Pencils in Canada

July 1st was Canada Day, and a special one – the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation. I’ve long wanted to write an article about pencils in Canada. Unfortunately, information is scarce, and after many years editing and writing this blog, I remain knowing very little. Still, perhaps there is a detail that might be of interest to readers, and perhaps you may have something to share!

19th Century

Formal graphite mining in Canada probably started at the Miller or Keystone mine in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge (also known as Grenville), Quebec. The exact date may not be certain. The very informative Quebec Mines Bulletin cites 1845. Mining site suggests pre-1845, probably 1837 or 1838 and cites the Bulletin on Graphite, Mineral Resources of Canada, Ells, R. W. (1904).

This mine is still in existance in 2017!

I think this mine had a famous customer. Henry Petroski’s The Pencil mentions that Thoreau used Canadian graphite. His reference is to The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, Walter Harding.

In a passage on the Thoreau pencil business in the 1830s, Harding mentions that after the Bristol and Tudor mines were exhausted:

And when that mine eventually closed, they turned to importing graphite from Canada.

John Thoreau must have used the Miller mine in Grenville as a graphite source.

(Did you know that Henry Thoreau visited Montreal and Quebec City as a tourist in 1850? There is a description (French language) of the trip in the essay Le voyage d’Henry David Thoreau au Canada en 1850 by George Gauthier-Larouche.)

20th Century

Petroski mentions that three US manufacturers all opened Canadian factories in 1932. Why the same year? I can only speculate that whoever was first spurred quick competition.

Dixon opened in the Toronto suburb of Newmarket. There is a Dixon Plaza named after the company, and they still have a small office in the locale.

Do you like the Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood pencil’s local nature? Dixon once made a similar Canadian pencil, the Chancellor, with Canadian wood, graphite, and manufacture. Heather at A Penchant for Paper owns one! I’d love to see one, but they seem to be exceedingly rare today.

Eberhard Faber located in Drummondville, Quebec.

Venus Pencil was in west end Toronto. I’m not honestly sure if it dates to 1932. There is a discount eyeglass company on the site now. Venus is know to Canadians for the Laurentien pencil crayon.

A blog reader told me one of the eonomic diversification projects that former Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood championed was a pencil factory. Is this true? I would love to see a Newfoundland pencil!

And two resource notes: Petroski mentions that Canadian graphite again came to the rescue during WWII when other sources were unavailable. Staedtler have mentioned (with little detail) using Canadian cedar.

21st Century

CNP Industries – this was apparently a short-lived Quebec pencil company. Have you heard of it?

Northern Pencils A briefly alive slat supplier?

Can any readers share more about pencils in Canada?

Lexikaliker is ten!

This week marks an amazing internet anniversary – the information rich pencil (and “disordered everyday occurrences”) blog Lexikaliker is ten years old! Congratulations!

Faber-Castell Polygrade pencils

As noted in this post at Lexikaliker, pencil industry leader Faber-Castell has issued a special set of pencils to honour the 200th birthday of Lothar von Faber. (An English language version of the product website is here).

To anyone interested in the history of pencils, this is super exciting!

This blog, nine years ago, was thinking ahead about tribute pencils for Faber-Castell’s 250th anniversary in 2011. Some good suggestions are in the comments.

This is what Faber-Castell produced. Beautiful. Every business must look forward, but I’d also hoped for a look back at their magnificent history.

Later than we hoped for, is this great set. The photos suggest it is very pleasing. Unfortunately, it is only available in Germany. I hope Faber-Castell will recognize the irony – Lothar von Faber created great success though approaching international markets. I hope this pencil set will become available internationally.

I also hope for the chance to contrast this set with the the original (a privilege to own).

Dave’s Mechanical Pencils, ZossPens, Pencil Pages

A few notes about some major online stationery presences:

Dave’s Mechanical Pencils appears offline. I’m not sure if this is a Google policy at work or David’s action, but it is sad to see it gone. It was the major English language mechanical pencil website for many years. There’s a small bit of Dave here, half of a joint blog post we did in 2009.

The Zoss Pens Listserv has announced the end. If you recall using Netscape or Mosaic – this list dates back to then. The list prided itself on being the most learned and thoughtful place to share fountain pen knowledge.

The Pencil Pages website is 21 years old! Congratulations Doug! The website used to have a “Buy/Sell” forum – it was the first online discussion of woodcase pencils that I became aware of.

I hope we can appreciate these efforts – each one involved a significant effort, and was shared freely with the world. Let’s carry on doing that, keeping conversations open and accessible.

Graf von Faber-Castell No. V Pocket Pencils

In the period that this blog was inactive, Faber-Castell introduced two fantastic additions to their Perfect Pencil line – first, a No. V refill in grey guilloche, and later, a beautiful midnight blue edition.

They were quick additions to my daily arsenal – in fact they seem like the same quality as the fluted pencils, but in a more casual yet elegant design. The leads may be just a bit darker – a reaction to customer feedback?

Graf von Faber-Castell No. V Pocket Pencils

The refinement!

Graf von Faber-Castell No. V Pocket Pencils

They are fantastic, amazing pencils. Is there a competitor at this level?

Graf von Faber-Castell No. V Pocket Pencils

Related Posts:

Graf von Faber-Castell Guilloche pencils

Faber-Castell – 21st century pencil manufacturer

Pencil Review: Muji

Muji Pencil

It has been a long while since the last pencil review at this blog. For many of us, it has probably become easier to buy pencils via mail order from either specialty stores or large ecommerce sites. But buying in person (locales such as Tokyo and NYC excepted) is not getting easier – digitization has been moving the office supply store to the same economic situation as the bookstore. And the big box stationers didn’t typically stock much apart from pencils competing for the lowest price.

