Blackwing 24: Holy Grail or Piltdown Man?

This review is by the The Watts, who present version 5.0 of their amazing pencil review series. (The other subtitle involved the word “final”, but I’m not including that because this can’t be final!)

My son Hunter and I shared our last pencil review in September 2015. We’ve since reviewed a few pencil sharpeners but only some earthshaking event could have lured me into another pencil comparison.

Palomino has released the fourth special-edition Palomino Blackwing, and it is most unlike the others. The first three Volumes used existing Palomino cores, but the Volume 24 edition Blackwings have a brand-new core that is supposed to be hard enough to resist the need for continual sharpening while retaining a dark line. Palomino’s description:

“The Blackwing 24 pays tribute to Pulitzer Prize winning author John Steinbeck. Designed under the guidance of his son Thomas Steinbeck, Blackwing has created what they believe would have been John’s ideal pencil. Thom was adamant that his father would want it to be black, from barrel to eraser. It would also need to sharpen to a firm point without sacrificing much if any darkness. The Blackwing 24 is just that – an all-black pencil with the brand-new graphite formulation perfect for extended writing.”

Although John Steinbeck was quoted as liking the Blaisdell Calculator 600 and Mongol Round 2 3/8 F, the pencil he mentioned most was the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. Palomino created its own version of the Blackwing 602 that comes remarkably close in both appearance and performance, but even this extraordinarily well-done recreation of the original suffers from the same Law of Pencils as every other pencil on the market: Line darkness is inversely proportional to point retention.

In other words, a dark line typically means a softer graphite formulation requiring frequent sharpening.

The qualities many of us seek in our pencils can be contradictory:

1. Point retention
2. Dark line
3. Smoothness, also described as a “buttery” feel . . . per Blackwing’s glorious motto, “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”

It’s difficult to improve upon one characteristic without compromising at least one of the others. Although a smoother writing experience isn’t called out in Palomino’s marketing of the Blackwing 24, should it go without saying that any pencil bearing the “Blackwing” name has a responsibility to live up to the “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” legend? Did Palomino pull off the impossible? And is this the really the “. . . graphite formulation perfect for extended writing?”

In a series of reviews, Hunter and I shared the results of our search for the “perfect pencil.” Our reviews initially focused on the second and third qualities in the list above: line darkness and a smooth feel across the paper. After gaining experience with our favorites, we created top five lists of currently available pencils that factor in point retention and aesthetics.

Now, with the arrival of the Blackwing 24, have we found the Holy Grail . . . a pencil that lays down a line as dark as the 602 yet retains its point much longer while retaining that buttery smoothness that makes the Eberhard Faber and Palomino Blackwing 602s so enjoyable to use? Or is this Pencildom’s version of the Piltdown Man, a pencil with a hard and scratchy core encased in the form of a Blackwing and presented to us as The One? We had to find out.

We immediately agreed that line darkness was not an issue. The Blackwing 24 did just as well as the other pencils and was close enough in some instances that it was impossible to tell the difference.

BW24

Next, we tried to prove or disprove the claim of greater point retention. I devised a test that seemed – in my head – foolproof. We would each draw a continuous string of “e’s” until we reached the point at which we would sharpen the pencil. We’d conduct this test with the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 (EF602), Palomino Blackwing 602 (P602), Blaisdell Calculator 600 (BC600) and the Blackwing 24 (BW24). The Blaisdell was thrown into the test because in a previous review we noted it was almost as smooth as the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 but seemed to have greater point retention . . . which might make it the greatest pencil in the history of Earth, although it has sadly gone the way of the dinosaurs.

BC600

The test seemed foolproof, but in practice was problematic. Writing page after page of “e’s” while maintaining the same pressure on the paper and size of the letters is difficult even with an 18-year-old hand but it quickly becomes painful when the older tester is suffering from lingering nerve damage. I tend to apply more pressure than Hunter; so I wore through my pencils faster, giving me enough time to try a second type of endurance test. I wrote the sentence, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country,” repeatedly until I reached the time I would have sharpened, and then I counted the number of completed sentences for each. This gave us three point retention test results which are shown below in order of greatest point retention and number of lines or sentences.

