California Cedar: What’s going on?

42 comments

California Cedar, a global pencil slat business, is known online for their pencils.com website, their Palomino pencil line, and now – a type of marketing dishonesty that completely shocks many of us who have admired them for years.

The company has introduced a “Blackwing 602” pencil that takes the name of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil. The new pencil has been marketed with claims of association with Frank Lloyd Wright, Duke Ellington, and John Lennon. Each of these claims has been demolished, in succession, at Orange Crate Art and Blackwing Pages.

There are many historical figures who used the Eberhard Faber Blackwing – Sean has painstakingly researched and documented this over at Blackwing Pages for years now. Claiming the usage by these people as an endorsement of the replica pencil is somewhere between questionable and outrageous (and others would find that statement mild). But fabricating stories about Frank Lloyd Wright, Duke Ellington and John Lennon using (or even favoring) the Blackwing pencil is unbelievable, and I don’t follow or understand.

And that’s just the beginning. Each of these marketing deceits (except for Lennon, as I write this) was withdrawn after being revealed and challenged. It is a sort of “Liar Whac-A-Mole”. New nonsense sprouts up when the old nonsense is debunked.

Even further, this global company seems to have taken their marketing lessons from the Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy movie Bowfinger. To quote the IMDb synopsis, “When a desperate movie producer fails to get a major star for his bargain basement film, he decides to shoot the film secretly around him.” Many of the claims about famous writers, musicians, and artists using the Blackwing are clearly lifted without credit from the Blackwing Pages.

So, California Cedar, what’s going on?

Further reading:

Blackwing Pages

Blackwing posts at Orange Crate Art

Palomino Blackwing pencil

86 comments

Palomino Blackwing pencil

In July 2009, pencil aficionado extraordinaire Adair commented at this blog, “I wish that the visionary leader at Palomino would buy the rights to the Blackwing and come out with a contemporary version of it.”

Out of curiosity, I took a look at the US Patent and Trademark website, and saw that CalCeder had applied to register the expired Blackwing trademark. I replied: “Sanford has let the Blackwing trademark expire (it was registered by Eberhard Faber in 1934) – and CalCedar has applied for the name – though they don’t yet have the registration. There may in fact soon be a CalCedar Blackwing!”

Palomino Blackwing pencil

The cat was out of the bag. A subsequent email conversation with CalCedar revealed that this observation regarding the trademark was correct, and that it had become an idea in motion, with CalCedar contemplating the release of a new Blackwing!

For those not familiar with CalCedar, they are a major firm in the pencil industry infrastructure, harvesting cedar logs in California and Oregon, and processing the logs into pencil slats at their factory in Tianjin, China. They also process and sell Basswood slats.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

The Blackwing, if you are reading this post, may need even less introduction. Please see pencil talk‘s review, and especially, the amazing Blackwing Pages. I appreciate some recent links to the pencil talk review, particularly from Mark Frauenfelder at BoingBoing and Jenny Larew at The Blackwing Diaries. I especially appreciate Jenny’s link as her November 2005 post on the origin of her blog’s title (and I’ll note, that was the same month I started this blog) was, along with Henry Petroski’s The Pencil and a 2002 Boston Globe article, one of the major sources of fuel for the ongoing excitement over this pencil.

Fast forward to the present, and we have CalCedar announcing the release of a pre-production pencil to a limited audience, with reactions solicited.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

(Let me step aside from the review and say congratulations. Well done, Charles and company! Introducing a pencil in 2010 can not be easy, and we wish you well!)

There are always challenges with remakes, tributes, and reinterpretations. Did you see the recent US version of The Prisoner? Have you ever heard a bad tribute band? We hope this pencil will be a moment of triumph rather than a parody.

In many tests that I’ve participated in – alpha, beta, and undesignated – of various “hi-tech” products, the tester typically has a good idea of the product’s aims/goals/features, and possibly even support materials such as manuals, detailed specifications, and release notes regarding the object of testing.

Here, all we know is that the pencil is “pre-production”. So what does that mean? Unfortunately, not much.

My approach is to take two courses of evaluation – first, evaluate this pencil in comparison to the original, and second, to consider it as an evolved or next generation Blackwing. Both goals may have merit, though I doubt whether it would be possible to satisfactorily recreate a long defunct pencil. Equipment, wood sources, graphite core sources, paints, lacquers, glues and other materials have all changed over time. Paper as well. Further, I don’t think CalCedar has purchased any intellectual property such as formulae or machine specifications from Sanford.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

I’ll also speculate, partly based on a questionnaire that accompanied the samples, that the pencil is basically finished, with only the exterior – final paint choices, packaging, and pricing – to be determined.

