[This article comes from Jan Jeffrey Hoover, who recently visited The Fitzgerald Collection at Jackson, Mississippi. Many thanks for letting us share this piece and these photos!]
For more than 40 years, from the 1930s until the 1970s, Frank Stanley Fitzgerald and his wife Erva Mae Fitzgerald collected Americana, now housed in a single rustic building at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. Their “collection of collections” includes arrowheads, flatirons, guns, glass insulators, hand tools…..and pencils. According to the museum, their collection of more than 7,000 pencils was once cited in the Guinness Book of world records.
The Fitzgerald pencils are displayed in a single glass-fronted case in the middle of the exhibit. There are no labels or information cards, but specimens are arranged in broad categories and are turned so that their imprints are clearly visible for enthusiasts. The top shelf is a hodgepodge of writing implements obscured by the upper surface of the cabinet, but the lower shelves are easily observed. Extemporaneous cell phone photography can be challenging, but a low conveniently-situated rail encourages visitors to try pictures from various angles.
Many of the pencils, and most of those of those on the second shelf, are promotional, principally from Mississippi-based businesses and officials, particularly those of the Delta which was home territory for the Fitzgeralds. They represent the diverse commerce of the region. Numerous pencils promote agriculture- and forestry-based interests, while others promote products available in feed and general stores. Oversized pencils are well-represented. One appropriately colored pink-and-black pencil bears the imprint “Sincerely Yours Elvis Presley” but is sub-titled with the name of a business.
The third shelf contains specialized material. There is a collection of “hammers and nails” – mallet-shaped with perpendicular double erasers and metallic-colored with flat-caps and lacking ferrules. Not surprisingly, some of these advertise lumber companies. Also pictured above is a collection of “bullets” – always appealing to the pencil connoisseur.
The bottom of the case functions as a bin – holding a voluminous, colorful scatter of pencils. Some are familiar national brands, but, like the bulk of the collection, are largely representative of Mississippi Delta business and industry that thrived during the mid-20th century. The Fitzgerald’s pencils then are not just a testament to a couple’s unusual hobby. They represent a tangible and enduring historical record of the Delta economy.
[Text and images, Jan Jeffrey Hoover, 2017. Used with kind permission.]
We will conclude our series of posts about maximizing the performance of pencils for long-term writing with a short look at pencil accessories.
For journaling, I almost always prefer a long point. I like a point that starts sharp and is able to continue making neat lines without having to stop and sharpen every paragraph, or even every page. And the concave point produced by a crank sharpener like the Classroom Friendly model fits the bill perfectly. On the go (or if you prefer more control of your point), the KUM Masterpiece makes an insanely long point/longpoint and does not draw as much attention in a cafe’ as cranking a large metal contraption might.
The best erasers for preserving pencil writing will not smear, will erase completely, and they will not mar the paper. Generally speaking, some kind of plastic eraser fits the bill for all three of these requirements. This blog is lacking in eraser reviews, but I generally reach for the Staedtler Mars plastic eraser or the Faber-Castell version for journaling.
As mentioned earlier, I prefer a piece of an old map, a cut sheet from a Rhodia pad, or some other smooth and flexible paper for my blotter sheets. This helps to keep your journal neat in the first place, and stationery nerds seem to gravitate toward maps. Win-win.
Do Comrades have other tips or pieces of gear they use for keeping pencil writing safe for future Revolutionaries?
We have established that pencil is the perfect medium for preserving your writing for the future. We recently examined what to look for in a pencil for journaling and/or long-term writing and some examples thereof. Today we will look at paper for keeping your pencil writing safe.
There are several details on which to reflect when selecting a notebook or journal if you plan to fill it with pencil, and this is even more true when one wants to preserve the writing forever.
Spiral bindings can allow pages to rub against other other, creating smearing and thereby affecting the legibility of your writing for the future. Write Notepads & Co. solves this with an enormous rubber band. Generally, if I am going to carry a notebook around for more than a week, I prefer something with an elastic closure like this or like a Moleskine. A staple-bound Field Notes book lasts only a week; so there’s little time to smear. The Write Notepads pocket books are tightly-bound with the PUR spine, and they do not rub much either. Also, consider that an notebook crammed into your pocket will not move very much against other paper, that the fabric of your pocket (and your butt/leg/etc.) will likely keep the pages together anyway. For bouncing around in a bag, I never use a book that can open a even a little on its own, allowing the pages to mingle. Graphite is not to be trusted in the open like that!
