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.

points
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.

ends

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
Staples
Office Depot
Dixon**
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.

Erasers
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.

Finishes
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.

Cores
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.

BW_div
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.

Wes Anderson’s Pencils.

Wes Anderson’s palettes always fascinate me. And sometimes I use a certain pencil that puts me in mind of one of his films. This happened in a big way with the Ticonderoga 2014 (and 2015) Target back-to-school exclusive pencils — especially the pink ones. So Ticonderogas figure strongly into these collages. I made these images almost two years ago and never posted them because I was not happy with the quality. I found them while looking for something else, though. While I should really re-shoot them in better lighting and perhaps change out a few of the pencils, I’m just going to post them here now.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

bottle_rocket
Standard yellow TIconderoga and a neon yellow. This film always screams with the yellow of jumpsuits.

 

Rushmore (1998)

Helix Oxford in navy blue, with a Staedtler Noris.
Helix Oxford in navy blue, with a Staedtler Noris. Max, all over.

 

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

royal_ten

 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

life_aquatic

 

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Apsara Absolute, yellow Ticonderoga and an interesting pencil I've had for years.
Apsara Absolute, yellow Ticonderoga and an interesting pencil I’ve had for years.

 

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Vintage Empire Pedigree, vintage Ticonderoga Woodgrain, and the wheat colored Ticonderoga from the muted color set available online.
Vintage Empire Pedigree, vintage Ticonderoga Woodgrain, and the wheat colored Ticonderoga from the muted color set available online.

 

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Light blue Ticonderoga formerly sold as boasting Microban, standard yellow, and the green from the muted color pack.
Light blue Ticonderoga formerly sold as boasting Microban, standard yellow, and the green from the muted color pack.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Pink Target Ticonderoga and a silver railroad pencil from Ana, Chair at Well-Appointed Desk.
Pink Target Ticonderoga and a silver railroad pencil from Ana, Chair at Well-Appointed Desk.

See earlier Moonrise Kingdom post, from perhaps the film with the best Pencil Action.

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.

Graphite Report on the New Reporter’s Notebooks.

books
In case you have either slept through the last ten days or are not hugely interested in notebooks, there were two reporter’s notebooks unveiled last week, on the same day.

The John Dickerson-inspired Field Notes Byline edition is the summer 2016 release. Subscribers also received a laptop sticker of the Byline logo. These books contain 35 sheets (70 pages) of Cougar Natural 70#T vellum, with college-ruled [0.28 inch] lines in the usual Field Notes innards color. There is a pocket in the rear and a concealed spiral binding. The notebooks come in at 3.75 inches by 8 inches — a little more narrow than traditional reporter’s notebooks.

Write Notepads & Co.’s reporter pads are something I’ve been needling Chris to make for a good two years, after I saw the first Ledger prototypes. These contain the new paperstock Write Pads will be using: 60 sheets,  “120 pages of 1/4″ ruled paper printed in our trademark subtle non-reproducible blue-green.” (This paper will be in their own summer release, unveiled this weekend and coming soon to lucky mailboxes near you.) This book is the traditional 4 inches by 8 inches.

Corners show the different cover materials.
Corners show the different cover materials.

Cover/Construction

The Byline’s cover is made of Neenah Environment 120#DTC “Wrought Iron”. There is a pocket in the rear of the book and Field Notes-style information all over the cover. I love the cheeky data, and the pocket is a great idea. In practice, things keep falling out of mine. This book is very flexible and surfs a pocket well. However, the odd concealed binding means that the cover material has to flex both when opening and closing the book, and the covers take a beating in your pocket. If this book had more paper, I am not sure that the cover/seams would survive life in a pocket. On the flip side, like most of my favorite offerings from Field Notes, the beat-on patina of this book looks amazing, especially with the grey cover.

The Write Notepads & Co. book is beefy. It’s the same recycled kraft coverstock we’ve come to expect, with the same bulletproof spiral. The cover is even oriented with the grain such that the book will flex vertically but not horizontally. There are few frills, in keeping with the Write Pads aesthetic. The included (and removable) rubber band is a welcome addition and kept my pages from getting bent up.

