Farewell to 2007

A few end of year notes – after four months of the blog being at www.penciltalk.org, redirection from pencils.smoky.ca will be turned off. Please update any old bookmarks or links that you might have.

If there is anything you’d like to see featured at pencil talk, or if you’d like to say hello (other than via a comment), feel free to send me an email.

If the webserver logs are telling the truth, there are now hundreds of visits per day, from many corners of the globe. Welcome to everyone! The graphic above gives a small picture of the year’s activity.

In 2008, we’ll continue exploring pencils and related stationery: our topics will include books on pencils, clutch pencils, drafting pencils, chalk pencils, charcoal pencils, vintage pencils, a comprehensive look at the Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil, and much more.

Happy New Year!

The hunt for the EE grade pencil

EE grade pencil

While I thought the letter pencil grades (“HB”, etc.) were standard, I came across this lament about the end of the barely known EE grade.

The web’s best site for researching issues like this is the always entertaining and informative Leadholder.com, which has many vintage drafting equipment catalogs online.

It seems that in the 1930s, Staedtler’s line ended in 3B, ExB, ExExB.

By the 1950s, the line had extended to 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, ExB, ExExB.

It is as if these grades had relative meanings. I take the “Ex” to be “Extra”.

In the 1970s or eighties, the grades had become EB and EE. I know of a store that still has an old Staedtler display which shows these grades.

And finally, sometime between that time and the present, EB and EE disappeared, with 7B and 8B appearing.

The trail would appear to run cold – except that Staedtler is a huge global corporation. After my posts on the pencils of New Zealand and Australia, I found myself checking Staedtler’s many national sites, and noticed that they aren’t all just translations or localizations of the same content.

And there it was on the site of Staedtler Thailand – the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100, still produced in grade EE.

So if you’re looking for this pencil, it’s not yet extinct – though it is on the endangered pencil list. Quickly testing it out, I can find no difference between it and the 8B. Something might be revealed by longer term use. It also doesn’t say where it’s made – most likely it’s origin is in Thailand.

Soft lead pencils

Soft lead pencils

Using pencils for writing, note taking, flowcharts, and diagrams, I’ve rarely explored their softest grades, those beyond 4B.

Though pencil making details are trade secrets, it is known that graphite and clay are the main ingredients in a pencil’s lead. There are also waxes and binding agents in pencils. At least one pencil has used rendered bovine fat! The ratio of the graphite and clay is what determines the pencil’s darkness and softness, with more graphite meaning darker and softer.

I thought I’d take a look at the softer Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencils, specifically the 5B, 6B, 7B, and 8B.

Soft lead pencils

The first observation is that the pencil cores get progressively larger. I’m not sure where in the line this starts (possibly 3B or 4B), but the 8B has a core of about 4mm in diameter, double that of a regular pencil core. This does result in heavier pencils, and a scale confirms this.

The second observation is also about the lead’s appearance. As well as being black, graphite has a shiny luminescence. And the 5B and 6B are indeed very shiny – but the 7B and 8B have only a slight shine, and border on being matte.

For writing and drawing, my expectation was that pencils get progressively softer in this range, with the softness and sharpening requirements being the tradeoff required for the rich lines drawn. This expectation was wrong – the pencils reach maximum softness at 6B, with 7B and 8B being much scratchier.

The finish of the lines is consistent with the appearance of the pencils – the 5B and 6B lay down shiny lines, while the 7B and 8B leave matte lines.

Soft lead pencils

One expectation is correct – each pencil grade increment does create a darker line.

My conclusion is that the Staedtler 7B and 8B pencils have significantly different formulations – and not just incremental variations in their graphite-to-clay ratios.

Ampad Engineer’s Computation Pad

Ampad Engineer's Computation Pad

The Ampad Engineer’s Computation Pad is a specialty pad of paper. Light green with green ruling, the front side of the page has only a margin. The back of the page has a 100 by 700 grid, with each square measuring 1/5″ x 1/5″. The inch lines (every fifth line) are slightly darker.

