All Hat No Cattle?

[Part two of the Mythbusting Double Header from the Watts follows below, continued from part one]

Another bonus! Two myths in one right here, baby: 1) The El Casco M-430 pencil sharpener produces the finest point available and 2) It is worth its exorbitant price.

04 Drawer and Handle

You’ve probably heard of the legendary El Casco M-430 sharpener. Our focus is on the “cheaply finished” version, the chrome and black which currently sells for $373 at Amazon, $450 at Barneys New York and $550 at Pen Boutique. David Rees, author of How to Sharpen Pencils, has described the M-430 as “. . . an extraordinary example of engineering . . . .” David has made a living as a humorously serious (or seriously humorous) expert on pencil sharpening and has stated this is not only the most expensive sharpener on the market, but also the best.

Brandon, a member of the Erasable Facebook community, obtained a gently used one in a fantastic deal of a lifetime and was delighted with his sharpener’s performance. Inspired, I haunted eBay until I was able to purchase a supposedly like new and unused El Casco M-430 for a fraction of the prices quoted above. If Hunter and I have gone this far with our reviews, I reasoned, why stop just short of the Holy Grail?

05 Front

Hunter and I agree with David Rees that the El Casco, which is a double-burr sharpener (the Carls and most other hand crank sharpeners are single burr) produces an exceptionally long point with a flattened tip (that happily reduces breakage upon first application of pressure) and that sports distinctly concave sides. I haven’t seen anything like what comes out of this sharpener, but don’t just take my word for it, read these Amazon reviews. The M-430 has multiple point settings but Hunter and I focused on the longest because that’s what we’re after.

My El Casco exhibited three issues that have me wondering whether or not to release it back into eBay:

1. The bare wood between the paint and graphite of a sharpened pencil is left darkened from graphite dust. A suggestion from an Erasable Facebook community member was to try cleaning the burrs with contact spray, because it may be that waxy pencils used previously were holding then releasing graphite onto my pencils. Couldn’t hurt to try it. But trying it didn’t help. I’ve seen quite a few photos of freshly sharpened-by El Casco pencils and many seem exhibit this side effect. I’ve also found online comments by people who have decided to live with these results because in their view the quality of the point makes up for the dinginess.
2. The clutch that holds the pencil straight, although it doesn’t have jagged teeth like the Angry Devil, usually leaves dents on my pencils. There is no mechanism that pulls the pencils into the burrs for you; with the El Casco you have to manually push the pencil in through the clutch. That activity, with my sharpener and at least one other M-430 out there, results in dents. Although the parts didn’t seem stiff, I disassembled this portion of the sharpener and lubed everything with silicone spray. It didn’t help. This seems to be an exceptionally sporadic occurrence among owners as I have only run across one other mention of this problem.
3. Because you must push the pencil in with one hand while turning the crank with the other, unless you’re an octopus you’ll need assistance holding the sharpener in place. The El Casco has a suction cup bottom that works well on a glass or glass-like surface but not as dependably on others. Comments among owners reveal the occasional need to replace the suction cup . . . and that actually getting a replacement may involve buying another El Casco. Several owners have stated the Spanish company, without fail, fails to respond to requests for assistance and the United States distributor has sadly chosen to follow in the customer service lead of El Casco. One Erasable member learned a new USA distributor will be taking over so maybe there’s hope that in the future, the Rolls Royce of pencil sharpeners will have something in place to help its customers.

Need Spare Parts? “No Parts for You!”
Need Spare Parts? “No Parts for You!”

Here are the results produced by the El Casco M-430:

Spectacular Points
Spectacular Points
The Five El Casco-Sharpened Pencils in the Middle Need a Bath.
The Five El Casco-Sharpened Pencils in the Middle Need a Bath.
Nice Points, Grungy Wood and Dented Pencils
Nice Points, Grungy Wood and Dented Pencils
Stephen Doesn’t Like Dents.
Stephen Doesn’t Like Dents.
And Stephen Hates Long Dents in His Blackwing 602s.
And Stephen Hates Long Dents in His Blackwing 602s.

Our verdict on whether or not the El Casco M-430 produces the finest point available: Confirmed.

But is it worth its exorbitant price? Busted.

