Disappearing pencils

1. The Wall Street Journal recently mentioned (as part of a larger story) that the Musgrave Pencil Co. had laid off staff. That’s unfortunate for those involved as well as for users of quality pencils. I think the better Musgrave pencils – the Unigraph and the Musgrave HB – are first rate.

2. Some while ago, I was asked if there was a luxury American pencil, something that could compete with Faber-Castell’s fancy offerings. The answer is – I think there may have been. New York retailer Mrs. John L. Strong had a “hand-lathed” pencil apparently made from Eastern Red Cedar. Like other top offerings, Marco Ferreri’s book Pencils (which is a museum catalogue, not a coffee table book) has a photo.

Alas, I can’t even find a digital photo of these pencils at the moment. I emailed (no reply) and telephoned (out of order) Mrs. Strong earlier this year to try and get some of these pencils. The lack of reply may have been indicative of other problems.

Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

The Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil is an oversize round pencil for children.

Made in Shelbyville, Tennessee by the Musgrave Pencil Co., it is finished in yellow with a gold ferrule and pink eraser.

Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

The type and graphics are delightful. Made of cedar, sharpening (which I would think is important in a children’s pencil) is a breeze. Unfortunately, the lead, though okay, doesn’t seem to be up to Musgrave’s usual high standard.

Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

Overall, it steams ahead of the competition in the category.

Multiplication table pencils

There are a few novelty pencil genres that seem persistent. Though ballpoint pens are always encroaching, the pencil still seems to be a choice at many museum gift shops, at hotels, and a select few other places.

One of these persistent genres seems to be the “multiplication pencil” – a pencil for children with a printed multiplication table.

Multiplication table pencils

The three in the photos are of particular interest, as they bear the marks of the pencil companies that made them – Lyra, Musgrave, and Viarco.

I would say the Lyra, the sole triangular pencil, is the nicest writer. It appears to use jelutong wood.

Multiplication table pencils

Do you have recollections of seeing or using pencils like these?

Musgrave 90th Anniversary pencil

Musgrave 90th Anniversary pencil

We are late by two years – the Musgrave Pencil Company’s 90th anniversary was in 2006. Yet, it was still a true delight to recently receive a box of Musgrave’s 90th anniversary pencils.

Round pencils, they have gold coloured ferrules, with white erasers. All have dyed wood – red, green, or yellow, with corresponding varnish.

The pencils are marked:


Musgrave Pencil Company Inc.
90th Anniversary
1916-2006

Among the American pencil companies, I think Musgrave must be acknowledged to have an advantage in lead quality. The Musgrave HB is possibly the sole American pencil in the same league with the top pencils from the rest of the world. The situation is all very strange – by some measures, Musgrave is a “small business”, yet (and tell me if you think I am wrong!), the quality of their best pencils surpasses those of Sanford and Dixon.

Musgrave 90th Anniversary pencil

The quality of the 90th Anniversary pencil seems to be even better than that of the HB – the lead is even smoother in a side-by-side comparison. The round vs. hexagonal shape is obviously a personal preference. Musgrave has pulled out all the stops for their Anniversary pencil!

Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

We looked at the famous IBM Electrographic pencil a few months ago.

Other pencils whose marks will be read by machine scanners are still made today.

I am happy to be able to present the Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil made by the Musgrave Pencil Co. of Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

While the finish of the Musgrave HB is delightful and superior, and the Unigraph 1200 is okay if not nice, the Test Scoring 100 pencil’s finish seems very thin and cheap. The pencil’s varnish is silver with black lettering, with a small nod to the pencil’s function – some checkboxes, one filled in.

The pencil’s shape is like the HB’s – a sharp hexagon, with little rounding.

The pencil sharpens easily, revealing that nice cedar grain.

Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

The lead is less crumbly than that of the HB, though nowhere near as dark and rich. For those who would use it as a writing pencil, it does seem rough and scratchy compared to the HB. Presumably the pencil’s main value is in the readability of the marks.

Overall, the pencil is disappointment.

