The pencil is not a commodity – Economist article on Faber-Castell

It just came to my attention that the March 3rd Economist “Face Value” column had a full-page article on Count Anton Wolfgang von Faber-Castell and the Faber-Castell business. It’s a good read for anyone interested in the pencil business.

A few quick facts:

* F-C annual revenue is $US530M

* The Count owns 88% of the firm

* production is 2 billion pencils/year

* the debt to equity ratio is 50%

* there are sixteen manufacturing plants

* the expected growth market is in drawing as a hobby

On a personal note, happy Easter to those who are celebrating the holiday.

Faber-Castell Design Pencil


Faber-Castell has released a “Design Pencil” that is indeed the embodiment of design.

It is a fantastically good looking black triangular pencil, with black dyed wood. Like it’s elder cousin, the Grip 2001, it has raised dots on the side, though here they are smaller and beneath the surface paint. Markings are thankfully kept to a minimum, with only “Faber-Castell” and a small logo written on one side in grey.

In a B grade, it is very pleasant to hold and use. The lead is very strong and non-crumbling.

While I like Nava‘s pencils for appearance, this new creation has again demonstrated Faber-Castell’s industry leadership and ability to keep taking pencil design and presentation to higher levels.

Graf von Faber-Castell pencils.

Graf von Faber-Castell pencil closeup.
Wow. I have wanted to write about these pencils for some while. They are the ultimate woodcase pencil. They have an incredible look, feel, and composition. They even smell nice, with an incredibly rich cedar fragrance.

They are sold in various formats, variants and packages, but here I’ll address only the full length standalone pencils. They are round with ribbed grooves, and have a silver-plate cap. Their circumference is larger than the typical office pencil. They look like finely crafted works of art, which incidentally happen to be pencils.
The Graf von Faber-Castell pencil on a picnic bench.
I’ve got a set of five, and also a set of two that came with a white eraser with ribbing that matches the pencils. The eraser also has a silver-plate cover. Until I can get some eraser replacements, I’m leaving the eraser in the plastic, as I don’t find that white erasers tend to stay white too long.
Various Graf von Faber-Castell pencils.
The series extends to silver-plate sharpeners. I have a large one that’s really a joy to use as a desk sharpener.
Graf von Faber-Castell Large Sharpener
The pencils are definitely top class, with a smooth writing dark lead. In one’s hand, they are very easy and pleasant to grip. They’re also beautiful and luxurious like no other woodcase pencil. Using this pencil is definitely enjoyable, and I recommend trying them to anyone who likes pencils.

Faber Castell E-motion

Three Faber Castell E-motion pencils at rest.
A problem I have with many mechanical pencils is the scrawny lead. At five or seven tenths of a millimetre in diameter, many of these leads are prone to breaking. And when they break, they can go flying. This type of lead doesn’t allow much in the way of line variation either. As well, some of us like a more substantial feel than is typical of most mechanical pencils.

In 1999, Faber Castell addressed all of these issues with the E-Motion series, which was initially released as a wood and chrome finish pencil with a twist mechanism, as well as a ballpoint pen. The line has since been expanded with other finishes and a fountain pen.

This pencil is substantially different from others in having a 1.4 mm diameter. That’s right – a substantially larger lead than the norm. The mechanics are also innovative – the lead is advanced by a twisting cap, rather than the typical button push of mechanical pencils. This mechanism is great for both advancing and retreating the lead from the pencil in a finely controlled manner. And not untypical of Faber Castell’s great design, this method matches that of their ballpoint pen, which also extends the pen point by twisting the cap.

The cap is removable, and reveals a white plastic eraser (replaceable) when lifted. The foot of the pencil also has an innovation – two slots for extra leads.

The leads themselves are excellent – the claim of no breakage has been true in my experience. They come in a pleasing choice of B hardness, and draw solid smooth lines. With a 1.4 mm diameter, they also allow different types of line widths to be drawn by holding the pencil at different angles. They’re not wide enough to warrant a sharpener, but much more capable than their .5 and .7 mm mechanical pencil cousins.

The first offering had three wood finishes with matte chrome. This was followed by plastic solid colour finishes, maple and plastic, plastic animal print patterns, and many more. I have wood and rubberized variants, and they appear to be identical save the exterior.

The photo above includes an “Ars Antigua Writing Bloc”, a rather nice notepad.

Faber Castell 9000

An abundance of Faber Castell 9000 pencils.

The new Faber Castell 9000 centennial tin has a traditional graphic of mounted knights duelling. What a careful examination reveals is that the knights are duelling with pencils – the victor with a Faber Castell 9000, and the losing opponent a broken yellow pencil. The yellow pencil might represent a rival manufacturer’s product, or the generic office pencil. Whatever the case, there is no doubt about Faber Castell’s commitment to recognizing their product’s history and heritage.