I avoid papers with too little or too much tooth. For instance, anything with more tooth than (and sometimes even including) a Scout Books pocket notebook will collect more graphite from the point of the pencil than the marks which one seeks to preserve. This results in dust and smearing and a generally untidy notebook. This is fine sometimes; pencil is not always tidy. But for writing which we seek to protect, smearing can render words, lines — even pages — illegible. Even worse is paper which is too smooth. The writing never even has much of a chance to stay put. The paper on Rhodia pads, for instance, is a lovely and smooth surface on which to skate a piece of graphite. However, I would not trust words meant for future generations to such glassy paper.
An overly-tight graph or narrow lines can cause one’s writing to bunch up, resulting in less crisp lines. Something around the line-spacing of a Moleskine and 1/4 inch is my own preference, though I often just forgo any guide whatsoever too. Try to go line-free with pencil and the intention that your writing with last forever. Be bold!
Archival Quality of the Paper
These days, most major-branded books (Moleskine, Field Notes, etc.) are bound with acid-free paper. Since graphite does not react with paper anyway, this is, I assume, slightly less of a issue than when using ink. However, brittle and yellow paper can cause an issue for any writing medium.
As in pencils, the key is balance. I like a paper with a medium tooth, light (or no) lines, and a binding that will not allow the paper to rub against itself. As with pencils, this is harder to explain than it is to give examples of.
Write Notepads & Co. – This is probably my favorite notebook paper right now. The 70# stock takes graphite wonderfully, and the minor stiffness of the paper combines with the PUR binding to hold the pages still. The texture is nearly perfect, and they use a nice 1/4 inch line-spacing which is a great balance of efficiency and comfort. Plus they are made in my hometown, and Chris is a friend IRL. But I still claim not to be biased. Their books really are that good.
Moleskine – I swear that Moleskine has been quietly (because loudly would be admitting the paper was inferior before?) improving their paper. The texture is lovely for your less soft pencils, and the elastic keeps everything in place. If you hit Target at the right time of year, you can steal one for a few bucks from the clearance section. I like to remember that a Moleskine in 2002 led me to being lucky enough to co-host a really fun podcast.
Paperblanks – I have not used one of these in a while, but the paper is very stiff for nice pencil lines. Some of the covers get a little…LOOK AT ME for my taste, but the subtly-designed ones work well. Ghosting/graphite transfer is very low on this paper, even without a blotter.
Baron Fig – In speaking with Joey and Adam, I learned that this paper was designed, in part, for pencil, and it shows. The texture is lovely, and the themes and special editions they produce appeal to me greatly.
Field Notes – The newer 60#T version of the Finch Paper Opaque Smooth is lovely for pencil. I’m not sure why it works so much better than the 50# version, which I find to border on too smooth. These do fall open and allow pages to rub together in a bag. I generally get only a week of pocket carry out of them, however; so I do not experience this issue.
What are some papers/books Comrades like to use for long-term writing and/or journaling in pencil?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
(This is another fanfreakingtastic piece from Stephen Watts, whose efforts for Pencildom do nothing short of blow my mind!)
Hell Freezes Over Twice!
aka Father and Son Pencil Review VI
aka Final Review v4.0
From the June 2015 Father and Son Pencil Review V:
You know I never lie about these things, so believe me when I tell you that this is the end of our pencil reviews, unless and until I happen across a Blaisdell Calculator 600, that most rare of Steinbeck-sanctioned pencils. If that day comes, Hunter and I will sign ourselves out of the nursing home, come back to my den, blow the dust off the old computer and we’ll let you know where the third of Steinbeck’s favorite pencils falls in our list.
Friends, hell hath frozen over, and not just once, but twice.