We haven’t seen anything else that creates such a spectacular point. The dinginess of the wood seems to be a common occurrence and the indentations, which are different than the bite marks of the Angry Devil, seem to be a byproduct of a small minority of El Cascos. If you don’t care about grunge, you don’t mind the risk of dented pencils and you have a bunch of spare change lying around, this is the sharpener for you, friend. Otherwise, purchasing an El Casco and getting the results that leave you feeling like you received your money’s worth may require a lucky roll of the dice.


Blooper Reel

Stephen’s Rabid Greyhound: 1 part vodka to 3 parts quality pink grapefruit juice, served on ice.

Pro Tip: Save the Rabid Greyhounds for After the Review.
Pro Tip: Save the Rabid Greyhounds for After the Review.

Bullsh-t Pencils.

My son handed me something that he got out of the diaper bag: a mechanical pencil. I said to him, “What’s that there, bud?” My innocent four-year-old daughter butted in and said it was, “A Bullshit Pencil.” We have talked about Mr. Rees’ book too much in our house. And I hope she does not say that at school.

(I do not actually think they are all bullpoop.)

Erasable #15 and Knife Sharpening.

Well, sharpening of pencils, by knives. In case you missed it, we were lucky enough to have David Rees on Erasable last week. In preparation, I had been trying my hand[s] at sharpening pencils with knives. I am getting pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. Excuse the shoddy Instagram shots, but here are some from right around the time of our recording last week.





What’s the Point of Pencils?

If you are enjoying our Erasable, you might also enjoy a listen to this program which features some fine Comrades of Pencildom.
Also, have you heard episode 8 of Erasable yet? There’s information about a nice giveaway at the end. We present the first round of Pencil Heroes. I picked Hemingway, of course.

Finally, do join our new Erasable Podcast Pencil Community group for the growing discussion of All Things Pencil.

Review of Ticonderoga Electric Sharpener.

A few weeks ago, I joked with Dixon Ticonderoga on Twitter that they should send us one of their new electric pencil sharpeners for review.

So now we have our first ever review of an electric pencil sharpener. I should probably mention two things right at the start. I do not generally like electric pencil sharpeners; I do like Dixon Ticonderoga very much.* This sharpener is pretty basic, and I mean that in a good way. You put your pencil into the hole; the burr rotates around your pencil; it stops rotating when it feels no friction; you have a nice, long point on your pencil. But there’s much more to say than that, of course.
First, I really like Dixon’s design choices here. The yellow and green really pop, with a bit of chrome trim to polish it all off. The left green side is covered with a grippy material, while the right side is the shavings tray. The plug even has a subtle Ticonderoga logo on it.
The shavings container is easy to remove (I did not need to consult the instructions) and fits securely to the body. It’s not an especially large space for shavings, but it is very easy to empty without spilling Cedar Shards and Graphite Dust all over your office, house or Outpost. I prefer this to my, ahem, other electric sharpener that will hold a year’s worth of shavings, only to cause them to cover your legs as you sprint to the nearest receptacle.

The sharpener is fitted with four Rubber Toes on the bottom, resulting in the possibility of one-handed sharpening. This makes this sharpener a good choice for Marathon Writing, where a blind drop of the pencil into the sharpener with one hand gives Comrades a quick point.
Now, the Point itself. This sharpener gives you a long point, similar in length to the point achieved with the Classroom Friendly Sharpener. This is excellent. The point is different, however, in that it does not curve inwardly toward the point the way that the Classroom Friendly sharpener does. The “Black” Ticonderoga was sharpened with the Dixon Ticonderoga sharpener in this photo, with the yellow Dixon being sharpened by the Classroom Friendly Green Machine. The Ticonderoga sharpener produces a straight point, as I hope is more obvious in this manipulated close-up.
This leaves less “point” along the length of the exposed graphite, but it also makes a stronger point. Comrades will have to decide for themselves which they prefer.
The lack of aperture means that there are no bite marks on your pencil. It also means you have to be careful to center your pencil within the Input Shaft** of the sharpener. The shaft is wider than standard pencils, but it does not accept jumbo or mini-jumbo pencils. So there is some movement which requires holding the pencil very still and centered. If you do not, the pencil rotates within the holes in a way that tricks the auto-stop mechanism into thinking there is more cutting required — it won’t stop.

