The Pencils of Pens #1: Bic Cristal.

I like being counted as a Pencil Guy. A dozen of your family members and friends will call or text you when a show on TV or the radio has a segment about pencils. And you might even be lucky enough to be invited to collaborate with two talented bloggers in creating a really fun pencil podcast (Tim and Andy, stand up!)

But, you know, I do have and use pens.

True, there have been times when I literally went weeks without using ink. But one could go that long without (heavens forbid!) using any analogue tools these days.

My name is Johnny, and I have A Thing for Space Pens. And gel pens. And Microns. And sign pens.
And I have A Serious Thing for the Bic Cristal. So I thought this would be the perfect pen with which to begin a series of posts I have lazily put off for a long time, The Pens of Pencils – pens which are, in ways, like pencils. I wanted to do something like Pen Week, but these will just pop up from time to time instead, as time and energy permit.

How is the Bic Cristal like a pencil? It’s inexpensive and ubiquitous. You can see how much “write” you’ve got left.* You can vary the line density by varying your pressure. They are even hexagonal.

What the Bic Cristal has over the world of pencils is this: You’d be hard-pressed to find pencils which perform as well as these pens do in the same price range. In Days of Yore (2004-5), one could find cheap pencils which were very nice. But I think the branded pencil which corresponds to the Bic Cristal in price is the “economy” Dixon (not Ticonderoga) pencil. This is probably the worst branded pencil I have every attempted to use. I even masochistically keep a few around, to remind myself that I am lucky to have a large number of decent, even excellent, pencils in The Archive. And I like Dixon Ticonderoga pencils very much. Just not this monstrosity in cheap marigold paint.

Seriously the Bic Cristal  is a good pen. Remember when no one would touch PBR, and then some brave folks started to drink it and reminded us that there are beers whose humility is as wonderful to experience as which type of German hops is contained therein?** Be brave! Use some cheap pens! The Pen Climate seems to be shifting in favor of fountain pens and bottled ink, to a greater and greater degree. I watch this, and I am fascinated. If nothing else, the names some manufacturers come up with for their inks is a testament to human creativity. I do not count myself among fountain pen enthusiasts. But I like very much that there is a growing fountain pen enthusiasm. It brings folks to analogue tools, and that often brings them to pencils. Because pencils are better (!). There are good pens out there with ballpoints in them. Field Notes generated a lot of interest in the Space Pen, beginning in late 2012. If you haven’t tried one in a while, Fisher really does improve the ink every time I get a new refill. The current Fine is easily as good as a Jetstream to me, though it gives me a little more control.

This brings me back to the Bic Cristal. Have you used one lately? Not an old one you found in the drawer***, but a new one stolen from the pen cup at your favorite cafe’? I am often surprised by how much ink a medium-pointed Cristal puts down, yet how long it lasts. I found a few packs of “made in France” blue ones a while back, and the caps and plugs are a different blue. Lovely, but not the cool retro blue I usually prefer. Cristals are smooth, quick-drying pens. They write immediately. They do not smear, even with a bit of rain. You do not need to protect the point or carry a sharpener. If one walks off or gets lost, it’s no great tragedy. And, assuming your municipal recycling program takes all plastics, I am told they are recyclable.

Add to this the fact that Bic has started to put their famous Easy Glide**** ink into the North American medium Cristal, and this great pen is possibly the greatest cheap pen ever made. The blue is bluer. The black is darker. The ink is smoother. And you get that whiff of ink when you furiously scribble on your paper or canvas or skin. Plus, there’s not that gummy ball of ink that so often plagues smooth ballpoint pens like those Inkjoy…things.

In short, if you want a reliable pen which is cheap, attractive, smooth and quick-drying, get yourself a pack or a box of these. Amazon’s Cristals are the new ones, and I found a 2-dozen box at Wallieworld last time I accompanied a family member there on a errand and wondered down the pen aisle. Target has them, too. Check out Little Flower Petals’ recent posts on the Bic Cristal. If part of what you appreciate about pencils is their simplicity, the Bic Cristal might make your fanciest fountain pens jealous.

Finally, if you are surprised by the sudden Pen Post on this blog, remember that even eBay got hacked recently.


*Assuming the ink doesn’t dry up and assuming the lead inside of wooden pencil has not fractured, one can estimate the remaining useful life left in the tool.
** Certainly, there are folks who consume Pabst just to be seen consuming Pabst. But I tried it again a number of years ago as a tribute to my great-uncle (i.e., before it was cool), and it is a very nice brew – though perhaps more so before so many affectedly cool people started idolizing it and holding the cans out so that you can see the label. “Look! I found Pabst at the store or managed to correctly order one!”
*** Unlike pencils, pens have a shelf-life. Ballpoint pens last about 3 years in storage. The Space Pen lasts 100, according to Fisher’s estimates.
**** Get your mind out of the gutter.

22 thoughts on “The Pencils of Pens #1: Bic Cristal.”

  1. Johnny,

    Have you seen the Orange bodied Bics? The solid ones I believe are called Bic Fines and they have a pencil like look.

    And why did you mention space pens? Now that I have given myself permission to move beyond fountain pens, I’m looking at ball pens and wanting to explore! I’ll have to wait a bit though because I’m loving my Bics right now.

  2. Hooray for the Bic Cristal! They may not be all that glamorous, but they’ve become iconic and ubiquitous for a reason: they pretty much just work, and for dirt cheap, and for a good while. And the hexagonal shape is nicely familiar to the fingers for us pencil folk.

