Blackwing 24: Holy Grail or Piltdown Man?

This review is by the The Watts, who present version 5.0 of their amazing pencil review series. (The other subtitle involved the word “final”, but I’m not including that because this can’t be final!)

My son Hunter and I shared our last pencil review in September 2015. We’ve since reviewed a few pencil sharpeners but only some earthshaking event could have lured me into another pencil comparison.

Palomino has released the fourth special-edition Palomino Blackwing, and it is most unlike the others. The first three Volumes used existing Palomino cores, but the Volume 24 edition Blackwings have a brand-new core that is supposed to be hard enough to resist the need for continual sharpening while retaining a dark line. Palomino’s description:

“The Blackwing 24 pays tribute to Pulitzer Prize winning author John Steinbeck. Designed under the guidance of his son Thomas Steinbeck, Blackwing has created what they believe would have been John’s ideal pencil. Thom was adamant that his father would want it to be black, from barrel to eraser. It would also need to sharpen to a firm point without sacrificing much if any darkness. The Blackwing 24 is just that – an all-black pencil with the brand-new graphite formulation perfect for extended writing.”

Although John Steinbeck was quoted as liking the Blaisdell Calculator 600 and Mongol Round 2 3/8 F, the pencil he mentioned most was the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. Palomino created its own version of the Blackwing 602 that comes remarkably close in both appearance and performance, but even this extraordinarily well-done recreation of the original suffers from the same Law of Pencils as every other pencil on the market: Line darkness is inversely proportional to point retention.

In other words, a dark line typically means a softer graphite formulation requiring frequent sharpening.

The qualities many of us seek in our pencils can be contradictory:

1. Point retention
2. Dark line
3. Smoothness, also described as a “buttery” feel . . . per Blackwing’s glorious motto, “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”

It’s difficult to improve upon one characteristic without compromising at least one of the others. Although a smoother writing experience isn’t called out in Palomino’s marketing of the Blackwing 24, should it go without saying that any pencil bearing the “Blackwing” name has a responsibility to live up to the “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” legend? Did Palomino pull off the impossible? And is this the really the “. . . graphite formulation perfect for extended writing?”

In a series of reviews, Hunter and I shared the results of our search for the “perfect pencil.” Our reviews initially focused on the second and third qualities in the list above: line darkness and a smooth feel across the paper. After gaining experience with our favorites, we created top five lists of currently available pencils that factor in point retention and aesthetics.

Now, with the arrival of the Blackwing 24, have we found the Holy Grail . . . a pencil that lays down a line as dark as the 602 yet retains its point much longer while retaining that buttery smoothness that makes the Eberhard Faber and Palomino Blackwing 602s so enjoyable to use? Or is this Pencildom’s version of the Piltdown Man, a pencil with a hard and scratchy core encased in the form of a Blackwing and presented to us as The One? We had to find out.

We immediately agreed that line darkness was not an issue. The Blackwing 24 did just as well as the other pencils and was close enough in some instances that it was impossible to tell the difference.

BW24

Next, we tried to prove or disprove the claim of greater point retention. I devised a test that seemed – in my head – foolproof. We would each draw a continuous string of “e’s” until we reached the point at which we would sharpen the pencil. We’d conduct this test with the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 (EF602), Palomino Blackwing 602 (P602), Blaisdell Calculator 600 (BC600) and the Blackwing 24 (BW24). The Blaisdell was thrown into the test because in a previous review we noted it was almost as smooth as the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 but seemed to have greater point retention . . . which might make it the greatest pencil in the history of Earth, although it has sadly gone the way of the dinosaurs.

BC600

The test seemed foolproof, but in practice was problematic. Writing page after page of “e’s” while maintaining the same pressure on the paper and size of the letters is difficult even with an 18-year-old hand but it quickly becomes painful when the older tester is suffering from lingering nerve damage. I tend to apply more pressure than Hunter; so I wore through my pencils faster, giving me enough time to try a second type of endurance test. I wrote the sentence, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country,” repeatedly until I reached the time I would have sharpened, and then I counted the number of completed sentences for each. This gave us three point retention test results which are shown below in order of greatest point retention and number of lines or sentences.

E’s
Stephen
BC600 (13)
EF602 (12)
BW24 (10)
P602 (10)

Hunter
BC600 (71)
BW24 (42)
P602 (38)
EF602 (34)

Good Men Sentence – Stephen
BC600 (7)
BW24 (7)
P602 (6)
EF602 (5)

PBW602

We learned one thing for sure: Testing point retention manually is subjective as heck. We focused on commonalities, though, and agreed to this ranking, shown from longest to shortest point retention:

1. Blaisdell Calculator 600
2. Palomino Blackwing 24
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602

Neither of us felt the Blackwing 24 outlasted the Blaisdell Calculator 600, and we agreed it outdid both the Palomino and Eberhard Faber Blackwings. Line darkness: check. Point retention: check. So far, no evidence of a hoax. What about smoothness?