E’s
Stephen
BC600 (13)
EF602 (12)
BW24 (10)
P602 (10)

Hunter
BC600 (71)
BW24 (42)
P602 (38)
EF602 (34)

Good Men Sentence – Stephen
BC600 (7)
BW24 (7)
P602 (6)
EF602 (5)

PBW602

We learned one thing for sure: Testing point retention manually is subjective as heck. We focused on commonalities, though, and agreed to this ranking, shown from longest to shortest point retention:

1. Blaisdell Calculator 600
2. Palomino Blackwing 24
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602

Neither of us felt the Blackwing 24 outlasted the Blaisdell Calculator 600, and we agreed it outdid both the Palomino and Eberhard Faber Blackwings. Line darkness: check. Point retention: check. So far, no evidence of a hoax. What about smoothness?

EFBW602

Pairing them off for side-by-side tests and working our way through each pair, Hunter and I settled on this ranking for how smoothly the pencil moved across the paper:

1. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
2. Blaisdell Calculator 600
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Palomino Blackwing 24

When I compared the Palomino Blackwings 602 and 24, moving to the 24 felt like I was suddenly trying to write in quicksand. The difference was clear and noticeable but it was also an odd sensation as there was no scratchiness to the experience; it was just “slower.” It seemed to take more effort to push the 24 along in comparison to the 602. Hunter didn’t notice this great of an effect which could have been due to his much lighter hand, but he did agree the 24 wasn’t as smooth as the 602.

4 Pencils

We decided to add in another category, a version of aesthetics we’ll refer to here as the Coolness Quotient: Casting aside historical significance, rarity and overall quality, which was the spiffiest-looking pencil? Hunter and I quickly arrived at the following ranking:

1. Blackwing 24
2. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Blaisdell Calculator 600

Back to the question posed in the title: Is the Palomino Blackwing 24 the Holy Grail or the Piltdown Man? Palomino advertised a dark line and firm core for extended writing. In comparison to our other three pencils, this one more than holds up its end of the bargain. It is at the bottom of the list in terms of smoothness, but where in Palomino’s advertising do they claim it’s as smooth as the Blackwing 602?

“The Blackwing 24 features a new extra-firm graphite great for extended writing. You won’t find this graphite in any of our other Blackwing models. It’s slightly firmer than the graphite found in the Blackwing 602, without sacrificing much in the way of darkness. It also features a distraction-free black barrel, black imprint, black ferrule and black eraser.”

Clearly, this is no Piltdown Man. But is it the Holy Grail of pencils?

For me, nothing comes closer to the Holy Grail than the extinct Blaisdell Calculator 600. It scores on all three major counts: Point retention, dark line and smoothness. Until something comes along that equals or bests the Blaisdell Calculator, I’ll remain on the hunt for a currently-manufactured Holy Grail. There is another item that knocks the Blackwing 24 down a peg or two for me: the barrel is slippery. I notice a clear difference between how well my fingers adhere to the barrel of the other three pencils vs. the Blackwing 24. I had a similar issue with the natural finish (clear lacquer) Blackwing 211 . . . I had to regularly readjust my fingers. Apparently, my career as a tree frog is over before it began, but from what I’ve seen, this doesn’t seem to be an issue experienced by many others.

Hunter really likes the Blackwing 24. He writes with a lighter touch; so the smoothness isn’t an issue for him. His fingers don’t slip on the barrel like mine. This pencil has better point retention than the others, and it’s just as dark. And its looks are . . . stunning. For Hunter, at least for now, this is his Holy Grail.

My answer to the question “Is this the Holy Grail?” is an unhelpful “Maybe.”

Let’s look at where this falls into our rankings. Hunter and I have been playing around with the newly popular Apsara Absolute and thought we might as well slot it into the list.

