Review of General’s Layout Pencil.


[This review comes courtesy of Speculator, from the excellent blog La Vie Graphite. Many thanks to our Comrade in Maine!]

Today’s product review salutes the remarkable Layout pencil, made in the U.S.A. by General’s. Here is a look at a hardworking pencil that defies the traditional grading system, making a pronouncedly bold and dark mark while retaining a sharp point. From the General’s factory in Jersey City, the Layout pencil earns its keep in my arsenal as a sturdy companion in writing and bookbinding.

The Layout of the Land:
Wood casing: Sustained-yield California incense cedar wood.
Shape: Round.
Finish: Gloss black, with white embossed titling.
Titling / Inscription: USA Since 1889 ; GENERAL’S Layout ; Extra Black ; No 555.
Core: Extra Black Graphite, ungraded.
Note: The General’s Layout pencils are untipped (without eraser), pre-sharpened, and made in U.S.A.
Availability: May be purchased singly, blister-packed pairs, or in boxes of a dozen, at art supply stores such as Utrecht Art, Blick Art Materials, Jerry’s Artarama, as examples. (My source is Utrecht Art, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

Perhaps due to its dark-marking, shape, and absence of an eraser, the Layout is billed as an “art” pencil. The manufacturer’s description cites the “extra smooth, extra black graphite,” which is “ideal for outlining and sketching,” and “used by animators since the 1930s.” The retailer Utrecht Art Supply cites the “soft and smooth graphite for deep, black lines and easy blending,” and Blick Art Materials’ catalogue advertises how “This versatile pencil is great for art, sketching, and layout work.” For years, I’ve been using the General’s Layout for basic writing — as well as for drawing and bookbinding. The slightly thicker diameter (as well as graphite core) provides for an easy grip. What I’ve always found extraordinary about the Layout is how this very dark-writing, somewhat soft pencil maintains a sharp point through a lot of use. Minimal sharpening is needed, and unlike most drawing pencils, the Layout doesn’t smear. That makes this pencil ideal for Rite-in-the-Rain paper’s waxy-finished water-resistant paper (see above photo). In the photo below, I’ve used the Layout in a journal made by Field Notes. Note how expressively I can make my accents! Imagine writing with a 3B that resists dulling like an H.

An all-purpose pencil for writing, art, and any craft requiring a bold and precise marking instrument, the Layout is a time-honored favorite. The term “layout,” is a vestige from the era of graphic design done-by-hand, with angled drawing boards, tracing vellum, t-squares, and photostat-cameras. The work of a layout artist involved diagramming and sketching out the sequences of advertisements, posters, publications, signs, etc. Well-drawn lines make the difference, in this kind of work. As the pencil’s name recalls the craft of manual graphic arts, the box design does the same with a pleasantly archaic cursive typeface. In the photo below, the General’s Layout finds its place among my bookbinding and paper conservation tools. Just a few sharpening turns, and the Layout joins my lunch break journaling.

For a typical restoration project, it is vital to have a marking pencil that is as bold as it is fine. I have to measure materials as diverse as coarse bookcloth and thin kozo tissue with great care so that all the parts fit precisely together. The photo below shows a before-and-after of a 19th century casebound book’s textblock, with the early stages of case (cover) restoration.

In the next photo (below), the Layout is still sharp enough after marking the replacement fabric to provide bold and easily-followed marks on bristol board (for the new spine) and on smooth Permalife paper (for the new endsheets). The first photo in this pair may remind faithful pencil-users about the ways many of us perpetuate the practice of holding a pencil behind an ear. That’s a uniquely pencil-using and ancient gesture, keeping the writing instrument instantly at the ready. The Layout’s thickness, round contour, and glossy finish make it really hold well behind my ear! There’s plenty to be said for “stick-to-it-iveness.”

