Top Japanese Pencils: The Mitsubishi Hi-uni and the Tombow Mono 100

Hello, it’s been a while since this blog has been online or updated. Good news: The server hosting the blog survived being in storage, and has again been cranked up and placed online!

Thank you to those who wrote notes of encouragement about the blog. They were definitely appreciated.

Even better news is that there are lots of things to write about. I thought I would start with two top Japanese pencils. A couple of years ago, these were very hard to acquire in North America. Thanks to the internet, they’re now possible (though still far from easy) to source.

The intriguing cap of the Tombow Mono 100

The intriguing cap of the Tombow Mono 100

The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni is the top woodcase pencil in the Mitsubishi Pencil Company’s line. There seems to be no doubt that mechanical pencils are much more widely used in Japan, with woodcase pencils like these considered niche products.

This pencil’s packaging announces it – a light green cardboard sleeve with a cutout that lets one see a half dozen pencil crowns. Taking off the sleeve, there is a black plastic box with a clear plastic lid that pops up to allow access. The interior of the box has a many-spoked divider that keeps each of the twelve pencils separate. It’s heavier than any pencil box I’ve encountered, and definitely indicates that the contents are valuable.

The pencils are offered with a heavily varnished maroon finish, topped by a black crown. The stamping is gold, along with a white barcode. The pencils are also distinguished by the orange dot on their tops.

The intriguing cap of the Mitsubishi Hi-uni

The intriguing cap of the Mitsubishi Hi-uni

They sharpen easily, and in HB have a very rich dark lead that doesn’t crumble. On paper, the markings seem reasonably smear proof. I look forward to trying some other hardnesses. I haven’t spent too much time with them yet, but hope to soon give them a lengthier workout. I’ve found that some pencils which do well for a few jottings aren’t necessarily great all day writers.

The Tombow Mono 100 is a legend, especially in the animation field. It has a reputation as a high quality professional pencil. Dick Blick calls it the “gold standard.” I’ve spent quite a few dollars not getting this pencil – ordering it and being sent something else. Anyhow, I’m glad to finally have a few in my stash. They’re black, with gold band, and a white stripe that traverses the pencil’s cap.

They’re just a wee bit longer than any non-erasered pencil I have. A slight compensation for their price, I suppose.

They sharpen well, and like the Hi-uni, have a dark rich lead. I have tried them for a sufficient period of time to confirm that they make a great writer.

To my eye, the finish of both pencils is disappointing. Maybe I was expecting too much, but they’re overcrowded with too many font faces – both of them. A pencil just doesn’t have room for six different fonts without being very distracting. And of course the almost ubiquitous bar code makes them less sleek. They do have superior paint finishes, though.

Now as pencils – they’re really good. They seem to have the dark lead (the right combination of graphite, clay, wax, and other ingredients) that’s so pleasing to see on paper, without the crumbling or quick point erosion that some other attempts at dark leads have seen.

Graf von Faber-Castell pencils.

Graf von Faber-Castell pencil closeup.
Wow. I have wanted to write about these pencils for some while. They are the ultimate woodcase pencil. They have an incredible look, feel, and composition. They even smell nice, with an incredibly rich cedar fragrance.

They are sold in various formats, variants and packages, but here I’ll address only the full length standalone pencils. They are round with ribbed grooves, and have a silver-plate cap. Their circumference is larger than the typical office pencil. They look like finely crafted works of art, which incidentally happen to be pencils.
The Graf von Faber-Castell pencil on a picnic bench.
I’ve got a set of five, and also a set of two that came with a white eraser with ribbing that matches the pencils. The eraser also has a silver-plate cover. Until I can get some eraser replacements, I’m leaving the eraser in the plastic, as I don’t find that white erasers tend to stay white too long.
Various Graf von Faber-Castell pencils.
The series extends to silver-plate sharpeners. I have a large one that’s really a joy to use as a desk sharpener.
Graf von Faber-Castell Large Sharpener
The pencils are definitely top class, with a smooth writing dark lead. In one’s hand, they are very easy and pleasant to grip. They’re also beautiful and luxurious like no other woodcase pencil. Using this pencil is definitely enjoyable, and I recommend trying them to anyone who likes pencils.

