Review of Staedtler Wopex HB.

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I have been meaning to review the Staedtler Wopex for a long time. But it is a pencil about which I have thought so much that it became a daunting task. For starters, this is not the kind of pencil I expect to like. I usually like something a little darker, and the fake wood angle is not one that attracts me.* The lead feels waxy, but in a tacky – not necessarily smooth – way. And it was, until recently, difficult and/or expensive to build a Stash of them in The Archive. But there’s something about this hard-to-sharpen and heavy pencil that pleases me to no end. On yet another Snowday at HQ, I thought I’d sit down and write about it.
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The Wopex is an extruded pencil made of recycled wood and plastic. This is nothing new. Nor is the finish being part of the extrusion new. But Staedtler has improved on the process, in my opinion. For starters, they released the Wopex during a time of greater ecological consciousness. I was young when Eagle came out with their extruded pencils, but it was certainly not a time of great eco-attention. One of my least favorite things about the older plastic pencils is their flexibility. Not only do the barrels feel like they might snap under my meaty grip; they actually bend when I write with them using anything but the lightest touch. The fact that these older plastic pencils have such light-marking leads that they require significant pressure for legible writing exacerbates their shortcomings, in my experience. The Wopex is dense, heavy and rigid. It is very comfortable to write with.
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I bought a 10-pack from Amazon, at the end of summer 2013, for around $8-$9. These have the same subtle glittery-sparkly finish as the European models which Matthias was kind enough to send me. The feel is very…grippy, but not in the sticky manner of some grippy pens which attract lint and pieces of coffee grounds like Silly Putty. The newer Wopex pencils that I found at Staples this winter are a much brighter green, and the sparkles are gone. They have a nice, tactile sensation to their finish, but it is no more than half as tacky as the few European Wopexen I have or the eraser-tipped version I bought on Amazon a few months ago.
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The lead is extruded with the barrel, and it is a plastic/graphite composite – similar to the leads for mechanical pencils. As I mentioned, it feels tacky and produces a light line. However, as several other bloggers have pointed out, this pencil’s marks stick to the page. They do not smear or transfer (ghost) easily. As such, I find that they make excellent pencils for pocket notebooks, and I keep shorter ones on my person.** I am surprised by how much I like it for Pocket Writing.

These pencils are marketed as eco-friendly because of the material of which they are constituted and because they are supposed to last twice as long as a wooden pencil. I have not found this to be the case. Because their line is a little light, I sharpen them more often. So whatever long-lasting properties the lead might have is rendered moot by its lightness. As the current price of $5 (US) for a dozen and a half, it is certainly an economical pencil. And I do not generally mind needing to sharpen a pencil more often.
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As Matthias points out, the Wopex is tricky to sharpen. There are sharpeners from Staedtler with a small W on the underside that are supposed to be great for the Wopex. The only reason I have found this to be partly true is that the blades are very sharp and are held fast to the sharpener body. Any KUM sharpener with a similarly new blade that I have tried has given me the same results. With care, I can get a nice point with a wedge sharpener, and it is what I often use to sharpen a Wopex. Burr sharpeners do no work as well. I lost a good inch and a half from my first Wopex last year by using a crank sharpener. The Wopex material gives the blades so much resistance that the auto-stop does not work. Using such a sharpener with care and not making the Wopex point into a plastic needle works satisfactorily, if one stops the sharpening process short. A Deli 0668 that Matthias sent me works great, with the point adjustor dialed back from the sharpest setting a bit. Also, I have been improving my knife sharpening skills lately, venturing into blade sharpening on occasion.
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The eraser is white and surprisingly good. It erases better than most of the Pencil-Mounted Erasers I have on hand, and even a few block erasers. To be sure, it’s no match for the Mars plastic eraser. But it does bunch its “dust” together into a tight ball in a similar fashion. It is soft, but stiff, and very securely clamped into the ferrule. I am trying to think of a pencil whose mounted eraser is better than the Wopex’s, and I am drawing a blank (or, at least, with a German 9H).

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What struck me about the new US version, aside from the brighter green, is the ferrule. I am not aware of owning other pencils with this feature. The ferrule is molded to both the eraser and the barrel. It is round where it holds the eraser. And it is actually hexagonal where it meets the barrel of the pencil. The result is an inexplicably pleasant feeling of Completeness. Please, Comrades, do not judge me too harshly for staring at one of these pencils long enough to find the source of this Completion Sensation. The other result of this Ideal Marriage of Ferrule Ends is that the ferrule does its job very well. You ain’t getting this pencil apart without large steel tools, several people or very very strong teeth.
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The Wopex is available in quite a few colors in Europe, and I have considered attempting to collect them myself. I am glad that it is finally available in the US at all, and I hope we get a few more hues. There’s a market for neon pencils, Staedtler! I am a huge fan of these pencils. Send us some colors, and make us Happy.

