There is an excellent new pencil blog – Pencil Fodder.
UK based, Pencil Fodder has a focus on historic Keswick manufacturers. Today, there was a great post on a less known pencil brand, B.S. Cohen – Compressed Cumberland Lead Pencil.
A bell rang for me when I first heard this, because NYC luxury retailer Mrs John L. Strong (now revived) used a very similar story to market an Eastern Red Cedar pencil just a few years ago. They similarly claimed a secret stash of Eastern Red Cedar. This blog wrote about that pencil in 2009 (coincidentally, beside a note about a layoff at Musgrave). The Mrs. John L. Strong pencil was photographed on page 33 of Marco Ferreri’s book Pencils:
Though regularly mentioned online, I could not find a substantial written review of this pencil, and was motivated to contribute this effort.
The pencil is unsharpened, with a black metal cap. It presents itself with a lacquered dark wood body and a black imprint. The contrast isn’t high, but I think it is appealing. The pencil is offered in a cardboard sleeve.
Technically, the lead isn’t off centre between the slats – the issue is more that one slat is twice the height of the other.
The imprints have a nice aesthetic.
I thought a vintage sharpener might pair well with a vintage wood pencil. I broke out a decades old Eagle sharpener, but the results weren’t great. I tried a quick correction in an M+R 502, but the lead snapped. Did I mention that this is a $US10 pencil? So a dollar down, I felt it was time to get serious, and the impressive El Casco M-430 on the No. 2 (second most blunt) setting did a great job.
The pencil writes very nicely (the lead seems to be a step up from that of the Tennessee Red), with a dark line, nice glide, and minimal crumbling.
I’d love to know the lead origin. In 2008, a pencil industry CEO commented here that the US manufacturers, with an exception, made their own leads. But given the date, the comment may have applied to the then large US companies – Dixon and Sanford.
To summarize, there are some challenges, but I really like the story of this pencil. Telling me that the slat is 90 years old grants a lot of forgiveness.
I note that just like Mrs. Strong, Musgrave has found a way to sell a pencil at the price point of the Graf von Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil. I’m not a professional marketer, but I salute Musgrave for this breakthrough.
The pencil is gaining some superfans – people purchasing large quantities and sharing photos online, especially since Musgrave lifted a two per customer limit. I am really curious about where this offering may go.
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).
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.
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.
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:
|Basswood Slats||Qingdao Greatwall (China)|
|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.
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!
The Wagner Pencil Company of Bakewell, Tennessee has been previously mentioned at pencil talk.
They rarely make the press – a 2010 safety award, and a 2017 fire are what I can find. But also, a three minute 2014 WTVC clip (below). One of the staff interviewed on camera previously commented on pencil talk‘s 2010 post!
What is so interesting about Wagner is that they make their own slats from Eastern White Pine! You heard that right – an American pencil pencil company that few have heard of, managing their own supply chain. I don’t know if they make their own leads – but not using slats manufactured in China makes them absolutely unique in the United States. Their pencil is as special and local as the Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood. According to their general manager, they’ve been around since 2002.
The WTVC clip mentions the Snowy Owl (a protected species) nesting in the Eastern Red Cedar as being a reason for that wood species no longer being used for pencil production. That is different than the story we most often hear.
I wonder if Wagner was involved in the production of the Musgrave Tennessee Red? They are two hours by road from Shelbyville.
I’ve tried to contact them, but haven’t succeeded. I would love to try their pencils and learn more about their story. They make novelty and advertising pencils – as a commenter wrote in 2010, you might be using a Wagner without knowing it!
(c) 2021 pencil talk
First paragraph of US patent 1373062.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of a very important part of the famed Eberhard Faber Blackwing pencil: the patent for the pencil’s distinctive ferrule and eraser, originally called a clamp. (The name changed over time.)
The clamp patent was awarded to Lothar W. Faber on this day one century ago. The mechanism was shared with the Van Dyke and Microtomic pencils, mechanical pencils, and stand alone erasers. The Blackwing itself was launched a decade later. The clamp did have predecessors, but the 1921 patent was the most successful and widely known model.
The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company clearly took pride in the invention, noting the patent date on the box of Item 1281, their four eraser plus one clamp refill kit:
Also on some versions of the clamp itself:
(c) Swann Galleries