L. & C. Hardmuth Koh-I-Noor Kopierstift 1561

L. & C. Hardmuth Koh-I-Noor Kopierstifte
A recent (excellent) post at Timberlines made me think of these pencils. I had bought a box of “vintage” pencils via an online auction site whose name begins with “E”. The slightly padded envelope in which they arrived hadn’t stopped the cardboard pencil box from arriving with all corners broken. Also, the box was precisely seven twelfths full. Anyhow, sometimes you have to look on the bright side – they are still interesting (and historic) pencils, and less expensive than seven new pencils from any quality manufacturer. In fact they were less than seven new Koh-I-Noor pencils would cost me.

The box is cardboard, with the Koh-I-Noor emblem on the cover, and marked “1561 mittel” and “L & C. Hardmuth” on the sides. The pencils are yellow, with gold stamping:


Unlike the text on the box, there is a period after the “L”. The box is additionally marked inside “Koh-I-Noor Bleistiftfabrik”. I believe that “Kopierstift” roughly translates to what would be known as a copying or indelible pencil, and “mittel” to middle. “Bleistiftfabrik” is pencil factory. Cool!

Picking one up, the first thing I noticed was that these pencils are larger than modern round pencils, such as the Faber-Castell 9008. The core also seems much wider.

The next step required some debate. Although I could see arguments for preserving them, there was also another side. These pencils were made by craftsmen across an ocean and across a generation. I would assume they wanted their product used. So – I got out the sharpener.

My first thought was – “wow, I just sharpened a really old pencil.” The larger pencil width seemed to produce a longer point than other pencils in my sharpener (a Faber-Castell UFO). The two halves of the casing also seemed quite visible.

Writing on a Rhodia pad, I wrote a few lines. I also tried a modern Koh-I-Noor for comparison. The pencil writes smoothly and reliably, similar to many other quality pencils. The lead seems quite strong. I also tried erasing my writing. It is definitely a copying pencil, and resists vinyl erasers! Only my black Factis (meant for charcoal) erased the lines of the 1561.

I thought I was done, and was going to post what I had written – but I hadn’t yet discovered the most interesting part of this pencil. After sharpening the pencil, trying it out, and writing the above notes (with the pencil), I noticed some graphite dust on my hands. When I went to wash up, the dust turned a brilliant purple. I had never seen this before from a pencil. A little searching on the web turned up this excellent article on copying pencils from an American Institute for Conservation publication. The purple had come from a dye – an “aniline dye” that was created from coal tar by-products.

An original use of these pencils was placing a damp tissue above the pencil writing to take a copy. For anyone old enough to remember a ditto machine from high school (remember the smell of a fresh ditto?), these pencils seem like a manual predecessor. They’re also associated with copy presses and were used with carbon paper. The “indelible” function took over at some point as the main use and selling point.

I tried to moisten some paper and press it against my notes to take a copy. It transferred very roughly, and I can see that with some practice and a careful choice of paper and moistenening methods, it would be a useable method.

It struck me as quite amazing that this ordinary looking yellow pencil was capable of so much.

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.

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.

Lamy ABC

The Lamy ABC pen and pencil set.

The Lamy ABC is a pen and pencil set aimed at children, though adults will have no difficulty enjoying these nicely made products.

The fountain pen is essentially a Lamy Vista in a pleasing wood and red plastic case. It takes Lamy cartridges or a converter. My version has a medium nib. It’s a tremendous value as fountain pens go – a great writer, smooth and highly reliable. The cap doesn’t post, which could be an issue for some, and has a space for a sticker with one’s name. It is really lightweight, even compared with a Vista, so it’s no trouble to transport around town.

Matching the pen is a mechanical pencil with a 3.15 mm lead. Unlike most clutch leadholders, which require pressing a button or cap and sliding the lead, this pencil has a really nice twist mechanism. Even Lamy’s more sophisticated looking (and expensive) Scribble 3.15 mm pencil doesn’t have this mechanism. There is also an included lead sharpener, which I love as it works with other 3.15 mm pencils, and is a pretty unusual sharpener.

3.15 mm lead of the Lamy ABC.The pencil is comfortable and writes very nicely. The lead is solid and doesn’t break. Though they ship with an HB lead by default, the pencils also take other hardnesses as well as colour leads from art supply stores.

It’s a mechanical pencil that offers great quality, as well as nice (though not traditional) styling.