Graf von Faber-Castell pencils.

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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.

International Arrivals Fluorescent Pencils

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International Arrivals fluorescent pencils
I just saw these pencils at a new local stationer. The incredibly bright assortment of oversized hexagonal colour pencils was very eye catching.

The package identified them as “fluorescent pencils” from International Arrivals, and made in Taiwan. The pencils are marked “VERY BEST SUPPLY CO.” and the pencils are printed in the left-handed style. (The text readable when held in the left hand, unlike most pencils.)

I was told in the store that the pencils are for highlighting. This really pleased me, as I’ve wanted highlighting pencils for some time, but have never seen them for sale in a brick and mortar store.

They are oversized hexagonal pencils, with an immense core. The pencils are varnished in very bright flourescent colours. The assortment seems uneven – yellow, dark blue, green, and three in the red-orange spectrum.
International Arrivals fluorescent pencils
As highlighters, I tested them on both bound books and laser printer output. The yellow, the traditional highlighter colour, was faint, and took a lot of pressure to leave any noticeable mark. The blue and green were slightly better, and the reds (which on paper turned out to be light pink, dark pink, and orange), were the most noticeable.

Needing a lot of pressure, and not leaving especially useful highlights, I’m not sure these really are “highlighting” pencils, like those from quality pencil companies. I think they’re just brightly painted, nicely packaged cheap pencil crayons. Which is is too bad, since they look so nice.

Natural Finish Pencils.

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Naturalk Finish Pencils
The first natural finish woodcase pencil I saw or used was the Blackfeet Indian Pencil. By “natural finish”, I don’t mean unfinished, but rather a pencil with a clear or almost clear varnish that shows the natural grain of the pencil’s wood.

The Blackfeet is no longer made, and wasn’t widely available even at the height of it’s production. It was the first pencil I wrote about on this blog, and clearly has a following. Today, there is only one (which is more than zero) natural finish pencil I can buy locally – the Papermate Canadiana. That’s not a completely accurate statement if I include carpenter pencils. But, for general purpose writing, the Canadiana is alone.

Thanks to the wonders of the ‘net, I have been able to acquire a few more.

The Musgrave (by Musgrave) was unknown to me until offered on pencilthings.com. The first thing I thought was that is was a really traditional style pencil. The pencil is wider than most modern pencils, and most noticeably, the edges of the hexagonal shaped case are sharp – not rounded. It feels quite substantial in the hand relative to most pencils – the larger circumferance and the feel of the edges make it unique.

The lead is quite dark for a pencil marked as an HB. The finish is a highly varnished, shiny clear finish, with gold markings. The ferrule is gold and maroon, and the eraser white.

The California Republic Prospector has the roughest finish and worst looks of these pencils. I have several of them, and can see that there is little attempt to hide flaws in the wood. The varnish is thin and the pencil is rough and slightly uncomfortable to the hand. As a writer, the lead is a bit scratchy, though not bad. The gold lettering and ferrule don’t seem to work as design elements.

The Forest Choice is a Thai pencil. The almost-URL printed on one side makes it appear as an advertising item (which I suppose it is in some ways, except it wasn’t a freebie at a conference.) It’s sharp looking, with black stamping, an unshiny finish, and a green ferrule and pink eraser. It’s also a nice writer, with a dark smooth lead. The finish is very slick – it looks quite polished, yet doesn’t aim for the varnished looks of the other pencils. The finishing method must have been a bit different.

To see how these offerings compare with my old standy, the Blackfeet, I sharpened one up. A No. 2, it’s not as dark as the other pencils. It writes very well – it’s a really nice, special pencil. The lettering, the dark woodgrain, the history – I wish I had a few more.
Ferrule of Natural Finish Pencils
To me, there’s zero doubt about the best of these pencils. I love the Blackfeet, but the Musgrave writes so well, looks so sharp, and stands out so much that it’s a must have. Of couse, if you see a box of Blackfeet at a garage sale, don’t pass them up either.

Reporter Pencils

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Eagle Reporter Pencil

The Eagle Reporter is a pencil aimed at professional stenographers and reporters. Though the Reporter is no longer made, the tradition continues with modern pencils like the Faber-Castell 9008, a round version of the 9000 aimed at stenographers.