Very different approaches to the bindings.
Very different approaches to the bindings.

These two books have not been in existence long enough for me to fill them up completely and to really see how they will look/feel after the last page is full of dumb things from my head. But I suspect that the Write Pads book will survive intact longer because it is made of stronger materials and because the spiral is naked. The Byline’s cover doubles as part of the binding, and I wonder if it is up to the task.

These books have different strengths in their forms. The Field Notes book is easier to carry, but the Write Pads book is easier to write in and to read. I’ve been using them each accordingly.

Aesthetics

Write Notepads & Co., while departing for their subscription series, has an aesthetic that is part of their branding. The reporter’s pad, ledger, and stenography pad (which I keep trying to get WNP to rename The Tablet) all have similar looks. On the other hand, the Byline is a complete departure for Field Notes. I feel stuck deciding which I enjoy more: the dependable gumption of the Write Pads book or the new-for-them look of the Byline.

Lines and paper hue are different.
Lines and paper hues are different.

Writing

These books both perform extremely well for graphite, and I think they serve to illustrate the difference that paper makes for the performance of a given pencil. I’m going to utilize my scanner to look at this more closely.

Interestingly (and I’m not sure if this comes out in the scans), I think that the Write Pads paper brings out lighter pencils, while the Byline brings out darker pencils. Both really shine in the way that they add an extra touch of contrast to mid-range pencils (think Cedar Pointe HB; Ticonderoga; Noris HB…). These are both papers that are a pleasure for pencils.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

The Bylines has noticeably smoother paper, since it’s stocked with a nice, cream-colored vellum. I really like this paper, especially for the larger page of a Byline. Pencil still makes its mark, though, and the results are really surprising on such smooth paper. Even a Wopex leaves a nice mark on this paper. The tooth in the Write Pads book still renders it smoother than a lot of papers, and it is sized such that it certainly does not sand down a pencil point. To repeat myself a bit: these are both two very enjoyable papers to write on, and I am not going to call one better on texture alone.

Erasing is almost equal on these two papers. The Byline’s vellum has sizing that seems to make the pencil’s point leave a deeper indentation, and this affects the real erasure abilities here, just a touch.

Graphite stability is also close, but I think that Write Pads edges ahead of the Field Notes here. Vellum’s smoothness usually leads to smearing and ghosting (use a Blackwing MMX on Rhodia paper, and you’ll see what I mean). While the Byline’s paper is definitely better than Rhodia’s at preventing Graphite Soup (TM), it does smear a little. It is no worse than other papers, however, which surprises me for vellum. So the Write Pad’s paper is not more smear resistant than the paper in the Byline because of the vellum; it’s because the Write Pad’s paper is amazing for graphite. I’ll avoid waxing poetic, but Chris took graphite (not just fountain pens) into consideration when deciding on a new paperstock. Pencil stays put. Period.

Which Should You Buy?

Uh, both. For $13, you get two Field Notes Brand Bylines (70 sheets/140 pages total). For $12, you get one Write Pads reporter’s pad (60 sheets/120 pages total), and both are amazing books. If you’re looking for something to stick in your pocket, I’d lean toward the thinner profile of the Byline, though I am not sure how long the cover will stick together. For a bag or for your desk, the Write Notepads & Co. reporter’s pad is a heavy-duty notebook. In fact, I have had a “thing” for reporter’s books for a few years, and this is by far the beefiest I’ve seen (the Bob State “Harvard Square Reporter” comes in second and deserves its own post).

I’m happy to see two great new offerings from my two favorite notebook companies in an oft-neglected format that I enjoy and use more often than, say, a six by nine nook or a legal pad.

Gary at Papernery wrote up his review last week, after we discussed co-posting. I both dropped the ball and received damaged Bylines and am a week late. Apologies for the delay!

[Disclaimer: While the Byline books were part of my subscription and paid for with my own money, I received the Write Notepads & Co. reporter pad for free via messenger on the day it was released.]

A Pretty Spring Day.

pretty_day_park
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.)