Apsara

Our last full ranking of 27 pencils was in order of quality of the line and smoothness of the writing experience:

1. Mitsubishi Hi Uni 2B
2. Tombow Mono 100 2B
3. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
4. Blaisdell Calculator 600
5. Palomino Blackwing 602
6. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
7. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
8. Tombow 2558 HB
9. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
10. Staedtler Noris 122 HB
11. Eberhard Faber Mongol 482 – 2 3/8 F
12. Staedtler Norica HB 2
13. Palomino ForestChoice #2
14. Mitsubishi 9000 HB
15. Faber-Castell 9000 2B
16. Staedtler Mars Lumograph HB
17. Staedtler 123 60 2 HB
18. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1
19. Palomino Blue Golden Bear #2
20. Field Notes No. 2
21. Dixon Ticonderoga HB 2
22. Dixon Ticonderoga Renew HB
23. General’s Semi-Hex 498-2 HB
24. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2 HB
25. General’s Test Scoring 580
26. Musgrave Test Scoring 100
27. U.S.A. Gold Natural 2 HB

Factoring in aesthetics, point retention and all-around likability, my last top five list was as follows:

1. Palomino Blackwing 602
2. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
3. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
4. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
5. General’s Cedar Pointe #333-1

If I were marooned on a deserted island and could have only one type of pencil, my choice was the Palomino Blackwing 602.

Hunter’s top five:

1. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
2. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
5. Mitsubishi Hi Uni 2B

Hunter’s choice for the deserted island was the Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB.

Here is our new list of 29 . . . yes, OCD sufferers, 29. Not 30.

1. Mitsubishi Hi Uni 2B
2. Tombow Mono 100 2B
3. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
4. Blaisdell Calculator 600
5. Palomino Blackwing 602
6. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
7. Palomino Blackwing 24
8. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
9. Tombow 2558 HB
10. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
11. Apsara Absolute
12. Staedtler Noris 122 HB
13. Eberhard Faber Mongol 482 – 2 3/8 F
14. Staedtler Norica HB 2
15. Palomino ForestChoice #2
16. Mitsubishi 9000 HB
17. Faber-Castell 9000 2B
18. Staedtler Mars Lumograph HB
19. Staedtler 123 60 2 HB
20. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1
21. Palomino Blue Golden Bear #2
22. Field Notes No. 2
23. Dixon Ticonderoga HB 2
24. Dixon Ticonderoga Renew HB
25. General’s Semi-Hex 498-2 HB
26. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2 HB
27. General’s Test Scoring 580
28. Musgrave Test Scoring 100
29. U.S.A. Gold Natural 2 HB

Counting only currently available pencils, my new top five has shifted and the Blackwing 24 has displaced a long-time placeholder:

1. Palomino Blackwing 602
2. General’s Cedar Pointe #333-1
3. Palomino Blackwing 24
4. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
5. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB

My choice for a deserted island pencil remains unchanged: Palomino Blackwing 602.

Hunter’s new top five:

1. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
2. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
3. Palomino Blackwing 24
4. Palomino Blackwing 602
5. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB

Hunter’s choice for the deserted island is now the Palomino Blackwing 24, although he believes this is partly due to the current hype and may change over the next few months.

Summary thoughts:

Hunter: Point retention is much more subjective than we expected.
Hunter: The Palomino Blackwing 24 has really shaken things up.
Stephen: The Blackwing 24 is just slippery enough to be a little less comfortable to use.
Stephen: The Blackwing motto “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” is not part of the equation with the 24, which still writes with “Half the Pressure,” but not at “Twice the Speed.” To be clear, the manufacturer has not implied the motto applies to this pencil.
Stephen: The Blackwing 24 came out higher overall than expected. For people who don’t notice the “slippery” effect and don’t mind a “slower speed,” the point retention, line quality and sheer beauty may help this pencil qualify as their Holy Grail.

