Review of General’s Layout Pencil.


[This review comes courtesy of Speculator, from the excellent blog La Vie Graphite. Many thanks to our Comrade in Maine!]

Today’s product review salutes the remarkable Layout pencil, made in the U.S.A. by General’s. Here is a look at a hardworking pencil that defies the traditional grading system, making a pronouncedly bold and dark mark while retaining a sharp point. From the General’s factory in Jersey City, the Layout pencil earns its keep in my arsenal as a sturdy companion in writing and bookbinding.

The Layout of the Land:
Wood casing: Sustained-yield California incense cedar wood.
Shape: Round.
Finish: Gloss black, with white embossed titling.
Titling / Inscription: USA Since 1889 ; GENERAL’S Layout ; Extra Black ; No 555.
Core: Extra Black Graphite, ungraded.
Note: The General’s Layout pencils are untipped (without eraser), pre-sharpened, and made in U.S.A.
Availability: May be purchased singly, blister-packed pairs, or in boxes of a dozen, at art supply stores such as Utrecht Art, Blick Art Materials, Jerry’s Artarama, as examples. (My source is Utrecht Art, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

Perhaps due to its dark-marking, shape, and absence of an eraser, the Layout is billed as an “art” pencil. The manufacturer’s description cites the “extra smooth, extra black graphite,” which is “ideal for outlining and sketching,” and “used by animators since the 1930s.” The retailer Utrecht Art Supply cites the “soft and smooth graphite for deep, black lines and easy blending,” and Blick Art Materials’ catalogue advertises how “This versatile pencil is great for art, sketching, and layout work.” For years, I’ve been using the General’s Layout for basic writing — as well as for drawing and bookbinding. The slightly thicker diameter (as well as graphite core) provides for an easy grip. What I’ve always found extraordinary about the Layout is how this very dark-writing, somewhat soft pencil maintains a sharp point through a lot of use. Minimal sharpening is needed, and unlike most drawing pencils, the Layout doesn’t smear. That makes this pencil ideal for Rite-in-the-Rain paper’s waxy-finished water-resistant paper (see above photo). In the photo below, I’ve used the Layout in a journal made by Field Notes. Note how expressively I can make my accents! Imagine writing with a 3B that resists dulling like an H.

An all-purpose pencil for writing, art, and any craft requiring a bold and precise marking instrument, the Layout is a time-honored favorite. The term “layout,” is a vestige from the era of graphic design done-by-hand, with angled drawing boards, tracing vellum, t-squares, and photostat-cameras. The work of a layout artist involved diagramming and sketching out the sequences of advertisements, posters, publications, signs, etc. Well-drawn lines make the difference, in this kind of work. As the pencil’s name recalls the craft of manual graphic arts, the box design does the same with a pleasantly archaic cursive typeface. In the photo below, the General’s Layout finds its place among my bookbinding and paper conservation tools. Just a few sharpening turns, and the Layout joins my lunch break journaling.

For a typical restoration project, it is vital to have a marking pencil that is as bold as it is fine. I have to measure materials as diverse as coarse bookcloth and thin kozo tissue with great care so that all the parts fit precisely together. The photo below shows a before-and-after of a 19th century casebound book’s textblock, with the early stages of case (cover) restoration.

In the next photo (below), the Layout is still sharp enough after marking the replacement fabric to provide bold and easily-followed marks on bristol board (for the new spine) and on smooth Permalife paper (for the new endsheets). The first photo in this pair may remind faithful pencil-users about the ways many of us perpetuate the practice of holding a pencil behind an ear. That’s a uniquely pencil-using and ancient gesture, keeping the writing instrument instantly at the ready. The Layout’s thickness, round contour, and glossy finish make it really hold well behind my ear! There’s plenty to be said for “stick-to-it-iveness.”

There’s also plenty to be said for having the right tools for the job. Here (photo below), the Layout has helped me get the restored spine to the exact size needed, such that I can graft it beneath the original 1880s board cloth. I maintain as many of the original components as possible, so that the book maintains its intrinsic grandeur while also being strong enough for library patrons to leaf through. We archivists like to refer to “preservation and access” as principles to our work.

Layout pencil back in the tool box (or perhaps over my ear), the book is all done and ready for the drying process. Notice the original spine-titling has been adhered to the new spine (of course with acid-free PVA + methylcellulose adhesive I mix myself).

By now, you can guess that I give the General’s Layout pencil the highest marks (indeed, bold, jet-black, and thus paradoxically rigid marks), also recommending you buy a bunch of these — so that a few are left in a tool box, your desk, a pencil case, kitchens, musical instrument cases, etc. The best sharpeners I’ve found for these are the small, handheld steel pointers (I use a Staedtler), which can encompass the Layout’s contour. If you need to erase some of those bold marks, white plastic erasers work best (and are archival, too). Happy Writing! Bonne Ecriture! Think of the upcoming Spring season as a layout for new written ventures. Are your pencils sharpened?

[Text and images, Speculator.  Used with kind permission.]

26 Responses to “Review of General’s Layout Pencil.”

  1. Joshua says:

    Ever since I found these, I’ve sworn off of Ebony pencils as I find these far superior (plus the fact that they’re still made in the USA.

    Great review!

  2. Thanks for the review. This pencil intrigues me – a pencil which is as dark as a 3B yet retains its point like a H sounds like the ideal to me.