The tin comes with 12 sharpened HB Faber Castell 9000 pencils, and a green plastic eraser. I have a number of original tins, and this newer box is a nice revision. It differs in having an eraser rather than foam to cushion the pencils during transport. (The pencils are thus a bit shorter than their predecessors). This is very sensible – foam disintegrates with time, but the eraser also acts as a cushion to the pencil points during shipment, and is additionally a useful object once the box is opened. It’s also nice to see the commitment to attractive packaging and the upscale market placement of these pencils.

These pencils are also available individually, in a wide variety of grades, and a “matching” eraser (pencil shape) is available. (The Grip 2001 line also offers a matching eraser.)

A variation is the “perfect pencil” – a four function cap that serves as a pencil extender when placed on the pencil crown, a protective cap when placed on the point, a clip provider – and – has a pull out sleeve with a built-in sharpener. With an eraser-capped pencil (with quality white plastic, and not generic office supply store pink), the perfect pencil stands as an incredible pencil innovation, solving several pencil user issues – portability, point protection, pencil extension, sharpening and erasure – in a small logical device that adds very little weight or bulk to a pencil. The ability to create such a brilliant and practical object demonstrates why Faber Castell leads the world in their field.

The pencils? Oh yes the pencils… they are superb. Along with a select few others, they are an art and design staple. They are hexagonal, a handsome forest green (darker than predecessor 9000s) with gold lettering. A URL on the side is a tip-off that they are new. They sharpen without fuss, and I’ve had no lead breakage. The graphite seems to have it all – smooth, non-breaking, keeps a point, and solidly dark for the grade. Even a 4B seems to last quite a while. The casing halves are matched, and the varnish comfortable. It is clearly manufactured to the highest standards.

The looks are traditional compared to a Grip 2001, but a pencil that been made since 1905 is something to contemplate, and the quality is first rate. Overall, it ranks as one of the great woodcase pencils, one that deserves recognition for a century of quality and production. Congratulations, Faber-Castell!

Faber Castell Grip 2001

The splendour of the Faber Castell Grip 2001 line.

At a time when it wasn’t believed there was anything more to add to the common pencil, came a tour de force from the world’s oldest and most important pencil manufacturer. This stunning triangular shaped silver coloured pencil with raised black dots on the sides immediately became an icon of industrial design, winning numerous international awards and being named the Business Week’s “Product of the Year”. A pencil? Yes, a bold new pencil that stepped forward with innovative new features and a look that placed it in the realm of high end writing instruments and fashion.

A marketing campaign that placed the pencil in art stores, quality stationers, and fountain pen shops accompanied by attractive merchandising was the essential companion in gaining attention. Arts sponsorship and pencil themed fashion shows were among the noteworthy campaigns.

Making almost two billion pencils a year, Faber-Castell is the world’s largest pencil company. Their pencils were the world’s first branded writing instruments, and their corporate origins are in the eighteenth century. It seems they haven’t reached these heights by resting on past accomplishments. The UFO eraser and sharpener, the perfect pencil – each of these would be an incredible achievement on it’s own. But Faber-Castell keeps pushing the boundaries of the what a pencil can be. The potential position in the public consciousness is elevated by each new addition. Even a new eraser wins design awards. Nothing is ordinary about their creations.

The pencils are simply beautiful. They are both functional and attractive. The triangular shape fits the hand nicely, and the black dots do assist with “grip”. (Unfortunately, in high humidity, they do get a bit tacky, and can stick to other objects.) There are nice hidden touches – the head of the eraser-less pencil is black, with the shade corresponding to the hardness of the graphite. Of course, they’re also labelled on the side.

It’s the sort of pencil that gets the attention of people who don’t like pencils, and the renewed devotion of those who already have them at their desk. Of course, those who like the ordinariness (and price) of the office supply store dull yellow pencil, perhaps as a badge of honour, won’t want this upscale version.

There is a matching triangular eraser (also produced in at least red and blue) available, or matched eraser caps, sold in pairs. Of course the pencil looks so nice that a stylish UFO eraser seems made for it.

They come in five hardnesses, 2H, H, HB, B, 2B, and so are meant more for writing rather than drawing. I’ve used them for about four years, and some leads are better than others – the odd one seems a bit scratchy, or breaks in such a way that there are two pencil lines. That can be a bit annoying, but is luckily not the norm. I also notice that the pencil’s halves are sometimes a bit mismatched in colour. This isn’t a serious problem – in fact I believe the pencil’s amazing looks highlight the little imperfections.

Can Faber-Castell top this pencil? I don’t see how, but I’ll keep watching.