I’ve seen a number of nicknames for this pencil, all playing off the name Blackwing, but one I haven’t yet read pays homage to its basic black design and the newly released Batman v Superman movie. I dub thee:

BATWING!

***

Previous reviews:

All Hat No Cattle? – – Mythbusting Double Header Part 2

Frankenstein’s Sharpener! – Mythbusting Double Header Part 1

Eberhard Faber Microtomic vs Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, MythBusters Edition: “Confirm” or “Bust?”

Pencil Sharpener Review Redux (Viewable Only to Erasable Facebook Community Members – Text is Contained in the Comments Section of “Pencil Sharpener Shootout” Below)

Father and Son Pencil Review VI (aka Hell Freezes Over Twice! aka Final Review v4.0)

Pencil Sharpener Shootout

Father and Son Pencil Review V (aka Final Review v3.0)

My Journey to Pencil Sharpener Satisfaction

Father and Son Pencil Review IV: What? IV?

Father and Son Pencil Review III: The Final Chapter

Father and Son Pencil Review II

Father and Son Pencil Review I

 

31 Replies to “Blackwing 24: Holy Grail or Piltdown Man?”

  1. I’ve never commented here before, but have lurked for quite some time. I just wanted to say that I appreciate Stephen’s posts: they’re informative, funny, thorough, and about pencils. What more could anyone want?

    Regarding the 24: I have been waiting nervously for them to finally appear in the inventory of my dealer, and this review actually *does* affect how many I’ll purchase, so it’s much appreciated.

    1. Thank you Jeff! I will say that I’m more critical of the 24 than any other comments I’ve read so far, yet they displaced one of my top five. It’s hard to go wrong with this pencil.

  2. Fantastic review as usual! And enjoy the diversity of opinions on pencils (Swiss Wood? It’s near Wopex on my list! Ouch.). While I think it’s valid to include unavailable pencils, it’s discouraging that the 600 remains king when it’s nonexistent for mere pencil mortals. My own take? While I like the V.24, still a confirmed V.211/602 fan and not sure that will change. But we’ll see what Charles & Co. come up with for the production line model carrying the new core looks like.

  3. Thank you for this interesting article! You have listed several pencils here that I will now need to try out myself. One thing I haven’t been able to understand about the Palomino Blackwings, in their multiplying permutations, is that they seem to me to be just dressed up Palomino pencils in differing grades. I haven’t tried this latest one, but of the Palomino Balckwing, Pearl, and Palomino Blackwing 602 that I have tried, none came any closer to the original Blackwing than the old orange Palominos did. What everyone has hoped for is something that really matches the “Half the Pressure,Twice the Speed” legend, and buying the trademark and printing it on the barrel doesn’t make it necessarily true. They have done very well at marketing the idea of the original Blackwing, but it sounds like even after this fourth attempt I will be waiting for the reality to be delivered. In the meantime I am happy with my assortment of MIcrotomic pencils – I was wondering why you didn’t work any of those into the mix? The HB, B, 2B grades I use are fantastic for second-bests to Blackwings, and the F grade sounds similar to what you describe here for better point retention, although it isn’t as dark. Thanks for your thoughtful comparisons!

    1. Pencil quality is almost overwhelmingly subjective, and I’d have to say that everyone’s opinion is “correct” because scientific evaluations aren’t available to most of us. Hunter and I found the Palomino Blackwing 602 to be the closest thing out there to the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, and those results were repeated in test after test (links above). I’m not aware of the cores being changed in the various versions, old or new, of the Palomino HBs and our reviews of the Palomino HBs didn’t leave it as high on the list as other pencils. Regarding the Microtomics, although we didn’t slot any of them into our list of 29, we did compare them to the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 in the article linked above and titled “Eberhard Faber Microtomic vs Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, MythBusters Edition: “Confirm” or “Bust?”

