Musgrave and the pencil supply chain

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American heritage pencil maker Musgrave introduced a very interesting product in 2019: The Tennessee Red pencil. The pencil’s notable feature is the use of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), the original American pencil wood. The pencil is very fragrant and visually interesting – each pencil is different, and many contain both cedar sapwood (pale colour) and cedar heartwood (dark colour).

Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil

The pencils are reminiscent of the old Musgrave HB in presentation, though the wood and lead are different. I found the Tennessee Red challenging to sharpen in a handheld sharpener like the M+R Pollux, with the lead snapping. Fortunately it is easily handled with the standard Grenade or a desktop sharpener. Still, the wood seems just a bit too tough for a pencil. I suspect this isn’t the fault of the timber – it is more that the slats just haven’t received the conditioning treatments to which we’ve become accustomed.

The lead is dark and rapidly crumbles. It certainly isn’t the quality of the old HB. It is perfectly usable, and I find this lead preferable to the anemic grainy lead of many no name pencils.

It isn’t a good pencil. Yet, it is unusual and compelling in multiple ways. I hope it will continue, perhaps with gradual improvements. In an unusually transparent act, the manufacturer has noted that the pencil has issues.

There are product reviews at Weekly Pencil and Pencil Revolution.

The Tennessee Red has a second aspect – it appears to be the subject of a small advertising campaign being conducted on Musgrave’s website and social media. The pencil has some nice new packaging including a cedar box option, and they are selling paraphernalia such as T-shirts.

Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil

Congratulations, Musgrave! It is really nice to see a new pencil being promoted.

To me, the most interesting aspect of this pencil is Musgrave’s disruption of the pencil supply chain. They have found a way to circumvent the cedar slat supplier CalCedar. Did you read the pencil’s imprint? “Genuine Eastern Red Cedar”. Wow. That is to me a very clear shot across the bow directed at CalCedar’s “Genuine Incense Cedar”. (They aren’t the first to rework this phrasing to make a point.) This pencil is also a statement about the pencil supply chain.

So how were these slats made? Perhaps pioneer fellow Tennessee manufacturer Wagner Pencil, who process American timber into pencil slats, gave assistance. Or perhaps Musgrave engaged with a wood processor not part of the pencil industry to create these slats. In any case, it is very interesting.

Private companies of course don’t reveal their internal business, but in some countries (including the US), there are public customs records that show import activity. Records from Import Genius show that in the last two years, Musgrave’s imports include:

Item source
Basswood Slats Qingdao Greatwall (China)
Slats Vinawood (Vietnam)
Erasers Kunshan Greenwill (China)
Poplar Slats Qingdao Greatwall (China)
Erasers and Ferrules Shai Tai Shing (Vietnam)
Slats Lishui Liancheng Pencil Manufacturing (China)
Slats Pt. Gemilang Jaya Makmur Pratama (Singapore)

From another perspective, Import Genius says that Musgrave’s top international suppliers (ranked by number of containers imported) are:

1. Tianjin Custom Wood Processing Co. (CalCedar’s Chinese production)
2. Great Wall Industrial Qingdao
3. Lishui Liancheng Pencil Manufacturing
4. Kunshan Greenwill Co.

Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil

Very clearly, this small town Tennessee company is highly engaged in the international economy. As the company notes, “… today Musgrave is able to work with a handful of different varieties of wood from all over the world.” Managing this complex supply chain must be almost as challenging as manufacturing the pencils.

Investing in and testing a historically proven local wood source is just savvy business sense. It benefits the environment and eliminates multiple containers from having to be shipped across the Pacific. For many reasons, local initiatives like this pencil from Musgrave should be supported!

Disappearing pencils

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1. The Wall Street Journal recently mentioned (as part of a larger story) that the Musgrave Pencil Co. had laid off staff. That’s unfortunate for those involved as well as for users of quality pencils. I think the better Musgrave pencils – the Unigraph and the Musgrave HB – are first rate.

