Lead on, Macduff.

[Today’s post comes from guest writer Lara Connock who lives and writes in South Africa. Many thanks to Lara for this wonderful essay about the virtues of journaling in pencil!]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good notebook must be in want of a pen. Then, having secured the pen (by which I mean a fountain pen) he or she will want ink. And so begins the eternal – some might say infernal – quest for the perfect combination of paper, pen and ink. I have spent the majority of my writing life on such a quest and have left in my wake a brace of abandoned pens, innumerable bottles of ink and teetering piles of nearly-new notebooks in which the quick brown fox features over and over again.

“Are you ever going to write anything real?” my exasperated husband said one day. “I hate seeing you wasting your time and talent like this.”

“Then don’t look!” I snapped back. “This is important!”

Although I hated to admit it, my husband had a point. My focus had always been on the form, so I’d never really got down to the function; you know, actually writing stuff (apart from that wretched fox/dog scenario). See, I’m a perfectionist with OCD, hence the search for the aforementioned combination that would ensure that my notebook would be uniform, consistent and, well, perfect. I tried to explain this to my husband but he wasn’t having any of it. “If you really wanted to write, you’d write, and it wouldn’t matter what your notebook looked like. Imagine if Shakespeare had messed around the way you do!” Naturally I ignored this.

A couple of days later I was testing a new pen, ink and paper (again). The nib was an extra-fine, the ink the driest I could get, and the paper easily ten times more absorbent than Kleenex. There was ink everywhere – on the paper, the desk, the wall, the cat, my fingers, my clothes. And. I. Was. Done. I could not, would not, waste another moment more on such an utterly pointless exercise. The pen went into the pen coffin with all the others, ditto the ink, and the notebook went into the bin.

They say that sometimes, when one gives up hope, one feels so much better. It’s true. Having crossed that particular Rubicon, I really did feel a sense of relief – but it was short-lived. You see, I still wanted to write. I just had to find something to write with. My husband’s groan of despair could be heard three provinces away. “Just use a damn ballpoint!” was his suggestion, which, though kindly meant, was patently ridiculous.

Honesty compels me to admit that I actually quailed at the thought of having to try out all those gel pens, liquid ink pens (isn’t all ink liquid?), rollerballs and fineliners. When did writing instruments get so complicated? One’s writing life in days of yore must have been so much simpler when all one had to write with was a bit of graphite and a raggedy old piece of vellum or whatever. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the Bard himself would have tossed his goose quill in the quill coffin, along with his iron gall ink and all its attendant issues, the moment he found out that he’d have far less hassle writing those plays of his with a stick of graphite wrapped in string. “Out, damned quill! Is this a piece of graphite which I see before me, the sharp end toward me? Come, let me clutch thee.”

And there was the solution to all my problems. So simple. (My husband’s sigh of relief was deafening.) I bought a cheap notebook and an equally cheap pencil. Indeed, a pencil. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t actually that cheap. If I was going to be writing with a pencil, it had to be a good one. The art store offered two choices: locally produced pencils or imported German ones. It was the proverbial no-brainer, my thinking being that since this particular German company had been producing pencils since 1662, they had more than likely perfected their craft by now.

Pencils have, um, revolutionised my writing and journaling. They have taken away all the pain and left only the pleasure. I did get a bit sidetracked in the beginning by the myriad grades of hardness and darkness; my own fifty shades of grey, you might say. I settled on F-grade pencils, the baby-bear’s-porridge grade: not too soft, not too light, just right. (FYI: an F pencil is a #2.5 in the US.)

Pencils are what an old friend of mine would call “willing writers”. I know that when I put that beautifully sharpened point to paper (any paper!) it will write the first time. No skipping or hard starts because the ink isn’t flowing; no feathering or bleeding or ghosting either. I won’t be able to change my mind halfway through a journal entry about the colour of the ink or the feel of the nib or the tooth of the paper. And when the pencil has been worn down to the ferrule – having given up its life purely for my writing pleasure (cue violins) – there will be a quiver of its clones to choose from. They will all write in exactly the same way as their predecessor did, thereby ensuring that the pages of my notebook remain beautifully uniform and thus appealing to the twin gods of Perfectionism and OCD. (And did I mention the thrill of being able to erase mistakes?)

Consistency being a big thing for me, I like the fact that a 500-year-old piece of graphite (quaintly known as plumbago in those days) will write almost as well as a Koh-I-Noor or a Blackwing produced in 2019. (But I’m basing that assumption on the online community’s reviews of them, not yet having had the opportunity to test drive them myself.)


The world is a vastly different place now than it was when farmers in Britain’s Lake District, circa 1560, used the recently-discovered, new-fangled plumbago to mark their sheep. Fast forward five centuries and there are legions of six-year-olds clutching jumbo-sized, triangular-shaped pencils and learning to write their names for the first time.