I’m also curious about the real magnitude of the Blackwing appeal. As regularly noted, the pencil failed in 1998. Word processing and software animation programs were already dominant then. In 2010, what will be the audience?

So on with the review!

Dimensions

While a sample original pencil weighed 5.3 grams, a new one is 6.5 grams. Hold on! This is a major surprise! This sample of one may not mean that much, as the wood in pencils can vary from specimen to specimen. Yet at about 20% heavier – I am wondering about what’s going on.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

The size of the pencil is perhaps even more of a surprise – while the overall trend is for pencils to get narrower (cost savings from getting more pencils per slat), the new pencil is wider than the original! Just slightly – 7.25mm vs. 6.85mm measured side to opposite side – yet how interesting! It bodes well for the Palomino Blackwing to assume more traditional pencil proportions.

Appearance

Finish

The paint is matte black, rather like high end pencils from Pentel, Ohto, and Kita-Boshi. That is nice enough for aficionados, though I am worried that it will not succeed in the US market, accustomed to gloss finishes.

Lettering

The lettering is in gold, and simply shows the Palomino logo with the words “Palomino” and “Blackwing”. “Palomino” is in the style of the Palomino pencil, while “Blackwing” seems derived from the original. See the review at Orange Crate Art for a great discussion of the design, as well as the pencil as a whole.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

There are also gold flecks all over the pencil, even on the opposite side of the pencil from the lettering.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

This is the one aspect of this “pre-production” pencil that seems completely unacceptable for a product that aims to be in the top echelon. It looks like an amateur effort, and is poorly executed. Whether the aim is retro or modern, CalCedar need to engage the services of a professional graphic designer and employ the highest quality production techniques. (I’m sure some people reading this post would be capable!) Take a look at some of the designs coming from Faber-Castell or the top Japanese firms. The Blackwing needs to be in this company.

What may be equally important to some is that the original slogan, “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”, is absent.

Ferrule

The unique ferrule was part of the original’s essence, and is recreated in the new version. The newer version has a shinier surface, less of the bronze hue, and doesn’t show the crimp points of the original – i.e. it must be affixed by a continuous clamp process.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

Eraser

Palomino Blackwing pencil

The eraser is white. Huh? Okay, this suggests that the pencil is the “Blackwing 2” rather than the “Blackwing 603”. Either could be fine, but the design needs to be clear. A modern vinyl eraser is a great idea, but the white/black/gold combination seems a bit off – how about a black eraser? I cut a trial piece to test:

Palomino Blackwing pencil

What do you think?

Writing

Darkness

The Palomino Blackwing lays down an exceptionally dark line. The challenge of pencil making is that as the graphite to clay ratio increases, the stability decreases. A 10B pencil, beautiful as the marks are, is extremely soft and decomposes quickly.

Apart from quick wear in a general sense, a specific issue with darker leads is crumbling. This is basic reason the regular Palomino isn’t considered to be as good as the top two Japanese pencils – the Palomino crumbles much more than the Hi-Uni and Mono 100.

Luminescence

Just as light bulbs emit heat as well as light, pencils emit luminescent, shiny markings apart from their dark markings.

On Strathmore 400 Series 218gsm black paper, I can’t say that I discerned any difference versus other pencils. Not that they didn’t exist, but if so, the difference was in degrees rather than magnitudes.

Smoothness

I have described the original Blackwing as beyond smooth, veering into being “slippery”. The Palomino Blackwing is less so. For me, that is fine and good. But I’m wondering if those hoping for a recreation of the original will be disappointed. It is still plenty smooth, the best in the business.

Keeping a point (wear)

Pencil aficionado Robert (of Taiwan), who has made many online contributions here and elsewhere, and who has sent me some very nice pencils including the Ohto 9000, has mentioned this aspect of pencils a few times.

Alas, an acute point does easily snap after being sharpened, and the point does rapidly wear down with use. This is a core aspect of the pencil that I doubt will change. If this is the premiere evaluation criterium for anyone, pencils from Faber-Castell, Tombow, or others may better suited.

