Rating the top Japanese pencils – the verdict

Japanese Pencils

The final part of our evaluation of Japanese woodcase pencils.

Let us mention some things we aren’t testing. First, we’re not testing a wide range of lead hardnesses. Nor are each of these pencils made in a wide range. I would say the chart below speaks for itself: Only two brands offer a full range of hardnesses.

Pencil 9H 8H 7H 6H 5H 4H 3H 2H H F HB B 2B 3B 4B 5B 6B
California Republic Palomino X X X X X
Craft Design Technology item 17 X
Kita Boshi Hit 9900 X X X X X X
Mitsubishi Hi-uni X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X
Pentel Black Polymer 999 X X X
Tombow Mono 100 X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X

If you want a pencil for long term use or an ongoing project – and want the pencil to be on the market in ten years – that’s very hard to guarantee, but the established pencil makers would certainly be my choice, and I fully expect the Hi-uni and Mono 100 to celebrate many more anniversaries. Pentel is an established company also, but the withdrawal of the 999 alpha doesn’t portend well.

Writing (40 points)

Manufacturers no doubt have specialty instruments for product testing. The rest of us have to trust our senses and observations. This is no doubt quite subjective. I decided to break writing into smoothness, darkness, point, and overall impression sub-categories.

In many cases, I found myself staring at pieces of paper full of pencils marks, looking for very small differences. A first conclusion, apart from the naming of an ultimate victor, is that the reputation of Japanese pencils is well deserved, and that these pencils are better, and in some cases remarkably better, than their marketplace competitors.

Smoothness is definitely appreciated by pencil users. It is the formula of the pencil core that makes the difference here. We want to avoid any gritty or abrasive reaction between the pencil and paper. I tried various techniques, including making marks without viewing, and getting others to test the pencils.

Fortunately, there were some consistent results. A surprise also – no one felt the Mono 100 to be among the smoother pencils. It may be a grading difference, or a reflection of paper choices (110lb artist sketch books were used as well as writing paper), but the result was clear. The three smoother than average pencils were the Palomino, item 17, and Hi-uni. The smoothest pencil? I am really surprised to say that it is the item 17 pencil – a new entry on the market. The Hi-uni was very close second.

Many pencil users appreciate a dark line, but it isn’t always fair to say that one pencil is darker than another, since different brands may have different grading practices. Still, these pencils are all produced in same market, and it is an HB test.

The darkest line comes from the Black Polymer 999. Is the pencil made with another formula, perhaps like a mechanical pencil lead, with polymer substituting for clay? I have no idea, but it ceratinly made the darkest line. The Mono 100 was second, and I couldn’t find much difference among the other pencils.

By “point” – I mean the pencil’s ability to maintain a point, and to not crumble with use.

This is the weak point of the Palomino – the pencil does not hold a point very well, and also visibly crumbles when applying a heavy hand. A top professional animator has made this very observation at this site. No other pencil has the crumbling issue. The item 17 is probably next at wearing down quickly. The name brand pencils excel in this area, with the Black Polymer 999, Hi-Uni and Mono 100 keeping good points.

Alas, the nature of pencil use is that the point always does wear down. But the worn point initiates the ritual of sharpening, which delights us with a renewed sharp point. And the cycle continues.

As to overall impression – compared to many pencils I’ve looked at, these are all a joy to use.

The Hit 9900 and Balck Polymer 999, while first rate, are in very tough company here. Each was best in a category – yet there is much more to a pencil than “grip” and “blackness”. The item 17 and Palomino have great smooth leads, but at a price – for the Palomino in particular.

The Mono 100 was an all-rounder. It performs well at any task – and you get more pencil. I’m not kidding. International standardization of pencil slats has meant a uniformity of the length all pencils around the globe. But the Mono 100 must use a non-standard slat, as it four or five mm longer than other pencils. The HB lead seemed a tad less smooth than others, so it gets a small penalty for that.

