Hardly Broken: the Kutsuwa Hokusign Pencil

Kutsuwa Hokusign Pencil

Please allow me to mention a pencil that I’ve been enjoying. The Kutsuwa Hokusign has a strikingly rich and glossy finish (which I don’t like) and a phenomenal next level graphite core (which I do like).

Introduced to the market in 2019 by Japanese stationery producer Kutsuwa, the pencil is aimed at the art market. It is being marketed as being “twice as strong.” I think this claim could be true.

The pencil is made in Japan, and the wood appears to be cedar. A close look at the construction reveals some small flaws. It sharpens very nicely in the Möbius + Ruppert Pollux.

The imprint says, “Made in Japan Hokusign Hardly Broken Pencil.” Does HB mean “Hardly Broken”? It may be the case, though the grade is stamped on the cap. The pencil also comes in B, 2B, 3B, and 4B.

My dislike of the pencil’s finish is not a unanimous opinion – it won a 2019 Good Design Award.

Buntobi, via translation, says the colour is “Hokusai Blue”, used by Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai. If I understand correctly, this makes the pencil name a pun.

What makes this pencil very special is that the lead is smooth and dark, glides well, and doesn’t break. There is even more – the lead lasts quite long without dulling, making the pencil a very good value. How is this possible? This pencil presumably uses a polymer core, rather than a standard ceramic core.

The Hokusign is highly recommended.


The official product page (in Japanese)

A source, after Japan Post resumes full international service.

Was graphite first discovered at the Borrowdale mine?

“Graphite was first discovered in the 1560s in the Lake District of England” – Pencils You Should Know by Caroline Weaver.

This statement about the discovery of graphite is often repeated, to the point that it seems to be a known historical fact. Let’s take a look.

In Pencil People, Thomas Smith notes that Borrowdale was previously the home of Furness Abbey, and that there are records of the monks using graphite to mark sheep.

In The Pencil, Henry Petroski mentions graphite pieces from circa 1400BC having been found in an Egyptian excavation. This is likely based on work published by Ainsworth Mitchell in a 1917 issue of the journal The Analyst.

Petroski also refers to graphite being known in Europe around 1400. This appears to be based on the 1968 edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia.

The Tokyo Pencil Association notes scientific research that Ieyasu’s pencil came from a 16th century Mexican mine.

The University of Waterloo Geology department mentions that Celts were known to have mined graphite in Cesky Krumlov in 500BC. They used graphite as a ceramic additive.

The British Library noted, “Graphite was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the 15th century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier.”

The Historic England website states: “The working of graphite deposits is thought to have been well established by the mid-13th century in central Europe.”

So was graphite first discovered at the Borrowdale mine? I trust the mentioned academic sources, and have no reason to doubt Smith. The Tokyo Pencil Association refers to academic research (but I’m not aware of a citation). Overall, there are many claims that graphite has been known to various societies through history. Cesky Krumlov is a very well known mine, and Petroski’s citations appear to be traceable to source.

The Borrowdale mine is historically important, and the quality and quantity of pure graphite found were exceptional. It also became an important commercial property and centre of an industry. Yet it is not the first place that people discovered graphite.

The world’s oldest known pencil

In almost every print and online source I’m aware of, the oldest known woodcase pencil is said to be this one:

© Faber-Castell

It appears to be a partially woodcased carpenter pencil, and is on display at the Faber-Castell headquarters.

Abbey Sy has a photo rich report of a trip to Faber-Castell headquarters. Transcribing the English version of the display plaque shown in a photo, it says:

“Oldest known pencil
“This wood encased graphite pencil from the 17th century was found in the 1960s during restoration work on the beams of a house in Langenburg (Swabia). This pre-industrial pencil, made of lime wood with the methods usual at the time, was very probably used by carpenters in their work. It has been in the Faber-Castell Collection since 1994.”

But there are other known very old pencils. The Japan Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association and the Tokyo Pencil Association Shogokai cite two:

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) had this pencil, which is said to have been presented by Dutch visitors:

© Tokyo Pencil Association

The pencil is held in the Kunozan Toshogu Museum in Shizuoka Prefecture. Electron microscope analysis reveals the graphite is from 16th century Mexico.

