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.

Pencil extenders – not a gimmick!

Two pencil extenders at work.

Pictured above are two pencil extenders (and a new pencil for comparison). They are devices that give a second career to pencils that might otherwise be approaching retirement. Pencils can last quite a while, so the ones that have been used until they turn into stubs are probably the really good ones – the ones we most often choose for our writing or drawing tasks. These extenders can allow a pencil to be used even when many sharpenings have made that pencil no longer comfortable or practical to be held in one’s hand.

Above are a No. 1098 N Koh-I-Noor, and a Cretacolor extender, with a new Cretacolor pencil for comparison.

I found them both at art stores. They are quite comfortable and simple to use. The pencil stub is placed in the opening, and a clamping ring moved to secure the pencil. With certain pencils being hard to replace or expensive (e.g. artist’s pencil crayons), one or two of these extenders could certainly be a good investment.

Blackfeet Indian Pencils

The classic Blackfeet Indian Pencil.
The Blackfeet Indian Pencil is a unique creation. It is a quality pencil that has a varnished natural wood encasing that was years ahead of others in recognizing that the natural beauty of wood grain could be embraced by the public, if presented properly. The varnish is thick and polished – it doesn’t look like (and isn’t) something one would find at a generic office supply store.

The original had black imprinting with a small horse and rider logo, and the words “THE BLACKFEET INDIAN PENCIL” and the digit 2 for the lead hardness. There is a silver ferrule and light pink eraser. It writes nicely and the lead doesn’t crumble or splinter. A later version had a black ferrule and dark pink eraser. Unfortunately, this later version doesn’t maintain the quality of the classic version – the varnish is thinner, making the pencil less pleasant to hold, and the black ferrule doesn’t match the pencil as well, and can distract the eye.

The pencils were made in Browning, Montana by the Blackfeet Indian Writing Company as part of a tribal owned economic initiative. I gather up to a hundred people may have been employed at the company’s peak, but it sadly appears to have been dormant the last few years.