You’re reading the second version of this review. After I submitted the first, something else happened that I doubted would ever occur: General Pencil Company advised Gary Varner of Notegeist that our pleas have been answered and the General’s Cedar Pointe #333-1 will have a second life. We will probably see it back on shelves before the end of the year! More on this later, but let’s get back to the original description of how hell has frozen over.
I was innocently minding my own business one day when I was assaulted by this eBay auction title:
Vintage Blaisdell Pencil Co. Calculator Special Grade No 660 Lot 11 Original Box
¿Qué? Special Grade 660? What was a “660?” What it was, it turns out, was a mistake. And that mistake may have been what allowed me to win an auction for a nearly full box of Blaisdell Calculator 600s at a fraction of what I might expect to pay for a box of far more plentiful vintage Blackwings. I’d begun to doubt I would ever run across a single one of these mythical creatures.
[Many thanks to Stephen and Hunter for another Amazing Review! Stay tuned next week, as PENCIL REVOLUTION TURNS TEN YEARS OLD. We are picking up a few USPS Flatrate boxes for some sweet giveaway action.]
Electric: School Smart Electric Heavy-Duty
Hand Crank: Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
Hand Held: KUM / Palomino / Blackwing Automatic Long Point Sharpener
I compared sharpeners, wrote my review, and I was done.
The Mitsubishi Uni KH-20’s primary challengers for the title of “Best Hand Crank” were the Carl CP-80 and Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5. After the review, I took my leftover Carl CP-80 into work and began using it there as my work sharpener while my newly abandoned School Smart Electric looked on, forlorn, with its single cyclops eye. And then a funny thing happened. I began to think I might actually like the Carl CP-80 better than my Mitsubishi Uni KH-20. Sure, the Carl took more effort to hold down while using it, especially for that first sharpening, but I started wondering if it was producing a better and more elongated point than the Mitsubishi I was using at home.
Could I have been wrong? Of course not, because, as my wife will attest, I am never wrong. There was enough doubt, however, that I felt compelled to take a second look. And while at it I probably ought to give a fair comparison to the Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5 rather than just dismiss it outright because of the unbridled brutality it unleashes on every unfortunate pencil barrel that stumbles into its path. Maybe, just maybe, it was also time to see if the Classroom Friendly’s reputation for a spectacular point really did outweigh its penchant for wanton destruction.
And this time I’d recall to active duty my trusty co-reviewer and son, Hunter.
A few notes on three sharpeners before we commence with the results of the review:
The Classroom Friendly/Carl Angel-5 is the pencil sharpener equivalent of a hungry crocodile. Imagine if crocodiles were permitted to have pet dogs. A crocodile, like the Tyrannosaurus Rex, has embarrassingly teensy arms which serve no useful purpose other than to flop about and humiliate the rest of the body. A crocodile, in order to pet its pet dog, would have to grip the dog with its crocodilian teeth. This, dear readers, is exactly how the Classroom Friendly/Carl Angel-5 operates. The resellers of these sharpeners had a dilemma: “How do we get people to look past the inherit savagery of these products? I know! We’ll come up with names that signal ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men!’”
“Classroom Friendly” evokes images of little schoolchildren. Happy little schoolchildren. Friendly, happy little schoolchildren. You certainly wouldn’t expect something that is “classroom friendly” to EAT the occupants of the classroom, now would you?
“Angel-5” is, of course, angelic. Peaceful, floating on air, benign. Not something that would mangle your arm like a demonically possessed garbage disposal.
In my previous review, I mentioned that people get teary-eyed when they speak of these sharpeners, like they’re the Second Coming of Christ or Hillary Clinton. This sharpener required a test subject at least as hallowed as itself. After months of legal maneuvering, Hunter and I were finally granted access to the super-secret Eberhard Faber vault, located 3 miles beneath the NORAD complex inside Cheyenne Mountain, Wyoming. We were after the most elusive of all Blackwing pencils, one not even seen by Blackwing historian Sean Malone himself. The one, the only, Blackwing Prototype Version 601.9999. Only one of these pencils exists, and until now it had never been sharpened. In 2005, Sotheby’s Auction House estimated its value if sold at auction at over $17 million, and here we were, allowed to sharpen it using a Classroom Friendly!
