Pencil for Long-Term Writing, Part 2: Pencils.


According to this blog’s stats, the post from 2010 about long-term writing and pencils is one of the most visited posts on this site. While we are behind in answering mail, we recently, we heard from Don, who asked

“I am wondering if you have any suggestions as to what kind of pencil lead to use for a high quality, long lasting journal?”

I think this is something to explore further, since some pencils (and some papers) perform better than others at keeping your writing safe for the future. Today, let us take a look at what makes a pencil effective for long-term writing, since (as we all know) Pencil is Forever. We’ll cover paper and accessories in two subsequent posts.

When I think of  good Journaling Pencil, there are some considerations I like to, er, consider. In re-reading this list, it could also serve as a Guide to Selecting the Write (!) Pencil in general, in some ways, though the models on that list might be somewhat, or even very, different if that was my intention here.

Darkness
While a German 4H will lend itself to an extreme degree of smear-resistance, it will not make a suitably dark mark for most users’ readability. While a hard pencil’s marks might actually be there on the page, I’d prefer to read them with the naked eye. And as I quickly approach Middle Age, that naked eyesight is not getting better.

Point Durability
A pencil is more likely to continue to make crisp lines if the point is durable and keeps its sharpness without crumbling and making a mess on the paper. I seldom go for the softest option. I like a point that stays crisp and clean for journaling.

Smoothness
A smooth pencil requires less pressure to make a mark. It indents the paper less, and that is always a good thing if you are being careful about your writing — not to mention fighting hand fatigue.

Smear-Resistance
Hard pencils resist smearing, but they can indent the paper due to the pressure required to make marks with them. However, some soft and/or dark pencils resist smearing more than others. This is a sort of Grail to which a lot of individual pencil models seem to aspire, along with a blend of darkness and point retention (a term I do not like).

Ghosting/Graphite Transfer
Almost all pencils and almost all bound books I have used involve the transfer of graphite between pages to some degree — at least when writing on a page which has writing on the other side. I always use a sheet of smooth paper between pages in such instances. A custom-cut piece of an outdated map (a method I’ve used for years) will last through several notebooks, and paper from a Rhodia pad cut to size works very well, too. Please note that cleaning the “blotter” sheet periodically with an eraser will yield maximum results.

Balance
What I look for is a pencil that is a good balance of darkness, smear-resistance, and smoothness. This is difficult to quantify or even to qualify. So I will list some examples of pencils which I personally find to be useful for long-term writing.

Staedtler Wopex – While there are many Comrades who eschew this extruded piece of weaponry, none can deny that the damned thing just won’t smear. It is also difficult to erase (possibly marring a journal full of mistakes, but maybe we shouldn’t run from our mistakes). You cannot have it all. But you can have this fantastic pencil in more colors if you buy from European sellers on eBay.

Blackwing (Firm or Extra-Firm cores only) – For some reason, the Balanced core in the Pearl (and 725) seems to smear more than the others. It has become my least favorite core for journaling. The MMX is lovely, but you can kill a quarter of a pencil writing about a good camping trip. The Firm core in the 602 (and 211, 56, and 344) and the Extra Firm in the 24 and 530 are both smooth and do not smear readily on good paper, though I learn more toward the smoother side of the spectrum of acceptable papers for long-term pencil writing.

General’s Layout – This pencil is oddly smear-resistant, with a durable point, for a pencil which produces such black marks. The slightly wider, round body is a bonus for True Writing Comfort.

Camel “Natural” HB – There’s not much to not like about this pencil. It definitely makes a much lighter  line than most Japanese HB pencils I use, but the point durability and aesthetics are top-notch. And I don’t always want something so soft and/or dark.

Faber-Castell Castell (9000 in the B-4B range) – This pencil can run easily through the 4B range without becoming a blunted, smeary mess. The exact grade you might enjoy will depend on how much darkness you demand and what paper on which you are writing. Try a 4B on Moleskine or Field Notes paper (see the next post), and you will understand that of which I speak.

General’s Cedar Pointe HB – This is a great all-around pencil. When I first tried them circa 2005, the leads were too hard for journaling. But they have softened the formula since then, and this is one of the most balanced cores I can think of. This certainly extends to long-term writing.

Premium Japanese HB – I cannot decide between the Tombow Mono 100 or the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni. Both make smooth, dark marks that stay put.

I am sure that I am forgetting some, and I know I am leaning heavily on pencils I have used recently. What are some things Comrades consider and some favorite journaling pencils among us friends?

St. Patrick’s Elaborate Process.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Stay tuned later for the first of three new posts about keeping your long-term and/or journaling in pencil safe.

White and Glossy.

I found these at Target today. The pencils they carry from Made for Retail are surprisingly nice! The leads are smooth and dark, and the finishes and stamping are well-done.

Best Pencils for Field Notes Utility Edition.


