The hunt for the EE grade pencil

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EE grade pencil

While I thought the letter pencil grades (“HB”, etc.) were standard, I came across this lament about the end of the barely known EE grade.

The web’s best site for researching issues like this is the always entertaining and informative Leadholder.com, which has many vintage drafting equipment catalogs online.

It seems that in the 1930s, Staedtler’s line ended in 3B, ExB, ExExB.

By the 1950s, the line had extended to 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, ExB, ExExB.

It is as if these grades had relative meanings. I take the “Ex” to be “Extra”.

In the 1970s or eighties, the grades had become EB and EE. I know of a store that still has an old Staedtler display which shows these grades.

And finally, sometime between that time and the present, EB and EE disappeared, with 7B and 8B appearing.

The trail would appear to run cold – except that Staedtler is a huge global corporation. After my posts on the pencils of New Zealand and Australia, I found myself checking Staedtler’s many national sites, and noticed that they aren’t all just translations or localizations of the same content.

And there it was on the site of Staedtler Thailand – the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100, still produced in grade EE.

So if you’re looking for this pencil, it’s not yet extinct – though it is on the endangered pencil list. Quickly testing it out, I can find no difference between it and the 8B. Something might be revealed by longer term use. It also doesn’t say where it’s made – most likely it’s origin is in Thailand.

Soft lead pencils

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Soft lead pencils

Using pencils for writing, note taking, flowcharts, and diagrams, I’ve rarely explored their softest grades, those beyond 4B.

Though pencil making details are trade secrets, it is known that graphite and clay are the main ingredients in a pencil’s lead. There are also waxes and binding agents in pencils. At least one pencil has used rendered bovine fat! The ratio of the graphite and clay is what determines the pencil’s darkness and softness, with more graphite meaning darker and softer.

I thought I’d take a look at the softer Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencils, specifically the 5B, 6B, 7B, and 8B.

Soft lead pencils

The first observation is that the pencil cores get progressively larger. I’m not sure where in the line this starts (possibly 3B or 4B), but the 8B has a core of about 4mm in diameter, double that of a regular pencil core. This does result in heavier pencils, and a scale confirms this.

The second observation is also about the lead’s appearance. As well as being black, graphite has a shiny luminescence. And the 5B and 6B are indeed very shiny – but the 7B and 8B have only a slight shine, and border on being matte.

For writing and drawing, my expectation was that pencils get progressively softer in this range, with the softness and sharpening requirements being the tradeoff required for the rich lines drawn. This expectation was wrong – the pencils reach maximum softness at 6B, with 7B and 8B being much scratchier.

The finish of the lines is consistent with the appearance of the pencils – the 5B and 6B lay down shiny lines, while the 7B and 8B leave matte lines.

Soft lead pencils

One expectation is correct – each pencil grade increment does create a darker line.

My conclusion is that the Staedtler 7B and 8B pencils have significantly different formulations – and not just incremental variations in their graphite-to-clay ratios.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencil

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Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencil

The Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 is an icon of a pencil. When a movie depicts an artist sketching, often as not it’s the familiar blue Mars Lumograph 100 the actor is holding.

It’s also a marketing success. It’s sold in art supply stores, it’s sold at Staples, and it’s sold at the last independent stationer in my neck of the woods. Art supply stores typically stock two or three pencil lines – and one of them is always the Staedtler Mars.

Staedtler is a non-profit corporation, whose mission is to fund “German polytechnics and universities, in particular the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nuremberg“. (A famous graduate is Hans Geiger, inventor of the Geiger counter.) The company has ancient roots. Members of the Staedtler family are known to have worked in the pencil trade in the 17th century, and J. S. Staedtler founded a pencil factory in Nuremberg in 1835.

The Mars brand was registered in 1900, making this truly a pencil with a history.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencil

The pencils we’re looking at today are the current (2006) version of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100. We’ll look at the standard HB grade. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to move towards a more quantitative approach to discussing pencils. Well, I’ve already learned a few things that I’ll try and share.

First, and I don’t know why this surprised me, there is some difference in the weight of pencils from the same box. I’ll presume this is due to wood being a natural product, and different pieces of wood having slightly different densities. I tried to weigh each pencil with the same method, and label and re-weigh the pencils at different times to see if this was reproducible. It was. These pencils had a mean weight of 3.8 grams, and ranged from 3.6 to 4.1 grams. I tried other brands of pencils as well, and they had similar variations. (Incidentally, a few vintage pencils I weighed were all 5 to 6 grams. Pencils were more definitely more substantial some years ago.)

This amount of variation suggests that we had better be careful claiming that a particular pencil brand is heavier than another, unless a good number of samples have been tried. Since this may be the world’s most available quality pencil, I’m going to call 3.8g a reference pencil weight for comparison with other brands in the future.