There’s also plenty to be said for having the right tools for the job. Here (photo below), the Layout has helped me get the restored spine to the exact size needed, such that I can graft it beneath the original 1880s board cloth. I maintain as many of the original components as possible, so that the book maintains its intrinsic grandeur while also being strong enough for library patrons to leaf through. We archivists like to refer to “preservation and access” as principles to our work.

Layout pencil back in the tool box (or perhaps over my ear), the book is all done and ready for the drying process. Notice the original spine-titling has been adhered to the new spine (of course with acid-free PVA + methylcellulose adhesive I mix myself).

By now, you can guess that I give the General’s Layout pencil the highest marks (indeed, bold, jet-black, and thus paradoxically rigid marks), also recommending you buy a bunch of these — so that a few are left in a tool box, your desk, a pencil case, kitchens, musical instrument cases, etc. The best sharpeners I’ve found for these are the small, handheld steel pointers (I use a Staedtler), which can encompass the Layout’s contour. If you need to erase some of those bold marks, white plastic erasers work best (and are archival, too). Happy Writing! Bonne Ecriture! Think of the upcoming Spring season as a layout for new written ventures. Are your pencils sharpened?

[Text and images, Speculator.  Used with kind permission.]

Interview with Mr. Aaron Draplin, Draplin Design Co. and Field Notes Brand (Part 2).


(Continued from Part 1.)

4) I’ve read about your extensive bullet pencil collection, with considerable jealousy. What attracts you to this type of pencil, and how did you build your collection?

First off, it’s the compact quality. I love having a tight little drawing tool in the front pocket at all times, and I’m here to tell ya, these little sonofabitches have saved my butt many a time…on airplanes, in meetings, in a pinch, wherever. I always keep one in the front, left pocket of my 501s.

I’ve kind of given up on erasers of any sort in these little guys, as the kind you’d score from a junk store or estate sale are old, old relics and the erasers are dried way up and dead. Rock hard, usually. So, there’s this certain model that didn’t come with an eraser, and just had a plastic tipped end. I collect these ferociously, with a good 20 or so hoarded away. Now, the classic type with the erasers, shit, I’ve got a couple hundred of those bad boys.

What I love about them the most, is how banal they were back in the day. Simple, cheap advertising tools given away at local businesses. Feed-n-seed joints, car lots, insurance agents, what have you. Just crappy little promo items that packed a real wallop. I’ve got a couple old salesman sample sets. Old and beat up, and a look into what it was like to have a guy sit down and say, “Here’s what we can do for your company.” So good.

I’ve built my collection junkin’ across America—scouring the dirtiest of estate sales, garage sales, junk stores, antique malls and the occasional eBay lot. You can score them in the Midwest pretty regularly, across the rustbelt and great plains. Farmers used these things. I guess a lot of them are collector’s items. I could care less. I use the things, and never pay more than eight bucks or so for them.


5) Despite the return of the famous Blackwing, pencils in America seem to be on the decline today. Models are canceled, and most companies have moved their production out of the USA. Can you comment on the current pencil offerings available in the United States in 2011?

I’m no authority on this stuff, so I’ll tread lightly here. I know this much, it’s harder and harder to make an American Made promo pencil. And, with good imprint applications that aren’t stock type crap. I was lucky enough to get a monster order in just before Christmas and man, love these things. Hex pencils, people!


6) The Field Notes pencil is downright gorgeous. With its round shape, lack of paint and green eraser, it’s obvious that a lot of thought went into it. Can you tell us a little about the design process and what made you choose its current form?

Like all Field Notes products, we started with the direction that the thing had to be natural at all costs. Finding the source with the green eraser was a happy accident. Plus, the cedar wood just smells so nice. Those things take a beating, just like our memo books! I have a pile of them all beat to shit, still kickin’ after a couple years on the scene. Those pencils WILL NOT disappoint.

7) Are there any upcoming pencil accoutrements from DDC and/or Field Notes to which Comrades might look forward? Pencil clips? Bullet pencils? Brown sharpeners with black Futura print on them?