Fastness

On a fantastic white coated paper like Clairefontaine, the Palomino Blackwing is a smear monster! Seriously, it exemplifies what some people hate about pencils in a way I’ve rarely witnesed. The marks become like finger paint. I don’t know why, but presumably something in the formula repels something in the Clairefontaine paper’s coating.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

That is too bad, as I love using the great products from Clairefontaine and Rhodia with pencil. This result won’t stop me, but I’ll be more cautious.

On more fibrous paper. there is again some smearning, but at a more acceptable level.

Tests on Paper

I’ve tried the Blackwing on newsprint, office copy paper, and on looseleaf Clairefontaine paper, and cream coloured papers in typical Moleskine, Leuchtturm, Canteo, etc. journals.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

Crossword puzzle devotees may enjoy the dark lines of the Blackwing. Office copy paper is tuned for the high speed laser printer, but does well.

On the thicker cream coloured journal papers (Canteo in particular), the line was superb. It was also excellent on other such papers. As noted, coated papers produced more smearing, though the pencil lines still looked excellent. And looseleaf Clairefontaine paper fared a bit better than Clairefontaine journals for reasons unknown.

Basically, the Blackwing works with everything, and especially excels with thicker cream coloured paper.

Writing (Overall)

The Palomino Blackwing is excellent for cursive writing and note taking on many paper types. It is not the best for small mathematical notations or any task requiring a sharp point.

Other considerations

Aroma

Probably due to being fresh out of a factory, the pencils have a strong paint or chemical aroma. I’ll assume production pencils won’t have this issue.

Sharpening

Cedar typically sharpens well, and the Blackwing Palomino was no exception. CalCedar sent only two pencils, so the testing possibilities are limited here.

Erasability

Another downside to dark rich lines is that they are harder to erase. There is no exception here. The pencil’s own eraser, and other erasers such as the top tier Pilot Foam only do a so-so job on the Blackwing’s lines.


I’d like to thank CalCedar for the pencil samples.

I said there were two courses of evaluation for this product. After using the prototype, I see the Palomino Blackwing as being too different from the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 in appearance and graphite function to be considered a clone or reissue. Rather, it is a modern interpretation – and a very fine one indeed.

[Update: September 15, 2010]

I feel uncomfortable about having inadvertently misled the readers of this blog about just what was being reviewed in this post.

A statement from CalCedar confirms that these are not “pre-production” pencils at all – they are in every sense “production” pencils that will soon be for sale. As well, we are told that the questionnaire that accompanied the pencils will be used to inform a possible second version of the pencil.

It all makes no sense to me – I believe the same level of enthusiasm would have been shown, and the same amount of publicity garnered if CalCedar had just given reviewers the facts. While I’d like to believe that there was no intent to mislead, it seems absolutely implausible that these coordinated actions were all accidental or mistakes. The situation is so simple that it astounds me that trickery like this was felt necessary.

Blackwing 602 pencil

42 comments

“A pencil that is right some days is no good another day. For example, yesterday, I used a [Blackwing] soft and fine and it floated over the paper just wonderfully. So this morning I try the same kind. They crack on me. Points breaks and all hell is let loose.”

-John Steinbeck on his search for the ideal pencil

The Blackwing 602 was not a commercial success – despite praise from novelist John Steinbeck and mentions in Henry Petroski’s The Pencil, Sanford discontinued the pencil in 1997 due to lack of sales.

Blackwing 602 pencil

The story of the pencil’s demise is in a 2004 article at The Pencil Pages. The eraser clasp machine broke, and supply ran out. Why not fix the machine? At sales of just over a thousand boxes a year, the Blackwing had become a marginal brand, and was allowed to lapse.

Blackwing 602 pencil

It’s hard to get a fix on current supply and demand. They seem be regularly for sale on eBay, year after year. A modern pencil, out of production for only a decade, the Blackwing has become highly collectable – selling for $20 to $50 (or even more) per pencil.

Blackwing 602 pencil

A gentleman (and pencil user) from Missouri kindly sent me a Blackwing for inspection this past week. My thanks to him.

The pencil has an unusual ferrule. Up to the 1940s, pencils had more variety in ferrules/erasers (many examples at Brand Name Pencils), but modern production techniques have standardized these interesting varieties. The Blackwing’s ferrule has a gold colour, and presents a rectangular wedge. A family member who paints immediately thought it was a paintbrush clasp.

Blackwing 602 pencil

The wedge allows the insertion of a small block eraser. I won’t test the original (and now dry) decade old pink eraser, but the format does allow one to slice replacement pieces from a regular block eraser – an idea I like.

