Conté Evolution Wood-Free Pencil

The Conté Evolution Pencil.
Photo: The Conté Evolution on another plastic object – a Rite in the Rain notebook.

This is a review of a type of pencil I hadn’t heard of until recently. Woodchuck has mentioned that there are pencil manufacturers who have rejected wood for pencil casings. Rather, they use a synthetic casing, or perhaps recycled denim.

There aren’t really that many new things in the world of pencils, and this seemed like it might be one.

Finding them wasn’t easy, and I wound up ordering a box from the U.K.

The cardboard box is quite different – a cartoon of a purple alien chewing on a pencil. There are also photos of the pencil on three sides of the box. I like this. It’s like a jam jar with a photo of a plump raspberry – there’s no doubt what’s inside.

The back of the box says:

Wood-free pencil. Stronger lead.
No splintering (synthetic lead resin).

The packaging looks like it might belong in an office supply store, targeting the same consumers as Dixon. It does look a step up from a no-name pencil. I also see the “BIC” logo – I had no idea Conté was part of this conglomerate. I had recently associated the firm with art supplies.

The pencils are a dark turquoise green, with gold stamping:

evolution 650 France HB/no2 Conté

They look – to my surprise – like pencils, and the synthetic resin looks like wood from all but the closest view. What is odd is the lead – or whatever it is. It’s shiny – sparkly shiny, and doesn’t look like any lead I’ve ever seen.

After several pages of writing, I notice that the lead seems remarkably durable, and quite smudge proof. (I had been using a Palomino earlier today, which both smudges and needs regular sharpening.) Anyhow, although it didn’t need it, curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to see how it would sharpen. It’s unusual – as if slicing a film of plastic. There is indeed no splintering, and one could likely sharpen away the whole pencil in one exhausting bout into a single elongated shaving.

Sharpening also revealed an important attribute – a noxious chemical aroma was released that stayed around for at least an hour. Some cedar pencils have a pleasant aroma – but these are definitely the opposite. It made writing quite unpleasant.

One plus – the pencils are quite flexible, much more than their woodcase brethren.

So is the “Evolution” an evolution? They have some merits as writing implements, particularly the lead. But so do many woodcase pencils. Their flexibility and break resistance might make them good for travel. In the end, I don’t like the idea of breathing in whatever it is they produce when sharpened, and I’m suspicious of the unidentified materials used to manufacture them.

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.

Moleskine memo-pockets: useless?

Moleskine Memo Pockets: Useless?
Is the memo-pockets the most useless Moleskine variant?

One of the charms of the Moleskine notebook is the useful backpocket. So why not add even more pockets? Why not go even further and remove the paper, and offer a Moleskine with nothing but pockets? Well, this has actually been done.

What one gets is the world’s most expensive unusable accordion folder. I bought the small version two years ago. My intended use was to help organize a trip. But even in 2003, most tickets and receipts were much too large for the Moleskine pocket. There are only six pockets, so what can be done with them? The pockets are not labelled, and it would probably be quite hard to do so, due to the need to fold everything back into the cool Moleskine form factor.

My fault I thought – I need the large model. Wait – it’s still too small for train tickets, hotel receipts, and most documents that I’d want to put in there.

So – what can be done with them? Any ideas?

Musgrave Unigraph

Musgrave Unigraph 1200

The Musgrave Pencil Co. has a solid history in the pencil industry, though their website indicates no products other than novelties. It appears the general use writing and drawing pencil is on the decline compared to advertising and novelty pencils.

It was a surprise to see some of their pencils at a small bookstore this week. And by “some”, I mean hundreds and hundreds! The pencils caught my eye right away. Many pencils don’t state a country of origin, let alone anything more specific. These state:

Musgrave Pencil Co.
Shelbyville, Tenn.

The name is “Unigraph” and the model is “1200 Drawing”. Alas, of the hundreds of pencils I saw, all were H hardness. The staff told me that was all they had.

The pencil has a dark forest green varnish, and a pink eraser attached with a gold ferrule with red band. The stamping is gold in colour.

The pencil sharpened easily and writes quite nicely. I don’t have too many H pencils on hand, but it seems a tad darker than a Staedtler Mars H, for example. The lead is quite strong, as one would expect in a higher quality pencil.

I liked the pencil’s association with it’s origin, and can definitely recommend the Unigraph as a good pencil, though I’d really love to try a version with a darker lead.

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.