But there are still other distribution channels, including emerging retailers like Muji. I’m excited to write about this pencil because Muji has stores in over twenty-five countries, and is very well known for stationery. Further, I’ve never seen this pencil reviewed online. It was featured at Bleistift, but as you can read, Matthias declined to buy it.

A couple of further notes – the pencil is not marked Muji (which is completely consistent with Muji’s “no-brand” aesthetic) but it is not the only Muji pencil I’ve seen. I’m fairly conversant with the brand as I temporarily lived in a hotel above the San Jose Muji for some weeks, and I’ve purchased items from just about every department of their store. The pencils we’re looking at today were purchased at a Toronto Muji, and are made in Japan. I found a lot of “Made in Japan” items there. This may seem natural, but almost everything (including pencils) in the San Jose store was made in China.

In terms of stationery – the San Jose store has multiple aisles of gel pens and paper products. The Toronto store is much smaller, with an island display devoted to pens and such. There are things I love, such as to-do pads with clear vinyl covers, transit pass holders, and all sorts of clear folders that I’ve used extensively during travel. The notebooks and journals look great – but are budget quality. Maybe we’ll take a closer look another day – but let’s start with the pencil.

One last thing – the product prices are marked in Japanese Yen. The markup to Canadian Dollars is about 23% in general – but the package of pencils is marked 150 Yen, but sold for five Canadian Dollars – a 274% markup! For comparison, this price per pencil is about one third the local price of a Staedtler Mars Lumograph.

Muji Pencil

We’ll also look at two Muji erasers.

Name: Muji

Full name and model no: Muji pencil

The Muji item number seems to be: 0120-14-6404

Manufacturer: Unknown, but the packaging states “Made in Japan”.

Background: See above.

Weight: I’m not in current possession of a scale. I’ll update this post when I get one.

Dimensions: Rounded hexagon with unfinished cap. Standard (~175mm) length. The width side to side in 7.1mm.

Appearance: The pencils are hexagonal and unsharpened. The cap is not finished. The pencil surface is a clear lacquer. The only imprint is the pencil grade, “2B”. This finish is consistent with other Muji products – basic, unbranded.

The pencil is marked:


Other notes: The minimalism of the pencil is fine with me, but I would not mind a bit more visual identity.

Grip: I found the lacquer to make the pencil a bit slippery, something most noticeable when sharpening.

Sharpening: I tried the excellent Möbius + Ruppert Pollux. The lead broke in the sharpener. I tried again, and again, and again. Same results. So I tried a different pencil – and had the same issue. I momentarily feared that these are just terrible pencils, but I tried the Möbius + Ruppert Grenade, and all was well. The Muji just doesn’t work with the Pollux. The pencils also sharpened very nicely in the El Casco M-430.

Muji Pencil
Muji Pencil
Muji Pencil

The wood appears to look and smell like cedar.

Writing: I chose three different paper types to test. As I write this, I know I should have also chosen some Muji paper to test – but I have never warmed to it, and just don’t use it much. I did pick an Ito Bindery Drawing Pad, Exacompta Index Cards, a Mnemosyne notepad, and a Doane Paper Moon Camera notebook. The Ito Bindery product is fantastic – it also has a Muji like minimalism, but is much higher quality and better executed – a real “less is better” product. The Doane Paper journal is another favorite – I am not tired of the blue ‘+’ signs.

On Ito Bindery (whose paper takes washes on Graphitint pencils and fountain pens), the lead seemed very dark, compacting and soft, and there was a lot of stray graphite dust. It did better on the index card and especially on Mnemosyne. The Doane may have been in between.

I also tried a Tombow Mono 2B as a comparison. Wow, after a while with the Muji, the Mono seemed like a Faber-Castell Castell 9000 in grade F by comparison. The Muji is a very dark pencil. The only grade, 2B, is more like a 4B as other manufacturers would grade it.

This is also a pencil whose point seemed to commence wearing down immediately.

The El Casco sharpened pencil seemed much more usable to me in terms of not wearing down. Perhaps there is something about the angle of the graphite cut contributing to the structural stability.

In some ways, the Muji is possibly more of a drawing pencil than a writing pencil.

Erasure: The Toronto Muji store had a delightful surprise for me that I wasn’t expecting – a paper wrapped eraser! This is a historical style that I love. Blaisdell received a patent in 1895 for this technique. I think it would be extremely successful if more widely available – pencil users love these little rituals, and removing the paper wrapper is a lot of fun! I know of Hinodewashi making a similar product. Are there others?

I also bought a regular vinyl block eraser.

Muji Pencil
Muji Pencil

A Staedtler Mars plastic block served as a benchmark. Erasure was best on the Exacompta, and bad on the other papers (worst on the Ito). The Mars also smeared the Ito quite badly.

Muji Pencil

The erasers are okay to good (as are most modern erasers from Japan) and the paper-wrapped one is a gem! But the Muji pencil is not in general made for pencil who need erasure capabilities. The lead is too dark and adherent to paper.

Muji Pencil

Overall: The Muji pencil is attractive and the price not outrageous for a Japanese made pencil. It does well in some circumstances – an El Casco style point (acute, concave, blunt) does very well on Mnemosyne paper, for example. But the noted sharpening and erasure characteristics make it unsuitable as a general purpose pencil.

I’m disappointed. I was hoping this pencil was going to be better. But I did discover a paper wrapped eraser!