After an exhaustive search for the perfect pencil sharpener from existing sources, we gave up on that shit and started drawing up plans with a couple Midwestern Tool & Die manufacturers to craft the ultimate hand held sharpener unit. We’re still at the point of initial CAD drawings, blade strength options and ballistic grade metal sourcing. If we can pull these little buggers off, man, they are going to rule. Just you wait. They’ll be something to marvel at. And, get the job done for the ages!

We’ve got some leather stuff coming down the pipe for Field Notes made right here in Portland by our friends at Tanner Goods. Very, very excited about this project. And yes, there’s Futura Bold on these new items. You can take that one to the bank.

MANY MANY thanks to Aaron for helping to spread writing/noting/drawing joy, the world over!

[Images, A.D. Used with permission.]

Interview with Mr. Aaron Draplin, Draplin Design Co. and Field Notes Brand (Part 1).


Mr. Aaron Draplin, of Field Notes and design fame, was kind enough to do an interview with Pencil Revolution.  Below is Part 1 (of 2) of his answers to some very pencil-specific questions.

1) Pencils are strongly represented in the DDC “longhand” series, and the Field Notes pencil seems to follow the eponymous notebooks in adventures all over the planet.  What do you like about pencils so much?

There’s just something simple and soothing about them. I mean, I don’t want to get too existential about bonded lead or anything, but, hell, there’s just so much possibility in each one! It freaks me out. That little pencil…the tool aspect…is this little gateway to a million ideas. I think about that kind of stuff with each one I crack into. In a world where things are more and more compacted, complicated, sped up and digitized, a regular old wood pencil is always there for you. Never needing to be recharged, you know?

The more I think about it, the more pencils—on some weird level—represent “complete freedom.” Freedom from digital ubiquity and predictability. There’s something cool about how you feel human when using a pencil. That feeling goes way back to guys shaping rocks into cutting tools and stuff, I’d reckon. Or, maybe only in my head!

I like feeling one with the paper. Like this odd sense of “get it down now, or it’ll be forever gone” fills my head and hands, and I just go to work. Impermanent. Graphite can be erased. Imperfect. My hands screw up all the time. Interesting. The lines vary and never come out quite like you expected them to. I hope I’m making sense, readers!

2) What are some of your favorite pencils?  Vintage, current, perhaps a great individual find?  What do you look for in a pencil?

Basically, anything that’s natural wood, and, hexagonal! Now, for the readers, who are undoubtedly “masters of the genre,” this might sound a little vague. Basically, anything that feels good in the hand. I usually go after softer leads. Just so I can sketch and keep shit freed up. Also, if the thing is “Made in the U.S.A.” that always sends a little jolt up the wrist. And finally, there’s just something incredible about an old pencil that’s seen 60 years whip by. Never, ever throw out an old pencil. Respect yer elders, citizens!

To try and get brand-specific, I had a good run with a pack of pencils by Papermate called “American Naturals.” Unfinished wood, made in the States and hexagonal. Good feel to those little guys. Still using the last one of the litter.

3) What is your preferred way to sharpen a pencil?  Blade-type-manual-sharpener, crank model, Bowie knife?

Forever, I’ve simply used my pocket knife to keep things sharp. I like the little pile of shavings it makes! I grew up with a wall mount Berol that hung over the stairs down to our basement. So there was this sense of floating when you’d lean around the wall, and hang on the pencil sharpener while sharpening. I haven’t thought of that one in a long time. Awesome. That’s what I remember.

In my junkin’ over the years, I’ve amassed a healthy collection of vintage pencil sharpeners. In fact, that’s one of the first things I look for when I enter an estate sale garage or basement workshop. And shit, I just pry that thing right off the wall and put it in my pile. Rescued! Even if I don’t use it, it’ll go to a buddy who needs one. The idea of some half-ass estate sale worker tearing it off and throwing it out just makes me sick to my stomach. So I always grab them!

