On Point Retention and Durability.

I have participated in National Novel Writing Month five times, and this year, I “won” for the third time. What was unique to me this year — aside from writing something I like enough to edit in January — is that I wrote the entire thing in pencil. I suspect that which pencils I used this year could be a fun post to write, but today I want to write about something I learned a lot about last month: point retention.

I’m not sure that I have ever read a detailed discussion about what we mean by that in the Pencil World, but I think it is safe to say that one usually means is how sharp a pencil stays when one writes/draws with it, i.e., how much of the point is left.

But after writing 50,000+ words in 30 days all in pencil, I have found that it is more nuanced than that.

I suggest that a more useful or practical way to think about point retention is to think about Writing Retention* and that the issue is point durability,  not sharpness.

This year, I used a few soft Japanese pencils, such as the Blackwing 344 and 56, both of which have the same core as the 602. It is dark but not super soft, and the retention was the best among the Blackwing line until the release of Volume 24 in spring 2016. I was considerably more concerned with smoothness and writing speed than I was with pencils that would stay sharp as I attempted to draft a bad novel on paper in a month. The paper in the Yoobi composition books I used was pretty smooth and proved to be quite excellent for the project. Graphite would glide but not smear all over the place like it can on Rhodia paper.

At the beginning of one writing session, abuzz and awash in coffee, I tried out a 2016 Dixon Ticonderoga, Chinese-made, picked by hand at Staples. While I could get four pages (of about 250-300 words each) out of a Blackwing 602 equivalent core, I was barely able to write two pages before I had to sharpener the Ticonderoga. What is more, the pencil was nearly as sharp as it was when I started writing with it. The auto-stop crank sharpener I was using nearly refused to engage the cutters on the pencil.

The Blackwing, on the other hand, had grown quite dull. Still, I was able to find a useful writing surface because of the amount of graphite the pencil could lay down. Things got more complicated when I figured out that the Blackwing 344 was able to write as long as the slightly harder Blackwing 24, perhaps even a little longer. Certainly, the smoothness of the paper could have given the 344 (and 56) an artificial edge because it sheared off a little less graphite than a toothy paper might. But the darkness was unaffected, and the 24 would have the same advantage also. Maybe a slightly toothier paper would give the edge to the 24 and make the 344/56 go dull very quickly.

Using the new Blackwing Volume 530 (which has the same Extra Firm core as the 24), I have found that it dulls as quickly on Field Notes paper as the 344 I was using last week. However, it smears less and ghosts less.  And of course the different “feel” could be a draw for some people, as it was for me today when I used one for a dozen pages.

I think that how long a pencil is useful before requiring a sharpening is a balance of darkness and what we generally call point retention. I propose that a dark pencil often has more writing durability than a harder one, since it can still perform with a duller point. Certainly, there are other considerations — smear resistance, smoothness, etc.

But I suggest a change in our Pencil Lexicon to Point Durability, i.e., how long a point is useful for making marks on paper, not how long it remains sharp. A sharp light pencil often fails to mark paper while a half-blunt darker pencil still trudges on. This is making me look at my darker/softer pencils in a whole new light and is helping me to understand why I still love the Blackwing (which I call the MMX for the year it was introduced) original so much.

* (Or Drawing Retention — but I write more than I draw; so I will stick the the former.)

14 thoughts on “On Point Retention and Durability.”

  1. Johnny, I think you make a good point that in general when you think about the point and the general effort of writing, a lead which is darker can write longer with a larger point because it will release lead under a lower pressure anyway.

    Try writing with a 4H or something similar very hard lead and with just a little wear on the point, it has become so broad that the pressure required to make that actually produce a visible line (unless the paper is extremely rough) would make it generally not pleasant to write with.

    However for me, due to mainly what I write, which is math related, I find that once a point goes above 0.030″ my enjoyment of writing falls off and is gone by the time it hits 0.040″. At this point I would have to write very large to make super/sub scripts and I tend to prefer smaller script.

    Nice point about the paper as well. I like Magic brand loose leaf paper even though it is very cheap because it has quite a rough surface and it produces a very dark line with a decent HB pencil. It is way too rough for the Palimino’s, wears them down too fast and they don’t need a rough surface anyway.

  2. Excellent! Having never written w/graphite for more than a few pages, I was surprised by your conclusions but they make sense. Short length writing it seems more important to me to have a sharpish point and a dark line…but easy to see, especially in writing flow, that being able to keep going with a decent darkness and legibility is more important.

