Two small pencil design elements

Here are two small pencil design elements that I like.

Removable Barcode
The scannable barcode seems to have become a required retail practice. For small objects like pens and pencils, there seem to be two approaches – place them in a cardboard and plastic package with the barcode, or directly imprint them.

For a nice looking pencil, the retailer’s step forward is the purchaser’s step backward. A pencil just doesn’t need a barcode. For some, using this simple and useful writing implement is a step away from rampant digitization. In any case, I think classic pencil finishes like Faber-Castell’s forest green, Staedtler’s blue, and Towbow’s glosssy black have been diminished by the addition of barcodes.

There does seem to be an innovative workaround. Caran d’Ache places a small perforated plastic wrapper around the pencil’s tip. The wrapper has the scannable barcode imprinted. After purchase, you remove the small wrapper, and you have a clean looking pencil. Well done!

The Caran d'Ache pencil's barcode is removable.

Grade on cap
The caps of pencils may have an eraser, be unfinished, or as with most premium pencils, be eraserless with a finished cap. For pencils that might be offered in many grades, I like the imprinting of the grade on the cap. It really makes it easy to find the right pencil for a task. Maybe it would detract from a high-end pencil, but it seems like a good idea based on the few I have seen.
The pencil grade .

Natural Finish Pencils.

Naturalk Finish Pencils
The first natural finish woodcase pencil I saw or used was the Blackfeet Indian Pencil. By “natural finish”, I don’t mean unfinished, but rather a pencil with a clear or almost clear varnish that shows the natural grain of the pencil’s wood.

The Blackfeet is no longer made, and wasn’t widely available even at the height of it’s production. It was the first pencil I wrote about on this blog, and clearly has a following. Today, there is only one (which is more than zero) natural finish pencil I can buy locally – the Papermate Canadiana. That’s not a completely accurate statement if I include carpenter pencils. But, for general purpose writing, the Canadiana is alone.

Thanks to the wonders of the ‘net, I have been able to acquire a few more.

The Musgrave (by Musgrave) was unknown to me until offered on pencilthings.com. The first thing I thought was that is was a really traditional style pencil. The pencil is wider than most modern pencils, and most noticeably, the edges of the hexagonal shaped case are sharp – not rounded. It feels quite substantial in the hand relative to most pencils – the larger circumferance and the feel of the edges make it unique.

The lead is quite dark for a pencil marked as an HB. The finish is a highly varnished, shiny clear finish, with gold markings. The ferrule is gold and maroon, and the eraser white.

The California Republic Prospector has the roughest finish and worst looks of these pencils. I have several of them, and can see that there is little attempt to hide flaws in the wood. The varnish is thin and the pencil is rough and slightly uncomfortable to the hand. As a writer, the lead is a bit scratchy, though not bad. The gold lettering and ferrule don’t seem to work as design elements.

The Forest Choice is a Thai pencil. The almost-URL printed on one side makes it appear as an advertising item (which I suppose it is in some ways, except it wasn’t a freebie at a conference.) It’s sharp looking, with black stamping, an unshiny finish, and a green ferrule and pink eraser. It’s also a nice writer, with a dark smooth lead. The finish is very slick – it looks quite polished, yet doesn’t aim for the varnished looks of the other pencils. The finishing method must have been a bit different.

To see how these offerings compare with my old standy, the Blackfeet, I sharpened one up. A No. 2, it’s not as dark as the other pencils. It writes very well – it’s a really nice, special pencil. The lettering, the dark woodgrain, the history – I wish I had a few more.
Ferrule of Natural Finish Pencils
To me, there’s zero doubt about the best of these pencils. I love the Blackfeet, but the Musgrave writes so well, looks so sharp, and stands out so much that it’s a must have. Of couse, if you see a box of Blackfeet at a garage sale, don’t pass them up either.

Reporter Pencils

Eagle Reporter Pencil

The Eagle Reporter is a pencil aimed at professional stenographers and reporters. Though the Reporter is no longer made, the tradition continues with modern pencils like the Faber-Castell 9008, a round version of the 9000 aimed at stenographers.

The pencils are a shiny aqua-blue and are marked:”Made in U.S.A. Eagle “Chemi-Sealed” Reporter 300″.