I won’t go into a lot of bothersome detail here about the solemnity of the elaborate Eberhard Faber ceremony leading up to this historic moment, and will just ask you to look at the results below. Please note these images depict a dramatized recreation of events that did not actually occur.
We were curious as to whether or not the notorious Classroom Friendly “bite marks” would be left on this prototype Blackwing 602. Only upon close inspection did my carefully trained eye spot the well-documented “bite mark” effect.
Again, without going into bothersome detail, we’ll just say that Hunter and I were quickly and roughly ejected from the bowels of Eberhard Faber’s lair and we promptly returned home to resume the review.
The Carl CP-80 is a fine sharpener. The only reason I didn’t rank it even with or higher than the Mitsubishi Uni KH-20 was because it wasn’t as comfortable to use.
What About That New One Everyone’s Talking About?
If you were hoping I’d throw in the “I’m so special I come with my own special case” KUM Masterpiece hand held, you’re out of luck. That sharpener does not exist. It is only a myth — an urban legend. And even if it were real, it would still be one of those uncovered graphite-spewing Pig Pens of the pencil world and I have, literally, washed my hands of them.
On to the Review
As mentioned above, I enlisted Hunter’s assistance for this sharpener review. Hunter loves co-reviewing because he gets free stuff. This “gifting” is very easy for me because I don’t even have to do anything; he just walks off with the subjects of our reviews. I’ll walk into his room, notice something I thought I owned and say, “Hey, that’s just like mine!” and Hunter’s eyes frantically dart around the room as he attempts to nonchalantly whistle. Hunter cannot whistle, but because he saw this reaction in a cartoon, he believes this to be the proper way to project innocence. Regardless of his chronic issues with kleptomania, Hunter is an excellent reviewer who doesn’t fall for mob-mentality dismissiveness and recognizes quality over mythology. So he’s earned every single stolen item in his possession.
Let’s push the reset button on my previous sharpener review and go for two goals with this one:
1. Rank the fanged beast Classroom Friendly/Carl Angel-5 against the Mitsubishi Uni KH-20 and Carl CP-80
2. Slot into the above listing the School Smart Electric Heavy-Duty and hand held KUM/Palomino/Blackwing Automatic Long Point Sharpener
After checking the unsharpened pencils to ensure their cores were centered, we sharpened pencils in all five sharpeners. Hunter and I used two of each of the hand crank sharpeners for our review to guard against skewing of the results due to a defect in one sharpener. Let’s see where the hand cranks lined up:
#1: Carl CP-80
1. Leaves a slightly, and I mean slightly, longer point than the Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
2. Noisier than the Mitsubishi
3. Less stable than the Mitsubishi and requires substantially more effort to hold, especially for first sharpening
#2: Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
1. The quietest sharpener of all three
2. Although made of plastic, felt very sturdy
3. Nice long point
4. Felt very stable even during a pencil’s first sharpening
1. Very close call between this and the Carl CP-80, but the CP-80 has a slightly longer point
#3: Classroom Friendly/Carl Angel-5Pros:
1. By a hair, left the nicest and longest point of the three
2. Sturdy metal construction
3. More stable to use than the Carl CP-80
1. Noisier than the Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
2. Slightly longer point disguises an occasional wood creep like the other two sharpeners
3. Leaves “can’t miss them” indentations and as a pencil is repeatedly resharpened, a trail of these rings of bite marks forms on the pencils
What Does This Really Mean?
I expected a major differentiator of these three sharpeners would be the amount of wood creeping up the core, but to my surprise the differences were minor. Each of the three hand cranks produced similar results. That’s worth repeating, especially because we used two of each sharpener: Each of the three hand cranks produced similar results in the amount of “wood creep.”
The Mitsubishi was the easiest to use, felt the most stable during use, and was clearly the quietest of the three. The Classroom Friendly did barely earn its stellar reputation for producing the nicest point but this came at the cost of indentations in the pencil barrels, documented extensively in other reviews.
Hunter and I next ranked the sharpeners in four categories: Ease of use, evenness (wood creep), quality of point, and ranking via a point system of these other categories.
