Review by Tina Koyama
When I first became aware of its Kickstarter campaign a while back, the Høvel Pencil Plane (£50, about US $65) was not something that caught my interest. It seemed like a novelty, and because I had no experience with woodworking, it also seemed like a new way to injure myself (I’ve only just recently become comfortable with knife-sharpening pencils).
Fast-forward to a couple of months ago when a video by TJ Cosgrove (writer of the blog Wood & Graphite) was posted in the Erasable podcast’s Facebook group. (I could never make a video for this review as cool as his, so if you haven’t viewed it yet, go look now.) Mesmerized, I became curious and fascinated by this gizmo.
Curiosity, however, was not my only motivator. I do have an actual need for a device like this. Some of my favorite colored and other art pencils have barrels that are thicker than average pencils, so finding sharpeners for them is challenging. At home I can use a knife, but it’s a TSA problem when I travel. I tried the Caran d’Ache Pencil Peeler (which I reviewed here last year), and it does the job of knife-sharpening pencils without being an actual knife, but it isn’t ideal. It requires the pressure of a knife, but it can’t be pushed on in the same way as a knife. It’s a weird tool.
Perhaps the “plane” concept makes sense? I decided I would find out.
Made by Makers Cabinet (formerly called Brahman Design) of the UK, the Høvel comes in a sturdy cardboard box with a slide-out drawer.
I called it a “gizmo,” but in appearance, the Høvel is much more elegant than that term implies. Made of solid brass and “built to last a lifetime,” it’s very heavy, shiny, smooth and substantial. It comes with 10 replacement blades that are carefully wrapped in paper to fit in a die-cut slot. (Designed in London, the Høvel is machined in Shenzen, China, but I was told that the hands that counted and carefully wrapped those blades were all in London.)
Assembling the Høvel is simple, but you have to pay attention to the direction of the blade. Unscrew the thumb screw (this is an ideal design feature – no additional tool needed), and place a blade between the magnetic clamp and the slot. Replace the screw. Instructions are included on an enclosed sheet and the box bottom, but the best way to understand the assembly is to view Makers Cabinet’s how-to video.
I also found that I had to adjust how much of the blade was exposed. When I first assembled it, the blade didn’t seem to be making enough contact with the pencil, so I loosened the screw and fiddled around a bit, as instructed. This amount of exposure worked best for me:
The first pencil I sharpened was a notorious Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle. I call it notorious because it is my favorite colored pencil, but its slightly larger-than-average barrel diameter gives me no end of trouble in conventional sharpeners. I started with one that had last been sharpened with my electric Bostitch Quiet Sharp 6.
My first approach was to hold the Høvel with thumbscrew side up and plane against the pencil. Used in this way, the shavings collect in the indentation next to the thumbscrew. Instead of the wide petals of shavings that most handheld sharpeners produce, the Høvel makes tight, tiny curls! (I don’t know why, but they delight me.)
I managed to produce a respectable point on my first attempt – long core exposure (ideal for a colored pencil) but without a deadly sharp tip.
Another method can be used to plane with the Høvel: Turn it blade side up and place in the wooden base (sold separately £20; available in ash or cherry). Instead of pushing the Høvel against the pencil, you would pull the pencil against the blade. Although I don’t have a wooden base, I held one edge of the Høvel against the tabletop at an angle, and I was easily able to pull the pencil against the blade. (If you do this with a piece of scrap paper underneath, cleanup will be easy.) In fact, after sharpening most of my test pencils using the first method, I tried the second method, and I think I prefer it.
One reason is that, compared to knife-sharpening, very little pressure is needed to plane a pencil. When I first began using the Høvel, I was thinking about my Opinel, and I applied too much pressure. By moving the pencil against the blade instead of vice-versa, it’s easier to remember how little pressure is needed (and for me, it’s also easier to hold a pencil than the Høvel).
Next I took a brand new, unsharpened Blackwing Volume 811 pencil to Høvel from scratch. As expected, it took longer to plane the paint and wood away to get to an appropriate conical shape, but it took less time than I imagined. (If this were a review of the 811, I would have shown you all those tightly curled shavings glowing in the dark, but in this review, that would be nothing but a gratuitous distraction.)
In fairly short order, I had a nice point on the 811, too.
For my third test, I planed a Conte crayon. Like the Museum Aquarelle, the fat Conte should have a long core exposure without a sharp point. This was the easiest and fastest of all my test pencils to sharpen.
I know that lots of pencil aficionados like to get a long point on their writing pencils, and I’d seen several images of super-long points that were achieved with the Høvel, so I kept going on the 811 to see if I could achieve that, too. I think I need more practice, as I found myself simply wasting graphite instead of exposing a nice tapered core, but it gives me something to work toward.
While I was working on that, though, another thought occurred to me. Although I personally don’t mind when pencils get a little dull (they write more expressively with line variation, and I have large handwriting that accommodates dull points), I know that some people can’t stand even a bit of dullness. They seem to sharpen frequently (maybe even compulsively) to retain a lethal point. I realized that with the Høvel, it would be possible to plane only the graphite tip and maybe just a bit of the wood near the graphite to get a sharp point again. So for my final test, I found a dull Blackwing Volume 10001 on my desk. . .
. . . and tried to plane as little as possible to get a sharp point. In short order, the point was sharp, and I had taken off very little wood. Compulsive sharpeners may find that their pencils last a bit longer with a Høvel. And while it doesn’t take much time to plane off a bit of graphite and wood, you may find yourself taking longer to sharpen simply because you want to.
Using a Høvel requires more engagement and presence of mind than simply shoving a pencil into my electric Bostitch (or even a hand crank or portable). As when I’m sharpening with a knife, I need to pay more attention and think about the paint, the wood, the graphite or pigment, the angle of the blade, and the amount of pressure needed. Sometimes I simply need to shove a pencil into the Bostitch to get the job done instantly. But I prefer to take the time to engage with my tools thoughtfully, and the beautiful Høvel makes that a pleasure.
In a recent Erasable podcast, Maker’s Cabinet’s Noah Bier hinted that some new products would be released very soon. I wonder what else they have up their sleeves?
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