The box has a four paragraph writeup on the pencils, which begins “Stenographers and Reporters have long approved the thin diameter and special lead of these superb pencils.” Two Eagle pencil patents are mentioned.

Apart from artists and carpenters, do any other professions today have pencils made for them? I can’t think of any. There are special pencils for marking film, x-rays and other surfaces, but they’re not graphite writing pencils.

Let’s get to a distinguishing feature: They were sold pre-sharpened at both ends. A very practical response to the need to sharpen the point, that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It does make the pencil quite pocket-unfriendly though. Only slightly less obvious is how thin these pencils are. Vintage woodcase pencils are generally thicker than modern pencils, but these are the opposite. The leads appear greyer than any modern graphite core – more about this later.

As a writer, the pencil puts down a nice dark line which seems unexpected from the delicate looking pencil. The core does seem very strong and can take all the pressure I would want to give a pencil.

The patents seemed like an interesting aspect of the pencil. Luckily, I’ve found that the U.S. patent office is online and searchable.

I looked them up and was delighted – they’re not written in legal gibberish, are quite readable and brief, and have some excellent drawings.
Figure 2 from U.S. Patent 1,854,905
The first patent is 1,854,905, Pencil and Method of Making Pencils by Charles Kaiser, Sr., filed November 25, 1929. The essential idea is strengthening the pencil casing by varnishing the pencil slats with copal. I had never previously heard of copal. It is a tree resin with a significant cultural history. There is an interesting paper on copal here. The terminology is different than today – a pencil casing is called a “sheath”, and a slat is called a “blank”.

The second patent is 1,892,508, Lead Pencil and Method of Making the Same by Narciso Gonzalez, filed March 27, 1931. The patent mentions that pencil leads typically contain tallow or stearic acid, and are thus greasy. This in turn intereferes with glue used to bind the lead to the pencil case. The problem is solved by first dipping the lead in sulphuric acid, washing it with water, then a second exposure is given, this time to diluted sulphuric acid, while a salt solution is applied. The glue then has a much easier time bonding to the lead.

Tallow being a pencil lead ingredient is news to me. I have no idea how widespread these techniques were in the industry when the Reporter was on the market, or if they’re still around today, but these patents demonstrate some of the research that has gone into making these everyday items so functional.

Nava Pencils: Quality and Style

Nava Pencils
I’m quite pleased to be able to report on a first rate pencil discovery!

Sometimes writing instruments present us with choices between form and function: something that writes well, but doesn’t meet our aesthetic standards. I don’t think this is a major issue for pen users – high price points can be realized for fountain, rollerball, and ballpoint pens, which means that pen manufacturers are able to attract significant design resources and talent. But for the woodcase pencil, who apart from Faber-Castell seriously invests in design?

The answer is Nava. They are an Italian brand known for leather journals and briefcases. I recently discovered that they make pencils – and what pencils they are!

Beautiful round pencils, in finishes called Nero, Anthracite, Silver, and Bianco. They all have a small silver Nava logo, an orange band, and the top of the pencil is black. The lacquer is very nice – a refined slightly matted finish rather than super smooth, and very nice to handle. The wood (I think cedar) is dyed black. They are really eye catching. The Nero (black) pencil in particular with the dyed wood just looks spectacular, though they all look great. They perfectly match black notebooks like Moleskine.
Nava Pencils
Now here’s the thing – I really doubted these pencils were anything more than a fashion-type product – but I was wrong – they are absolutely first rate. The lead (unidentified grade) is rich and lays down a nice line in what might be a B or perhaps a 2B in other lines. They are as good as the best pencils that we are familiar with.

They also just “look like pencils”, if that makes sense. No bright colours, no extras – just the basics, done very, very well. They truly have achieved elegance through understatement.

Nava probably doesn’t make the pencils – they’re not a known manufacturer, so the task was likely outsourced – but unlike 99% (maybe more) of those who start a pencil line, they clearly didn’t say “get us the cheapest” – they said “get us the best”. I think they succeeded, whoever the manufacturer was. Bravo.

3.15mm mechanical pencils

3.15mm mechanical pencils
Photo, top to bottom:Lamy ABC, Lamy Scribble, Bexley Mini-Max, Pilot Croquis, on a Seligmann notebook.