The idea is that graphs and drawings can be made with the benefit of the ruling, while appearing to be on a blank background.

It is a completely different approach to some of the same problems that Whitelines paper is also attempting to address.

As paper, it’s fairly thin and lightweight. It seemed very pencil friendly, and maybe just a tad less amicable towards a medium nib Lamy pen.

Ampad Engineer's Computation Pad

Choices are good. If writing with the intention of line rulings not reproducing was my sole objective, then I’d say the Whitelines paper is much better – using it is pleasant and effortless, while the ruling of the Engineer’s Pad can take some strain to discern. Whitelines also comes in many paper sizes and binding options. On the flip side, the Engineer’s Pad is much easier on the wallet, and each side having a different scheme could be useful.

Faber-Castell Castell 9000 pencil

Faber-Castell Castell 9000 pencil

The Castell 9000 is a famous and iconic pencil. A flagship product of Faber-Castell, the world’s largest pencil company, the 9000 has over a century of history as an important working tool of writers, artists and engineers.

The dark rich green (“forest green”) has varied in shade over the years, but the current version is excellent. It makes for a very handsome pencil. It seems similar to the palette used by both Mazda and Land Rover in the automotive field.

Most 9000 pencils are sold sharpened, without eraser. (There is a variant with eraser.) There is a wide range of hardnesses offered, but today we’ll restrict ourselves to the HB version.

Following the methods mentioned in the Staedtler Mars Lumograph post, I weighed several pencils. The range was 3.6 to 4.1 grams, with the mean 3.9 grams. So it may be a sliver heavier than the Lumograph, our reference pencil. The length is the standard 175mm. The distance between opposite sides in 7.3mm, making it slightly narrower than the Lumograph. Being thinner yet heavier than the Lumograph is presumably due to the wood.

There is only one noticeable physical difference – the hexagonal edges are slightly less rounded on the Castell 9000 than on the Lumograph. I like this, and think it may slightly improve the grip.

Let’s introduce some terminology to describe the six sides of a hexagonal pencil. We’ve already used the ‘obverse’ and ‘reverse’ terms (borrowed from the numismatic field) in previous reviews.

Side 1: The pencil’s obverse – the pencil’s main markings – usually the manufacturer and model names.
Side 2: The next side, viewed clockwise, from the perspective of the pencil’s cap.
Side 3: Again, the next side of the pencil.
Side 4: The pencil’s reverse, opposite the obverse – often the location of a bar code or secondary information. (e.g. The full model number rather than just the marketing name.)
Side 5: Again, the next side of the pencil.
Side 6: Again, the next side of the pencil.

So with this terminology, the pencil is marked (in gold colouring):

Side 1 (Obverse): Castell 9000 Faber-Castell HB
Side 2: blank
Side 3: 4 005401 190004 [bar code] HB
Side 4 (Reverse): blank
Side 5: Water-based varnish Wasserlack SV Made in Germany www.Faber-Castell.com HB
Side 6: blank

Faber-Castell Castell 9000 pencil

I like pencils with clean looks – and this is just too much writing – three different sides of the pencil, each half covered with text.

It’s a great writer. Side-by-side with the Lumograph, the Castell 9000 is just a touch harder and lighter. The point seems unusually good at staying sharp. In B, right up to 4B, the pencil becomes buttery smooth.

I’d like to be able to better describe a pencil’s marking capabilities, but this is a challenging problem for which I haven’t found a satisfactory solution – the pressure used, the angle of application, the shape of the lead prior to use, and the paper are all important contributing variables. Paper can be standardized, but the other factors probably require special equipment to reproduce. I presume pencil companies have this type of equipment (a pencil gripping robot?) for their testing.

Perhaps the best endorsement is the century of commercial success experienced by the Castell 9000.

If you’ve somehow avoided this pencil – pick up a few to try. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Some additional reading:

November 2005 post at pencil talk

Faber-Castell pages on the Castell 9000

Leadholder.com page on these pencils, including links to historic catalogs. An excellent source if you’re seeking to date a particular pencil or learn more.

Michael Leddy’s essay on the 9000.