      1. Hi Stephen – I don’t think the cores have changed in the Palomino Blackwings, what I meant in my comment was the difference in the cores between the different versions of pencils. I believe the first PB released used the same core as the orange Palomino range – not sure which grade, 2B or HB – but that pencil at least was a repackaging of the orange Palomino line. Initial feedback was that it was too soft to match the EF Blackwing, and other versions followed.

        As you say, pencil experience is subjective. Your review does let me know that this “slower speed” version isn’t what would appeal to my use.

        I have read your Microtomic review, and it was interesting. Since I don’t have access to the Blaisdell pencil, which sounds wonderful, to compare to the original Blackwing or the Palomino versions, I will stick with my subjective love of the Microtomic soft grades for what I use. Since the original Blackwing only has one grade, I enjoy the variety I get from pencils designed for drafting purposes. Thanks again for the interesting post!

        1. This is the first I’ve heard the Palomino Blackwing “MMX” may have used the same core as the Palomino. I haven’t compared them so I can’t say. You sure can’t go wrong with the Microtomics, and fortunately the prices haven’t skyrocketed on them yet so we don’t have to feel like we’re choosing retirement savings over a pleasant writing (or drafting!) experience.

  4. Thanks, Stephen for the fun and informative review. You guys need to take your show on the road. :) … Recently, I compared a BW24 to the HB versions of the Mitsubishi Hi Uni and Tombow Mono 100 and Pro. Remarkably, all of them were very similar (to me) in point retention, line darkness and smoothness — especially the Mitsubishi. If I’m not mistaken, Mitsu makes the cores for all the Palomino Blackwings? So, is it likely that the BW24 shares the same core with the Hi Uni HB?

    1. (This is Johnny) Pretty sure that Kitaboshi makes the Palomino/Blackwing range. I think Charles mentioned it in the Erasable Podcast Facebook Group a while back. :)

  5. Great review and insight. I would add that while the individual aspects can be measured, the way they come together in the writing experience is what ultimately matters for me.

    My experience writing with the 24 vs. 602 is the 24 is indeed harder and does hold a point longer, however I greatly prefer the writing experience of the 602 and find I write happily with it longer between sharpening. Why? Near as I can figure, because the 24 is harder, it becomes harder to write with sooner, whereas, for me, the 602 has a much broader “near ideal” writing window. So while the 24 at its best would be my ideal pencil, it isn’t at it’s best for very long compared with the 602, which if the thoughts are flowing I write two pages before starting to notice the need for sharpening (vs. 3/4 page with the 24).

    1. Patrick, that’s an interesting perspective and one I hadn’t considered. I’ve found that my views on a pencil vary greatly based on whether I’ve just picked it up and started to use it vs. comparing it side-by-side with another. The Apsara Absolute, for example, is a wonderful pencil that I love using, but when I compare it with one pencil at a time in terms of smoothness and quality of the line, the smoothness aspect pushes it down to #11. Your writing multiple pages at a time repeatedly gives you a unique view into the qualities of the 602 and 24 – thanks for sharing.

    1. Otto, thank you but please stop reading because you may find I let a “desert island” slip into one of the reviews. Augh! Well, it’s still better than “dessert island.” Or maybe not . . . .

  6. Most excellent review! I got my 24’s a week ago and I must agree that I prefer the 602 but the 24 just looks sooo good. Thank you so much for an excellent and upplifting site. It’s all in the details yes:)

  7. Obviously overlooking something, but why does the Mitsubishi Hi Uni make the top of your long list, but only the number 5 spot on one of the two top fives?

    Also, do you know which of the pencils on your long list that are still in production have a round barrel? Sucker for round barrels. Have a stub of a beautiful maroon Mitsubishi at work with a round barrel and white eraser, but I’ve never run across it in any of the stationery shops here.

    1. Hi Matthew,

      The long list is based purely on how smoothly the pencils move across the paper and the quality of the line. The top five lists are what we’d actually prefer to write with day in and day out. They take into consideration aesthetics, “fun factor” and sharpening frequency (the Mitsubishi and Tombo 2Bs in the long list are a joy to write with but require frequent sharpening).