2. Some while ago, I was asked if there was a luxury American pencil, something that could compete with Faber-Castell’s fancy offerings. The answer is – I think there may have been. New York retailer Mrs. John L. Strong had a “hand-lathed” pencil apparently made from Eastern Red Cedar. Like other top offerings, Marco Ferreri’s book Pencils (which is a museum catalogue, not a coffee table book) has a photo.

Alas, I can’t even find a digital photo of these pencils at the moment. I emailed (no reply) and telephoned (out of order) Mrs. Strong earlier this year to try and get some of these pencils. The lack of reply may have been indicative of other problems.

Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

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Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

The Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil is an oversize round pencil for children.

Made in Shelbyville, Tennessee by the Musgrave Pencil Co., it is finished in yellow with a gold ferrule and pink eraser.

Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

The type and graphics are delightful. Made of cedar, sharpening (which I would think is important in a children’s pencil) is a breeze. Unfortunately, the lead, though okay, doesn’t seem to be up to Musgrave’s usual high standard.

Musgrave Choo-Choo pencil

Overall, it steams ahead of the competition in the category.

Multiplication table pencils

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There are a few novelty pencil genres that seem persistent. Though ballpoint pens are always encroaching, the pencil still seems to be a choice at many museum gift shops, at hotels, and a select few other places.

One of these persistent genres seems to be the “multiplication pencil” – a pencil for children with a printed multiplication table.

Multiplication table pencils

The three in the photos are of particular interest, as they bear the marks of the pencil companies that made them – Lyra, Musgrave, and Viarco.

I would say the Lyra, the sole triangular pencil, is the nicest writer. It appears to use jelutong wood.

Multiplication table pencils

Do you have recollections of seeing or using pencils like these?

Musgrave 90th Anniversary pencil

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Musgrave 90th Anniversary pencil

We are late by two years – the Musgrave Pencil Company’s 90th anniversary was in 2006. Yet, it was still a true delight to recently receive a box of Musgrave’s 90th anniversary pencils.

Round pencils, they have gold coloured ferrules, with white erasers. All have dyed wood – red, green, or yellow, with corresponding varnish.

The pencils are marked:


Musgrave Pencil Company Inc.
90th Anniversary
1916-2006

Among the American pencil companies, I think Musgrave must be acknowledged to have an advantage in lead quality. The Musgrave HB is possibly the sole American pencil in the same league with the top pencils from the rest of the world. The situation is all very strange – by some measures, Musgrave is a “small business”, yet (and tell me if you think I am wrong!), the quality of their best pencils surpasses those of Sanford and Dixon.

Musgrave 90th Anniversary pencil

The quality of the 90th Anniversary pencil seems to be even better than that of the HB – the lead is even smoother in a side-by-side comparison. The round vs. hexagonal shape is obviously a personal preference. Musgrave has pulled out all the stops for their Anniversary pencil!

Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

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Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

We looked at the famous IBM Electrographic pencil a few months ago.

Other pencils whose marks will be read by machine scanners are still made today.

I am happy to be able to present the Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil made by the Musgrave Pencil Co. of Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

While the finish of the Musgrave HB is delightful and superior, and the Unigraph 1200 is okay if not nice, the Test Scoring 100 pencil’s finish seems very thin and cheap. The pencil’s varnish is silver with black lettering, with a small nod to the pencil’s function – some checkboxes, one filled in.

The pencil’s shape is like the HB’s – a sharp hexagon, with little rounding.

The pencil sharpens easily, revealing that nice cedar grain.

Musgrave Test Scoring 100 pencil

The lead is less crumbly than that of the HB, though nowhere near as dark and rich. For those who would use it as a writing pencil, it does seem rough and scratchy compared to the HB. Presumably the pencil’s main value is in the readability of the marks.

Overall, the pencil is disappointment.

I’m not sure where (or even if) these pencils are sold at retail. Musgrave’s products are very hard to find, and the company does not exactly welcome enquiries, even commercial ones, in my personal experience. I bought a couple dozen of the Test Scoring 100 from pencilthings.com, before that company halted their international sales.