Lead on, Macduff.

[Today’s post comes from guest writer Lara Connock who lives and writes in South Africa. Many thanks to Lara for this wonderful essay about the virtues of journaling in pencil!]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good notebook must be in want of a pen. Then, having secured the pen (by which I mean a fountain pen) he or she will want ink. And so begins the eternal – some might say infernal – quest for the perfect combination of paper, pen and ink. I have spent the majority of my writing life on such a quest and have left in my wake a brace of abandoned pens, innumerable bottles of ink and teetering piles of nearly-new notebooks in which the quick brown fox features over and over again.

“Are you ever going to write anything real?” my exasperated husband said one day. “I hate seeing you wasting your time and talent like this.”

“Then don’t look!” I snapped back. “This is important!”

Although I hated to admit it, my husband had a point. My focus had always been on the form, so I’d never really got down to the function; you know, actually writing stuff (apart from that wretched fox/dog scenario). See, I’m a perfectionist with OCD, hence the search for the aforementioned combination that would ensure that my notebook would be uniform, consistent and, well, perfect. I tried to explain this to my husband but he wasn’t having any of it. “If you really wanted to write, you’d write, and it wouldn’t matter what your notebook looked like. Imagine if Shakespeare had messed around the way you do!” Naturally I ignored this.

A couple of days later I was testing a new pen, ink and paper (again). The nib was an extra-fine, the ink the driest I could get, and the paper easily ten times more absorbent than Kleenex. There was ink everywhere – on the paper, the desk, the wall, the cat, my fingers, my clothes. And. I. Was. Done. I could not, would not, waste another moment more on such an utterly pointless exercise. The pen went into the pen coffin with all the others, ditto the ink, and the notebook went into the bin.

They say that sometimes, when one gives up hope, one feels so much better. It’s true. Having crossed that particular Rubicon, I really did feel a sense of relief – but it was short-lived. You see, I still wanted to write. I just had to find something to write with. My husband’s groan of despair could be heard three provinces away. “Just use a damn ballpoint!” was his suggestion, which, though kindly meant, was patently ridiculous.

Honesty compels me to admit that I actually quailed at the thought of having to try out all those gel pens, liquid ink pens (isn’t all ink liquid?), rollerballs and fineliners. When did writing instruments get so complicated? One’s writing life in days of yore must have been so much simpler when all one had to write with was a bit of graphite and a raggedy old piece of vellum or whatever. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the Bard himself would have tossed his goose quill in the quill coffin, along with his iron gall ink and all its attendant issues, the moment he found out that he’d have far less hassle writing those plays of his with a stick of graphite wrapped in string. “Out, damned quill! Is this a piece of graphite which I see before me, the sharp end toward me? Come, let me clutch thee.”

And there was the solution to all my problems. So simple. (My husband’s sigh of relief was deafening.) I bought a cheap notebook and an equally cheap pencil. Indeed, a pencil. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t actually that cheap. If I was going to be writing with a pencil, it had to be a good one. The art store offered two choices: locally produced pencils or imported German ones. It was the proverbial no-brainer, my thinking being that since this particular German company had been producing pencils since 1662, they had more than likely perfected their craft by now.

Pencils have, um, revolutionised my writing and journaling. They have taken away all the pain and left only the pleasure. I did get a bit sidetracked in the beginning by the myriad grades of hardness and darkness; my own fifty shades of grey, you might say. I settled on F-grade pencils, the baby-bear’s-porridge grade: not too soft, not too light, just right. (FYI: an F pencil is a #2.5 in the US.)

Pencils are what an old friend of mine would call “willing writers”. I know that when I put that beautifully sharpened point to paper (any paper!) it will write the first time. No skipping or hard starts because the ink isn’t flowing; no feathering or bleeding or ghosting either. I won’t be able to change my mind halfway through a journal entry about the colour of the ink or the feel of the nib or the tooth of the paper. And when the pencil has been worn down to the ferrule – having given up its life purely for my writing pleasure (cue violins) – there will be a quiver of its clones to choose from. They will all write in exactly the same way as their predecessor did, thereby ensuring that the pages of my notebook remain beautifully uniform and thus appealing to the twin gods of Perfectionism and OCD. (And did I mention the thrill of being able to erase mistakes?)

Consistency being a big thing for me, I like the fact that a 500-year-old piece of graphite (quaintly known as plumbago in those days) will write almost as well as a Koh-I-Noor or a Blackwing produced in 2019. (But I’m basing that assumption on the online community’s reviews of them, not yet having had the opportunity to test drive them myself.)