I’m not sure where (or even if) these pencils are sold at retail. Musgrave’s products are very hard to find, and the company does not exactly welcome enquiries, even commercial ones, in my personal experience. I bought a couple dozen of the Test Scoring 100 from pencilthings.com, before that company halted their international sales.

Musgrave HB pencil

Musgrave HB pencil

The Musgrave Pencil Company, like the General Pencil Company, is one of the last independent American pencil makers. Headquartered in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the famous “Pencil City”, Musgrave has been in business since 1916.

Their pencils aren’t generally available in Canada – at least the ones they make in their own name. Home Depot carpenter’s pencils and other private label products they manufacture seem to be more common. I’ve written previously about some Unigraphs that I once found.

I’ll say something to Musgrave that I said to General: Please update your website! An NBC news report shows that Musgrave owns computers and employs at least one professional graphic designer (for their pencils). I am sure it would be possible to put some of that energy into the website, which could become a great showcase for the company. (General has recently updated their site, after years of stagnation.)

The Musgrave HB (that’s really the official name) is part of Musgrave’s “School Line”. It came to the attention of the online community through pencilthings.com, which is where I obtained these pencils. Does anyone know where the rest of Musgrave’s line can be obtained? They seem to have hundreds of pencil varieties, but very few seem to reach retailers, nor does Musgrave sell directly.

The HB pencils have a beautiful natural finish, and have a white eraser attached with a gold and maroon ferrule. They are sold unsharpened.

Musgrave HB pencil

On the scale, a couple of dozen pencils ranged from 5.3g to 6.3g, with a mean weight of 5.8g. Compare this with the Castell 9000 (3.9g) or the reference Mars Lumograph (3.8g). This pencil weighs 50% more than the European competitors! The distance between the sides is the same as a Lumograph (maybe a hair larger) – about 7.47mm. So where is the weight? Some must be in the ferrule and eraser. I’m also comparing unsharpened to sharpened pencils.

There is one physical difference apart from the eraser – the hexagonal shape is much less rounded than the Castell or Mars. You can feel the edges of the pencil quite clearly. I really like this. Vintage pencils had similarly unrounded edges.

The lettering is gold, though the “HB” is plain on black. The pencil is marked:

Side 1 (Obverse): ESTABLISHED 1916 [logo] MUSGRAVE [logo] HB
Side 2: blank
Side 3: blank
Side 4 (Reverse): MADE IN SHELBYVILLE, TENNESSEE USA HB
Side 5: blank
Side 6: blank

As regular blog readers know – I like minimal markings, and I love acknowledgment of the pencil’s origin. Triple points to Musgrave for actually naming the city of production.

I’ve previously mentioned that the Techograph 777, Mars Lumograph 100, and Castell 9000 leads (in HB) are all sufficiently similar that the differences are nuanced and hard to describe. The Musgrave’s lead isn’t at all hard to distinguish. It is softer, smoother, and darker than those three European pencils, and leaves a darker line. It also has an aspect of crumbling or disintegration, and leaves more graphite dust in the area of use. Markings erase as easily as those of the European pencils.

Musgrave HB pencil

It requires quite a bit of thought to find any negatives – there is some crumbling, and the high gloss finish can make it a bit of a slippery hold. The packaging is nil – the pencils arrive loose. (Some may feel this is a plus, but I think this pencil deserves a box.) There is no choice of lead grade.

Overall, the pencil is a great find – a real pleasure to use in every way. Though mail order may not always be convenient, the pencil price also represents a tremendous bargain. I’ll go out on a limb and state that it may be the best pencil that one can buy for under one US dollar.

Here are some some links to information on the Musgrave Pencil Company:

Musgrave HB Product Page You have to click the “Sign on as guest” button. pencils.net is Musgrave’s official site.

Tennessee Encyclopedia article on Musgrave

Tennessee History for Kids article on Musgrave Excellent photographs!

WBIR (NBC) report on Musgrave Make sure you click the “Watch Video” link – the best film of pencil production I’ve seen. Also, Musgrave president Henry Hulan is interviewed.

Shelbyville Times-Gazette article on Musgrave