There are advantages to this manual drop-in sharpening method. It is easy to stick your pencil in and take it out. This means that Comrades can easily stop the sharpening process before an overly sharp (for some applications) point results. This is great for quick touching-up. When I use a very sharp pencil for a short time — not long enough to require sharpening but long enough to have dulled the point a bit — I sometimes like to perform such a touch-up before putting the pencil back into the cup, box, case or behind my ear.

Certainly, this sharpener is not perfect. The logo could be stamped on a little more clearly. Unlike some sharpeners with metal gears, this sharpener’s gears appear to be made of plastic. I had no issues with slippage, through a few weeks of testing.
But one never knows how this could play into long-term durability. While our unit was provided free of charge, I feel like the price tag on this sharpener is a little steep. However, it could work for years, and then I would say otherwise. I will say that it’s my favorite of my two electric sharpeners and the only one I actually have plugged in and use.
In the end, I like this sharpener very much. I like even more that Dixon Ticonderoga seems to be experiencing some kind of surge of energy lately that they haven’t shown for some time here in the United States. There are some new erasers, this sharpener and even a blog by the CEO. I’ll be watching Dixon with anticipation in the future. I was unhappy when they outsourced their production a few years ago, but they do continue to make quality products. If you like Ticonderoga pencils and longpoints, this might be the sharpener for you.

*Can you say, “You had me at green and yellow plastic”?
** I officially propose to contribute this to Mr. Rees’ lexicon.

How to Sharpen Pencils, The Documentary.

HOW TO SHARPEN PENCILS from Pricefilms on Vimeo.
For some reason, I though (and hoped!) this was a full-length feature and have been waiting for the home release. However, you can simply watch it online, in it’s 9 1/2 minutes. Be sure to check out David Rees’, especially if you enjoyed his book as much as I did.

Hmmm, I wonder if I could get sued for actually starting my own Pencil Sharpening Business?

(If you’re at work and have kiddies in the vicinity, you might want to turn the volume down a bit.)

Capped Pocket Pencil.

I have a Magic Box of Awesome. (I should really do a post about it and stop my Lazy Blogging, but think of David Rees, and use your imagination.) Looking through this box is a staple request from Charlotte. Recently, she opened it and asked to have this very tiny pencil. I told her it can be her Pocket Pencil, and she liked this idea. Then I told her, in a very Parental Fashion, that she needed to use a point protector. A miniature argument ensued. This argument could only happen in my house, and perhaps some select other Outposts. I only won, I think, because one of the runs of General’s protectors had sparkles in it for some reason.

Sharpening Up, on Sunday Morning.

One of my very favorite programs featured our beloved Wooden Warrior yesterday, and Pencil Hero Mr. David Rees was one of the stars. Comrades can watch the video HERE, and there’s a post on Mo Rocca’s blog. It was a pretty good piece, and their other online videos are worth a browse, whether or not you’re a regular viewer.

Book Review: How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees, Artisanal Pencil Sharpener.

How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants
by David Rees
Melville House
224 pages

Mr. David Rees was kind enough to send us a review copy of his new book through his publisher, and we were eager to devour and review it. Mr. Rees has been making waves in the pencil world since opening his Artisanal Pencil Sharpening business in 2010. Just as that venture is surely no joke, John Hodgman assures, us in his foreword to the book, that the volume in question is surely no joke either:

So yes: YOU WILL LEARN THE PROPER WAY TO SHARPEN A PENCIL in this book. No joke (Rees 10).

Certainly, it is possible to seriously deliver information to other people while at the same time being ironic and downright hilarious. Some of the best teachers I have had certainly knew this to be true. To suggest that the book cannot be “serious” and really “about” how to sharpen pencils just because it is presented…the way that it is really amounts to precluding “real” information from anything that is funny. Such would be a sad world indeed. Boring, at least. In this case, the humor in Mr. Rees’ book functions as the proverbial “spoonful of sugar” – because, let’s face it: no matter how much we like pencils, an entire book based on the proper way[s] to sharpen them would likely wind up being moderately mind-numbing to a lot of people, even Comrades.

