin’ pencil that I won’t be able to find when I need it. If I use the cheaper versions, I can have several of them lying around so I’m more apt to spot one of them when I need it.

Jim C. – I bought a pair of General Pencil’s Scribe-All pencils to try for shop use. At the local Hobby-Lobby a pair cost about $5 and came with an artist type sharpener.

At first I thought they were going to be the answer to what I was looking for – a Markel Silver-Streak Pencil or Prismacolor Silver pencil that would stay sharp and not break.

Right out of the package the white Scribe-All’s marked steel well and seemed to have a pretty tough tip.

The artist type sharpener put a short conical point on the pencil for good support – not like an old school house wall mounted sharpener – long thin unsupported point.

However, the results the next day were like using a wet soggy crayon for layout lines. The package says the Generals are “water soluble”.

They are also hydroscopic – that means they absorb moisture from the air. It has been pretty wet lately. Scribe-All gets no *’s from me for shop use.

So after all this discussion, etc. I ordered the Welder’s Silver Pencil from Pieh Tools. They are not here yet, so I cannot tell you how they work for me. But according to Randy at Pieh Tools, they sell 1000’s of these pencils.

Knowing Pieh and their reputation for quality, I ordered as many pencils as they could get in the least expensive (small) USPS flat rate box. That quantity is about 30 pencils; shipping was less than $8.

Like Tommy Dean, I wrap all my soapstone. Sometimes I use blue painters tape; sometimes I paint the standard tape red or some other bright color so I can find it.

Thought I invented this – LOL.

Gerald Franklin – One note further on the taping of the soapstone: PencilsI first heard the process attributed to Francis Whitaker. I don’t know where I heard it. I thought I had read it in Francis’ book “The Blacksmith’s Cookbook” but I just leafed through the book and can’t find it. There are many tips and processes attributed to Francis that didn’t make it into his book. (Update – It turns out that this tip is on page 28 of “A Blacksmith’s Craft – The Legacy of Francis Whitaker” By George Dixon, Blue Moon Press, Copyright 2004. This is follow up to the original cookbook and is loaded with really good information. – Editor)

CJ Allcorn – Oh, one other comment I have discovered w/ the pencils I use…As I said in my few lines, I sharpen them w/ my belt grinder. This allows a very fine point. (My pencil sharpener is older than I am!) But I also have several pencils that I have sharpened both ends. I have discovered that the “lead”, if you can call it that, is so soft that after a while it will become loose in the wood and slide back and forth. So I have quit sharpening both ends, just have several pencils laying around.

Jim C – The Pieh Tools pencils arrived today and after one afternoon’s use I am sold on these as being better for my use than other “Silver Pencils.” The lead is definitely harder than anything I have used before; it wears longer and produces a nice sharp line. I have not tired it with the cutting torch, but the line is supposed to “illuminate” according to the description.

To make a comparison to the hardness of school house pencils (normal being a No. 2), I’d say the Pieh pencil is like a No. 2-3/4. I’m staying with the small conical point sharpener too.

Tommy Dean – Good to know about the Pieh Tools pencils, may have to try one sometime. Thanks Jim! A little tip on sharpening soapstone…. I use a file to sharpen my soapstone. Yes, you can use a pocket knife (the stone will dull the knife) or you can use a grinder, (blows dust everywhere). So I have a piece of an old file welded to one leg of my table, it’s always there, and that is the ONLY thing I don’t have to hunt for when needed.

Gerald Franklin – now that’s a good idea. I have plenty of old files around here that are surely sharp enough to cut soapstone. Thanks for the tip.

Jim C. – Kids pencil sharpener 55 cents at the local Dollar General store…

Gerald Franklin – I don’t write notes with a pen in my notebook; I use a pencil. When I go places like conferences, etc where I need my notebook, I carry extra pencils in a travel toothbrush case (plastic). There’s room for a couple of spare pencils and the case will hold a small pencil sharpener like Jim C. sent us a picture of (the little aluminum “artist’s type”). It fits into the toothbrush case along with the pencils.


Gerald Franklin – OK, so I went out to the shop to find my toothbrush/pencil case to show you. Bad move…the shop is not in shape yet to find small items. After about three trips around the shop (and one to the garage), I found it. toothbrush pencil case

I also attached pics of my notebook. I carry my “main” pencil (with big eraser) in the spiral of the notebook with the backups and sharpener in the toothbrush case. I am not really fond of spiral notebooks, I’d rather use bound ones, but these are always available at Wal-Mart so if I’m on the road and need a replacement, I can usually find one that will match up with my others.

I like the cross-ruled pages, too. These books have 100 pages, which I number. Notebook and pencilsI also number the books (this one is number 6). Someday, maybe I’ll be able to sit down long enough to make a cross-referenced index for the multiple volumes so that I can find all similar notes (e.g. tongs or trammels) without leafing thru multiple volumes.

CJ Allcorn – Another thing for you to do when you get time (ha!) (but this really works) Scan all your books in page order (of course you would have to take the pages out) to a PDF document. You could then set up a TOC (table of contents) that is searchable or “hot keyed” so that just clicking the mouse on that page/item would take you to it.

If the document is such that it is searchable, (I haven’t done this with a PDF but have w/Word and Excel) you can enter a word or phrase in the search function and the program will instantly find all instances of that word/phrase and, saying you had 12 results, clicking on the little search arrow, the program will find each instance and high-light it for you. Just be sure you don’t use to general a term or it will find too much stuff to be useful.

I have a couple of documents which are personal business organizers, one in word the other in Excel, that I use this way multiple times a week and it is really a lot quicker than trying to look thru the printer version. (Of course, Cindy can’t do this and relies on the manual method which is a bummer.) Not really much of a learning curve if you have a scanner with a document feeder. And if you used both sides of the pages for your notes, scanners (like mine) will scan both sides at the one pass, so that speeds things up. Kinkos or any large office store should be able to do this for you too for a minimal charge. They can put it on a snap drive (USB drive) and you can move it around between computers. You can even share w/ friends or publishers such as SF or other newsletters and if in PDF they can’t alter the document if preferences are set that way.

Just be sure to keep it in a safe location, preferably away from magnetic things and lots of heat. An extra copy or two is a good idea too.

I would like to do that for my ideas, but alas, I can’t DRAW! Frustrating as all get out!

Jim C – You have trouble finding things in your shop? Possibly the attached graph will explain how it is with me. Amazing that I could find the file…Circle graph

Gerald Franklin – Having recently moved my shop to Nor-man, I can relate to the graph. I’d have to modify it to fit my specific case and add a slice to include the time worrying that I’m goin’ nuts because I can’t find stuff.

Tommy Dean – You see that small slice called “eating”? Well, that is the slice that contains “sleeping, working, and eating” ALL the rest is “Looking for things I had just a minute ago.” The little piece of file is the exception…..cause it’s welded to my welding table!! But heck, I just CAN”T weld EVERYTHING to my table!!

Gerald Franklin – And here’s something else to ponder: “If the No 2 pencil is the most popular pencil to write with, why isn’t it No 1?”

(One final thought on using the pencils or even the round version of soapstone that was not mentioned is the technique. This may be common knowledge but I learned in manual drafting (quite some time ago) when using pencils along a straight edge to rotate the pencil while drawing the line. This keeps the point symmetrical and gives the most accurate layout while keeping the point as “sharp” as possible slightly longer. – Russell Bartling, Editor for SCABA).

4 thoughts on “Shop Tips – Metal Marking Layout Pencils

  1. For high resolution scribe line goodness paint Dykem steel blue layout fluid on bright steel and graffiti to your hearts content.

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