*But I have recently acquired some eraser-tipped Bic Evolution pencils, after a recommendation by Speculator, and I am enjoying them.

**Perhaps subconsciously, I matched the case for my recently-purchased Android phone to the green of a Wopex, since they often ride in the same pocket.

Review of Word. Notebooks.

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The nice folks at Word. sent over two sets of their new notebooks for review. We promised a pencil-specific evaluation and are happy to share that these notebooks are excellent. From Word. :

Product Specs:
48 pages, lined
3.5″ x 5″
Made in the USA
Cover: Environment Desert Storm 120# smooth paper (100% post consumer recycled)
Interior: Lynx Opaque Ultra smooth white 60# text
Printed with Hostmann-Steinberg inks
Stitching wire comes from the Spiral Binding Company

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Word. books have two staples that serve as the binding. I thought the sparse stapling might pose issues, but mine held up perfectly well. Also, not having a staple in the center of the spine probably helped in the flexibility department. This is good because these run a little on the thick side for pocket notebooks that come in a three-pack. Certainly, this is scarcely noticeable on its own, but side-by-side with other books, it becomes obvious. Packaging is standard: a belly band. However, the belly band hides the color of the Word. logo. I’d suggest a belly band printed with the logo color, if possible, such as the Traditional Camo’s unexpectedly – but attractively – orange logo. The bands are otherwise perfectly suitable for packaging the notebooks and providing some information.

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The corners of both of our review sets were pretty much perfect. “Big deal,” one might think. But I can’t be alone in regularly receiving notebooks from other designer brands with downright shoddy corners. It doesn’t bother me hugely (I don’t handle them with care anyway), but I remember last spring that it bothered quite a few people on Twitter.

The paper seems whiter than normal, perhaps because of the faintness of the lines. This is a good thing. One of the challenges of using graphite can be competing with the printed lines for prominence. Word.’s lines are close to perfect, being visible while not outshining the graphite. The lightness means that one can, very easily, ignore the bullet circles at the beginning of each line.

[Ana at the Well Appointed Desk and Steve at Recording Thoughts wrote great reviews that talk about the paper’s ink-handing capabilities. We’d certainly have nothing to add to these great reviews in that department and will confine ourselves to graphite.]

The texture of the paper is very nice: smooth and stiff with a little tooth. Lead shaves off of the pencil point, but it doesn’t powder and smear as it does on most textured papers. It adheres to the relatively (for a pocket notebook) rigid paper. As a result, pencil marks appear much more darkly than one would expect, and this is a fantastic quality in a pocket notebook. Ghosting (graphite transfer onto facing pages) is actually phenomenal, especially for a paper that claims to be 60# text paper. Using soft-for-HB pencils, I experienced very little ghosting. I am in love with this paper, which seems to shine best with softer HB leads and B leads (Mars HB; Palomino HB; Chinese Dixon HB; General’s Kimberly B; etc.)

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The covers are “Environment Desert Storm 120# smooth paper (100% post consumer recycled).” They are stiff and have a nice aroma to them – papery. The inside cover features a pared-down contact info section, falling somewhere between Moleskine and Field Notes in number of entries. The Word. system is also outlined in the front cover. Were Comrades using these books to Get Things Done, the bullet system is a fantastic feature. The images explains it all. Implementation of this system is actually accomplished very well in these books where, again, the lightness of the lines allows one to ignore the circles and even to darken them with graphite. One can easily imagine the bullet system being so in-your-face as to make these notebooks unusable for any other purpose, and I think it’s a credit to Word. that they didn’t push the bullet system far enough to alienate potential users. Rather, they created something a little unique, and they implemented in in a very nice notebook.

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The back cover features random “facts” that, while entertaining the first time around, seemed like a waste of good real estate from a company trying hard not to copy from Field Notes (not copying is a good thing, I think; had these books been basically bulleted Field Notes, I would not have liked them as much). I’d suggest an index for the back cover, or even fields for archiving the notebooks, after they are finished. From someone with a growing stack box of filled pocket notebooks, I’d find such features helpful.

In conclusion, this is a very new notebook brand that I hope sticks around. They got the size just right, and the paper is perfect. I can’t admit to using the Word. bullet system very consistently, but that’s not how I use pocket notebooks, which tend to last me only a week to ten days before they are full. The covers are attractive and durable, and the corners are some of the best I’ve seen. I don’t understand the extensive use of camouflage, but, being a former Army Brat, I appreciate it and the variety of patterns. The solid colors are great, and some extension in patterns and/or more colors would be most welcome, albeit unnecessary.

