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.

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.

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).

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.

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?

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.

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.)

Curated: Henry’s Blue Pencils.

(Click to embiggen.)
(Click to embiggen.)

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.

A Pretty Spring Day.

This picture is by my optimistic daughter. With rain for the next 48 hours, it’s anything but pretty around Charm City this weekend. She did this entirely with Yoobi colored pencils and highlighter pencils. (We go to Target a lot.)

Frankenstein’s Sharpener!

[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:
01 CF, A5P, Dec, CP80 04

Unranked order, left to right: Unmodified Angry Devil, Carl Angel-5 Premium body with Angry Devil burr assembly, Carl Decade body with Angry Devil burr assembly, Unmodified Carl CP-80
Unranked order, left to right: Unmodified Angry Devil, Carl Angel-5 Premium body with Angry Devil burr assembly, Carl Decade body with Angry Devil burr assembly, Unmodified Carl CP-80

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.

Ranked order, steppin’ out: The proud hybrid Carl Decade, followed by the “Modification? We don’t need no stinkin’ modification!” Carl CP-80, the Carl Angel-5 hybrid and, in satisfying last place, the unmodified Angry Devil.
Ranked order, steppin’ out: The proud hybrid Carl Decade, followed by the “Modification? We don’t need no stinkin’ modification!” Carl CP-80, the Carl Angel-5 hybrid and, in satisfying last place, the unmodified Angry Devil.

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.

Hell Freezes Over Twice!

(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.

Continue reading “Hell Freezes Over Twice!”