  3. Eric says:

    This is a must try. Beautiful hand writting.

  4. Stephen says:

    Thank you for the great review, including the wonderful photos! It is really nice to see how the pencils are being used. I’m going to have to try the Layout/Rite in the Rain combination.

  5. Gunther says:

    Amazing! Thank you for that review with the outstanding photos – I must get my hands on some of these pencils very quickly ;-) Keep up the excellent work, Speculator!

  6. An outstanding review–but then, I’d expect nothing less from Speculator! I enjoyed seeing them in action as tools to aid in book restoration. Very interesting stuff.

    I need to get my hands on more of these. I wish Pencils.com carried them…

  7. MJD says:

    I may be off here, but I’m pretty sure that these fall into the category of Carbon Pencils. They feel a bit more chalky than straight graphite and clay because of the added charcoal(for that extra darkness) used in the cores. Similar to the Ebony from Sanford or prismacolor or whatever the brand name on them is now (damn you Newell for making it so hard to keep track). on the other hand I just noticed that my General’s 555′s are labeled Ebony/Layout and have to be at least 15 years old so the current product may differ. At least the name differs but they look otherwise the same. A great review, I enjoyed reading it very much

  8. logan says:

    I had already planned on going to the art supply store yesterday, and after reading this, added a couple of Layouts to my shopping list.

    Compared to the Ebonys I’ve been using, the Layout holds a point much better, and is very close in darkness. The feel is totally different, though. The Ebony has a creamy, super smooth feel, whereas the Layout feels more like a #2 when writing.

    The Layout is noticeably thicker, which is more comfortable for me. The paint is terrible, though, at least on the ones I bought. When sharpening, the Layout’s lead comes off in tiny shards, unlike the Ebony’s fine dust.

    I also picked up a few different grades of General’s Kimberly art pencils. They may end up replacing the Prismacolor Turquoise I’ve been using for shaded drawing. They’re a really beautiful pencil. The 9xxB is crazy.

  9. logan says:

    Forgot to add that the Layout smears a lot less than the Ebony, and seems to be more reflective.

  10. Ana says:

    Love this review! I can’t wait to try some of these pencils out. Quite an intriguing tool.

  11. Palimpsest says:

    I enjoyed reading this review very much especially because the pencil is shown hard at work and especially because the work at hand is book binding/restoration which I love. Wonderful photos too. This General is fit for a prince!

  12. speculator says:

    Thank you for such wonderful comments!!

    Palimpsest hit it precisely about well-crafted tools put to work.
    I wrote the review to demonstrate that very purpose- and really enjoyed making the “chronicle” along the way- of bookbinding and journaling.
    And- I really am a longtime fan of Pencil Revolution, one of my first favorite blogs!

  13. JFPisa says:

    Great interview. Looks like a great product.

    How does it compare to the Palomino Blackwing?

  14. [...] More recently, Speculator wrote a great review of the Layout 555 (another carbon pencil) at Pencil Revolution. [...]

  15. James says:

    It’s extremely close to a PBW in terms of darkness. At comfortable writing pressure, I’d put the PBW a hair darker – negligably so. Having said that – I’m having a difficult time identifying these samples now.

    The PBW is easily way smoother – the Layout is respectable, maybe close to a Lumograph HB.

  16. Bob S. in Phoenix, AZ says:

    What intrigues me about the Layout pencil is that it has the look and feel of a pencil from an earlier era. I feel like I am writing with a vintage pencil from the 19th century. In particular, I am referring to the exterior paint and color, the round shape, the lack of an eraser and the lack of finishing at the top of the pencil. At the same time the quality of the lead and the pencil, itself, are up to top notch modern standards. I enjoy taking notes with this pencil.

  17. Peter Bean says:

    Wow, very nice handwriting you have there!

  18. Dave Story says:

    Wow, this is a great article, and such a find. I have been looking for a pencil such as you describe, and I second what folks above said…lovely shots of your work on book restoration!

  19. Dexter Colt says:

    A spot on description of the General 555. Unlike the Prismacolor Ebony pencil, the General Layout is dark, but not brittle. This is the only pencil I really need.

  20. Even the pencil itself looks absolutely great :)

  21. [...] of graphite and paper. Mr. A from the fantastic La Vie Graphite told me a few years ago that General’s Layout is a wonderful pencil for this paper, and he was entirely correct. I tested quite a bit of graphite [...]

  22. [...] smeared after nearly 1/2 hour to dry. Pencil smears, even somewhat smear-resistant pencils like the General’s Layout and Staedtler Wopex. Certainly, Comrades are not unfamiliar with graphite smearing, and it’s [...]

  23. An added note for any Northwesterners who might stop by: these are now among the General’s offerings carried by Fred Meyer (usually with the art supplies rather than office supplies). They come in a two pack, and at about a dollar a pencil they’re a bit of a luxury item…but somehow a package found its way in with my groceries today.

  24. [...] very happy anniversary to one of my favorite blogs in the world, written by our good Comrade Speculator. La Vie Graphite [...]

  25. andy mackadandy. says:

    can’t get either sanfords ebony or general’s layout in the UK, i have a dozen of each coming from the states. i am used to ordering stuff from a country that is a little less than a 1000 miles end to end, so waiting on stuff from the states is frustrating to say the least, i think both orders are coming by schooner the amount of time they are taking.

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