Ease of Use
1. Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
2. Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5
3. Carl CP-80
1. Carl CP-80
2. Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5
3. Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
1. Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5
2. Carl CP-80 (very close to a tie with #1)
3. Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
Rank via Point System Derived from Ease of Use, Evenness and Point
1. Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5
2. Carl CP-80
3. Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
Why Did We Rank the Classroom Friendly/Carl Angel-5 Dead Last When Your Own “Point System” Placed it at #1?
Hunter and I aren’t willing to accept the bite marks in the Classroom Friendly. For us, the difference in point quality did not outweigh the damage this sharpener incurs to pencil barrels. We do not believe wanton use of bared fangs is necessary to grip a pencil tightly enough to achieve point perfection. Modern technology is available and waiting to help us in this regard.
Let’s Promote Genetic Diversity
What happens if we take the unprecedented step of intermixing the species? We have so far obtained a father and son ranking of three terrific hand crank pencil sharpeners. Into this we’ll insert our School Smart Electric Sharpener and KUM/Palomino/Palomino Blackwing Two Stage Automatic hand held sharpener.
Our order of preference, and this is where some of our readers will begin hissing while using their fingers to make signs of the cross:
1. Carl CP-80
2. Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
3. School Smart Electric
4. Classroom Friendly/Carl Angel-5
5. KUM/Palomino/Blackwing Automatic Long Point hand held
Even though the School Smart left an industrial jaggedness to the sides of the sharpened cores, it still sharpened evenly and nicely without leaving bite marks in our pencils. I know; it’s heresy to rank an electric pencil sharpener ahead of the knighted Classroom Friendly/Carl Angel-5. Worse, perhaps, is that we placed the hand held KUM dead last.
You: Say what, Willis?
Me: Hunter and I are not Luddites.
The KUM Automatic Long Point hand held sharpeners require work to make a point that, when successfully accomplished, is so sharp it will snap off when first pressed to the paper. As you can see in the photo above, the results with the hand held are difficult to obtain with uniform precision. It takes too much work. There, I said it, and I am not ashamed. Hunter and I just like a nicely sharpened pencil without all the fuss and muss.
Why do people even use hand held sharpeners? I accept only one reason directly related to the purpose of creating a usable pencil point: tool portability.
Runners who run three miles a day do so for exercise. Runners who do marathons no longer run for exercise; there are other motivations. It’s the same with people who enjoy using hand held sharpeners. Unless they’re using them for their portability, they’re in it for the artistry of the skill or because, to them, it’s a fun pastime and challenge. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not for Hunter and me.
And there we have it, the father and son ranking of three hand crank sharpeners interspersed with our top electric and top hand held sharpener. If you’d like a much more detailed description of how best to sharpen pencils, I encourage you to consult with the master himself, Mr. David Rees: Artisanal Pencil Sharpening.
(Thanks again to Stephen and Hunter for sharing with all Comrades the fruits of their search for pencil bliss! Images and text, S.W., used with kind permission.)
[I teased Stephen that I think he’s become a Regular Contributor to Pencil Revolution! We have here, Part V of his and his son’s quest for the Best Pencils.]
Father and Son Pencil Review V (aka Final Review v3.0)
So here’s the thing. Hunter and I were done after our fourth review, but three events totally beyond my control caused a change of plans:
1. A maniacal devotee of the Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB convinced hundreds of us, or at least three of us in the Erasable community to try these pencils out.
2. I became so enamored by the Mitsubishi 9000’s slogan “Made by Elaborate Process” it felt like a betrayal not to acknowledge its worthiness of inclusion in a review.
3. I succumbed to repeated testimonials and purchased some General’s Test Scoring 580s.
4. I finally came across Pencil #2 of John Steinbeck’s preferred trio: the Eberhard Faber Mongol 2 3/8 F.
I know, that’s four things, not three. Now you see why this is our third final review. I cannot be trusted with numbers.