EFBW602

Pairing them off for side-by-side tests and working our way through each pair, Hunter and I settled on this ranking for how smoothly the pencil moved across the paper:

1. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
2. Blaisdell Calculator 600
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Palomino Blackwing 24

When I compared the Palomino Blackwings 602 and 24, moving to the 24 felt like I was suddenly trying to write in quicksand. The difference was clear and noticeable but it was also an odd sensation as there was no scratchiness to the experience; it was just “slower.” It seemed to take more effort to push the 24 along in comparison to the 602. Hunter didn’t notice this great of an effect which could have been due to his much lighter hand, but he did agree the 24 wasn’t as smooth as the 602.

4 Pencils

We decided to add in another category, a version of aesthetics we’ll refer to here as the Coolness Quotient: Casting aside historical significance, rarity and overall quality, which was the spiffiest-looking pencil? Hunter and I quickly arrived at the following ranking:

1. Blackwing 24
2. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Blaisdell Calculator 600

Back to the question posed in the title: Is the Palomino Blackwing 24 the Holy Grail or the Piltdown Man? Palomino advertised a dark line and firm core for extended writing. In comparison to our other three pencils, this one more than holds up its end of the bargain. It is at the bottom of the list in terms of smoothness, but where in Palomino’s advertising do they claim it’s as smooth as the Blackwing 602?

“The Blackwing 24 features a new extra-firm graphite great for extended writing. You won’t find this graphite in any of our other Blackwing models. It’s slightly firmer than the graphite found in the Blackwing 602, without sacrificing much in the way of darkness. It also features a distraction-free black barrel, black imprint, black ferrule and black eraser.”

Clearly, this is no Piltdown Man. But is it the Holy Grail of pencils?

For me, nothing comes closer to the Holy Grail than the extinct Blaisdell Calculator 600. It scores on all three major counts: Point retention, dark line and smoothness. Until something comes along that equals or bests the Blaisdell Calculator, I’ll remain on the hunt for a currently-manufactured Holy Grail. There is another item that knocks the Blackwing 24 down a peg or two for me: the barrel is slippery. I notice a clear difference between how well my fingers adhere to the barrel of the other three pencils vs. the Blackwing 24. I had a similar issue with the natural finish (clear lacquer) Blackwing 211 . . . I had to regularly readjust my fingers. Apparently, my career as a tree frog is over before it began, but from what I’ve seen, this doesn’t seem to be an issue experienced by many others.

Hunter really likes the Blackwing 24. He writes with a lighter touch; so the smoothness isn’t an issue for him. His fingers don’t slip on the barrel like mine. This pencil has better point retention than the others, and it’s just as dark. And its looks are . . . stunning. For Hunter, at least for now, this is his Holy Grail.

My answer to the question “Is this the Holy Grail?” is an unhelpful “Maybe.”

Let’s look at where this falls into our rankings. Hunter and I have been playing around with the newly popular Apsara Absolute and thought we might as well slot it into the list.

Apsara

Our last full ranking of 27 pencils was in order of quality of the line and smoothness of the writing experience:

1. Mitsubishi Hi Uni 2B
2. Tombow Mono 100 2B
3. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
4. Blaisdell Calculator 600
5. Palomino Blackwing 602
6. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
7. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
8. Tombow 2558 HB
9. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
10. Staedtler Noris 122 HB
11. Eberhard Faber Mongol 482 – 2 3/8 F
12. Staedtler Norica HB 2
13. Palomino ForestChoice #2
14. Mitsubishi 9000 HB
15. Faber-Castell 9000 2B
16. Staedtler Mars Lumograph HB
17. Staedtler 123 60 2 HB
18. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1
19. Palomino Blue Golden Bear #2
20. Field Notes No. 2
21. Dixon Ticonderoga HB 2
22. Dixon Ticonderoga Renew HB
23. General’s Semi-Hex 498-2 HB
24. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2 HB
25. General’s Test Scoring 580
26. Musgrave Test Scoring 100
27. U.S.A. Gold Natural 2 HB

Factoring in aesthetics, point retention and all-around likability, my last top five list was as follows:

1. Palomino Blackwing 602
2. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
3. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
4. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
5. General’s Cedar Pointe #333-1

If I were marooned on a deserted island and could have only one type of pencil, my choice was the Palomino Blackwing 602.

