What’s that pencil made of?

Three common wood species used in woodcase pencils.
L to R: Jelutong, Cedar, Basswood

Readers have often asked about the wood used in pencils. With the exception of an informative comment by Harshad Raveshia about the situation in India, there seems to be little authoritative information on the subject.

Incense Cedar (Calocedrus Decurrens) is the familiar source, with slats provided by CalCedar supplying much of the world. They have competitors in the slat business, but I don’t know much about those other firms.

California logs are sent for milling in Tianjen, China and transformed into the “slats” that pencil companies use as their raw input.

Cedar is aromatic, long-grained, soft, non-splintering when sharpened, and in most parts of of the world, associated with quality pencils. It has a pinkish/red appearance.

Basswood (Tilia), also know as Linden wood or Lime wood, is a widely used alternate species.

Basswood typically is pale white with little grain showing. While the wood can be treated to become softer and the colour made to resemble cedar, the pencils are for me typically tough and sharpener-challenging. The appearance is a matter of taste, but I find the absence of grain to be less appealing.

I’ve been ribbed about lack of success in using a pen knife to sharpen basswood pencils. One really needs a craft or X-Acto knife to take on this type of wood by hand.

Jelutong is a species mainly grown in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. Closely related, Pulai seems to grow in Thailand (see Fantasia Pencil) and other Southeast Asian countries.

This species does sharpen easily, and I regard it as being as usable as cedar. Appearance wise, the wood has noticeable striations or pit marks. I don’t regard Jelutong as being as nice as Cedar.

A quick search reveals that many individuals and organizations have objections to the use of jelutong and pulai, as it comes from tropical rainforests. While the timber use (sometimes via illegal logging) is an issue – the disruption of the rainforest’s biodiversity is also often cited.

Of course shipping cedar logs across the Pacific ocean for milling can’t be good for the environment either.

LYRA uses Eastern White Pine and White Fir in some of their specialty pencils.

So, let’s ask – is a pencil’s wood species, and/or the source of the wood important to you? Is this based on a quality perspective, or an environmental perspective? Or maybe it isn’t important? Comments are most welcome! We also have a poll on this issue:



Caran d’Ache 45 multipen

Caran d'Ache 45 multipen

This post continues on two other articles about vintage multipencils. (The Faber-Castell 33/78 four colour pencil and the Caran D’ache Tricolor.) I mentioned their quality construction, as well as the relative complexity of their mechanisms.

Caran d'Ache 45 multipen

Well, I got further with them than I did with the Caran d’Ache 45. The 45 was advertised online as a multipencil, but when it arrived, it turned out to be a multipen – three ballpoints and a pencil in a classic looking barley pattern housing.

Caran d'Ache 45 multipen

Octagonal shaped, each writing implement is selected by sliding a corresponding switch. The implement is retracted by clicking the cap.

Caran d'Ache 45 multipen

Caran d'Ache 45 multipen

So now the fun starts. First the obvious. I can’t find any way to advance or replace the pencil lead, and suspect it is all manual. That’s okay – at least it works.

Caran d'Ache 45 multipen

Now the ballpoints – they are dried up. Easy to replace, right? Unfortunately, no. There seems to be a standard mini-ballpoint format that is used by pocket pens and multipens, but it has two differences from the 45’s format. First, the modern format is longer – which can be remedied with a side-cutter. But, the 45 is a clutch leadholder on the inside, and it wants the format of the original. The 45 does not properly grip the new format.

The original, between modern examples:Caran d'Ache 45 multipen

So, I fear this potentially amazing writing instrument is a paperweight, unless someone out there has some ideas for finding a replacement ballpoint refill.

This post is also a cautionary tale about proprietary formats for writing implement refills – pen, pencil, or other.

Win the Felissimo 500 Colour pencil set

Felissimo pencils

To promote the Felissimo 500 Colour pencil set, Felissimo is holding two contests.

I hope you will consider entering.

Contest 1: Design a pair of web banners, or a poster. The prize in each category is a set of Felissimo 500 pencils plus $US1000.00 cash. Not bad!

Contest 2: Design a pencil case for the pencils. How cool is that? The prize is a set of Felissimo 500 pencils plus $US1000.00 cash plus an expenses paid trip to a design show in Tokyo, Japan!!!

The design briefs and contest details are here.

Faber-Castell Pitt Oil Base pencil

Faber-Castell Pitt Oil Base pencil

Yet Another Mike had mentioned these pencils a couple of months ago, and I recalled the comment when I recently found some for sale. Thanks, Mike.

From Faber-Castell, we have a slightly different type of pencil. It uses oil rather than wax as the binding agent.

The advantage is that this pencil type creates lightfast marks that don’t require a fixative.

The three asterisks on the pencil indicate the marks will last over one hundred years in museum conditions!

It also has some interesting properties – sharpening to a point is easy, and that point stays strong – unlike many alternate formulation (pastel, charcoal, etc.) artist-oriented pencils. The pencils are also very smooth and manageable in the hand.

Faber-Castell Pitt Oil Base pencil

They are offered in five degrees, Extra Soft through Extra Hard.

Faber-Castell Pitt Oil Base pencil

The five degrees on Strathmore Windpower Sketch 89g/m2 paper:

Faber-Castell Pitt Oil Base pencil

The pencils are attractive, priced no more than regular graphite pencils, and definitely capable. Do you use them? If so, why did you choose them?

Colleen 3030 pencil

Colleen 3030 pencil

Regular readers will know the name “Colleen”. Formerly a major Japanese manufacturer, the firm folded a decade or so ago.

Yet the name lives on. A former manager is part of a new undertaking in Thailand, re-establishing the brand. We’ve seen some of their offerings for the Japanese market, especially their exquisite teak pencils.

Colleen 3030 pencil

What has remained less known are their offerings inside Thailand. The 3030 is one of them. Reviving a traditional Colleen model number, the 3030 is sold in boxes marked “Drawing Writing Computer”, with the phrase “Japan Lead” in bold.

Colleen 3030 pencil

The pencils are simply marked:

High Quality [logo] Colleen 3030 2B

Another side displays a bar code.

The pencils are blue with a black band and silver lettering. They are also slightly thicker than most modern pencils – a touch I like.

The pencils are factory sharpened, and re-sharpen easily. The wood appears to be pulai or jelutong.

Colleen 3030 pencil

The lettering and finish won’t win any awards, and are done to a much lower standard than modern Japanese pencils.

The lead is dark and rich, though somewhat crumbly. In a Mnemosyne notebook, the pencil lays down a fantastic line. From what I can tell, the 3030 is available in five grades – 2B through 6B.

Now I have a couple of other specimens of the 3030 – with a different cap. What is even more curious is that they appear to use a different species of wood – it looks like cedar – rather than pulai. I don’t have any further information on this subject.

Colleen 3030 pencil

While interesting, my sense is that the 3030 seems to be a lower end variant, and not part of the marketplace that the revitalized Colleen hopes to inhabit.