The question that most Comrades probably want answered about this book is: Will I learn something about sharpening pencils that I did not already know? Well, if not, then you probably have a lot to teach us, and I invite you to Charm City to do so. While some suggestions (like cleaning a burr sharpener with a toothbrush) might seem silly at first, I suspect this initial hint of the ridiculous comes from the strangeness of being overly fond of (ahem, obsessed with) pencils in the first place, so that we find ourselves seeking the best way to put points onto them. Personally, I am Okay with this outlook (and a toothbrush works great the clean The Machine on my bookshelf). Again, for myself, I learned a better way to approach sharpening a pencil with a knife, to be sure, and I will never again wonder how to use a wall-mounted sharpener that is higher than my merely average height can reach.

Of course, there are chapters one could view as humorous, such as the directions on the proper way to “use” an electric pencil sharpener, humor I cannot render justly in this review. Suffice it to say that it involves breaking and entering and a succession of hammers. Mr. Rees’ sense of irony and humor still suffuse the entire book.

Still, being trained in [academic] philosophy*, I find myself wondering what could be beneath the surface of this book, even if it is really “about” sharpening pencils. Mr. Thoreau’s Walden, for example, certainly admits to many different readings, beneath instruction and accounting. One such reading I have come to prefer of Mr. Rees’ book is that of being subtly critical of our era of mechanization and…globally sourced products.

In a footnote on page 29, Mr. Rees comments that “Made in USA” is a mark of a quality pencil. When one considers how rare American-made pencils are these days, this comment seems to imply that quality pencils are becoming rare in the United States in general. No matter how much darker and smoother the new Chines Dixons are (I find the Mexican versions scratchy, light and all but worthless), they are not really Dixons to me. The pencil’s “Americanness” was such a part of its identity – which might also mean its quality – that I can’t look at the current Dixons I have around the same way as I could six years ago, not without forcing myself to ignore their “story.”

Mr. Rees also comes out and criticizes our era outright. He writes:

This is not to say that we should take imperfection as our goal. One of the dysfunctions of our age is the conflation of shoddiness with authenticity, and we must resist this confusion in our practice – especially in those circumstances where sloppy craftsmanship could diminish a pencil’s utility (Rees 52).

But perhaps we can best see Mr. Rees’ criticism of modern culture in Chapter 13: How to Use an Electric Pencil Sharpener. He lists ways in which a troubadour-esque Artisanal Pencil Sharpener might identify a home in which an electric sharpener resides. Two of the criteria are: “Closely mowed lawn indicates a preoccupation with orderliness, and yet…Disorderly porch indicates limited free time” (Rees 132). A home containing an electric pencil sharpener is inhabited by individuals who want order but who do not have time for it. Whether the lack of time is from over-employment (from a recession in which more than one job is necessary or from a habit of spending too much time earning money to buy materials and services which one does not need) or badly invested energies and attention, this seems to be a symptom of our age. We want order/peace/etc. but do not go after this with what would amount to any serious vigor.

I might venture so far as to claim that a lot of the attention which Mr. Rees has received as a result of his business and his book proves him largely correct about our culture. We are not a people who enjoy craftsmanship in itself – at least not enough to actually pay for it. Comrades can witness the retreat of American pencil manufacturing in the name of profit and/or “lower prices!” to see the value which our society places on quality work – even when rejecting it means that the company for which our own Norman Rockwell painted ads moves production out of the USA. And, with the trend in “artisanal” stuff and services and foods, we see that we are seldom even willing to pay for craftsmanship – when we do – for its own sake. Rather, we pay a premium for artisanal coffees and foot scrubs because of a fad. Do we do this to assuage our consumer guilt because our hand-crafted breadbox is full of corn-fructosed breadstuffs from a discount store? Are we really connecting with craftspeople or our past/roots? Are we merely displaying our goodness for all to see when we buy hand-roasted spices? To be sure, there are those whose sincerity might match that of Mr. Rees. But I think a lot of people are paying attention because this is a person who truly takes craftsmanship seriously.

In any case, I can think of several reasons that I enjoyed this book and why I would heartily recommend it to Comrades everywhere. Stepping down from my accidental trip to the soapbox: This book is really a must-read for anyone interested in pencils. And there are well-placed lines likely to render you, as I was, doubled over in laughter. But what I enjoyed most about Mr. Rees’ book was reading something written with such sincerity by a person who obviously does what he does with care. His carefulness spreads onto the pages and leaves me regretful that I am not really careful enough about anything to write a whole book about it.

* Edit: I realize now how pretentious this probably sounds. My academic background is usually just the excuse I give for not having [m]any “skills.”