Should Comrades go get some? Oh, yes.

Review of Mitsu-bishi Hi-Uni, HB.


Jetpens.com sent over a very nice package of gear to review, and we’re starting today with the Mitsu-bishi Hi-Uni pencil in HB. Several greater minds have already written about the virtues of this well-crafted pencil (in no intentional order). But, just as these reviews are unique among one another, we hope this review can add to the Pencil Consciousness regarding this burgundy beauty.

I first encountered a few Mitsu-bishi pencils briefly in 2005. Woodchuck included three in the original package of Palomino pencils he sent us. I’d never tried Japanese pencils, and I knew the Palomino used a Japanese lead. At the time, Mitsu-bishi pencils were difficult-to-impossible to come by in the United States. Still, well, I used mine right up. They were too good not to use!

So I was very excited to open a package containing a dozen Hi-Unis in HB! The pencils come in a hard plastic case with a hinged lid, inside of a cardboard sleeve. There is a plastic separator/stabilizer in the pencil box to keep the pencils from rolling around. While this may be there to keep the finishes looking their best, it has the added bonus of keeping the pencils from banging around after pencils are removed to be use. And my dozen stayed whole for all of five minutes after I opened the mail, when I sharpened one right up.

The first thing I noticed [after the package] was this pencil’s amazing finish. Not only does it blow away pencils like Dixon and General’s (sorry, guys!), but it surpassed even the Uni-Star and Uni. The Hi-Uni sports several layers of lacquer, finished so smoothly that one forgets that there is a wooden pencil in there. The ends are finished with a cap and gold and are very precisely topped off. The business ends are, well, perfect. There is no paint overlap, I can tell that the cores are as perfectly centered as every other Japanese pencil I’ve used. The barcode  detracts from the pencil’s appearance, but I understand that this is a necessity in places where one can easily buy quality, open-stock pencils (unlike most shops in the USA).

The Hi-Uni reminds me of a Palomino’s finish, with the thick lacquer and clean ends. However, for better or worse, there’s a lot more print and design on the Hi-Uni. I’m not bothered by it, really, nor by other pencils with very minimalist tendencies. The Palomino looks great in the colors in which it comes, with minimal marking on the barrel of the pencil. Burgundy, however, benefits greatly from a little more gold and black design work.

There does seem to be something different about the wood used in this pencil, compared to others. It’s much more…red and very much more fragrant than other high-end cedar pencils. In fact, the lovely grain and aroma combine to serve as a pleasant juxtaposition to the ultra-smooth finish of this pencil – something about the natural material inside opposing the craftsmanship of the pencil.

The lead is just, wow. It’s as smooth as any HB I have ever tried, with a darkness anyone familiar with Palominos would find welcome. This core achieves a nice balance between blackness and point retention, also. While the core reminds me of the HB Palomino that I hold very dearly (the blue end-capped HB is one of my favorite pencils in the world), I have to admit that the Hi-Uni does hold its point a little bit longer. I feel like it’s ever so slightly less dark than an HB Palomino, but it’s really hard to tell. (It could be the same lead for all I know!) Smearing and ghosting, for a pencil that writes like this, are very very good. This pencil smears less than a lot of considerably lighter-writing HB pencils, and the ghosting is no worse, either. In fact, given the black line the Hi-Uni lays down, I was expecting them to smear quite a bit and to be messy pencils. On the contrary, they are precise, neat and, again, dark for HB pencils.

I should mention that these pencils are also noticeably wider than most pencils. I am told this is a quality of Japanese pencils, along with darker cores. If you’re a wide-fingered Comrade like me, this is a good quality. They are certainly not so much wider as to be difficult to sharpen. On the contrary, they fit better into my favorite (German) brass KUM wedge than my (German) Faber-Castells do.

Thanks again to David at Jetpens for the very generous review pencils, and I hope that Comrades who like a dark and smooth pencil find some Pencil Happiness with the Mitsu-bishi Hi-Uni! I am, frankly, smitten by this pencil.

Review of General’s Semi-Hex, HB.

Today we are reviewing General’s Semi-Hex, the flagship pencil from one of the last American pencil companies, based in Jersey City, New Jersey.  For some reason, we’ve never actually reviewed anything from General’s.  We’ll, hopefully, follow up with the Cedar Pointe in the near future.  To cut to the chase, there’s not much about the Semi-Hex that I don’t like, and its American heritage is a nice bonus.  I’ve even been putting it through the paces for NaNoWriMo, and it’s a champ of a pencil.