Our results:

Pencil Smooth Dark Point Overall Score
California Republic Palomino 8 8 5 8 29
Craft Design Technology item 17 10 8 6 8 32
Kita Boshi Hit 9900 7 8 7 7 29
Mitsubishi Hi-uni 9 8 8 9 34
Pentel Black Polymer 999 7 10 8 7 32
Tombow Mono 100 7 9 8 8 32

Our tests concluded, it it time to assemble the scores for the final results:

Top Japanese Pencils
Pencil Appearance Grip Sharpening Erasure Fastness Writing Score
California Republic Palomino 17 8 8 7 10 29 79
Craft Design Technology item 17 19 8 8 9 10 32 86
Kita Boshi Hit 9900 15 9 8 8 10 29 79
Mitsubishi Hi-uni 14 7 10 10 9 34 84
Pentel Black Polymer 999 16 7 8 8 8 32 79
Tombow Mono 100 14 8 8 8 10 32 80

The top pencil in our test is the Craft Design Technology item 17. The win is based on strong overall scores, and top spot for appearance. The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni came a close second, and was best in three categories, including writing.

As I performed the various tests, I avoided added up the results, and was really surprised to see the evaluation results. I did initially think that one of the highly regarded Mono 100 or Hi-uni was bound to win.

Congratulations to this superb new pencil from Craft Design Technology/Pentel.

19 Replies to “Rating the top Japanese pencils – the verdict”

  1. Excellent Ratings !!!!

    Disregarding “Appearance”, Mitsubishi Hi Uni is the best from your test.
    Anyway, where do you buy those pencils??

  2. A very interesting study.

    If you’ve ever sat in a room with a group of Japanese pencil manufacturers discussing detailed quality aspects of a particular set of pencils and how to acheive the desired product you’ll find that they pay tremendous attention to even very minute and seemingly mundane details. So your three part series here is admirable and within the spirit of the degree of thought and care that the Japanese give to thier pencil manufacturing efforts with respect to these quality factors.

    From a purely scientific standpoint one might question some of your methodology. Appearance for example is a highly subjective quality characteristic. One man’s orange is another’s apple. I personally find Item 17 the least attractive of all the pencils in your study and would have given HI-Uni a higher score which on this basis alone would flip flop the results between these two top rated items. Measuring quality of finish is something that can be more objective than “design”

    On more objective performance factors such as sharpenability as an example there is certainly variation from pencil to pencil due to the natural variability of the wood grain. Even with grading of the slats there is a certain degree of wood grain variability which is an important infuence factor on sharpenability. To get a technically accurate assesment you’d have to sample a good number of pencils from each of your subject brands. The age of the pencils may have had an impact here. I am not necessarily surprised that the Hi-Uni came out on top given their slat grade purchase practices, although if the Hi Uni used were older pencils from your display mentioned in your earlier post they could be much older than current prodcution. This could potentially have had an impact on the higher score, or it cuold be natural variability if you only sharpened one or two pencils from each.

    As an aside at our research department we actually once developed testing equipment that measured sharpening forces required for pencils made from different woods and different grades of the same wood.

    I am sure more experienced experts on writing smoothness, eraseability, etc. would have some comments on the most scientifically and statistically accurate methods of measuring quality on those performance factors.

    Finally, your matrix implies a weighting system of important factors by the maximum score allowed for any given factor. How a Japanese producer would weight the relative importance of these factors would be interesting to know.

    Overall however a very nice study, even if our Palomino didn’t come out on top of this heap using your methods. In reality with the group of pencils you selected you’re essentially splitting hairs to some degree in trying to measure differences in overall quality, design and performance. All are very fine pencils. Now we just need more people to learn to appreciate the destinction in quality and demand such quality from their pencils.

  3. Woodchuck, thanks for your detailed comment. I can’t disagree with any of your main points, and fully acknowledge that the review emanates from a personal perspective. They are indeed all excellent pencils. I’m also glad to be able to confirm that at least one person read all three parts!

    I also hope the review will encourage others to develop their own criteria for thinking about and evaluating pencils.

    (All the pencils (except the Palomino) were purchased from Japanese vendors in the last two years, and I have a few dozen boxes of each, with the exception of the Hit 9900.)

