Despite the large number of fast-moving cutters, sanders, slicers and shavers at the Wagner Pencil Co., the plant's 23 workers have managed to avoid a serious accident since the company began keeping track in 2002.
This caught the eye of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which recently awarded the Chattanooga area's only pencil manufacturer the Tennessee Governor's Award of Excellence for Workplace Safety, said Jim Flanagan, manager of the voluntary protection program at Tennessee OSHA.
"It's very prestigious, we typically present about only eight of these a year out of 140,000 employers in the state," Mr. Flanagan said. "Wagner had to work at least 100,000 hours without a lost-time injury, and they worked 451,000 hours."
Wagner Plant manager Ray Phifer said he just wants "everybody to work safely, and leave with everything they came in with."
CHINA THREAT DEFIED
Wagner Pencil Co. produces up to 200,000 pencils per day or 48 million per year in good economic times, Mr. Phifer said. Currently the plant produces between 75,000 to 100,000 pencils each day because of low demand from the building industry for carpenter's pencils.
The bulk of the world's pencils aren't produced in the United States anymore. More than 75 percent of them come from China and other countries with less stringent environmental regulations and cheaper labor, according to David Baker, executive director for the Writing Instruments Manufacturers Association.
The pencils made at one of the six remaining pencil manufacturers in the United States mostly come from a region in Tennessee that includes Sale Creek/Bakewell, an area north of Chattanooga that is home to the Wagner Pencil Co.
"Basically it's an industry that seems to be moving more and more offshore, principally China, India and Brazil in that order," Mr. Baker said.
A typical pencil can draw a line 35 miles long or write about 45,000 words, and if each of the 3.6 billion wood case pencils sold for 2008 in the U.S. drew a continuous line, it could stretch more than 126 billion miles, or nearly 13 times the distance from Earth to Pluto, according to the pencil group's estimates.
FROM CEDAR TO PINE
"I've been doing this for 27 years, and as computerized as everything is now, I'm surprised we sell as many as we do," Mr. Phifer said.
Wagner Pencil Co. is unique in that it makes its own wood slats, and it uses a type of wood that most companies don't, he said.
What do the country's writers prefer?
* Pencil Products: 5.08 billion pencils (mechanical, colored, wood case) sold, with sales of $1.2 billion
* Pen Products: 5.2 billion sold, with sales of $3.3 billion
* Markers and Highlighters: 796 million sold, with sales of $518 million
* Correction products (fluids, pens, tapes): 578 million sold, with sales of $1.2 billion
Source: Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, 2007 figures
"Pencils used to be made of red cedar, but there got to be a little bit of a shortage of that, so most everybody around here shut down," Mr. Phifer said. "As for us, we're the only pencil company that makes their own slats out of eastern white pine."
A slat is a blank piece of wood an eighth of an inch thick that yields six pencils. They come after workers cut grooves in the slat to insert graphite, glue two slats together to encase the graphite, slice the slat into pieces, add an eraser and paint the finished pencil using a automated machines.
After applying seven to 12 coats of paint, the company adds digital graphics to the pencils. Many of these specialized pencils find their way to convention centers to be given away at trade shows, serve as novelty products to advertise a good or service or serve some other commercial need aside from writing.
"For us to be as small as we are, we've got a good niche going, and we can even compete with the imports," Mr. Phifer said.
The company has had recent success with color changing and scented pencils, which are selling quickly, he added.