The world is a vastly different place now than it was when farmers in Britain’s Lake District, circa 1560, used the recently-discovered, new-fangled plumbago to mark their sheep. Fast forward five centuries and there are legions of six-year-olds clutching jumbo-sized, triangular-shaped pencils and learning to write their names for the first time.

Pencils have survived world wars, industrial and technological revolutions, feasts, famines, droughts and disasters, and are still here. Of course, in our digital world, Millennials, Generation Z’s and converts from Generation X might rather take notes on their smartphones or tablets, but that doesn’t mean that pencils have become obsolete. Far from it. People apparently love the vintage, the antique, the old fashioned things of bygone eras. (I suspect we may have Downton Abbey to thank for that.) Vinyl records have made made a comeback along with manual typewriters, fountain pens and – in certain homes – afternoon high tea.

Pencils have never really gone out, and in the last decade or so they have enjoyed – and are still enjoying – an increase in popularity. The difference now is that people are buying, collecting and using pencils because they want to, not because they have to.

No pencil article would be worth its weight in graphite if there was no mention made of those literary greats who loved pencils – Hemingway, Steinbeck and Thoreau, and, before them, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not going to repeat everything that has already been written about John Steinbeck’s passion for Blackwings because any pencil lover who doesn’t know about it must be living on a remote, nameless island or in an underground bunker previously occupied by hobbits.

Today, more than 20 billion pencils are produced worldwide every year. Currently there are upwards of 40 blogs devoted to pencils, my host’s included. Online stores are doing roaring trades, as is the now famous pencil store in New York owned and run by Caroline Weaver. (One day, when I don’t have to pay 14 South African Rand for one US dollar, I’ll make my pilgrimage. Until then, I’ll just skulk around the place online.)

Don’t get me wrong. Just because I’m a new convert to pencils does not mean I’ve fallen out of love with fountain pens. This isn’t a rebel song about their many vagaries or a protest march against the cost and elitism of fountain pen friendly paper. And don’t think I don’t see you glowering at me from the sidelines, you Pilots and Sailors and TWSBIs, and your besties, Clairefontaine, Rhodia and Tomoe. You all still have your place; it just isn’t in any of my notebooks. I tried so hard to love and bond with you, I really did, but I just don’t feel it. Now I’ve lost my heart to the product of an old German family, the House of Faber-Castell, and I’m committed for life.

Even so, it isn’t happily-ever-after just yet. I still have to find the ultimate pencil sharper and the apogee of erasers, along with pencil caps, pencil extenders and a pencil case to carry it all. So, lead on, Macduff.

Blackwing Volume 4.

Blackwing Volume 4 is here, and it is the Mars pencil. While the soft core will leave some folks wanting, I’m delighted by the latest offering from Palomino.

Clad in a matte rust orange, Volume 4 sports the usual hexagonal cross-section. Embedded in the finish are little pieces of sand. On first using these, right before we recorded the latest episode of Erasable, I was not a fan of the sand. However, after using this pencil more, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle texture. The grit is more of an extra feature of the design than it is something Comrades will actually notice very much in use.

The imprint is cream-colored, as is the eraser. The hue is very close to a standard Blackwing white eraser, but it is definitely different. I was surprised that subscribers did not get an extra pack of such a non-standard eraser color, which is usually the case. (Gray might be a suitable replacement.)

But what did come extra in subscribers packs is a lovely art print!

The ferrule is marketed as having a bronze finish, but I would call it more of a gray or gunmetal. It’s still lovely, and it blends with the color and design of this pencil to great effect.

Altogether, I find this pencil tops. I don’t usually buy a box in addition to my subscriber pack, but I have another pack of these beauties on order. I am a sucker for the soft core from the MMX.

Speaking of which, this is only the third time that Blackwing has put their softest core into a pencil from the Volumes series. I’m glad that they are revisiting what seems to be their least popular core, at least among folks who use their pencils for writing. The grip provided by this finish and the smoothness of the graphite core make this pencil a singular pleasure with which to scrawl.

I was not a super fan at first, but this pencil has just shot into my top 5 favorite Blackwing releases so far.

Mastering the Piece.

My kindergartner came home from school yesterday with a broken and displaced collarbone. Since we were home all day today together, we got into some Pencil Action. He had a tiny stub of a Ticonderoga in the chest pocket of his flannel shirt all day and looked at least seven different kinds of adorable with it. In the evening, he asked me if it would be interesting to sharpen the pencil all the way down to the ferrule, after we practiced using his special sharpener for left-handed kids.

Enter the Masterpiece. We sharpened this little Ticonderoga stub until we hit ferrule with the blade. I am pretty sure that this particular specimen dates back to around 2010. It still smelled amazingly when we sharpened it. Now if our friends in Germany could make a left-handed version of this sharpener, they would have a lifelong customer in my Henry.