  3. Spot on, Johnny! Writing pages is vastly different than writing notes. A pencil that flows smooth and stays writing well and legibly for a longer time is a wondrous thing — far superior to the clunkiness of a keyboard and kludgyness of even the best of pens (which always skip, blurt, or blob a few times a page for me). A quality writing pencil, which as you say needs to be softer rather than harder, such as the 602 (tried the 24, didn’t like it), actually promotes the flow of thought rather than being a barrier to it. Plus cursive promotes the flow of thought (studies shoe it increases cognition), so write in a literal flow rather than print. Grin.
    Paper is what I’ve found to be the biggest challenge. Everything from tooth to color and brightness of the lines gets in the way. Finally had my own printed and love it. I suspect the pencil writer of multiple pages at a time is a small market indeed. Grin.

    Great points about points!

  4. How so? Because I mentioned the pencils I used for NaNoWriMo, and they happened to be Blackwings? My experience the difference between the 56 and 602 cores runs contrary to Blackwing’s own advertising.

  5. Great post Johnny,

    I think you hit the nail on the head (I resisted saying “you made a great point” despite every urge) with the analysis of point retention vs. durability. I can easily tolerate a darker line from a stubbier point. I think this feeling helps explain my proclivity to use the Norica, a pencil that dulls almost immediately but creates incredibly dark lines for at multiple pages at a time. I’ve had the same problem with the Ticonderoga, as I think it is a little too hard for many paper stocks.

    I find this is almost inverse for Field Notes paper, particularly graph. I tend to write smaller in pocket notebooks, a fact exacerbated by graph paper. The Ticonderoga, or the equally hard/waxy Musgrave Harvest hold up well by letting me make crisp lines, if not with the darkest line in the world. The Blackwing MMX, for instance, gets a little too bold a little too quickly, and I find myself filling pages quicker than I’d like since my writing doubles in size. I’ve generally found that Field Notes paper is fairly balanced, but that can affect the pencil line in some unpredictable ways.

    This summer, I tested out some of my favorite pencils in a similar experiment. I used a Tops Steno Pad* (green pages). I had used some of these steno pads before, but not with a ton of analysis. This Tops paper – green at least – is essentially a performance enhancing drug for graphite as I managed to get nearly 20 pages out of a Blackwing 24. It’s not a fair comparison by any stretch since I repeatedly wrote the same phrase that made it only 3/4 of a line. Couple that with the fact that steno pads are slightly smaller and also feature wider lines than a comp book and the results are a little mitigated. Nonetheless, it’s something.

    * https://www.amazon.com/Spiral-Steno-Inches-Greentint-Sheets/dp/B003CT3T7M/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1484683216&sr=8-6&keywords=Tops%2BSteno%2Bpad&th=1

  6. I wrote this comment yesterday, and I returned today to provide a clarification and noticed that is hasn’t appeared. I’m rewriting and re-posting it as a result.
    Great post Johnny,
    I want to make a pun about a “good point,” but I’ll refrain. Instead, I’ll say that you hit the nail on the head in your analysis of point retention vs. point durability. I’ve found the nuanced delineation between the two concepts to be important when evaluating a writing pencil, especially a pencil you would use for a longer writing project. Your insight helps to explain why I have such continued fondness for the Canadian blue Norica or the Blackwing MMX. Both dull almost immediately, but retain a distinct bold line for pages.

    Field Notes paper tends to present a conundrum if not an irony. When I write in pocket notebooks, I tend to write smaller, especially when I’m using my preferred graph paper. I’m sure this phenomenon isn’t unique to me. I’ve found that pencils with a slightly harder core, but still within the HB realm – think Ticonderoga, Musgrave Harvest, Mirado – work well on Field Notes pages because they allow for a crisper line after multiple pages of writing. Ironically enough, I’ve found that the Field Notes pencil is entirely too hard to write on Field Notes paper in a shade anywhere above a muted gray, yet it works great on a composition book and nicer legal pads.

    It’s very interesting to analyze point durability re: paper choice. I’ve found that Tops Steno Pads* (green tint paper) essentially functions as a performance enhancing drug for graphite. I performed a similar experiment this summer to assess point durability endlessly scrawling the same phrase until reaching my breaking – no – sharpening point. The indomitable Blackwing 24 gets close to 20 pages before it finally dulled past a reasonable level. True, we aren’t looking at a fair apples-to-apples comparison. Steno pages are smaller than composition books, and the line rule is wider than even comp books’ traditionally generous spacing. Nonetheless, they are exceptional writing pads for the money, and the green tint adds a unique feel. That is, if you can get past their horrendous 1980s inspired covers (https://www.amazon.com/Spiral-Steno-Inches-Greentint-Sheets/dp/B003CT3T7M/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1484768611&sr=8-5&keywords=tops+steno+pad).

  7. I swear that two minutes ago that post wasn’t there. And all I wanted to do was clarify blue Canadian Norica . . .

    So much for bandwidth. Feel free to delete one of those, Johnny. Or both, really :)

  8. Would it be possible to help illustrate this idea? Could you write with a few of these pencils until you think they need sharpening and then take a picture of them side by side?

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