Before we continue, let me caution you that if you continue reading, you will be quickly and deeply offended. In previous reviews, I’ve alienated:
Haters of the Staedtler Norica HB 2
People who disliked my repurposing of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act promises into pencil review statements
Lovers of Musgrave Pencil Company’s Test Scoring 100 (spoiler alert #1: they are about to become even more perturbed)
Lovers of U.S.A. Gold Natural 2 HB (spoiler alert #2: their annoyance will remain unchanged)
The Staedtler company
The entire population of Germany
Haters of electric pencil sharpeners
Lovers of Classroom Friendly pencil sharpeners
Australians who resent their flying animals being renamed by Americans
People who like pens
Hand held pencil sharpener fans who don’t mind staining themselves and the world around them with graphite
If you are not a member of one of the groups above and thus believe yourself to be safe, you are wrong. You have been warned. Here we go.
People who are interested enough in pencils to research them and write about them and read reviews of them are insane.
Normal people, inarguably and without exception, spend their free time on pursuits falling into one of the following three categories:
Playing games or watching other people play games
Yelling at things or yelling about things
Fighting, wounding, or killing things or watching people fight, wound or kill things
People who like pencils, on the other hand, are seriously abnormal. Following is what constitutes a rare, heated exchange between two pencil people, hereafter referred to as “PP.”
PP #1: Have you tried a Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood?
PP #2: No.
PP #1: It’s awesome!
PP #2: Is not.
PP #1: Is too!
PP #2: Well, let me try it.
PP #2: (Days later, following receipt of a shipment from CW Pencil Enterprise or Pencils.com): Hey! Not bad!
PP don’t join hate groups. There are no PP in prisons; I’m not lying, you can check for yourself. PP do not sit on their front porches swearing at children who wander into their yards looking for lost toys or sickly rodents. Instead, PP understand and appreciate the differences among pencils in terms of darkness or lightness of the line, smoothness of the graphite moving across the paper, point retention, core thickness, type and scent of wood used, eraser quality and aesthetic appeal of the finished product. And they enjoy learning about these things and sharing their knowledge with other PP.
Clearly, then, PP are mentally disordered. I, too, suffer from this mass hysteria. In one of its manifestations, I obtained a six foot long Dixon Ticonderoga that made an overly reactive grown woman housekeeper burst out of my den into the hall loudly asking, of no one in particular, “WHAT THE F_ _ _?”
[The Inimitable Stephen Watts has done it again — this time, with sharpeners. Many thanks to Comrade Stephen for sharing his Pencil Adventures with the rest of us!]
My Journey to Pencil Sharpener Satisfaction
Reviews found on blogs, Amazon.com, the Erasable Facebook community, and whispered suggestions in dark alleys caused me to cycle through a number of pencil sharpeners in my quest for the “perfect” one for me. I found that, just as with pencils, as soon as you’re sure you’ve hit the ideal sharpener for your tastes and budget, some smarty-pants informs the world of a new find and the search resumes. For now, though, I’ve settled on my top three in each of three categories: hand held, hand crank, and (cue Imperial March/Darth Vader’s Theme) electric. We’ll get the controversial one out of the way first.
Electric: Spawn of the Devil?
The next time you find yourself at a formal dinner party for pencil lovers, get the conversational ball rolling by enumerating the merits of electric pencil sharpeners. You’ll soon feel like Arlo Guthrie in his song “Alice’s Restaurant”: “And they all moved away from me on the bench . . . .”
Quickly remind them that their fabled hero, John Steinbeck, lover of Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602s, Eberhard Faber Mongol Round 2 3/8s and Blaisdell Calculator 600s, used an electric pencil sharpener. “And they all came back, shook my hand, and we had a great time on the bench . . . .”
Panasonic KP-310 (discontinued)
When I rediscovered not just the wonders of pencils but the wonders of quality pencils, my first move was to resurrect my trusty old Panasonic KP-310. Back in the day, this, my friends, was the bee’s knees. The Panasonic has been handed around my family over the years. When I began to use it again, I noticed it had developed the disturbing habit of darkening the wood, and it left the wood just a bit rough. That aside, even after many years of faithful service, it produces a consistently decent quality point. But I now wanted more.