Hunter’s top five:

1. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
2. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
3. Palomino Blackwing 602
4. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
5. Mitsubishi Hi Uni 2B

Hunter’s choice for the deserted island was the Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB.

Here is our new list of 29 . . . yes, OCD sufferers, 29. Not 30.

1. Mitsubishi Hi Uni 2B
2. Tombow Mono 100 2B
3. Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602
4. Blaisdell Calculator 600
5. Palomino Blackwing 602
6. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
7. Palomino Blackwing 24
8. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB
9. Tombow 2558 HB
10. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
11. Apsara Absolute
12. Staedtler Noris 122 HB
13. Eberhard Faber Mongol 482 – 2 3/8 F
14. Staedtler Norica HB 2
15. Palomino ForestChoice #2
16. Mitsubishi 9000 HB
17. Faber-Castell 9000 2B
18. Staedtler Mars Lumograph HB
19. Staedtler 123 60 2 HB
20. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1
21. Palomino Blue Golden Bear #2
22. Field Notes No. 2
23. Dixon Ticonderoga HB 2
24. Dixon Ticonderoga Renew HB
25. General’s Semi-Hex 498-2 HB
26. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2 HB
27. General’s Test Scoring 580
28. Musgrave Test Scoring 100
29. U.S.A. Gold Natural 2 HB

Counting only currently available pencils, my new top five has shifted and the Blackwing 24 has displaced a long-time placeholder:

1. Palomino Blackwing 602
2. General’s Cedar Pointe #333-1
3. Palomino Blackwing 24
4. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
5. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB

My choice for a deserted island pencil remains unchanged: Palomino Blackwing 602.

Hunter’s new top five:

1. Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood 348 HB
2. Mitsubishi 9850 HB
3. Palomino Blackwing 24
4. Palomino Blackwing 602
5. Palomino Blue Eraser-Tipped HB

Hunter’s choice for the deserted island is now the Palomino Blackwing 24, although he believes this is partly due to the current hype and may change over the next few months.

Summary thoughts:

Hunter: Point retention is much more subjective than we expected.
Hunter: The Palomino Blackwing 24 has really shaken things up.
Stephen: The Blackwing 24 is just slippery enough to be a little less comfortable to use.
Stephen: The Blackwing motto “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” is not part of the equation with the 24, which still writes with “Half the Pressure,” but not at “Twice the Speed.” To be clear, the manufacturer has not implied the motto applies to this pencil.
Stephen: The Blackwing 24 came out higher overall than expected. For people who don’t notice the “slippery” effect and don’t mind a “slower speed,” the point retention, line quality and sheer beauty may help this pencil qualify as their Holy Grail.

I’ve seen a number of nicknames for this pencil, all playing off the name Blackwing, but one I haven’t yet read pays homage to its basic black design and the newly released Batman v Superman movie. I dub thee:

BATWING!

***

Previous reviews:

All Hat No Cattle? – – Mythbusting Double Header Part 2

Frankenstein’s Sharpener! – Mythbusting Double Header Part 1

Eberhard Faber Microtomic vs Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, MythBusters Edition: “Confirm” or “Bust?”

Pencil Sharpener Review Redux (Viewable Only to Erasable Facebook Community Members – Text is Contained in the Comments Section of “Pencil Sharpener Shootout” Below)

Father and Son Pencil Review VI (aka Hell Freezes Over Twice! aka Final Review v4.0)

Pencil Sharpener Shootout

Father and Son Pencil Review V (aka Final Review v3.0)

My Journey to Pencil Sharpener Satisfaction

Father and Son Pencil Review IV: What? IV?

Father and Son Pencil Review III: The Final Chapter

Father and Son Pencil Review II

Father and Son Pencil Review I

 

We’re Back.

Apologies that we’ve been gone so long. If you’re not an Erasable listener, Herr Editor Sir is expecting another child this summer, and there’s been a host of family and community happenings that have slowed us down.

But we’re back, with some reviews and fun stuff. Thanks for sticking by us!

Story Supply Co.

story_supply
I really like companies that donate a product when you buy one. And I like groups who promote writing to kids. The Story Supply Co. is both.

Analog tools for storytellers. For every pack sold, we’ll send a Story Supply Kit to a kid with a story to tell.

Story Supply Co. is a stationery-arts brand devoted to creating and selling analog tools that help people tell their story. Design and craft are at the heart of our products. We want products that look and feel good. We want products that inspire artists and makers to capture their ideas, design beautiful things, and share their stories. Story Supply Co. products will also focus on sustainable manufacturing right here in the U.S.

