The Blackwing MMX will write on a napkin on Monday morning, when the Chiddlers won’t eat their damned cereal.
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.)
While Charlotte, my six-year-old, gets most of the attention on Pencil Revolution, Henry (who’s three) likes pencils too. Charlotte rates her pencils by point retention (Bic Xtra Fun, Hello Kitty), interesting finish (Write Notepads & Co. Quickstrike, velvet pencils, Wopex), and sometimes appearance (Ticonderoga Metallic, General’s Cartooning, Staedtler Tri-Plus Jumbo, Faber-Castell Grip pastel). Henry just likes blue pencils.
Each and every pack of pencils I’ve opened that contains a blue pencil quickly loses a blue pencil to Henry’s blue pencil box. Yes, the box is blue. After supper tonight, I asked him if he wanted to go hunt some blue pencils in my closet. We found two that he didn’t already have, and he was delighted enough to run away with them in hand, almost impaling himself along the way.
My kids have developed interesting stationery habits. I think this will be the first in a series.
Also! Check out Black Sal’s recent post about blue pencils.
[We are very lucky to have another contribution from the Watts, whose posts are becoming the most popular on Pencil Revolution!]
Myth: Transplanting the guts of a Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5 into another Carl sharpener will allow you to receive the same great point without inflicting grievous wounds to your pencils.
My son Hunter and I have run the gauntlet on a quest to discover what, for us, constitutes the single best sharpener. In a series of three reviews (the first is linked within this second review and the third is pasted within at the bottom as a comment), we decided the Classroom Friendly / Carl Angel-5 (these two euphemisms will hereafter be joined and referred to more accurately as the Angry Devil) produced the best point overall, but the Carl CP-80 produced a point nearly as good but without raining down violence upon innocent pencils. Hunter and I already have our own CP-80s; unfortunately, if you don’t and you’re not a resident of Australia or New Zealand, you’ll need to hop on a ship headed that way because CP-80s seem to have gone extinct everywhere else. That leaves the naughtily-named Carl Sinfeel as the best currently available non-mangling long-point producing sharpener of all that we’ve tested.
Once again, we were done, but then Javier from the Erasable Facebook community posted the results of his transplanting the burr assembly from an Angry Devil to a Carl Angel-5 Premium sharpener body and receiving the same great point but without maiming his pencils as described in this Bleistift review.
Javier had me wondering if we could prove or disprove that exchanging the burr assemblies would give us the point we wanted from the Angry Devil via the donor body of another, less destructive Carl sharpener. I didn’t expect this experiment to pan out. Surely there is a reason the Angry Devil so stubbornly retains its Jaws of Death. Maybe a pit bull-like grip really does help produce such stellar results.
Hunter and I went to work and transplanted the burrs from two Angry Devils into a Carl Angel-5 Premium and a Carl Decade. A third, unaltered Angry Devil and a reference, unaltered Carl CP-80 joined in the fun. Below are the sharpeners with their resulting points:
If we ignore the wood creep in our results, all versions of the Angry Devil – the original unmodified Angry Devil and the two hybrids with Angry Devil burr assemblies – produced equal results. We were surprised by this and infer that wood-damaging teeth are not needed in a clutch to produce a spectacular point.
This being real life, we can’t ignore wood creep, so here are our actual results:
1. In a stunning turn of events, the Carl Decade body with Angry Devil guts produced the best overall point. I will admit to harboring an unhealthy obsession that compels me to see the Angry Devil brought to its teensy hidden knees but, in spite of my bias, we did not expect anything to outdo the unmodified Angry Devil. We were wrong. Oh happy day.
2. The Carl CP-80 produced the second best overall point. Why do we keep featuring the CP-80 in our reviews when you can no longer buy them in the Northern Hemisphere? I don’t know; at this point, it just seems mean. Perhaps that’s it; I’m just mean. Anyway, if you ever have a chance to drive to Australia and grab one of these, do so.
3. The Carl Angel-5 Premium with Angry Devil innards produced the third best point. We were surprised by this and assumed it would outdo the Decade because its body was similar to the Angry Devil’s. Not so in our case.
4. We were astonished to discover the unmodified Angry Devil produced the most wood creep. I’m sitting alone in my den right now maniacally clapping my hands together because placing this wood-chomping mechanical robot beaver dead last brings me such joy.
Truthfully, although we ranked the results, all four sharpeners did well and we were quite surprised to see the wood creep coming from the unmodified Angry Devil. To rule out the possibility of it being pencil-related, we added the Palomino Blackwing 602s which were not originally part of the test. While it was likely an anomaly occurring with just this one sharpener, we can’t dispute the fact that it did happen and we obtained better results from transplanted Angry Devil guts than with Angry Devil guts in the original Angry Devil body.
The purpose of this MythBusters episode was to evaluate the veracity of the claim that one can transplant the burr assembly of an Angry Devil sharpener into the pencil-friendly donor body of another Carl product yet still obtain the same degree of point perfection.
Our verdict: Confirmed.
(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.
[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!]