In 1974, it was discovered that Date Masamume (1567-1636) owned a pencil:

© Tokyo Pencil Association

This pencil has just stub of graphite at the tip and an advanced feature – a cap! Found in Masamune’s mausoleum at Zuihoden, it isn’t clear to me if the pencil was reburied.

To summarize, Ieyasu’s pencil is older than the Langenburg pencil, and the Masamune pencil is probably (though not definitively) older than the Langenburg pencil. The better known “oldest known pencil” has company.

The implication that the Spanish empire had 16th century access to a graphite source is also worth further examination by historians.

Did lead pencils exist?

Lead Pencil, circa 1400© The Trustees of the British Museum, usage via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

Did lead (Pb) pencils exist? This notion has been regularly dismissed as a myth.

Two years ago, I saw a display of three lead pencils in a special exhibition at the British Library. They were clearly marked “Lead Pencils” by the curators and dated at approximately the year 1400. No woodcase pencils were displayed.

An important point here is that professional museum curators at a top global institution have deemed these objects (one pictured above) pencils, with no footnotes or asterisks.

The Pencil by Henry Petroski has a chapter, “Before the Pencil”, which details the use of reeds and feathers as early writing and marking tools, as well as the stylus, made of bone, metal, or wood. Some might say these lead pencils are styluses. They no doubt are, but I believe we need to differentiate two categories of stylus.

The first category is a stylus that uses pressure to make a mark: A harder surface makes an impression on a softer surface. So an iron stylus marking a wax tablet would be such an example. (Petroski notes these implements were able to double as weapons, and fulfilled this dual function in Roman times.)

The second type of stylus may have the same appearance, but is functionally different – a stylus of copper, silver, or lead has an intrinsic marking ability, and leaves a mark though the depositing of the element onto paper with contact. This category of writing implement is still made today.

The first type of stylus is definitely not a pencil because it can not leave a dark mark on paper – but how about the second? The photographed lead pencil is in the dimensions of a modern pencil. (Some thin (e.g. 2 or 3 mm diameter) metal silverpoint styluses are not – they are clearly too thin and can not be handheld in the manner of a pencil. They are something other than a pencil.

A very related matter also circles the definition of a pencil – must it be woodcased? Animal skins, string, and paper have been used to wrap graphite cores. A post here on paper wrapped pencils remains very popular, and they are still manufactured. Any many pencil companies make woodless pencils. At this blog, the term “woodcase pencil” has often been used to differentiate from mechanical pencils, but includes more than just the modern glued slat pencil. A working definition of pencils can reasonably include the outliers like extruded pencils, paper wrapper (and recycled paper) pencils, and woodless pencils.

If the definition is focused on a pencil being a handheld round cylinder – then bingo – this is a 620 year old early pencil.

So were there lead pencils? I hope that I’ve supported the notion that the answer isn’t a simple no – it depends on assumptions and definitions. I would love to know if the British Library had any internal discussions about their use of the term.

The Bartleby

The Bartleby Website

With thanks to Matthias of Bleistift fame, I have learned of an exceptional website devoted to writing culture, The Bartleby. Upon first view, I was surprised by the mixture of interviews, travel, and literary content. The website is German/English bilingual, with a very attractive design.

After some browsing, I was wondering whether it was a publishing house or an international airline that had put together this amazing site. It was neither – I thought the quality and design of the site meant there must be a commercial basis, but I was wrong. There is no advertising or industrial affiliation – it is an amazing high level personal contribution.

As a Canadian, the latest article Artists on the go | See how Sophie Mutlu, illustrator, and Peter Zenkl, photographer, live and work in Yukon, Canada was of particular interest.

This young couple, after a VW motorbus ride from Mexico found themselves in a very remote part of northern Canada and chose to stay. An interesting thing is that very few remote communities of 25,000 are served by international flights – yet the Yukon capital of Whitehorse is served by a seasonal flight to Frankfurt! (You can read the comments for speculation about how this flight might be viable.)

There is even a YouTube video with 700K views on this unusual flight:

So I suspect there is a Germany to Yukon connection worthy of further exploration.

I like The Bartleby’s explorations of literary hotels and writing culture. It is most recommended!

