Review of Camel Natural HB Pencil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Write Notepads “In The Pines” edition.

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

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

See also:
The Finer Point
Pen Addict
The Weekly Pencil

Review of Baron Fig Askew.

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

First, what is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In The Pines”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Point Retention and Durability.

I have participated in National Novel Writing Month five times, and this year, I “won” for the third time. What was unique to me this year — aside from writing something I like enough to edit in January — is that I wrote the entire thing in pencil. I suspect that which pencils I used this year could be a fun post to write, but today I want to write about something I learned a lot about last month: point retention.

I’m not sure that I have ever read a detailed discussion about what we mean by that in the Pencil World, but I think it is safe to say that one usually means is how sharp a pencil stays when one writes/draws with it, i.e., how much of the point is left.

But after writing 50,000+ words in 30 days all in pencil, I have found that it is more nuanced than that.

I suggest that a more useful or practical way to think about point retention is to think about Writing Retention* and that the issue is point durability,  not sharpness.

This year, I used a few soft Japanese pencils, such as the Blackwing 344 and 56, both of which have the same core as the 602. It is dark but not super soft, and the retention was the best among the Blackwing line until the release of Volume 24 in spring 2016. I was considerably more concerned with smoothness and writing speed than I was with pencils that would stay sharp as I attempted to draft a bad novel on paper in a month. The paper in the Yoobi composition books I used was pretty smooth and proved to be quite excellent for the project. Graphite would glide but not smear all over the place like it can on Rhodia paper.

At the beginning of one writing session, abuzz and awash in coffee, I tried out a 2016 Dixon Ticonderoga, Chinese-made, picked by hand at Staples. While I could get four pages (of about 250-300 words each) out of a Blackwing 602 equivalent core, I was barely able to write two pages before I had to sharpener the Ticonderoga. What is more, the pencil was nearly as sharp as it was when I started writing with it. The auto-stop crank sharpener I was using nearly refused to engage the cutters on the pencil.

The Blackwing, on the other hand, had grown quite dull. Still, I was able to find a useful writing surface because of the amount of graphite the pencil could lay down. Things got more complicated when I figured out that the Blackwing 344 was able to write as long as the slightly harder Blackwing 24, perhaps even a little longer. Certainly, the smoothness of the paper could have given the 344 (and 56) an artificial edge because it sheared off a little less graphite than a toothy paper might. But the darkness was unaffected, and the 24 would have the same advantage also. Maybe a slightly toothier paper would give the edge to the 24 and make the 344/56 go dull very quickly.

Using the new Blackwing Volume 530 (which has the same Extra Firm core as the 24), I have found that it dulls as quickly on Field Notes paper as the 344 I was using last week. However, it smears less and ghosts less.  And of course the different “feel” could be a draw for some people, as it was for me today when I used one for a dozen pages.

I think that how long a pencil is useful before requiring a sharpening is a balance of darkness and what we generally call point retention. I propose that a dark pencil often has more writing durability than a harder one, since it can still perform with a duller point. Certainly, there are other considerations — smear resistance, smoothness, etc.

But I suggest a change in our Pencil Lexicon to Point Durability, i.e., how long a point is useful for making marks on paper, not how long it remains sharp. A sharp light pencil often fails to mark paper while a half-blunt darker pencil still trudges on. This is making me look at my darker/softer pencils in a whole new light and is helping me to understand why I still love the Blackwing (which I call the MMX for the year it was introduced) original so much.

* (Or Drawing Retention — but I write more than I draw; so I will stick the the former.)

Blackwing Volume 344: A Peek.

I know not everyone has them already. So I won’t put a picture until after the jump.

Continue reading “Blackwing Volume 344: A Peek.”

Review of Five Very Cheap Yellow Pencils.

This is coming in a little late for true back-to-school season, which starts right after the 4th of July these days. To be sure, by the weekend before my daughter started the first grade, the aisles and bins were veritably picked clean.

Of course, you always find a sort of very cheap house brand yellow pencil that is often even cheaper for kids going back to school. I was happy, this year and last year, to see that my daughter’s classmates brought with them to school Ticonderoga pencils, USA Golds, and Yoobi pencils in many colors. Maybe you’re buying for an entire class on a really small budget. Maybe you’re stuck supplying an office with as many pencils for $7 as you can get. We’re here to help with your Very Cheap needs.*

It was a $1 pack of USA-made pencils in 2004 that got me interested in pencils. Very Cheaps hold a special place in my heart pencilcase. And, hell, I really like the aesthetics of a yellow pencil with a silver ferrule and pink eraser.


The Contenders
All of these pencils are under $2 for a dozen – often less than $1. All are yellow, No 2, and unsharpened – with pink erasers and silver ferrules. I sharpened them all with a Classroom Friendly Sharpener. I used Write Notepads & Co. Kindred Spirit paper to give them a fighting chance.
Target Up&Up
Office Depot
Walmart Casemate

Largest Quantity of Uncentered Cores in a Dozen
Office Depot. Nearly half of them were at least a little off. Off enough for a Pencil Person to take notice, anyway.

Most Erratic Cores
Staples/Dixon for a tie. Two or three from each dozen of these were bad enough that I’d only sharpen them with a knife in the forest if I had to leave a note to my family to explain how I let myself get eaten by bears.

None of these have great erasers. But the Dixon stood out as the worst. It’s scratchy and crumbly. They were all pretty crumbly. I think maybe perhaps possibly the Casemate erased the best. But the best erasing experience goes to the Staples pencil, with has a surprisingly soft eraser that didn’t hold a Pink Dangly on it after use.