  4. PencilAdmin — I would like to confirm that I, also, read all three parts, and enjoyed them greatly. Bravo!
    Woodchuck — Your thoughtful post enriched my enjoyment of PencilAdmin’s fine work. Thank you, as well, for making the excellent Palomino available to people like me, who have no practical means of access to any of these other exotic items (other than the twice-as-expensive Mono 100).

  5. Do you know who makes, or where to buy, Black Pal pencils. There are a black woodcase with bright pink lead. Thanks.

  6. I managed to source some of the Craft Design Technology pens locally, and tried them out today. I often wonder if my expectations are a bit too high for a pencil’s writing smoothness. I was somewhat expecting that the CDT or Hi-Uni would slide across the paper like a gel pen can, or at least like my Pentel Hi-Polymer 0.5mm 2B lead. This was especially so considering another review on the CDT stating it was like “butter on glass”, and yet another claimed the Palomino wrote as smooth as a gel pen.

    Yet for the life of me, I can’t escape the feel of scratching against the paper, which feels amplified by sound and vibration of the wood. I’ve got a Maruman Mnemosyne, some Rhodia pads, some Clairefontaine pads, some Apica notebooks, and some scratch copier paper, but no matter what I’m writing on…there’s never a particularly great sense of smoothness with pencils (unlike pens). The differences between pencils (I’ve got some cheap Chinese “Liberty” brand ones, Staedtler Ergosofts, and Uni-Stars with more on the way) are so minor on smooth paper, and the effort required to lay down a particularly dark line is quite high, even for my smoothest (0.5mm 2B Pentel Hi-Polymer lead). I suppose that should be expected for pencils, but I really hoped otherwise.

    Trying to justify the emotional attachment to the simplicity of a wooden pencil for writing tasks may not be as easy as pencil reviews made me hope. Especially since I write rather small and a really soft lead won’t hold a point very long (a 20-stroke Chinese character in a 5×5 square just looks like a gray smudge if the point isn’t fine enough).

    I’m not poo-pooing pencils at all…but certainly I’m not the only person that *wants* to convert to wooden pencils for emotional reasons (simplicity/purity, what-have you), but has found some discouraging snags. Could very well be my fault or my inability to detect the extremely minute differences in friction between pencils (excepting a slightly different pitch of the scuffing noise). Or perhaps my expectations of how a “high-end” wood-cased pencil can perform in writing were unreasonably high from reading reviews. Perhaps there’s a secret to technique that I’m not aware of.

    Whatever it is, I still want to give the pencil a shot…but I thought it would be good to post a sort of a “reality check” amidst these reviews, for they can really raise expectations of pencil performance. If any of the experts have advice on how to remedy or avoid these issues…that could be most useful to a silent bunch of people who hope to convert to pencils like I’m trying to.

  7. Hi Robert, thanks for your detailed comment.

    I was about to write a lengthy defence of the pencil, but I realized that with hundreds of years of use and development, the writing implement that Forbes ranked as the fourth most important tool of all time hardly needs a defence or reality check.

    I would never claim a pencil is perfect for all writing or marking uses. But “smoothness”? Surely it depends on your needs and your exact definition of this term (and can we even measure this quality without advanced scientific equipment?). Try quickly drawing a large radius circle on a canvas sized piece of toothy paper – the 0.5mm mechanical pencil and the gel pen won’t cut it.

    Now I’ve said a number of good things about Pentel’s mechanical pencil leads here in the past. Their 1.3mm polymer lead may be one of the the closest bridges between the woodcase and mechanical pencil experiences.

    Incidentally – you are comparing the CDT HB pencil with a two degree different Pentel 2B 0.5mm mechanical pencil lead. I think using a Mitsubishi Hi-Uni in 2B or the HB Pentel lead would be a fairer comparison.

  8. As I gain a bit more experience with pencils, I thought it’d be good to follow-up (despite the blog post being a bit older, it’s easy to come across).

    I’ve played around a bit more with pencils and have not taken out my pens in the last few days. I think this has made me quite a bit more sensitive to the differences between pencils…and has helped me better understand some of what people have discussed with regard to writing performance.