I received my subscription pack of Field Notes’ spring release about two weeks ago, the Field Notes Brand Utility Edition. I had been pretty excited about the design from the start, and the books are the colors of the Maryland state flag to boot. The quality control issues were a bit of a let-down when my books came actually torn on the spine, and there were a few spirited exchanges going on over the weekend on social media. Of course, Brian at Field Notes sent me replacement books right away. Seems that the thick paper causes trouble with cutting/trimming. Some blamed the size of this release, the contractor, postage. I think a lot of the books just came out very badly. Field Notes made a bit of a mistake, and they (as they always do) have been making it right where necessary. I’d be happy with their now standard 60# paper myself. It’s wonderful for pencil and still works in a pocket.

With all of the…talk about the quality control of the Utility, I forgot about the paper being so very different from the usually smooth paper Field Notes uses. The paper in Utility is Mohawk Via Vellum 70#T “Pure White,” and it’s toothy as all get out. With the fall 2012 Traveling Salesman release, it took me until my fifth (of six) notebooks to identify the perfect pencil for that toothy green paper. The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni in HB was perfect on that Mohawk Via 70#T “Light Green” paper. I suspect that list would be longer now, but those books are gone anyway.

Just as I do not enjoy soft pencils for very smooth paper (think Rhodia), I really do not like soft pencils for toothy paper — crumbly pencils doubly so. Being on a bit of a Blackwing kick lately, I had to put these aside when I set about to write in my new Utility edition books.

Some pencils that worked very poorly were immediately:

All Blackwings
Natarag Deep Dark
General’s Layout
Anything soft

I certainly haven’t tested more than a few dozen pencils, but this is a short list of pencils that have worked extremely well on this paper for me so far:

Viking Element 1
General’s Draughting
General’s Cedar Pointe #2/HB
Staedtler Wopex*
Faber-Castell Castell 9008 Steno 2B**
Mitsubishi 9000 HB
Apsara Beauty
America’s Pencil (USA Gold) Natural
Camel Natural HB

When looking at this toothy paper, I thought right away about harder pencils, but this was not ideal. The Castell 9000 in HB writes even more like a nail than it usually does, for instance, and the Mexican Ticonderoga (Target exclusive, 2014, blue) I tried was even worse. There is something successful in the target of a pencil which is smooth but generally leaves something to be desired in the darkness column (Element 1, Wopex, Draughting) and even a few that just seem to perform well on most papers (USA Gold, Cedar Pointe, Camel). Your mileage may vary, but I’ve been enjoying the Viking Element 1 the most, largely because it matches the covers of these lovely books so well.

And, if you’re feeling inky, the Uniball AIR is amazing and does not bleed through this paper.

* (If you make jokes about this evolved pencil, you might try one on this paper. It’s actually the smoothest on this list, and it won’t smear.)
** (I need a source for more of these F-C Steno pencils. Anyone know any?)

Review of Camel Natural HB Pencil.


Around this time last year, CW Pencil Enterprise started carrying this beautiful clear-lacquered pencil that I lusted after. But I was going to visit in person with my daughter soon after that (and I like to drop $100+ on pencils in person when I can, right?). So I waited until April. And I kicked myself a little for waiting because this has become one of my favorite pencils, period.

The Camel HB Japan we’re looking at is made in Japan and available at CW Pencils for $1.50 each. They are not cheap, but they last a long time. I own less than a dozen, more than a half, and I need to get more.

These are available in two colors: grey-capped with an ashy stain and white-capped with a reddish stain. They are both lovely, but I gravitate toward the grey because it stays cleaner-looking in my pencil tin. The imprint is white and simple and does not rub off (ahem, Layout pencil!).


But: Lo! That cap is an eraser, and it works pretty well. I have had one come off on me, but it stayed back on with a tiny drop of glue and two minutes of my time. And, in fairness, I sat on that pencil a few times before that.

The core is part of the reason I like this pencil so much. It’s smooth, but it’s not as soft or dark as what you’d expect from a Japanese HB. I’d suggest that this core feels like the Balanced Offspring of:

A Faber-Castell “Castell 9000” in 3B
and
A Mitsubishi “Hi-Uni” in H (maybe 2H)

The point durability and smear-resistance remind me of a German pencil, but the stress on the woodgrain and the smoothness remind me of a Japanese pencil. Darkness is in-between, I’d suggest. It’s a perfect pencil for pocket carry (the core is durable and won’t require much sharpening) and for long-haul writing (the smoothness, darkness, and point durability combine for comfort and better focus because it won’t let you down).

In Write Notepads “In The Pines” edition.

The cedar fragrance is strong with this one (!), though the thick lacquer requires you to sharpen the pencil before you can get High On Cedar (HOC).

In short, this is a daily-use pencil that you should buy if you like pencils enough to have read this far into a pencil review. It’s a little expensive, but a few of them will last you…until your next Necessary Order from CW Pencils.

See also:
The Finer Point
Pen Addict
The Weekly Pencil

Review of Baron Fig Askew.