Vitals:
Material: Premium Incense Cedar.
Shape: Hexagonal, with slightly rounded corners.
Finish: Yellow gloss with green foil details.
Ferrule: Aluminium — gold with black painted band.
Eraser: Pink rubber (?).
Core: Ceramic/graphite composite. Available in B, HB, F, H and 2H.  (We tested the HB.)
Markings: Bonded — USA SINCE 1889 — GENERAL’S SEMI-HEX — 498-2/HB — SOFT.
Origin: USA.
Availability: From General’s and Pencils.Com — and select online retailers.  (I’ve never seen them in person myself.)

The first thing you notice when you order (or buy in person) a dozen Semi-Hex pencils is the green cardboard box with retro graphics.  While some companies do still use cardboard boxes from time to time (I have some by Dixon, Mirado, even recent ones), what you usually find is a blister pack.  That’s not necessarily bad, especially if you like to see the pencils to pick the batch you like best.  But, still, the old-timey American box makes me feel like these are pencils with work to do!  And, with NaNoWriMo under way, they are!

The pencil’s appearance reminds me of the USA made Dixon Ticonderoga (pictured above with a Semi-Hex), being yellow with green foil lettering.  Even some of the old grade markings look the same.  I should probably look up to see which came first, but perhaps some Comrade who is generous with her or his time might do so?

The finish is solid, evenly applied and…modestly glossy.  I like that these are sold unsharpened, and they don’t have that annoying paint overhang that Mirados always seem to have, and even a lot of recent Dixons.  The wood is incredibly nice and very fragrant.  If I’m not mistaken, all of General’s pencils are cedar, even their budget lines.  This is the flagship pencil in the “school pencil” range, or, more accurately, the “writing” pencil range (although I suppose some people might write with the Kimberly; I do sometimes).  If you enjoy the Cedar Pointe (and I sure do), this pencil is even, well, nicer.  I would go so far as to say that this is the nicest yellow, eraser-capped pencil I have ever used.

However, if there’s one thing I don’t like about this pencil, it’s that it’s kind of boring to look at.  The ferrules are well-attached, and the lettering is top-notch.  But I wince at yellow pencils sometimes, even ones I enjoy like the Dixon and classic Mirado.  If General’s Pencil Company decided to get funky and make this in a black finish like the Dixon Black (especially the USA made one with the matte finish) well, heck, I’d be in love.  The stripe on the ferrule is badly done on most of the pencils in my dozen, but it’s not a huge deal.  The eraser, a pink rubber (?) ender is really very effective.  It’s a darker color than Dixons or Pink Pearls and feels somewhere between the two, and it erases as well as either of them.

But!  This pencil has one thing that redeems its somewhat boring appearance: the lead!  This is one smooth-writing, dark pencil.  For this level of darkness and smoothness, the point retention is actually pretty good (between an HB Dixon and HB Palomino, but closer to the Dixon).  I have yet to break one in any sharpener or on any page, or even in my pocket or bag.  I did chop an eraser in half slamming my pencil box closed, but I glued it back together with clear tacky glue — why not?  Or course, darkness here comes with increased ghosting, but it’s nothing terrible.  Smearability, at this darkness, is actually pretty impressive, as I’ve found with other of General’s products.

Now.  The name.  As the name states, this is a rounded hexagonal pencil (think half-rounds, for my fellow musicians).  Sounds good.  Is it?  Yes.  Are most other hexagonal pencils rounded?  Pretty much.  The shape is not noticeably rounder than a Dixon, Cedar Point, Palomino, etc.  But it is comfortable.  Maybe this was a bigger deal when this pencil was first introduced?  I do have some vintage pencils with edges so sharp that my poor middle finger hurts looking at them.  It is a big deal if you write a lot.  Maybe I’m holding my pencil wrongly (wait, I definitely do), but sharp-edge pencils like the Faber-Castell 9000 just hurt after a few pages, even at softer grades.  And this is coming from someone with woolly hands full of calluses from music and camping and cooking.  While the Semi-Hex shape is not exactly unique these days, it’s certainly comfortable.

In conclusion, this is not just a great American pencil.  Heck, with so few left, that’s not a hard pair of shoes to fill.  This is a fantastic pencil.  It’s well-made, not prohibitively expensive (I paid $4 for a dozen), and with really just a great lead.  Frankly, it’s everything you wish a Dixon Ticonderoga could be.  (Here’s a nudge to Pencils.Com to carry more grades, and also thanks that they are one of the few places you can even get the Semi-Hex at all.)

Vitals:
Material: Linden wood.
Shape: Triangular.
Finish: Matte orange with all black details.
Ferrule: Aluminum, glossy black and round.
Eraser: Black and soft.
Core: Ceramic/graphite composite. Available in #2/HB.
Markings: The Rhodia fir tree logo on all three sides, near the eraser end.
Origin: France.
Availability: From RhodiaPads.Com and select online retailers.