    There are no doubt many people like me who frequently use fine pens that require virtually no effort to write and provide pretty much no tactile feedback or sound. Pencils are quite a different experience, and for a person who hasn’t handled a pencil much in years, it’s easy to clump all pencils into the same group because the writing characteristics are fundamentally different. If you’re particularly sensitive to one experience, the other will seem generic, regardless of the variations within that category.

    When I started jumping into the pencil thing, I had unrealistic expectations, partially due to reading reviews, such as comparing a Palomino to a gel pen in one review, and describing the CDT Item 17 as “butter on glass”. With pens, I could understand such analogies, and I incorrectly carried my expectations to wood-cased pencils. The two write in fundamentally different ways, requiring different amounts of friction/pressure, and producing different sounds/vibrations (feedback) that also influence the subjective impression of “smoothness”. A smooth pen and a smooth pencil aren’t the same kind of smooth, but both can be appreciated.

    So for those people who stumble across the blog and see my initial confused comment…hopefully I’ve cleared it up a bit.

    From my own goofing around and subjective tests of writing (darkness and smoothness), I too found the Item 17 a real winner for an HB. A 2B Palomino was a real pleasure to use and super-dark, but I fear it’s too soft to hold a fine enough point for my Chinese writing. I don’t have any 2B or B Hi-Unis to compare unfortunately…and I was surprised how light the Staedtler HB was compared to the Japanese pencils (the 2B seemed on-par with the other HBs)

    A small 750px-wide snapshot of a quick comparison of a few random pencils is at http://i154.photobucket.com/albums/s274/Tierdaen/pencilcomparison750.jpg

    Thanks for providing a great blog, and thanks for not wiping away my impression comments. Perhaps someone will find them helpful. :)

  9. Nice photo, I recognize the Maruman notebook format.

    You are right – graphite does not flow out of a pencil the way ink may flow out of non-ballpoint pens. Yet the meeting of pencil point and paper remains a very satisfying experience for many.

    And for the record, the number of non-spam comments that haven’t been approved here is exceedingly few, probably under one per year, – and questioning the merits of pencils vs. pens is perfectly welcome.

  10. While I am not an artist or designer, I am an elementary school teacher and have been amazed at the extremely poor quality of most affordable pencils. I am happy that my students go through lots of pencils (lots of writing) but am looking for quality instruments at a good price. Having lived in Japan and experienced the wonderful bunbokuya pencil/stationery shops, I know what I want. For an American product, I prefer the BIC disposable .7 #2 cheapy mechanical pencils for myself. I feel like the lead does flow out and is a good companion to my poor penmanship. I love pencils and thought I was alone out here. Thanks for the cool blog.

  11. I’ve ordered a box of the CDT pencils on order,thanks to the reviews placed here at Pencil Talk. In the US,you can get them from Design Within Reach. The price has gone down from $40 to $25 a box and the shipping is free.

  12. Great set of reviews here. As my long-term fondness of pencils seems to have morphed into a full-blown passion (OCD?) over the past few weeks, I’ve recently obtained a number of the recommended varieties including, of course, the Palomino. I was very impressed by the smoothness and darkness of the lead and incredible finish, but was quite dismayed to find that a number of them were severely warped – more so than any that I’ve previously come across.

    Just curious if others have had a similar experience? Will probably try these again, but the warp and apparent crookedness of the ferrule is really a deal-breaker.

  13. XidefiX, I’ve never heard of warped Palominos, warped Mirado Black Warriors more than once, but never any of the premium pencils. I’d say contact Woodchuck, the man behind the Palomino, at pencils.com. I’m sure he would like to hear about this and I’ll bet he’ll make it right. Don’t give up on the Palominos just yet, they are among the world’s very best pencils.

  14. Thanks for review. I have a box of CDTs on order from the local Design Within Reach. I also like the Hi-Uni. F hardness seems to work well on my glossy page textbooks when I need to make notes in the margins.

  15. Sir,

    I want to explore your pencils in India.

    Kindly let me know , whom to contact.

    Warm Regards

    Swwpak jain

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