This unapologetically blue notebook has been making the rounds for the last week on social media and The Stationery Blogosphere. Baron Fig was kind enough to send a review copy over; so I thought I’d weigh in. Let’s take a look at the Askew Edition.

First, what is it?

“A ruled notebook unlike any you’ve ever used.
Every line is hand drawn, and while some cooperate—others are downright unruly. This limited edition is designed to inspire thinkers to bend the rules and follow even their most meandering ideas.”

This is more than a Baron Fig Confidant in a different color. This notebook challenges the definition of blank/lined journal to some extent.

The cover is Blue Pen Blue and looks like someone painted the fabric with the ink from a Bic Cristal. The color caught my attention first when it came out. The box looks like someone tried to color it in with a Cristal, and the bookmark must be Red Pen Red. It’s a beautiful book. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the paper quality for pencil again. (Check out our take on Baron Fig paper here. tl;dr: it’s awesome.)

There are good number of folks who…don’t like this edition. If a subscriber expected to get a different Confidant each quarter that worked basically like a regular one (lined, dot, blank paper), I can certainly understand the frustration. They are not getting what they paid for under that set of expectations. But did Baron Fig actually promise four different versions of the same, or were they vague? (I have no idea.)

I think the question comes down to whether or not this book does what it’s supposed to do. Can you write in it? Most of the pages come with relatively parallel lines and could be used like a regular notebook for the most part. Some pages are nutso. I can imagine using these to doodle, to test pencils, or even to paste things onto. But they are also “lost” pages if you’re after lined paper on which to write.

But that’s asking if the Askew does what the Confidant does. Does the Askew do what the Askew is supposed to do?

Wait: What IS this notebook supposed to do? It’s supposed to get you to try something different. I don’t want to say “think out of the box” — but maybe write off of the line. And in this regard, I think it’s successful and a hell of a lot of fun.

This book got me to pull out some pens (Bic Cristal Bolds, sign pens, bold Uniball Airs) and go nuts because I write with pencil so much that it can be stifling. And writing mostly in pencil also has the effect of inviting me to over-analyze each piece of graphite I write with. Pens were a welcome change, and I wrote some…different stuff than I usually do so far in this book.

I think this is the Nice Stationery version of Wreck This Journal, a book I enjoyed enough to get the expanded edition when it came out. If nothing else, it is an invitation to have some colorful fun during this dim time of year. I can certainly get behind that.

(We received this notebook free for review purposes, but the opinions expressed do not reflect that we scored it gratis.)

“In The Pines”.


Write Notepads & Co rounded out the first year of seasonal releases this month with their “In the Pines” edition. Considering that we are literally friends with Chris and Co, it’s hard to start writing about how great this edition is and not stop. So perhaps some staccato slowness will get the point across without my friendly and hometown gushing getting in the way.

The Theme/Concept:
When I think of winter, I think of dark green (pine trees) and a striking blue (the sky). These fit the bill perfectly, even evoking some sylvan coniferousness. It could be in my head; it could be that I talked to Chris; but I swear the packing material smelled like pine. The delay on these meant that they were released during the actual winter, not holiday shopping season when the cold really hasn’t set in yet. So I found them especially welcome.


The Box:
Gorgeous. The packs arrived inside of a shipping box this time, which was a boon for such a beautiful package (the Royal Blues got dinged in their padded envelopes). The matte white board with silver stamping brings snow to mind immediately, and the design is just beautiful. I particularly like that “No. 4” is included on the box, clearly numbering the series that has just completed its first year.


The Books:
You get three matching green books with a silver pine tree letterpressed over “In The Pines,” in what might be the perfect font for this cover. The texture and flexibility of the stock make it extremely easy to use and comfortable to pocket. The corners, binding and cuts are all precisely made.

Inside, there is WNP’s fantastic standard 70# white paper with a 1/4-inch dot graph that is ideally spaced for pencil writing. This is my favorite pocket notebook paper by far, even for when I sometimes occasionally rarely use pens (!).


The Pencils:
Unlike the last two releases, you can buy the pencils that match this one right now. They seem like the usual Musgrave custom job at first: a medium quality pencil with top-notch custom design and left-handed printing. These feature a much more crisp silver stamp on their hexagonal face than the round Royal Blue (excuse the terrible photo). What’s really different about these is that they are made of cedar this time. I ordered another six (not only because my better half wanted some to match her books) as soon as I could, but I refrained from stocking up because supplies are extremely limited.


Member Extra:
Included in members’ shipments is a heavy vinyl sticker replicating a pine air freshener. I haven’t had the nerve to stick it onto anything yet because I only have one, but I doubt I can hold out for long.

In conclusion, just go and get a set. I’d like to think folks might refrain from hoarding because of the extremely limited number of these packs. But I’ve seen folks who have saved them help out other people who missed them. So I’ll shut up. If you live in Baltimore, you can get them IRL at a few shops in town without the cost or wait associated with shipping.

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.)