Go and back them on Kickstarter! If nothing else, the notebooks are fantastic! Vito sent me a set, and I love them (and can’t find them, which means someone else in HQ might have liked them enough to walk off with them, which is happening more and more lately. Hashtag Notebookthief…). And the pencils — I’ve only seen photos, but they are gorgeous!

Good books. Good cause. Why are you still here?

Back to CWPE this Week.

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This April was one of those months at HQ wherein nothing gets done. I didn’t even write about my visit to C.W. Pencil Enterprise a few weeks ago (that’s my haul, minus the children’s book). Now, I get to go again, joining up with my Comrade and Erasable co-host Andy. And more frequent posting must resume!

We appreciate the notes we received inquiring about our safety with the recent events in Baltimore! HQ is about two miles from most of what happened (less, in some cases) on Monday, but we remained safe. Please know that reports of the demise of Charm City have been greatly exaggerated. It’s a complicated situation to say the least. But the vibe of, well, love spreading across a lot of the city over the last few days gives us hope. People are smiling at one another more than I can ever remember in our fair city today.

National Stationery Week.

national_stationary_week_logo_2015Ron, from Pen Chalet, our first repeat sponsor, has some great stuff going on this week. Find details here of some prizes that are awesome enough to turn this Pencil Guy’s head.

And thanks again to Pen Chalet for sponsoring Pencil Revolution. Folks interested in doing the same can find info here.

Fresh Stock Stationery.

FreshStock
We received a message about a cool new online shop specializing in Japanese stationery. I haven’t ordered anything from them, but I like their website and selection.

“Fresh Stock is a Japan-based web shop specializing in Japanese stationery and office products. We recently launched a tightly curated collection with an esthetic that mixes both modern and classic designs. We’ve already added some new products since launch, and we have plans to continue adding a number of exciting products throughout the year. In a day and age where we spend more and more time in the digital world, it stands to reason that we should be a little more selective in choosing our analog tools. We hope our offerings will lend a little inspiration as they serve our customers in their creative endeavors.”

If Comrades order from them, I’m be interested in hearing about your experience. I’m eyeing these up something fierce.

Two Great New Blogs.

I am coming off of a Pencil Drought, during which I “won” NaNoWriMo using only gel pens for speed. As I mentioned on the podcast, my brain doesn’t relax around pencils, no matter how much I prefer them. True to form, I got sick literally two hours before the month was over, but my words were in, and all was well. With NyQuil, that is. I am happy to have found new blogs, as I come back down to the world of graphite and writing at a normal speed.

In no particular order, here are two great new additions to The Stationery Blogosphere.

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Pencilism, by Luke Sinclair, author of the great hand-sharpening guide featured here. There is some great writing already on Luke’s blog, including a great post that is a moving piece on the meaning of pencils.

wa_manifesto

Write Analog, by Mark Tucker, who has been a social media friend of we Erasable hosts for some time. Check out Mark’s MANIFESTO, which I might print and hang in my house.

Remember Flickr?

Remember when we used digital cameras and uploaded the photos to Flickr? We had to plug them in or use a card reader. Remember when you didn’t have the entire Internet in your pocket all of the time? I remember when we had to write down blog posts on paper if we were away from a computer. Now I can just literally talk to an app, and it will post for me (I never do that though).

At any rate, you might enjoy the Pencil Revolution Flickr group, founded in 2005 and still going strong. It is almost entirely pencil art these days, and some of it is really excellent work.

I miss using Flickr, though I supposed Instagram is the new Flickr?

Pile of 114 Used Field Notes.

114 Full Field Notes, in no particular order. (Click to enlarge)
114 Full Field Notes, in no particular order. (Click to enlarge)

Prompted by both a thread on the Field Nuts group and a great post on The Finer Point, here are my pocket notebooks from late 2010 to the present, not counting the ones I am still using. Pictured above, 114 Full Field Notes. Below, other branded books, including the number/alphabet books that might be too large/thick to qualify for this category.

Assorted pocket notebooks, fall 2012-present. (Click to enlarge)
Assorted pocket notebooks, fall 2012-present. (Click to enlarge)

I have been meaning to do something like this for a while. But:

1) It feels like bragging.

2) It feels like confessing to a problem.

3) I am lazy.

I have a small stash of empty Field Notes and assorted other pocket notebooks around, but they will soon move to the full pile. I keep them in a Sam Adams box that is literally splitting because I am a creature of habit and have stuffed way more into that space than really fit.