Blackwing 602 pencil

Blackwing 602 pencil

As charming as the novel ferrule/eraser looks, it seems a terrible idea. First, it distorts the pencil’s natural dimensions. Standard pencils, from the 19th throught the 21st centuries, are about 175mm. The Blackwing is about 200mm including the eraser.

Blackwing 602 pencil

Possibly even worse – the Blackwing’s balance point is quite wrong for a pencil. A standard quality pencil’s point of balance is at the halfway point. But for the Blackwing, it is about 70% up the pencil’s length. As the pencil is sharpened, that proportion will become more extreme.

Blackwing 602 pencil

Blackwing 602 pencil

The reason is that the pencil weighs 5.3 grams – with the eraser/clasp weighing 1.1g. 20% of the pencil’s unsharpened weight is at the cap – and increasing as a percentage as the pencil gets sharpened.

Blackwing 602 pencil

Blackwing 602 pencil

Unless the Blackwing is your only pencil – it is too different from standard pencils to make an easy adjustment to the odd balance.

The pencil is a smoky grey. I like it, and see why others agree.

The obverse is labelled:

USA Woodclinched EF logo Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602

As well , “DB” is impressed into the wood. Any idea what this code refers to?

The reverse has the great slogan:

Half the pressure, twice the speed

I sharpened the pencil in the Carl Decade DE-100. As much as I love pencils, I don’t love most pencil sharpeners, and Carl’s products are great exceptions.

Blackwing 602 pencil

The Blackwing sharpens very nicely, as expected.

On paper, I tried the pencil on a Rhodia pad.

I’ll admit my first surprise – the blogosphere’s perspective on pencils is that that dark rich lines are the best – and the Blackwing seemed quite middling in the category. Okay, mabye not middling – much better than the vast majority of pencils – yet as a pencil that some claim should rest on a throne – it seemed to leave a lighter mark than other top pencils.

The smoothness category may be the key to understanding the Blackwing – the pencil is not smooth – it is more like slippery – floating on paper without tension, but not creating an appreciably dark line. The wax content in the pencil is a main feature.

I also tried erasure – with a Staedtler Mars, it seems to outperform other pencils, erasing very cleanly.

Some darker pencils like to draw outside the lines – emitting crumbles and residue – but the Blackwing excels in staying put!

The Pencil Pages article mentions the Blackwing’s putative successors, and I thought I would try them out as well.

A distinction to be noted – we are told that the Blackwing is a 4B grade lead – but quality pencils ranges today vary the lead diameter with the lead grade – softer lead grades having wider diameters – so these other pencils may have an advantage.

Blackwing 602 pencil

The Turqouise 4B is good, but it doesn’t strike me as being of the same calibre in any sense.

The Blackwing’s lead apparently carried on in the Microtomic (another lapsed label/brand). There are various ‘Microtomic’ pencils – some principally labelled as Microtomic, and some from another principle brand, with “Microtomic” used as an adjective. Some research on the name is here.

I have a few laying around – they typically have have attractive packaging, and I have variants in 2B, 5B, and 6B – but not 4B.

Blackwing 602 pencil

This test left me wondering why I hadn’t previously sharpened them. The Microtomics lay down a superb pencil line. The 2B is exceptionally smooth, and capable of reaching extremely deep shades. The Microtomic line seems perhaps less smooth and waxy than the Blackwing, yet is still an equally worthy pencil.

Blackwing 602 pencil

Another line of enquiry that of course occured was – how does the Blackwing compare with modern pencils?

Modern pencilmaking’s best efforts seem to occur in Japan, and I selected the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 4B as the main comparison pencil.

Blackwing 602 pencil

Tests were also conducted with the Tombow Mono Special 6B, Craft Design item 17 HB, Tombow Mono 4B, and Kitaboshi Hit 4B.

The Blackwing is in the middle at darkness, it excels at erasability and crumbling resistance, and is also in the middle at smoothness. It isn’t really a peer of the top modern pencils.

This test may be like comparing the automobiles of 1968 to those of 2010 – the past achievements are acknowledged and celebrated, but decades of engineering advancements just can’t be overcome.

The Blackwing 602 was great in the climate of it’s time, but died through lack of support. With Sanford’s pencil production leaving the US this year, the Blackwing is definitely not returning. If you love quality woodcase pencils, now is the time to support today’s Blackwings – the top products from Kitaboshi, Pentel, Tombow, and Mitsubishi.