The aspect of mechanical pencils that so many love is the one I don’t – the thin lead. Although a 0.7mm or 0.5 mm diameter lead may be ultra-precise, it’s also quite breakable. It’s doesn’t allow for much variation in line width, and the possibility of breakage (with a very tiny piece of graphite hurtling to places unknown) forces one to hold the pencil a bit too consciously.

There is hope! Though they don’t seem to have swept the world, mechanial pencils and leadholders with much wider leads are available. I’ll mention four of them, including one that has a very accessible price.

I’ve previously mentioned the Lamy ABC – it’s a nice pencil, and has a twist mechanism for advancing the lead. It also comes with a very nice cube shaped lead pointer. It’s aimed at children, so the bright colors may not be for everyone.

The Lamy Scribble uses the more conventional clutch mechanism (think “jaws”), which means you do the work in advancing the lead, though it isn’t difficult. It’s a down to business solid black in a material I had always thought metal, though it’s apparently a very dense plastic. Unlike the ballpoint and regular mechanical pencil in the Scribble line, the 3.15mm version has three sides partially flattened, presumably to enhance the grip.

The Bexley Mini-Max followed the success of their Multi-Max, a pencil using the even wider 5.6mm lead. (I love those also, but that’s another post). The Mini-Max is a 3.15mm pencil, also using a clutch like the Scribble. Bexley is a serious fountain pen company, and they released the Mini-Max in several finishes. It sells in a metal box that includes several goodies: a KUM lead pointer with a container (this looks like a standard pencil sharpener unless you’re quite close, and will also sharpen 5.6mm leads), a tube of graphite leads (maybe a B grade), a tube of coloured leads, and a real surprise – two ballpoint pen inserts that the clutch mechanism will take to covert the pencil to a pen. It’s quite a nice set. These ballpoints can be purchased for use in other clutch 3.15mm pencils like the Scribble.

Now for anyone who wants to try this format of pencil for much less than the previously mentioned pencils, there is a nice inexpensive wide lead pencil sold at art stores. The Pilot Croquis has a twist advance mechanism, and a black plastic body with a triangular grip. The one drawback I see is that the lead isn’t a standard 3.15mm – it is just a tad larger, so you’ll have to get the Pilot refills.

California Republic Palomino

California Republic Palomino
Being quite a pencil aficionado (a.k.a. leadhead) myself, I really looked forward to trying this pencil. I had read quite a few blog entries about how excellent it was. Alas, getting some in Canada was quite a chore. Initial email to Cal Cedar went unanswered, but I didn’t give up and tried their Ebay webform, which provided the necessary contact.

For me, there was a big surprise about these pencils, whose plastic box uses the phrase “American ingenuity” and whose name and marketing invoke the name of California. I had also read about international pencil dumping issues on the excellent Timbelines blog. The surprise for me was that they don’t say “Made in U.S.A.” or any other country of origin on the pencil. Some further web browsing indicated that the pencils are made in Japan. But the phrase “Pan-Pacific ingenuity” may not read as well.

They are packaged in a clear plastic box. I think Cal Cedar should consider either a tin or wooden box as an option. There were dozens of Faber-Castell centennial tins at a local store a few weeks ago – they are all gone now (late January), and I have no idea who around here (other than me) spends so much on pencils – but many people clearly do.

The pencils were coated in graphite dust when I took them out of the plastic. I’ve never seen that before, even with the cheapest pencils, though it was a minor issue. Unpackaged, the first thing I noticed is how the web photos I’d seen hadn’t conveyed the colour, which isn’t exactly red – more a light reddish orange, though not dark like a “blood orange”. The finish is nicely lacquered, richer than most pencils and similar to a Staedtler Mars Lumograph (though I fear the new Staedtlers with the silver markings already represent a diminution of their previous outstanding level of quality).

As a writing implement, I think I finally found the source of the praise – it’s the lead! While different manufacturers may have different grade interpretations, the Palomino is degrees darker – at the same level of hardness. By this I mean an HB seems like a typical 3B, but isn’t as soft and doesn’t need the constant sharpening of a 3B. The only downside I can think of is that some may find these pencils too dark in comparison to their expectations of pencils at specific grades.

I tried side by side comparisons with other pencils, and the Palomino HB is easily the darkest. It’s probably as dark as a 2B or 3B Staedtler. It’s also a smooth writer, and the lead is strong, so overall, it’s an excellent pencil.