Feature Christmas 2010: Surgery

The IKEA pencil: a surprising find in the NHS

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c6595 (Published 09 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6595
  1. Karen A Eley, research fellow1,
  2. Stephen R Watt-Smith, consultant2
  1. 1Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford
  2. 2Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust, Oxford OX3 9DU, UK
  1. Correspondence to: karen.a.eley{at}gmail.com

IKEA, not Argos, is the preferred choice in surgery

It seems that the IKEA pencil has developed quite a following. A customary Google search identified a Facebook page entitled “IKEA pencil stealing appreciation” with 55 563 members as of the time of writing.1 It appears that pocketing a few pencils during your shopping trip is considered normal. YouTube2 has over 60 videos dedicated in some way to the little brown pencil, and 500 of them have been used to create a chair.3

As popular as these pencils are, we were still a little surprised to be handed one halfway through a surgical case. The use of a pencil to mark osteotomy cuts in craniofacial and maxillofacial surgery is well established, proving superior to methylene, Bonney’s blue, and felt tipped skin markers that struggle to transfer an ink mark to bone, or are washed away by irrigation or tissue fluids.4 5 Sterilisation, originally achieved with 18 hours of dry heat,6 is now performed by autoclaving, making a pocketful of IKEA pencils from one shopping visit last for many months­­—important in the current financial climate. The only problem is that on repeated sterilisation even the hardiest of pencil splits. Ours proceeded to extrude its graphite core before it was even removed from the protective wrapper. We have solved this problem by wrapping silicon cuffs around the pencil—maybe we could suggest this to the designers at IKEA?

Despite this, pencils remain a safe and reliable method of marking bone, making the Argos pen safe for now, at least.


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6595


  • Contributors: KAE and SRW-S were equally bemused by multiple broken pencils; KAE wrote the initial draft with revision by SRW-S. KAE and SRW-S share responsibility for the position of guarantor.

  • Competing interests: All authors have completed the Unified Competing Interest form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous 3 years; and no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.


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