Musgrave and the pencil supply chain

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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).

Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil

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.

There are product reviews at Weekly Pencil and Pencil Revolution.

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.

Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil

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:

Item source
Basswood Slats Qingdao Greatwall (China)
Slats Vinawood (Vietnam)
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.

Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil

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!

Musgrave HB pencil

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Musgrave HB pencil

The Musgrave Pencil Company, like the General Pencil Company, is one of the last independent American pencil makers. Headquartered in Shelbyville, Tennessee, the famous “Pencil City”, Musgrave has been in business since 1916.

Their pencils aren’t generally available in Canada – at least the ones they make in their own name. Home Depot carpenter’s pencils and other private label products they manufacture seem to be more common. I’ve written previously about some Unigraphs that I once found.

I’ll say something to Musgrave that I said to General: Please update your website! An NBC news report shows that Musgrave owns computers and employs at least one professional graphic designer (for their pencils). I am sure it would be possible to put some of that energy into the website, which could become a great showcase for the company. (General has recently updated their site, after years of stagnation.)

The Musgrave HB (that’s really the official name) is part of Musgrave’s “School Line”. It came to the attention of the online community through pencilthings.com, which is where I obtained these pencils. Does anyone know where the rest of Musgrave’s line can be obtained? They seem to have hundreds of pencil varieties, but very few seem to reach retailers, nor does Musgrave sell directly.

The HB pencils have a beautiful natural finish, and have a white eraser attached with a gold and maroon ferrule. They are sold unsharpened.

Musgrave HB pencil

On the scale, a couple of dozen pencils ranged from 5.3g to 6.3g, with a mean weight of 5.8g. Compare this with the Castell 9000 (3.9g) or the reference Mars Lumograph (3.8g). This pencil weighs 50% more than the European competitors! The distance between the sides is the same as a Lumograph (maybe a hair larger) – about 7.47mm. So where is the weight? Some must be in the ferrule and eraser. I’m also comparing unsharpened to sharpened pencils.

There is one physical difference apart from the eraser – the hexagonal shape is much less rounded than the Castell or Mars. You can feel the edges of the pencil quite clearly. I really like this. Vintage pencils had similarly unrounded edges.

The lettering is gold, though the “HB” is plain on black. The pencil is marked:

Side 1 (Obverse): ESTABLISHED 1916 [logo] MUSGRAVE [logo] HB
Side 2: blank
Side 3: blank
Side 4 (Reverse): MADE IN SHELBYVILLE, TENNESSEE USA HB
Side 5: blank
Side 6: blank

As regular blog readers know – I like minimal markings, and I love acknowledgment of the pencil’s origin. Triple points to Musgrave for actually naming the city of production.

I’ve previously mentioned that the Techograph 777, Mars Lumograph 100, and Castell 9000 leads (in HB) are all sufficiently similar that the differences are nuanced and hard to describe. The Musgrave’s lead isn’t at all hard to distinguish. It is softer, smoother, and darker than those three European pencils, and leaves a darker line. It also has an aspect of crumbling or disintegration, and leaves more graphite dust in the area of use. Markings erase as easily as those of the European pencils.

Musgrave HB pencil

It requires quite a bit of thought to find any negatives – there is some crumbling, and the high gloss finish can make it a bit of a slippery hold. The packaging is nil – the pencils arrive loose. (Some may feel this is a plus, but I think this pencil deserves a box.) There is no choice of lead grade.

Overall, the pencil is a great find – a real pleasure to use in every way. Though mail order may not always be convenient, the pencil price also represents a tremendous bargain. I’ll go out on a limb and state that it may be the best pencil that one can buy for under one US dollar.

Here are some some links to information on the Musgrave Pencil Company:

Musgrave HB Product Page You have to click the “Sign on as guest” button. pencils.net is Musgrave’s official site.

Tennessee Encyclopedia article on Musgrave

Tennessee History for Kids article on Musgrave Excellent photographs!

WBIR (NBC) report on Musgrave Make sure you click the “Watch Video” link – the best film of pencil production I’ve seen. Also, Musgrave president Henry Hulan is interviewed.

Shelbyville Times-Gazette article on Musgrave