Stay tuned this week for the second half of the interview, and MEGA thanks to Aaron for agreeing to do this!

[Images, A.D. Used with permission.]

NaNoWriMo 2010 Gear: Paper.


While the question of which pencils to use for Nation Novel Writing Month is certainly an important one for pencil fans who are embarking on the one-month writing challenge.  But, perhaps almost as important, is the question of what to write on.

There are myriad notebook blogs, on which Comrades can find information about notebooks’ construction, which ones can handle fountain pen ink, etc. What we try to provide with our growing number of paper reviews are pencil-specific reviews. We have a growing stack (er, box) of review samples we are testing for ghosting, point retention, etc.  But, I thought it might be helpful to suggest a few great notebooks in which to write (or in which to take notes for) Comrades’ NaNoWriMo work — and, of course, invite others to share pointers.

1) Field Notes.  I was hoping my “Raven’s Wing” editions would show up this week, but it is not so.  Field Notes are stylish, durable and very pocketable.  I might not want to draft much longhand in these (they’re small and not full of much paper), but for on-the-go notetaking, it’s hard to beat a Field Notes book.

2) Rhodia products.  There are tiny stapled notebooks (like smaller Field Notes) for your pocket, the beautiful “Webbie” journals for long drafts and all manner of pads to suite your pocket or desktop.  The smartphone pocket of my T2 bag usually has a Rhodia pad in it, in some kind of Luddite gesture.

3) EcoJot Workbooks.  I was hoping we’d be able to publish a review of these from some samples Mark sent us in time for November, but it’s not to be.  The review is coming, but you’ll have to take my word for it that they are like Moleskine Cahiers.  Only greener.  With attractive covers.  And better paper.

4) Whitelines.  We’ll have a review of these interesting notebooks in the near future, but I think they bear mention for marathon writing.  The idea is that the pages are light grey, with white lines, since dark lines on white paper are harsh for the eyes.  It might sound strange, but these are very nice books, and the paper is intriguing.

5) Something FANCY.  A big MoleskinePaper Blanks.  Something handmade from Etsy.  I have a beautiful journal that my sister-in-law sent me for a birthday a few years ago made from an old library book and big rings that I am considering using, or a giant EcoJot journal.

I thought about listing books I would personally avoid, but I think that’s unnecessarily negative.  And, you know, one writer’s graphite mess is another’s silvery-grey paradise.

What are other Comrades planning to write in/on?

Field Notes Review, Part I: The Pencil.


The nice people at Field Notes sent a parcel to the Pencil Revolution HQ last week for review purposes. It contained a mixed set of their excellent notebooks, a pin, a rubber band and two Field Notes pencils. The first part our two-part Field Notes review is a reflection on this striking pencil.

Vitals:
Material: California Incense Cedar.
Shape: Round.
Finish: None at all.
Ferrule: Aluminum, bare and plain.
Eraser: Green (in color and gradability).
Core: Ceramic/graphite composite. Available in #2/HB.
Markings: “fieldnotesbrand.com | FIELD NOTES | BONDED LEAD | No. 2 / ABOUT THIS PENCIL | Lacquer-free Renewable Cal-Cedar Wood Casing, Recyclable Aluminum Ferrule, Enviro-Green Degradable Eraser and Certified Non-Toxic Imprint Inks”
Packaging: Pack of six; also inserted into parcels of Field Notes notebooks, legend has it.
Origin: United States.
Availability: From FieldNotesBrand.Com and select online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

When you remove a Field Notes pencil from whatever package or bag in which it came, you won’t first notice the unfinished wood, the interesting graphics or the green eraser first. You will be hit full-force with a strong smell of cedar. But, of course, that is not a bad thing but winds up being one of my favorite things about this very nice pencil.

