Pencil confessions, i.

If I may wax personal, I want to admit being more than a little upset to learn that a certain pencil I previously enjoyed is made of rainforest wood, not Incense Cedar. I know, this should make no difference. It was hard to sharpen and had no smell before I knew what it was made of, too, and I ignored it. I think I’m upset that it’s maker flaunts it as a great quality pencil (and charges a lot for it) but then won’t pony up and make it out of cedar. There are probably even reasons for this, like a $3 a pencil price tag result, etc. I won’t pretend that I know much about wood or about what works best for what.

But it’s weird that something so small can shake my faith in a pencil. It’s like when you have a pencil you love but then realize that it’s core smears all over or that you have a near-perfect pencil that comes with a terrible eraser that ruins the whole affair. Or, worse, that you have a pencil you love above all others but cannot obtain anywhere.

Is there some implicit search for the perfect pencil, or do we just get jolted when we learn that our favorites could use some evolving? Or do we delude ourselves into thinking we’ve already perched on the perfect pencil and then find out that there’s a glaring design flaw, upon which we get shaken up again?

Review of Faber-Castell Grip 2001.

We’ve reviewed pencils made in the United States and Asia so far, but we’ve not yet talked much about European pencils. It’s only fitting, then, that we review something from Faber-Castell, specifically the Grip 2001. We are very happy to have Frank C. — who works in research in the Garden State — write the review of this award-winning pencil.

According to Faber-Castell, “For centuries there was no change with the pencil. Faber-Castell has proven that there is still potential for improvement with this apparently simple product. Shortly after its launch the GRIP 2001 pencil was prized with several important design awards. For the magazine Business Week it was the best ‘Product of the Year’,” and several other accolates to boot.

First, some technical info:

Material: Jelutong, a rainforest wood that grows in Indonesia.
Shape: Triangular, with grip zone.
Finish: Water-based lacquer in metallic grey.
Ferrule: None, capped end in grey or black, depending on lead grade; black triangular ferrule on eraser-topped version.
Eraser: (On ferruled version) Soft black rubber.
Core: 2B, B, HB, H, 2H (B reviewed), specially-bonded and break-resistant graphite.
Markings: Black Gloss. “GRIP 2001 Faber-Castell” with company logo of jousting knights.
Packaging: Varies. Usually sold in open-stock or dozens. Fine stationers and art supply shops are the best bets.
Origin: Stein, Germany.

Now, for Frank’s review:

“Let me state up front that the Grip 2001 by Faber-Castell is my favorite currently-available pencil (the Blackwing 602 is my all-time favorite, but I’m sticking to currently-available pencils). Why? Because I like pencils that write a dark line but can be used for day-to-day writing (only 2B and 4B for me), and the Grip 2001 fits the bill, for me, better than any pencil around.

The other factor that cements its position as my top pencil is the way the Grip 2001 is designed to never slip in your hand. Using what Faber-Castell calls the ‘Patented Soft-Grip-Zone’ (what looks like to me little raised black dots) makes it easy to grip the pencil without it slipping up and down your fingers. I’ve also found that I don’t have to grip it as tightly to write, which means that I can write with it for longer periods of time than other pencils. One downside—when you store the Grip 2001 next to other pencils it has a tendency to stick to them!

The Grip 2001 has a triangular shape, another excellent ergonomic factor in its favor. I’ve found that the triangular shape fits flush between my fingers, meaning that I never find myself rotating the pencil like I do other traditionally-shaped pencils. Again, this is another ergonomic detail that makes the Grip 2001 stand head and shoulders above the other current pencils that I’ve tried.

While it’s great to have the attention to design detail that the Grip 2001 provides, it would mean nothing if the pencil didn’t deliver a great writing experience. And this it does, with a dark line that never smears. It’s also extremely easy to sharpen, even with the triangular shape.

So, given the great writing experience, excellent design, and ergonomic features, it’s easy to see why the Grip 2001 is an excellent pencil and my current favorite. It may be a bit more expensive than average (I purchased mine from Pen City, although I have seen them in a local Office Depot), but it is worth it. I cannot recommend it highly enough.”

Many thanks to Frank for the review and the photos!

[Images Frank C. and J.G., used with kind permission.]

Holiday pencils.

With the start of the various holiday seasons, we see countless pencils with pumpkins, ghosts, and goblins all around. Some have giant erasers, fuzzy tops or sparkly paint. But what are the People to do when we want a festive pencil that does not write like a black rock and smell like dirty old wood? With Halloween and the winter holidays almost upon us, what are we to write with?