School Smart Electric Vertical
First up was the School Smart Electric Vertical Pencil Sharpener. Vertical? Sounded fun. At first I liked it, but then I noticed a problem reported by other users and very common to electric pencil sharpeners in general: Uneven sharpening. No one likes wood creeping up one side of the core. The most common remedy offered was to spin the pencil at the end of the process to even things out. I quickly decided that would result in sacrificing too much of my pencils, and I released this robotic demon back into the wild.
Royal P70 Electronic
My son Hunter highly recommended the Royal P70 Electronic Pencil Sharpener. One of his teachers had it in the classroom, and Hunter insisted it did a phenomenal job. Amazon’s reviewers didn’t universally agree with him, but here I had a live person telling me it was great, and one that had to live with me even if he was wrong. So I purchased this model only to discover Amazon’s reviewers were in fact correct. This sharpener makes a lot of noise while straining to get the initial work over with, and the results aren’t worth the expenditure of all that effort. The pencils came out even more uneven than the School Smart Electric Vertical. Hunter bought it from me (I didn’t just give it to him; I’m a Libertarian), and I returned to the hunt.
School Smart Electric Heavy-Duty
Unable to find anything that received near five-star feedback other than another School Smart model, I tried the School Smart Electric Heavy-Duty Pencil Sharpener. It produces a satisfyingly long point and usually leaves an evenly sharpened pencil. I kept this model, although I have taken to giving the pencils a quick twist at the end of the process to produce a more uniform result.
Hand Crank: Where Pencil People Stop Smirking and Get Serious
Classroom Friendly and Carl Angel-5
Although I was largely satisfied with my electric sharpener, I still wanted something I considered the “best” from my perspective, and the next search was for a nice hand crank sharpener. No matter which direction I went on the Internet, all tubes led to the Original Classroom Friendly. It’s a high-quality sharpener which produces an undisputedly spectacular point. It seems to be the same one marketed by Carl as the Angel-5. One thing has kept me away from this sharpener: It produces bite marks in the pencil’s barrel, and you end up with a series of them as you wear the pencil down. I wasn’t interested in purchasing nice pencils only to sacrifice them to a mechanical hyena. This isn’t an issue for everyone, however, and people who like the Classroom Friendlies tend to get all weepy when they talk about them. But hey, I’m a practical person. I’m not proud. I even admit I like an electrical sharpener. So I moved on from these capable yet indiscriminately violent beasts.
Deli Desk 0635
This teensy tiny sharpener weighs less than a starving parakeet (I know they’re really budgerigars, but parakeet is a funnier name, and this is the USA where we rename your animals and then insist you’re wrong). The Deli sharpened okay, but due to its size and lightness, it required too much effort to hold it still while turning the crank. I gave it all of one try before it went back into the packaging and back into the mailbox for a free ride home to mama.
eLink Pro Manual 323A-BLU
I was now desperate and stumbled onto a few good reviews for this one. Those reviews, apparently, were written by drunken, mean-spirited pen aficionados who were out for a laugh at our expense. This horrid sharpener arrived broken. And dirty. It, too, was promptly banished.
Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
This has the features of the Classroom Friendly in a sturdy plastic housing rather than metal, and with one large improvement: rubber -covered teeth — so, no bite marks. There’s an adjustment on the back to give either a sharp or blunted point. This is my sharpener of choice — $25 US or less from Amazon. If you buy from Amazon, be ready for a wait, as they’re shipped from Japan. I purchased five of th,em. One of the five didn’t work quite right, and I thought I had an expensive paperweight on my hands as it was a future gift I’d held onto for two months before presenting. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to ask the seller if he could do anything for me. To my amazement, he apologized profusely and quickly sent a replacement, no questions asked. Wow. I’d like to fly that guy over here and introduce him to Comcast’s customer service management team.
Although I’d already reached my personal hand crank pencil sharpener nirvana, I kept reading nice comments about the Carl CP-80. It’s smaller than the Uni KH-20. It does just as good a job as the Uni, with a smaller size, lighter weight and squared, rather than rounded, top. I prefer the Uni, but if you already have a Carl CP-80, you can hold your head high and look me in the eyes. No shame here. It’s a perfectly fine sharpener.