There is no finish whatsoever on the Field Notes pencil. It is round and sanded, like a little dowel full of lead. The print on the barrel is dark, sharp and in keeping with the aesthetic of Field Notes gear in general. Both of our test models had very well-centered cores. Combined with the fine wood, this allowed some of the easiest sharpening I’ve seen lately on a pencil that runs for under $1 a piece. The ferrule appears to be glued onto the pencil, rather than crimped. One of the test models had a few splinters at the ferrule, but these came off in second with my thumbnail. The ferrule/eraser assembly is fairly well-centered, though not perfectly centered, which puts it on par with most quality “office pencils” for sale in the United States. The eraser also appears to be glued. Interestingly, the units we were sent for review have two different eraser lengths; one was longer than most pencil erasers. However, it is firmly stuck into the ferrule. So I view it as a bit of serendipity in having a slightly larger eraser. I am a sucker for unfinished pencils. I get a kick out of the veneer that my sweaty hands leaves on the virgin wood, the dark tinge that it gets from my dirty mitts. Field Notes has succeeded in making a very visually appealing pencil to go with their well-designed notebooks.

The core writes very well under most circumstances. The HB runs a little darker than a Mirado/Black Warrior HB and feels very much like General’s Cedar Pointe to me. Considering that the pencil is made in the US and that there are very few pencil factories operating within US borders, I wonder if the manufacturing of the Field Notes pencil might not be contracted out to General’s Pencil Company (?). I noticed a hint of scratchiness to the lead, but not so much that it bothers me. There are certainly instances wherein I prefer a pencil that lets me know I’m using it and that there’s writing being accomplished. In the dark or when I’m writing standing up (or even while walking), I like to know that my pencil is making marks on paper. I might even stretch this line of thinking to say that the Field Notes pencil, because you know you’re writing with it, goes with the entire field notes (small F and N) concept. Smearability is pretty average, I think, running about the same as an HB Dixon. The mild scratchiness on the Field Notes pencil could even come from the fact that there is no paint or finish to dampen vibrations. I have some unfinished sample pencils from another manufacturer, and they are a bit on the rough side for writing, despite their finished counterparts (with identical cores) being extremely smooth.

The eraser is green and soft and works reasonably well. There’s not much to say about it except that I would really like to see a Field Notes eraser as a block with their graphics on it, made from this pleasant green substance. The eraser takes the graphite off, leaves the paper and more or less performs the way that it is supposed to. And I have to mention its color again. It’s somehow retro-looking and matches the Field Notes aesthetic perfectly.

As I said earlier, the most striking feature of this pencil, for me, is its aroma. I’ve never used a pencil that smells this strongly of cedar and have seldom ever used one to match it. It’s been a pleasure for my nose to use, and I’ve caught myself in at least one important meeting sniffing it like some sort of pencil junky. The unit that I’ve been carrying around and using has actually been the object of envy from my father, a retired Warrant Officer, because of the aromatic assets of this pencil. When Field Notes gets more in stock (or if they’d like to send us some to spread the word to the People!), I’ll definitely be gifting these lovely pencils.

I’d offer Field Notes a few suggestions, aside from the big green Field Notes eraser. While I love this pencil, it doesn’t fit into a shirt pocket with a Field Notes notebook because it’s just too long. I could cut it to size, but I can’t waste half of a pencil. I’d love to see 1/2-sized Field Notes pencils with pocket clips and point protectors, so that they can travel more easily with their paper Comrades. Or, to avoid having to stock two different kinds of pencils, Field Notes could offer a set of a metal point protector and a pencil clip, which the user could attach to a shortened pencil. We’d lose the graphics, but Field Notes are as much about handiness as they are about great design — at least in my mind.

In the end, this is a great pencil that I wish I could find more easily locally. The eraser and graphite work well, and the designed lack of finish and enhanced aroma (though the latter could be a happy accident) make this pencil not just a keeper, but one Comrades are likely to actively seek out.  Just don’t get caught sniffing it in a meeting.

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