Fear not! There are some respectable pencil manufacturers who can rescue us junky holiday pencils! Just to name a few:

Musgrave Pencil Company has several holiday-themed lines, including Halloween.

Dixon makes reward pencils, including some for Halloween. You can never go wrong with Dixon.

And Californian Republic makes holiday-themed pencils in their Spangle line which are available through the Pencil World Creativity Store. You can even score a free set of Halloween pencils with the purchase of Palomino artist pencils (which are great pencils) for a limited time.

As a friend of ours pointed out, pencils would make a healthy alternative to candy for handing out to trick-or-treaters, while promoting education and children’s creativity at the same time.

And for us grown-ups, they are a nice way to celebrate the holidays we still love.

[Image CalRep.]

The sad affair of the pencil.

Our friend Alcarwen at That Shadow My Likeness writes about the terror of being without a pencil sharpener:

“This was going along quite well until I realized I had stranded myself in the fourth floor office on the top of the highest hill with a single color pencil and no pencil sharpener to be found. I searched through the entire department. I knocked on doors. I had other pens offered to me, but no. The Rhetoric book is not to be touched with anything other than my particular box of color pencils. (Yes, I’m obsessive. I know.)

I sat there in despair, Rhetoric book in one hand, sadly un-sharpened color pencil in the other and was completely unable to continue reading. Until… until I remembered the lovely pocket-knife on my key ring. I sharpened the damn thing old school style. I was so proud of myself.

However, I think my Department head now thinks I’m a nut-case since he walked into my office to find me whittling away at a pencil with a pocket-knife while grinning maniacally.”

This is a disaster that I’ve known a few times myself, and I would not wish it on anyone. Pulling out a blade is the bravest way to handle such a situation, to be sure. It’s downright heroic!

Many thanks, Alcarwen!

No. 4: The Pencil.

Forbes ranked the “20 Most Important Tools” recently, and the pencil scored #4!

“Writing may be one of the most important discoveries in human history. But it was easy-to-use writing implements–including the pencil, pen and brush–that made mass education and literacy possible. Cheap, reliable and convenient, the pencil represents these tools at their best. And because the sword came in at No. 8 on our list (more about the sword), we can now say for sure that the pen is mightier than the sword…

….In 1662, the first mass-produced pencils were made in Nuremberg, Germany, and in 1795, a French Chemist named Nicolas Conté invented a technique to make pencil leads out of powdered graphite and clay. In 1770, Edward Naime, an English engineer, created and began selling the first rubber erasers. The practice of painting pencils yellow began in the 1890s. Pencil manufacturers wanted to advertise that they were using high-quality Chinese graphite, so they painted them a color associated with Chinese royalty. Today, 75% of the pencils sold in the U.S. are still painted yellow. “

Thanks for the link, Doug!

[Image Dave Klug.]

Writing in color (i).


If I ever step into ink, I usually like to use something a little seasonal, especially in the autumn. Pilot makes a new burgundy G2 now, and the brown Le Pen is an equally great color — sepia with a purple-wine tinge.

But Ashley writes in with a very good question: What are we pencil folk to do when we are bored with graphite grey?

“I love the Pencil Revolution! I am still happily scribbling away with my awesome Cretacolor Monolith woodless graphite pencils, but I have a new urge to write in color. Can someone at the Revolution suggest any colored pencils that are suitable to write with? I have a lovely Stabilo aquarelleo in blue. This has a thick waxy core and is meant for glass, plastic, etc. I enjoy writing with it because it is smooth and fluid, but the thickness has two problems if you just want to writ. It makes it hard to get a nice point on it, and needs too frequent sharpening to keep any point. That said, I would appreciate any new reviews or ideas about colored pencils specifically for writing. Thanks! Vive la Revolution!”

I have some All-Stabilos that are water-soluble china markers, but Ashely’s right. They are not good for writing on paper unless you want to sharpen an already dull point every other line. And trying to write with an artist-type colored pencil will only waste a nice tool.

Some companies used to make indelible pencils in different colors — non-erasable pencils that contained aniline dyes in different hues. But, with the advent of portable pens that don’t make a mess in one’s pocket, those went the way of the manual typewriter. The only ones I can find for sale in the United States are the NoBlot ink pencils, “A Bottle of Ink in a Pencil.” (We’d greatly appreciate info about any others!)

Prismacolor makes Verithins: colored pencils with a very fine core. However, the lead is the same soft formula (?) as the Primacolor colored pencils, so they will probably dull extremely quickly.

Another item to try might be something in the new line of Erasable Checking pencils that Dixon has out. I have only tried the red, but I can vouch that they are very nice checking pencils and that you might be able to write with them as well.

Does anyone else have any ideas?