I don’t know what he’s going to do with this pencil yet. He says that it’s going to take a very long time to dull the point. The dad in me thinks it looks a little dangerous, but the pencil fan is of course mesmerised.

Please try this at home.

(Bear with his first MMX.)

Blackwing Volume 33 1/3.


Monday is the official launch date of Blackwing Volume 33 1/3, the fall release from Palomino. As usual, subscribers get a first taste, and I got to take mine for a spin all weekend. Two of my three favorite Volumes have been autumnal releases, and I’d consider each of the three previous fall efforts to be a success. So how does the latest stack up?

I like that Blackwing has started to match the packing material to the Volumes releases. It’s a nice touch that I appreciate as a subscriber.  As usual, we get the extra pencil in a tube, an item that’s become attractive to collectors since the first Volumes came out in summer 2015, number 725.

What’s more, the last few subscriber extras were basically print-outs on card stock. This time around, subscribers get a bottle of vinyl pellets out of which a record could be made. My record-loving pal asked me, after my package came, if the set comes with a record. Yes! I don’t know what to do with this item, but I think one of my friends who is into vinyl would enjoy it. At any rate, I’m happy to see a unique extra this go-round.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Honestly, I have very little interest in vinyl records. I understand the advantages some folks experience with them, but I’ve grown too accustomed to streaming music wherever I go to go back to physically stored music now. I haven’t always gotten particularly excited about the themes/tributes around the Volumes releases, but I appreciate these as interesting pencils in their own right. The design is big thumbs up.

These pencils are black. The finish is matte and smells like an MMX, and the stamping is black and calls to mind Volume 24. The ferrule and eraser are even black, making this pencil perhaps a perfect mate for the matte black Field Notes Raven’s Wing of the Write Notepads Lenore. How much more black could this pencil get, without dying the wood (and cedar is apparently really difficult to dye)? None more black. 

Near the business end, we find foil-stamped rings that echo the grooves on a record. They could function as a sort of grip-area, though I’m not sure if I’d like them better if they went all of the way up the pencil or if they were just not there. The core is the “balanced” core from the Pearl, Volume 725, and Volume 1. It’s honestly my least favorite of the four cores found in Blackwings, but I enjoy all four. Aside from the MMX (the darkest, my favorite), it’s a very close call between the other three.

The ferrules look a little worse for the wear. All of mine are pretty scratched up, and the “seam” where they are attached shows through in this monochromatic color scheme. Some Comrades might find this bothersome with such expensive pencils.

I have to admit that I was initially a little disappointed by the lack of autumnal hues and getting yet another black pencil from Blackwing. Once I opened my package, I found that the uniform matte black aesthetic is a winner here.  Matte black has served well for over eight years as of this dispatch, and it’s among my very favorite finishes on any pencil (assuming there’s a finish, with unfinished pencils being  my usual favorite). These pencils will definitely get a workout during NaNoWriMo this year, if my kids don’t run off with them all for Halloween first.

Back to School, Grade 4.


My daughter just skipped third grade (where the list included blue and red pens) and, this week, entered fourth grade, where the requirements concerning pencils were:

1) Pack of sharpened pencils: We picked the Futura from CWPE, with two protected pencils being sharpened (to save the yellow lining of this pencil case).

2) Eraser: I picked out the Matomaru-Kun Long Plastic Eraser because it’s shaped in such a way that it fits into a pencil case very well, while still maintaining a good volume of “rubber” for erasing.

3) Container sharpener: We settled on the Sect Enclosed Pencil Sharpener that Caroline talked about on a recent episode of Erasable. There are two holes: one for a long point and one for a short point.

The tooth fairy brought her this lovely Fluf case (which he bought at MOM’s Organic Market). It holds a lot, but it won’t fit unsharpened Blackwings.

My son started Kindergarten today, but I didn’t get a photo of his cute little pencil box full of fat pencils. I’ll invade the classroom and give it a shot.

(Last year’s post.)

Blue Joy.

This was too satisfying to only share on Instagram. White supremacists are demonstrating less than an hour away, and I have family in the service who are on call. Maybe I just need the distraction myself.

The Lawn, from Write Notepads & Co.

 

Pencil Revolution is 13 years old today, and we celebrate with a look at a Baltimore Summer Treat. Following up the Sakura edition from the spring, we have another quarterly release from Write Notepads & Co. for summer 2018: The Lawn.