      The only round barreled pencil in our list is the Blaisdell Calculator 600 but it has been discontinued for many years now. Neither of us is are big on round barrels as you might guess. There are some out there but I can’t advise you as to their quality. Pencils.com has a new Golden Bear jumbo round and if you search CW Pencil Enterprise for “round” you’ll find plenty to try out.

      Happy hunting!

      1. Thanks for the reply. I’ll take a look at the GB Jumbo Round, and the CW Pencil Enterprise was new to me. There do seem to be relatively few of us who prefer a round barrel, attested to both by their scarcity and their seemingly short market lives.

  8. What about erasers? Do these factor into the review? smile. It’s been said that Steinbeck used the removable eraser feature of the 602 to toss the eraser all together. According to his son Thom, from an interview done by Palomino, “He thought erasers were the ultimate lack of courage.”

    1. Hi Daniel,

      No, eraser quality wasn’t something we considered. I don’t use them much and when I do, how well a job they do is probably the least important thing about the pencil to me. The Palomino Blackwings’ usual black erasers aren’t thought of very favorably. I’ve heard the pink replacement erasers are better but I haven’t compared them side-by-side.

      I’ve never run across an account of John Steinbeck tossing the erasers from his Blackwings, and of the three pencils Steinbeck is quoted in writing as liking, two of them had non-removable erasers: The Blaisdell Calculator 600 and the Mongol Round 2 3/8 F.

      But who really knows anymore?

  9. I’ve looked at the Hi-Uni (curse you Mitsubishi) and I’ve been contemplating which grade to use, with either 2B, which you mention at your top of the long list, or F, which a reviewer on Jetpens praises due to its lead retention being in his hands exceptional. Or should I go with the the 9850 HB?

  10. Hi Kian,
    The 2B will be one of the smoothest-writing pencils you’ll ever try, but that joy will be tempered by the need for frequent sharpening, which is why it and the Tombow 2B never made it into our top five lists. If you’re intent on sticking with Mitsubishi, I suggest trying the Hi-Uni HB and F in addition to the 9850 HB. All three may be purchased as singles at JetPens, which also sells an HB sampler pack.
    Happy hunting!
    Steve

    1. Thanks. I’m more likely to buy a pack of one grade for the Hi-Uni as opposed to singles. And it’s literally boggling my mind between deciding between 2B or F, as I already have the HB. Also, I cannot believe that in your opinion, two pencils manage to surpass the Eberhard Faber Blackwing in terms of smoothness. And I mainly narrowed it down to the 2B and F primarily because I already have the HB, but I want the most balanced version in terms of smoothness/lead retention.

  11. Oops, did not read your reply correctly. But either way, it’s still between the Hi-Uni F or 9850 HB. Is it that they have the same smoothness/lead retention or something is different?

    1. I haven’t compared the Hi-Uni F with the 9850 HB, but as they are both Mitsubishi pencils it’s unlikely the F is as smooth as the HB and the HB has the same point retention as the F. If you’re wrestling with the decision, best option is to try both of them and judge for yourself, as this is a very subjective determination.

  12. I’d love to get your opinions on how the Vol 24 stacks against the Uni NanoDia woodcase pencils. While I’m really enjoying the V24s I have, I tend to use the much less expensive NanoDia pencils in 2B. The point retention seems at least as good with the Uni and I actually think it’s a bit smoother on the paper. But that’s my opinion and I’d love to read yours.

    Here’s a link to the online retailer, who offers the best price I’ve found for them:
    http://www.jetpens.com/Uni-NanoDia-Pencil-B-Green-Body-Pack-of-3/pd/8757

  13. Great review with so much research behind it! I think that the people at Palomino didn’t quite follow through with the all black concept. Now, I do realize that they are very committed to using the incense cedar that they produce but in this case a switch to a truly black wood would have made the final product even more elegant than it already is.

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