    I do have two Fisher Space Pens (bullet models, with the clips lost). I have some issues with the ink globbing with these, but they do write anywhere and on just about anything, and the small, smooth shape fits so well in a pocket (nothing to snag). When I head out for a walk, I often stick one (and a folded-in-half index card) in a back jeans pocket for any gotta-write-that-down thoughts that occur along the way. They also fit in my mandolin case pocket. :)

    1. I wonder what the smell of fresh Bic ink and freshly-cut Cedar Pointe would smell like together?

  3. I have been looking for a place to admit this but I like the Bic Cristal. I love my fountain pen, I have a world of pencils that I prefer to any pen but recently I was preparing for a big exam and I didn’t want to use a fountain pen on whatever paper they provide and you were not allowed to use pencils for the essays. I tried in one afternoon as many pens as I could find and bought a few “recommended by the internet” (RBTI) pens. It was a wonderful waste of time/learning experience. The RBTI pens were all lovely and my writing was close to unreadable. Using the Bic Cristal I had found my writing was legible and the size was a little more like a pencil. Turns out I don’t really like rubbery grips. I went out and bought a bag of 10 for $1 AUD. One of them served me well for several pages of essays and since that day I have not had any problem lending someone a pen… Try as I might the damn things just wont sharpen well…

    1. Well-said, Matt! I am over the super squooooshy grip phenomenon also.

      I can’t get them to sharpen, but I suspect it’s got something to do with the steel KUM uses in their sharpeners and the polystyrene barrel being in cahoots… :)

  4. One of the best pens in the world the BIC Cristal. You may be surprised at how many different one there are. BICs are one of the pens that I collect and I have over 500 different ones going back to the 60s. It seems that there is a different BIC for each country of the world.

      1. Yes it is a big collection that never seems to stop growing. I have been collecting for many years and I still can ot believe the number of BICs that are out there. By the way if you would like a few of the old ones just shoot me an email with address. I have plenty.

        1. Hi, is your collection of bic pens online?

          I’m trying to find a refill for an old pen that seems to use some sort of bic refill that I can’t identify. Working out what sort of bic it was originally for might help..

  5. The bestest thing about Bics is that you never have to buy one. Stroll into any any classroom at university and there will be a Bic on one of the desks. A lot of them are nearly empty and missing the cap but that’s not a problem. Just keep a couple of caps around.
    Cheap? Who are you calling cheap?

  6. *Stands up*

    Great post! I, too, still use pens often, and BIC pens are among my favorite. Some of my favorite promotional pens to get are Bic Clics, like the Draplin Design Company pen. That’s on my desk right now.

    Those yellow-bodied ones are excellent! My friend Lito from Palimpsest got me a bunch of them in the UK in Green, my favorite ink color.

    I was going to link to a great “How It’s Made” video about the making of the Bic Cristals, but apparently Discovery Channel made YouTube take it down. )-:

    1. Andy, we have to get Tim in on the Cristal love on Erasable. Or might that be sacrilege? Plus, I lose all of my deniability about using ink? :)

      A funeral home my father’s family always used had burgundy Clic pens with their logo, and gold trim. Tons of them. I like the creepy vibe they give me now. And I love the…smell of that plastic.

  7. Great post! Great site!
    I work with a 70ish year-old lawyer who has been using the bic crystal religiously for 40 years. He taught me that the cap makes a great staple remover:
    Flip the pages over – slide the (well dang – what you call this part of the cap) skinny, tapered, sharp part of the cap under the two staple ends and lever them up – flip the pages back over – then slide the skinny end of the cap under the staple and gently lever it out! Usually works like a charm and does a cleaner job than most staple removers.

    1. Caleb – my name is Caleb as well, and I too worked with a 70ish year-old lawyer who religiously used Bic Cristals and bragged about the how the cap was a secret staple remover. This coincidence is beyond weird.

  8. Dear Johnny,

    Thank you for a wonderful article! I have fond recollections of my childhood in the 1960’s when Bic pens were cool and were in use by almost every schoolchild. Of course, the children of “better families” were using click-style pens, which were more costly than a lowly Bic pen.

    Perhaps you can answer a question as you wrote about getting an older set of French-made Bic blue pens.

    I recently bought a 1950’s Cartier Paris 2-color pen which uses Bic pen inserts. The barrel loads a Bic refill at both ends, one red, one blue, having a corresponding color band on each end of the pen. It seems that even Cartier did not want be left out of the French Bic craze of the 1950’s.

    The 2 Bic ink tubes in my pen are screwed in – they have threads on the plastic end tip which screws them into the barrel of the pen. I am trying to locate Bic pens from which I can remove the identical screw-in ink tubes.

    It seems from photos on the internet that all newer Bic’s have a pressed in refill without threads on the end where it goes into the barrel?

    Do your French Bic pens have a “press in” or a “screw in” ink tube in the barrel?

    Wondering where I can find screw-in ones to fit… Although Bic press-in ink refills might fit, it’s just not period correct and authentic to the 1950’s pen.

    Thanks for any insight that you may wish to share.

    Best regards,

  9. In the intense heat of a Southern summer sometimes just nothing will do better than an ice cold PBR tall boy. Or Coors.

    But….back to Bic’s…….I like the bold Cristal’s.

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