[I kidded Mr. Harry Marks after he sent a review to my Very Good Comrade Andy at Woodclinched, and we’re lucky enough to publish his review of a piece of Pencil Gear that I own by never talk about: the Timber Twist from Metal Shop CT. Many thanks to Harry!]
When a pencil has been worn to where its ferrule touches the thumb, it is known as the “Steinbeck stage,” so named for John Steinbeck, who discarded his pencils once they reached such a length. It sounds wasteful—even odd. A pencil at half-length still has plenty of words left in it, plenty of sketching left to do.
However, there comes a time when a pencil becomes too cumbersome to hold. When fingers scrunch and contort like commuters on a packed subway car just to eke out a few more strokes before the tool is tossed away and the finish is being sheared away on a fresh stick. What happens to those stubs? Like good little soldiers they do their tours of duty and get retired, but we can’t bear to part with them. They’ve served us well. We drop them into desk drawers and mason jars in the hopes a child might come along and use one to scratch out a wobbly, hesitant letter A. That child never comes. Those remnants are relegated to “desk duty.” Forgotten.
I had tried to assuage my guilt about discarding stubby pencils by purchasing an extender from CW Pencil Enterprise. More akin to a Roaring ‘20s cigarette holder, the little wooden stick had a metal opening to slip the stub into with a ring that would slide down and clamp the pencil in place. It performed as expected, but I didn’t love it. The unprotected tip of the pencil often snapped off in my bag and the dyed wood made marks on the page. It was too long and the uneven metal hurt my fingers after extensive writing sessions. I needed something better, more compact, and easier to carry.
I’d been familiar with Metal Shop’s original bullet pencils for a while, but the aesthetic hadn’t appealed to my tastes. Made out of copper, aluminum, brass, and other materials, their original lineup seemed too cold despite the presence of a piece of wood sticking out of one side. Perhaps it had been the shape. Vintage bullet pencils had been made of plastic and metal and covered in advertisements for vacuum cleaner repair shops and insurance companies. They resembled their namesake, but without the deadly connotations. Metal Shop’s offerings, however, seemed to take the “bullet” part of the name more seriously. They were intimidating, meant for “rugged” types who photographed the contents of their rucksacks for tactical “EDC” websites. I stayed away.
Then Metal Shop’s owner, Jon Fontane, mentioned he was looking for the perfect name for a new bullet pencil—one made out of wood. The Timber Twist, as it had come to be called, carried the same form factor as its metal forefather in a less threatening wooden body. This was it, I thought. This would replace the pencil holder chomping on a 1-inch Blackwing stub in my bag, but that $46 price tag gave me pause. Twenty-five dollars on a box of Blackwings had been my limit. Twelve pencils would last me a long time before I’d need to replenish my stock, but $46 for a tiny cylinder of wood and aluminum? I waited.
Months went by before the urge grew too strong to ignore. One night while perusing Metal Shop’s website, I realized I’d been thinking about this all wrong. I wasn’t paying $46 for one pencil. I was paying $46 for a lifetime of pencils. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the cheap pencil holder, but I wanted more. I wanted an accessory that would last a long time, maybe forever, a piece of me for my son to carry long after I’d gone.
The day it arrived, I pulled the flat cardboard box from the envelope and cursed at its weightlessness. I was prepared to write an angry letter to Metal Shop inquiring about the expensive accessory they’d forgotten to include inside. Then I pried the lid off and saw it sitting there, pinned like a butterfly to be examined with two extra Blackwing 602 stubs and a few erasers rattling around it. Save for the polished aluminum end piece and the bright Pepto-Bismol eraser at the top, this looked like an antique. Metal Shop had done something truly unique: they’d paid homage to a vintage object by making something new that looked like a vintage object.
As I slipped it from its box, I marveled at how light it felt. It had been constructed of mahogany and aluminum. I expected something more substantial. I wanted my pocket to sag under its heft. I wanted the paper to gasp with each stroke, as though I was tattooing my words on its skin. This would not do. This didn’t feel worth the luxury price.
I unscrewed the cap and flipped it over, exposing the 602 stub that had been fastened to the other side, and screwed it in. I now held an almost full-length pencil in my hand and began writing. The weight—or absence of it—suddenly made sense. My hand wouldn’t cramp. I wouldn’t tire as easily as if the Timber Twist had been made of a solid block of wood. I’d exhaust the stub, pull out what was left, attach a new one, and keep going. This bullet pencil seemed to have been made with writers in mind.
The eraser didn’t get much more out of me than a shrug. Its hardness left behind a lot of residue. Traces of the pencil remained on the page. For future buyers, I suggest either not worrying about erasing or carrying a better eraser in your bag. Of course, one doesn’t buy a Timber Twist for the eraser. They buy it for its looks—and what a looker it is.
I purchased the mahogany version with the aluminum trim. The silver of the “bullet” part of the pencil amplifies wood’s cherry tones. Carrying it in my pocket and my bag daily for the past few weeks has put a nice patina on the metal. The wood still looks new, though it won’t be long before it, too, comes down with a case of wabi-sabi. The Timber Twist already had an heirloom feel out of the box. I can’t imagine how good it will look with a couple of handwritten novels behind it.
That’s why we gravitate toward analog tools like these, right? The beauty of such objects is not in how pristine we can keep them, but how much of ourselves we’re able to pour into them. We refer to paperbacks with worn spines and dog-eared pages as “well-loved.” In a few months, the glisten on the finish of my Timber Twist will dull. Fingerprints will cloud the aluminum and the other objects in my bag will scar the grain. It will go through hell and come out changed, not unlike the remains at the bottoms of those desk drawers.
Except this little soldier will enlist the others. No more desk duty for those forgotten stubs. They will slog through short stories and to-do lists, novels and notes, marching along until they’ve taken their last strokes and can truly rest. And the Timber Twist will keep marching, marching along…