The shape is hexagonal, the distance between opposite pencil sides is 7.45mm, and the pencil is a standard 175mm length. It is sold pre-sharpened.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencil

The exterior, blue with a white band and black cap, is marked:

Obverse (silver): MADE IN GERMANY STAEDTLER Mars Lumograph

Reverse (white): [bar code] EAN 40 07817 104156 Art. Nr. 100-HB

All six sides of the black cap have the grade, HB, written in silver.

The finish is a disappointment – the Mars is a classic, and the 2006 update weakens the depth of the blue finish, and narrows the white band. The famous white on black pencil grades on the cap have been replaced with smaller letters in silver. The bar code and long serial number on the reverse side also add design clutter. Compared with other top pencils, the lacquer seems just a bit thin.

(A Staedtler press release indicates that the pencil differs from the predecessor version in having improved break resistance.)

The micrometer and scale also reveal that the pencil is a fraction thinner and lighter than it was two years ago (approximately .1mm and .2g).

These particular pencils were C$1.69 each at an art supply store (a good price – they are typically $1.99 around here). Zellers, a discount chain just walking distance from the art supply store, offers 24 of their house brand for C$2.49 – that’s $0.10 each. I know they’re not by any means the same pencil, but that’s a huge price difference from a consumer perspective.

The pencil writes very nicely. I compared it with two other Staedtler offerings in HB – the Mars Ergosoft 150, and the Triplus Slim 118. It seemed similar to the Ergosoft in line darkness and writing smoothness, but much smoother than the Triplus, though similarly dark. Comparing it with a Tombow Mono 100, which many professionals would claim is the ultimate pencil, the lines are not nearly as rich or smooth. While rating good to excellent, it isn’t a real competitor to the Tombow.

Erasure testing led to the same ranking – a Mars plastic 528 50 eraser on Rhodia paper erased the Tombow lines most cleanly, and did the worst job on the Triplus.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 pencil

I tried to look at smudging, but didn’t discern a noticeable difference between these pencils.

Sharpening with a Dux sharpener was trouble free. Like most good pencils, the lead did not crumble or break while writing.

The wood – let me know if you have any information. Staedtler is a global company, and does state that they use cedar and jelutong, but I don’t find anything stated about specific products. The pencils do not seem to have the red/pink hue of cedar.

The wide availability, plus the range of hardnesses, is a major advantage of this pencil. The problem with a specialty pencil is that a fresh supply may not be there when you need it. With the Staedtler, this will not be a problem.

Staedtler tradition 110 pencil

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Staedtler tradition 110 pencil
It was a real pleasure to discover the Staedtler tradition 110. Like the pacific, it is also made in Australia.

With red paint on four sides, black on two, and gold lettering, it does look different than a North American pencil. This is a pencil colouring I’ve seen in many photos and illustrations, but never previously in person.

The winning grace is the lead. In HB, it is easily the smoothest of the pencils of New Zealand and Australia that we’ve looked at so far. Other grades also handle themselves well. It is made in fourteen degrees, so it constitutes an entire line.

The only flaw I can see is the varnish, which is very thin. Without much scrutinizing, one can see a multitude of grain lines and dimples in the wood.
Staedtler tradition 110 pencil
This pencil is definitely recommended.

Staedtler 132 pencil

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Staedtler 132 pencil
Unlike the pacific, this Staedtler pencil is made in Germany.

It is a traditionally styled yellow pencil, with a pink eraser and shiny ferrule. The lead is also better quality than the pencils I’ve looked at the last few days – not great, but useably smooth, black, and non-crumbly.

A recent blog comment mentioned the Staedtler 134. A bit of searching around shows that the 134 is a made in China Staedtler pencil that is actually labelled “yellow pencil”, apart from being a yellow pencil.

Staedtler 132 pencil
If you have to use a generic looking office pencil, you could do worse than the 132.

Staedtler pacific pencil

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Staedtler pacific pencil
This is the first pencil in this series that specifies a country of manufacture, and the only one with a name associating it with a specific region.

The Staedtler Australia website proudly mentions a number of made in Australia pencils, including the pacific.

This pencil has a red varnish, with gold stamping that reads:

AUSTRALIA Staedtler pacific HB

The obverse has a black barcode. The cap is unfinished.

The varnish is quite thin. This is more than just an aesthetic issue – a thick varnish protects pencils from dings and dirt, and creates a more uniform surface and hence a more consistent grip.
Staedtler pacific pencil

The pencil itself is useable, but the lead is scratchy, and as we’ll soon see, there are some much nicer pencil choices available down under.