Staples and Office Depot have the worst stamping, but it’s not really that terrible compared to some Semi-Cheaps. The Target Up&Up pencil actually has fantastic and tasteful stamping. I prefer the muted yellow of the Office Depot pencil for color. The Staples pencil has the thinnest and worst paint job. Best-applied lacquer goes to Casemate, with the Target pencil being a close second.

The Dixon has a truly terrible core; it scratches across the page and leaves a light mark. The darkest and smoothest core is the one in the Casemate pencil. It’s been postulated in the Erasable Group that it’s made by the folks who bring us Apsara and Nataraj pencils, and I’d easily believe this. The runner up is the Target Up&Up pencil, which is less dark than the Casemate – but it’s reasonably smooth.

Conclusion: Which should you buy?
Well, most of these are house brands. So that might be decided by what is closest to your office or school or where your school has an account.

If you can buy anything else, don’t buy the Dixon. It’s a terrible pencil. I’ve joked before that I keep one around to remind me that I have nice pencils. And, years later, this is still the case.

If you live near the standard selection of Big Box stores, get the Target Up&Up pencil. I say this because it dulls more slowly on toothy office paper than the darker Casemate.

If you have to pick either an Office Depot or Staples pencil, well, go for the Staples pencil. The better eraser on an otherwise nearly identical pencil put this one ahead. Plus, I saw that they make black Staples pencils now. You could order a box of those for your boss for brownie points!

* See Erasable Podcast for our periodic mentions of Semi-Cheaps, one of my favorite “class” of pencils.

** Not the Ticonderoga, which is a Semi-Cheap, not a Very Cheap.

Some Whimsy.

Thought I’d lighten the mood a bit, after the last week of…I don’t know. Despite surprising backlash, we received a bevy of encouraging and warm private messages, which are very much appreciated. 

We never meant to start such a stir, though we stand by our post. It was merely a list of suggestions for how to diversify the Blackwing Volumes line. Being smart and thoughtful folks, I assumed that Blackwing was thinking along these lines anyway. If I really thought they were sexist and/or racist, I would not contribute to the considerable airtime we devoteto them on Erasable. We make suggestions all the time for Volumes. I am confounded that the various lists of suggestions got so many people so upset and provoked such nastiness in/on various channels.

If you would like purchase the sharpener in the picture, head over to Papernery. I bought this one for my wife, and it came today.

Blackwing Diversity.

At Andy’s suggestion, here’s another list of potential Blackwing Volumes editions dedicated to women and people of color. I’ll repeat what Andy said: I am not accusing Blackwing of being racist or sexist or anything of the sort. I imagine they didn’t realize that the first five…look like this. And for all we know, we’ll be pleasantly surprised by the fall edition.

EDIT: One might do well to read closely before sending me nasty messages or leaving comments with fake email addresses accusing me of something I didn’t say or even imply. That says more about, well, you, than it does about me. Snark is not even wit, and wit is certainly not wisdom.

EDIT 2: Were I or we interesting in shaming Palomino or accusing them of ill-will, that would have been easy enough to do, using the same keyboard I used to clearly indicate that we are *not* accusing them of anything. The continued charges that this blog and other pencil blogs have been on some social crusade (and I’m not talking really talking about comments here – largely this has come through Facebook and poorly-constructed and cowardly emails from burner accounts) smells like the “reactionary” “bullshit” of which we’ve been accused.

Check out Andy’s list, which is Amazing! And Less’s list! And Dee’s!

Virginia Woolf: Volume 59, her age at her death by suicide in 1941.

Hermione Granger: Volume 919, her birthday. The pencil would be burgundy, with gold accents and a custom burgundy eraser — a nod to House Gryffindor.

Simone de Beauvoir: Volume 1949/49, publication of The Second Sex.

Emily Dickinson: Volume 1,800, the estimated number of poems written by her. This pencil would be matte white, with a black ferrule and eraser.

Frederick Douglass: Volume 1845, the year of the publication of his Autobiography.

Betsy Ross: Volume 15, the number of states in the union when the British attacked Fort McHenry in their attempt to take our country back (sorry, Brits). This pencil, of course, needs to be red with a blue ferrule and white eraser. The Rockets’ Red Glare edition.

Barack Obama: Volume 2008, obviously. This pencil is left-handed, though, and comes in the blue of the ties he used to wear.

Emma Goldman: Volume 22, the prison term she received for her attempt, with Berkman, to assassinate Frick. This pencil is black with a red ferrule and black eraser. Either the MMX core on a newer, darker core. It doesn’t @#$% around.

Mother Teresa: Volume 2016/16, for the year of her canonisation (Sept 4th, good time for it). Pencil is white, with a blue ferrule and white eraser.

Marie Curie: Volume 0311, the years she won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and the prize in Chemistry (1911).

Anne Frank: Volume 1947/47, the publication of her diary (not the English edition).

Nelson Mandela: Volume 27, the number of years he spent in prison.

Maya Angelou: Volume 1993/93, the year in which she read “On the Pulse of Morning” at Clinton’s inauguration.

W.E.B. Du Bois: Volume 1909/09, the year he helped found the NAACP.

Thurgood Marshall: Volume 1954/54, the Brown v. Board of Education decision that changed American history.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 1946/46, the year in which, while serving as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, she oversaw the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Serena Williams: Volume 4, the number of her Olympic gold medals.