Banned Books Week.

The publicity that this gets in the United States these days is getting better every year, but did you know that it is Banned Books Week? And did you know that some serious pencil heroes are frequently on the list of banned authors? We’ll just mention two: Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.

Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and In Our Time are all on the list of the top 20th century American novels (even though the last one is really a short story collection). The first three have been challenged or banned in the United States, because characters drink, shoot each other and promiscuously sleep around. While it is certainly one’s prerogative to boycott these works and to forbid one’s children from reading them, it is no one’s right in a country with free speech to ban them for the rest of us, to decide what’s fit or decent for everyone else to read. Perhaps it’s idealistic, overly academic or politcally callous to declare, but banning books in the United State is just a contradiction of the entire idea of freedom of speech.

Picture a world without the novels of John Steinbeck, for instance — another pencil user whose works have been challenged or banned in this country, most notably The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Would we really presume to tell everyone else what they can and cannot read, as if we have the ultimate moral perspective and know what is best for all of our fellow citizens?

True, any connection between these banned authors and the pencils that they used to create their contraversial and, some would say revolutionary, books is tenuous or symbolic at best. But just imagine that the books these writers are most known for were written with ordinary pencils. We all certainly have pencils, as well as paper (or walls) to write on. Combine these with a true freedom of speech, and there’s little to stop us all from writing great novels, poems, essays or short stories. And the more revolutionary, the better.

Pencil degrees.

Several folks have asked us to post something about pencil degrees, especially since those of us in the United States have pencils which have plain numbers to write with, while we have confusing degrees on our art pencils and drafting pencils. We have some terrific articles to link to which explain the various hardnesses and softnesses of pencils extremely well, so we will not try to out-do them, which would probably be impossible.

Here is a great piece from the Pig Pog Creativity Wiki on pencil hardness:

“In the UK, and (I think) most of Europe, pencils are always labelled with one scale – H for Hard, or B for soft, with a number to say how hard or soft. HB is the middle of the range, and by far the most common type. For sketching, though, a softer lead is usually preferred, often 2B or even 4B. For more technical drawing or very light lines, a harder lead works better, like a 2H. The scale goes up to 9 at each end – 9B to 9H, with the extreme ends of the scale being a bit too extreme for most uses.Sometimes, you’ll also find an F pencil – Firm – between the HB and the H (the 1 is missed off).

The US usually follows the UK system for drawing pencils, but for office use commonly refers to HB as #2. “

And Doug Martin has a great article about pencil grades as well, which explains the American system and the strange fractions and decimals we find on this side of the Atlantic:

“At the same time, a number-only system was in use, particulary in the U.S., which is still in use. The table below indicates approximate equivalents between the two systems:#1 — B
#2 — HB
#2½ — F
#3 — H
#4 — 2H

The common #2, or HB grade pencil in the middle of the range, is considered to be the preferred grade for general purpose writing. Harder pencils are most often used for drafting purposes, while softer grades are usually preferred by artists.

American-made pencils can often be found with numerically equivalent designations of 2-1/2, 2-4/8, 2-5/10, and 2.5, representing the same grade, but introduced by different manufacturers to distinguish their products and to avoid patent lawsuits.

It should be noted that no ‘official’ standard for pencil grades has ever been adopted, and the designations are still somewhat arbitrary and not always consistent from one manufacturer to the next.”

While it can be confusing — and even frustrating — when pencil manufacturers cannot find some single standard, even within their own product lines, it does allow for wonderous variety. I personally have an army of HB pencils that vary from ink-dark for creative writing to relatively light-marking pencils for writing in books. With nineteen (or more) grades to choose from, dozens of manufacturers producings multiple models, it is certainly possible to find a pencil for every use.

Or, at least, we can get pretty close. And looking for the perfect pencil for writing our grocery lists or dissertations on world peace is really part of the fun, anyway, no?

“Stop and Smell What?”

The roses, among other things. Ruby writes about taking the time to enjoy little things that go too often ignored:

“In this fast-paced rat race which we have obligingly enlisted ourselves (hey, some of us even took postgraduate degrees for added ‘speed’), we hardly realize we have gotten hopelessly caught in the constant blur of the panic. It has become part of our lives.”


“Do you remember the smell of a newly sharpened pencil? All that keyboard tapping, those colorful gel and felt-tip sign pens, why use pencils, right? Well, next time you’re at the bookstore, pick up a sharpened pencil and give it a good whiff. Ahh, nostalgia.”

When we think of things that we check out when we slow down, why is it that we tend to think of pencils? Because they are worth the extra time, like French press coffee, or is it something more?

[Image J.G. 2005.]