Paint it Blue: The Caran d’Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

In late 2020, Caran d’Ache announced a limited product line featuring the very special colour International Klein Blue.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

According to The Secret Life of Color by Kasia St. Clair, the artist Yves Klein loved the intensity of ultramarine pigment, but was disappointed with the paint it created. He worked alongside a chemist to create a resin that exposed more of the pigment’s lustre. (Klein sadly passed away at 34. He patented Klein Blue at age 32.)

Patenting a colour is an interesting notion. Rights to a colour are typically only applicable in a context. Klein’s patent is apparently for his process, not literally for the colour.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

The original International Klein Blue is still only made by Klein’s original collaborator and available at the very same art store that served Klein in Paris: Adam Montmartre.

Caran d’Ache announced the adaptation of seven of their products as Klein tributes: At the very high end, Leman fountain and ballpoint pens. And at more accessible price points, a Sharpening Machine, Fixpencil, 849 ballpoint, and two woodcase pencils.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

The Fixpencil and Leman Fountain Pen are differentiated in the offering by possessing the ability to write in ultramarine – the Fixpencil has water soluble ultramarine leads, and the Leman a limited edition ultramarine ink. Given the use of Klein’s name and the “®” symbol throughout the advertising and packaging, it is presumed that the Klein pigment isn’t in the ink or lead as this claim isn’t made. All the products share the use of ultramarine surfaces or highlights, and Klein’s signature.

The Fixpencil is an iconic writing instrument, honoured by a Swiss stamp and familiar withing writing culture. It has been mentioned at pencil talk in 2008 and 2017.

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

This particular model is distinguished by the surface colouring, and comes in a metal case. It ships with a 2mm B grapite lead, and a tube with three ultramarine water soluble leads. One of the leads in my tube arrived broken in half. The blue leads are just a few mm shorter than the graphite lead.

On some very special mulberry bark paper from Hanaduri, I tried the pencils and the blue lead, wet and dry:

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

I also tried them on writing paper that I regularly use, Rhodia R:

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

It isn’t really the colour depth or reaction I expected.

I am not happy that there appears to be no refill available. The blue lead seems like a very special accessory, and though the leadholder will continue to function with graphite, this ultramarine lead enhances the association with Klein.

The 849 is another classic. I don’t have a lot to say about it. I think ballpoint cartridges may be receiving small incremental improvements over the years – they may have been pretty awful some years ago, but this one does not skip or dispense lumps of ink. The Caran d’Ache Goliath refill generally has a excellent reputation.

A smear of the blue on HP photocopy paper:

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

Two pencils have been released. First, the MAXI is a jumbo sized hexagonal pencil with a very thich 4.5mm graphite lead. The pencil is matte and a deep ultramarire – truly striking. The cap is a very slight dome, unfinished.

Second, a set of four pencils simply called “Set of 4 Graphite Pencils”. These are a notch larger than most standard pencils, and possess a 2.5mm HB core. They are about one third coated in ultramarine, and the remainder in clear lacquer. The four pencil box packaging appears to reprise the Exotic Woods packaging.

Both pencils are made of “FSC Mix” cedar. The regular pencil is said to be of 8 plys, and the maxi of 6 plys. Official pencil standards tell us that this refers to the number of pencils produced by the pencil sandwich. Probably not interesting to most consumers, but it piqued my interest.

The MAXI lead seems a little smoother and richer than the regular lead. I wish the MAXI’s lead was also in the regular pencil.

Some Final Impressions

This is a thoughtful and properly licensed commercial product created in association with the estate of a major twentieth century artist. The work involved in acquiring the rights to use Klein’s signature likely rivalled the amount of work involved in production. I salute Caran d’Ache for doing this, and hope there will be more. May I humbly suggest Le Corbusier as someone who might be worthy of similar treatment?

Caran d'Ache Yves Klein Blue Collection

My critiques are minor. The pencils, at their price and given Caran d’Ache’s environmental and social commitments, should be 100% certified, not just “FSC Mix”. FSC certification includes human rights criteria, not just tree ecology, and I think that’s important. The MAXI pencil is probably the standout product to me. If the end was dipped in the same colour, it would be slightly nicer. The regular pencil could have a smoother and darker lead. And the Fixpencil should ship with more than three blue leads, or have refills for sale.

Overall, I feel a delight at seeing this rich deep blue in a time of grey.