And here is something that I particularly enjoy about this release, and the last: they are seasonal releases. While summer is…not my favorite season of the year, all-in-all, it’s my favorite season for Write Notepads books. The Kindred Spirit and Chesapeake both tickled my Steamy Summer in Baltimore Fancy in 2016 and 2017, and the concept of The Lawn more than lives up to the streak of great summer releases from Write Notepads. If you are a Baltimorean (or even a Marylander), you know that summers here are special and that lawns in Baltimore (especially Baltimore city) are often adorned with beach chairs, gnomes, and — of course — flamingos.

In the hand, I love these books. Like last time around, the dimensions of a Write Notepads pocket notebook combined with the saddle-stitched binding result in a larger canvas for a book which Comrades can carry comfortably in your pocket. You get the same amazing paper to which we have become accustomed/by which we are becoming spoiled. This time around, we get Write’s lovely lines, in a fine green. There are no margins this time. While the usable area might be a little larger, I kind of miss them.

The grass blades on the covers are all letterpressed onto the stock. I really like lighter cover stocks for pocket notebooks, and this 70# stock does not disappoint. It’s stiff enough to survive in a pocket, but it keeps the book flexible. It has a certain smoothness that sets it apart from, say, kraft paper. The design of the bellyband is spot-on, though I wish there could have been a sticker of this little picnic blanket included.

Speaking of stickers, one’s lawn is not always pristine. Each three-pack of notebooks comes with a locally-designed sticker sheet featuring objects one might find hiding in/on a Baltimore lawn. The heavy representation of flamingos is perfect. The fact that the cut-outs of the stickers feature blades of grass helps the decals to blend into the covers and is a welcome and very thoughtful feature.

I bought a set for my Mom, a true Baltimore Hon, and she loved them. Show Charm City and summer some love, and get a set while they last.

(These notebooks were purchased with our own money; no one influenced this review.)

Blackwing Volume 10001.


Blackwing begins the fourth year of the Volumes series with Volume 10001, a solute to Tetsuya Miyamoto and the KenKen puzzle. The copy from Blackwing explains it well:

Blackwing 10001 (壱万壱) pays tribute to Miyamoto Sensei’s puzzles and other creative ways of teaching and learning. 10001 is a numeral palindrome in Kanji as well as in Arabic numerals. It is also tied to one of Miyamoto Sensei’s favorite equations. The pencil features a red stained barrel, gold imprint and unique five-sided “Gōkaku pencil” shape. Translated literally from Japanese, Gōkaku means “passed,” as in a problem or exam. It is also a near-homophone for the Japanese word “Gokakukei,” meaning pentagon. Gōkaku pencils are given to every student who graduates from the Miyamoto Mathematics class.

While I enjoy the releases that speak to an interest I already have, these pencils honor a teacher and a puzzle of whom and of which I have never heard. But just as Moleskines introduced me to Bruce Chatwin, the Volumes series has encouraged me to explore a little as a result of the tributes in a few instances. This edition is definitely a case in point. I have always wanted to explore puzzles more, but where does one begin? The KenKen puzzle looks like a good launching point for me. The extra for subscribers is a set of puzzles printed on heavy stock, and the shredded paper is yellow (to echo the printing? Volume 54 had teal packing materials).

The pencils themselves, separate from the them/tribute? Beautiful. A few of the Volumes editions have been….unattractive in my view (Volumes 56 and 205, I’m looking at you). Many are lovely. Some are fantastic, gorgeous, exceptional. This is the latter. I love the combination of the red stain and the high-gloss clear lacquer. My first instinct was to want these to have pink erasers, but I like the black. Pink would have dulled some of the effect of the red stain. The printing is gold and, as usual, crisp. These feature the “firm” core, the same as the Blackwing 602.*

More remarkable is the shape of these pencils. Rather than the usual hexagon from Blackwing, the rare round cross-section, or the not-yet-seen triangular barrel, Blackwing went for a pentagonal pencil. These do not feel especially differently than a hex pencil, but my hand tells me…something is up when I hold one. The other difference with this shape is that the ferrules are aligned with the imprint. So they do not rest with the stamping at the top, making them difficult to photograph.

This is a lovely start to another year of Blackwing Volumes releases. I’m already thinking about picking up another box once my kids find these and dig in.

* And Volumes 211, 56, 344, 205, and 16.2.

F Grade and Smooth.


I find it remarkable that Faber-Castell can make a hard-ish pencil that is at the same time as smooth as a soft pencil. This F grade Castell 9000 is great on Baron Fig paper, with Point Durability and glide to spare. Matthias writes about F grade pencils frequently, and I’ve come to appreciate this semigrade, #2 1/2 or #2.5 (etc. — each manufacturer used to have their own number for it). We made a whole episode about it on Erasable, in case you missed it. What are some other great F grade pencils?