by Victoria Ritter
Pencils are a tried-and-true instrument in any classroom, from kindergarten and up. For more than 100 years, Musgrave Pencil Company has manufactured pencils in various shapes and sizes, but never wavering in quality.
James Raford Musgrave founded the company began in 1916 by making pencil slats for a German pencil company, using Tennessee red cedar and California incense cedar. In 1923, the Musgrave Pencil Company began making its own pencils. “School pencils were some of the first pencils we made because of the need for a domestic school line of pencils,” said Henry Hulan III, owner of Musgrave Pencil Co., and Musgrave’s grandson.
The company started with more than 150 employees – more handwork was required at the time – at a factory located on 40 acres of land in Shelbyville, TN. Today, the factory still runs with the help of more than 100 employees. After Musgrave Pencil Company stopped producing slats in the early 1950s, most of the machines were discarded or used for parts for other pencil production machines. A few of the original paint and tipping machines are still in production today, converted to run on electric motors.
Hulan shares more about what goes into making a sturdy pencil that is fun and useful for kids, parents and teachers.
From the downturn of business during the pandemic, we have been able to gradually regain our production to pre-COVID levels. This has allowed us to seek new customers and work with all of our established customers to help them accomplish their sales needs and objectives.
What sets Musgrave apart from mass manufacturers?
Musgrave Pencil Company has always had the ability to produce short or long runs of a custom pencil, which has helped us diversify our production runs. Being out of the mass market sector, we have the ability to work directly with customers to give them a custom product that would be harder to find elsewhere.
How can you make pencils attractive to kids?
Most students love designs and colors, and with our many designs and a full spectrum of colors, a student or adult can pick the combination he or she wants and start collecting those color combinations that best fit their personality.
How are the Finger Fidgets designed? What kind of fidgeting do they allow?
Our Finger Fidgets were designed by a family from Minnesota. The four Finger Fidget registered designs were made to help children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) in homes and schools. The children can fidget with the Finger Fidget and still pay attention to their instructor. The four designs gained popularity with the whole school set, and the four-piece set has become an enjoyment for students and adults of all ages.
Besides the Finger Fidgets, what would be one additional feature you’d add to pencils for kids?
Several other options to make pencils fun for students are the many eraser toppers we offer on many of our different styles of pencils and also the different pencil grips in several styles to help hold a pencil to make them feel different in your hand. These different grips can also help some children and adults write or draw easier because of the feel and different angle the pencil is held.
How do you design the fun, colorful wraps? Where do they come from?
We have had store owners, teachers and students give us ideas on a particular style or design of pencil they would love to see. Our design team mocks up the design and adds the color(s) to the design. Then, many times with the approval of the originator, we secure the foils or transfers from areas in the USA and around the globe.
What goes into making a quality pencil?
Musgrave Pencil Company has always used a better grade of materials in our production process. Any pencil, no matter how fancy it looks, will not write or erase any better than the graphite core that is in the pencil or the eraser that is attached to the pencil with the ferrule. As goes for the lacquer that covers the pencil shaft. They all need to be of good quality to produce a good-looking, workable pencil that will write and erase like we think it should. These materials all go into a pencil that anyone would be proud to use.
Why have pencils continued to be a popular writing tool across the centuries?
How can anyone “think” without holding a pencil in their hand? It’s just the right tool to make a short note or a doodle mark while you are thinking of a subject or a project. Even for a long manuscript, the pencil has proved itself more worthy than any ink-contained instrument. It’s the original computer even with its own delete key attached. And it writes the first time, every time.
What other markets do you serve?
Pencils have the ability of making themselves at home in any environment and are an instrument that is usable in most every facet of life. Woodworking, drawing, schools, special testing, advertising, golfing, crossword puzzles, marking many different materials, some specialized production areas with different cores to use for coloring and special cores used in the medical field. The list is endless, and we are always looking and open to ideas for the next new project.
What are you most proud of about working at Musgrave?
My father took me to the “mill” from the time I was very young. My brother and I would play in the lumber yard and all through the factory. Musgrave has been in my blood since day one and is still in my blood at age 82.
Many changes have been made throughout the years, but the basic production steps remain the same, just a little faster now. Our employees, many of whom have had their children grow up and work in the factory, have made Musgrave what it is today. Without the dedication our employees have shown us over the years, we could not have survived. What a pleasure it is to walk in the plant today and have kind smiles and greetings thrown my way.