The pencils are a shiny aqua-blue and are marked:”Made in U.S.A. Eagle “Chemi-Sealed” Reporter 300″.

The box has a four paragraph writeup on the pencils, which begins “Stenographers and Reporters have long approved the thin diameter and special lead of these superb pencils.” Two Eagle pencil patents are mentioned.

Apart from artists and carpenters, do any other professions today have pencils made for them? I can’t think of any. There are special pencils for marking film, x-rays and other surfaces, but they’re not graphite writing pencils.

Let’s get to a distinguishing feature: They were sold pre-sharpened at both ends. A very practical response to the need to sharpen the point, that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It does make the pencil quite pocket-unfriendly though. Only slightly less obvious is how thin these pencils are. Vintage woodcase pencils are generally thicker than modern pencils, but these are the opposite. The leads appear greyer than any modern graphite core – more about this later.

As a writer, the pencil puts down a nice dark line which seems unexpected from the delicate looking pencil. The core does seem very strong and can take all the pressure I would want to give a pencil.

The patents seemed like an interesting aspect of the pencil. Luckily, I’ve found that the U.S. patent office is online and searchable.

I looked them up and was delighted – they’re not written in legal gibberish, are quite readable and brief, and have some excellent drawings.
Figure 2 from U.S. Patent 1,854,905
The first patent is 1,854,905, Pencil and Method of Making Pencils by Charles Kaiser, Sr., filed November 25, 1929. The essential idea is strengthening the pencil casing by varnishing the pencil slats with copal. I had never previously heard of copal. It is a tree resin with a significant cultural history. There is an interesting paper on copal here. The terminology is different than today – a pencil casing is called a “sheath”, and a slat is called a “blank”.

The second patent is 1,892,508, Lead Pencil and Method of Making the Same by Narciso Gonzalez, filed March 27, 1931. The patent mentions that pencil leads typically contain tallow or stearic acid, and are thus greasy. This in turn intereferes with glue used to bind the lead to the pencil case. The problem is solved by first dipping the lead in sulphuric acid, washing it with water, then a second exposure is given, this time to diluted sulphuric acid, while a salt solution is applied. The glue then has a much easier time bonding to the lead.

Tallow being a pencil lead ingredient is news to me. I have no idea how widespread these techniques were in the industry when the Reporter was on the market, or if they’re still around today, but these patents demonstrate some of the research that has gone into making these everyday items so functional.

Nava Pencils: Quality and Style

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Nava Pencils
I’m quite pleased to be able to report on a first rate pencil discovery!

Sometimes writing instruments present us with choices between form and function: something that writes well, but doesn’t meet our aesthetic standards. I don’t think this is a major issue for pen users – high price points can be realized for fountain, rollerball, and ballpoint pens, which means that pen manufacturers are able to attract significant design resources and talent. But for the woodcase pencil, who apart from Faber-Castell seriously invests in design?

The answer is Nava. They are an Italian brand known for leather journals and briefcases. I recently discovered that they make pencils – and what pencils they are!

Beautiful round pencils, in finishes called Nero, Anthracite, Silver, and Bianco. They all have a small silver Nava logo, an orange band, and the top of the pencil is black. The lacquer is very nice – a refined slightly matted finish rather than super smooth, and very nice to handle. The wood (I think cedar) is dyed black. They are really eye catching. The Nero (black) pencil in particular with the dyed wood just looks spectacular, though they all look great. They perfectly match black notebooks like Moleskine.
Nava Pencils
Now here’s the thing – I really doubted these pencils were anything more than a fashion-type product – but I was wrong – they are absolutely first rate. The lead (unidentified grade) is rich and lays down a nice line in what might be a B or perhaps a 2B in other lines. They are as good as the best pencils that we are familiar with.

They also just “look like pencils”, if that makes sense. No bright colours, no extras – just the basics, done very, very well. They truly have achieved elegance through understatement.

Nava probably doesn’t make the pencils – they’re not a known manufacturer, so the task was likely outsourced – but unlike 99% (maybe more) of those who start a pencil line, they clearly didn’t say “get us the cheapest” – they said “get us the best”. I think they succeeded, whoever the manufacturer was. Bravo.

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

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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:

L. & C. HARDMUTH "KOH-I-NOOR" KOPIERSTIFT * 1561 * MITTEL

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.