Hand Held: Pencil Envy
Beware; lovers of hand held sharpeners may be quite tenacious in their beliefs. Tread softly. They’re like the various Lutheran synods. From the outside, they all look like Lutherans to you and me. But to Lutherans, members of other synods are unfortunately misinformed and headed straight to hell. So before proclaiming your hand held sharpener preference, be ready for your opponents to hurriedly unscrew the tiny little razors in their tools of choice and swipe away at your ankles, all the while cursing you in pig Latin.
I tried only three hand-held models. Each one is a winner, for different reasons. But I only like one of the winners.
KUM Brass Wedge Single Hole Sharpener 300-1
As Johnny Gamber discovered, this model was terminated for cause. You can still find these on eBay and Etsy, though you’ll pay a few dollars more than you would have before they discontinued them after it became known there was lead mixed in with the brass. So if you buy one of these, don’t lick it. Due to the high lead content, this would be Superman’s choice as it could also be deployed as a defensive tool against kryptonite. This sharpener does a great job if you like a standard point, and it’s as small as you’ll find in a quality pencil sharpener. The issue I have with this and the next one in my list is the messiness. I’m sure there’s a way to use these without getting graphite stains on your hands. I just don’t like donning surgical gloves and laying a sheet of plastic across the floor every time I need to sharpen my pencil.
KUM 1-Hole Long Point Sharpener
This sharpener is made out of magnesium. Isn’t that modern? It’s easy to hold, and if you’re after a terrific long point from a small-form sharpener, this might be the one for you. But you’ll still have a mess on your hands. Literally.
KUM / Palomino / Palomino Blackwing Automatic Long Point Sharp-ner
Sold under the KUM, Palomino, and Palomino Blackwing names, this two stage automatic sharpener is the cat’s meow. You can find the Plain Jane KUM-branded model for a couple bucks less than the Palomino Blackwing, but where’s the fun in that? Using this sharpener is a two-stage process: Hole #1 is used to shave the wood; it’s “automatic” because it stops cutting and spins freely when its job is done. Same with the second hole, which is used to shape the graphite. You’ll be left with a point that is seriously dangerous. I accidentally poked myself with a freshly sharpened pencil, and although it didn’t puncture the skin, my finger hurt for an hour. Two replacement blades are included, and the sharpener comes encased in a plastic, hinged lid “box” that contains the shavings and keeps your fingers squeaky clean. The only downside to this sharpener is that I am rarely able to avoid breaking that needle-sharp point on first use and I think I bent it before I took the accompanying photo.
There we have it; my top three choices in each of the three mentioned categories:
Electric: School Smart Electric Heavy-Duty
Hand Crank: Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
Hand Held: KUM / Palomino / Blackwing Automatic Long Point Sharpener
Like pencils, there is a seemingly endless array of sharpeners from which to choose, and most people who’ve tried a few have their favorites. I recently asked members of the Erasable Facebook community to share, with no restrictions on type, their single favorite sharpener. Interestingly, 14 responses elicited 14 different sharpeners:
DUX wedge with receptacle
DUX adjustable handheld (brass)
Opinel No. 5 pocketknife
DUX pencil and crayon sharpener in leather case
Aspara long point (plastic)
KUM Masterpiece (not yet available in the USA
General’s 3 in 1
Koh-I-Nor Nr. 983
M&R Round double-hole (brass)
KUM Long Point with pointer
Mitsubishi Uni KH-20
That last one was my entry. Stop judging. Of course I voted in my own election!
[Many thanks to Stephen for sharing this veritable Journey Into the Sharpening Excellence!]
Around when we were lucky enough to have Caroline Weaver on Erasable, I begged asked Caroline if she’d be game for a paper interview: one wherein I’d write questions down and mail them to New York, and then she’d answer them in pencil and send these answers back to Baltimore. I am happy to present what I believe is the first Graphite Interview in the Stationery Blogosphere.*
*Please do correct me if I am mistaken.
Many thanks to Caroline! Stay tuned for two more CWPE-related posts, including The Field Guide to Visiting C.W. Pencil Enterprise and a post about my…ahem….three visits there from Baltimore this spring.