Pencils have survived world wars, industrial and technological revolutions, feasts, famines, droughts and disasters, and are still here. Of course, in our digital world, Millennials, Generation Z’s and converts from Generation X might rather take notes on their smartphones or tablets, but that doesn’t mean that pencils have become obsolete. Far from it. People apparently love the vintage, the antique, the old fashioned things of bygone eras. (I suspect we may have Downton Abbey to thank for that.) Vinyl records have made made a comeback along with manual typewriters, fountain pens and – in certain homes – afternoon high tea.

Pencils have never really gone out, and in the last decade or so they have enjoyed – and are still enjoying – an increase in popularity. The difference now is that people are buying, collecting and using pencils because they want to, not because they have to.

No pencil article would be worth its weight in graphite if there was no mention made of those literary greats who loved pencils – Hemingway, Steinbeck and Thoreau, and, before them, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not going to repeat everything that has already been written about John Steinbeck’s passion for Blackwings because any pencil lover who doesn’t know about it must be living on a remote, nameless island or in an underground bunker previously occupied by hobbits.

Today, more than 20 billion pencils are produced worldwide every year. Currently there are upwards of 40 blogs devoted to pencils, my host’s included. Online stores are doing roaring trades, as is the now famous pencil store in New York owned and run by Caroline Weaver. (One day, when I don’t have to pay 14 South African Rand for one US dollar, I’ll make my pilgrimage. Until then, I’ll just skulk around the place online.)

Don’t get me wrong. Just because I’m a new convert to pencils does not mean I’ve fallen out of love with fountain pens. This isn’t a rebel song about their many vagaries or a protest march against the cost and elitism of fountain pen friendly paper. And don’t think I don’t see you glowering at me from the sidelines, you Pilots and Sailors and TWSBIs, and your besties, Clairefontaine, Rhodia and Tomoe. You all still have your place; it just isn’t in any of my notebooks. I tried so hard to love and bond with you, I really did, but I just don’t feel it. Now I’ve lost my heart to the product of an old German family, the House of Faber-Castell, and I’m committed for life.

Even so, it isn’t happily-ever-after just yet. I still have to find the ultimate pencil sharper and the apogee of erasers, along with pencil caps, pencil extenders and a pencil case to carry it all. So, lead on, Macduff.

Baron Fig Maker Edition.

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The good folks at Baron Fig sent a set of their new Maker edition books to HQ recently, and this is just perfect, since I am staring down the last two dozen pages of my current journal.
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I’ve ranted about this paper being Super Graphite Friendly on the Erasable Podcast on more than one occasion. The soft white paper is wonderful on the eyes and fits well with grey writing. While I enjoy the contrast of a very white page, sometimes the soothing paper fits well with the fainter grey of a pencil (vs. a very black pen). The texture is perfect for less-soft pencils. My German HB pencils get more use with this book, and when your humble blogger here grabs a pen first, the paper loves gel pen as much as it loves the Better Angel of graphite.
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I find these books to be extremely relaxing. I have a Pandora station called “pencils and flannel” which revolves around mellow music I enjoy while writing in my journal at night. I curl up on my graphite colored couch with headphones and something caffeinated, with an assortment of pencils, and I just write for a spell. I am finishing up the Three-Legged Juggler Confidant that I received for Christmas. The soft paper and tactile cover fit perfectly with a wind-down session at the end of the day, and I imagine these books would be friendly companions for morning pages as well.
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The covers are fabric-covered, with the fabric being super tight. The lack of stiff backing in the spine really does allow these books to open fully. Completing the Lap Effect, the backing that is in the covers is extremely stiff. I often sit and write on one of those large clipboards used by Comrades with actual Artistic Talent, and this is unnecessary with a Confidant. The Maker edition is several shades darker than the “regular” Confidant. I don’t own a regular one; so I can’t take a comparison photo. But this is a similarly mellow grew, just more…Pencilicious.

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The new Maker Apprentice is darker also, coming in with a nice, warm grey. These put me in mind of a muggy, rainy day. They make me want some strong iced coffee with condensed milk. These little books are handy for toting around, and they have a lot of pages. This makes Charlotte happy, when she forgot to bring something to color in and mooches Daddy’s supplies. I have beaten one of the Lightbulb edition books up pretty badly, and it stayed Healthy and Strong. I enjoy the contrasting stitching.
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A lot. The gold bookmark on the Confidant got me when it came out. These are some of the touches that set Baron Fig apart.
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Many thanks to Baron Fig for the review samples! Get one of these while the getting is good. These don’t last forever.

Bullet Journal.

The stationery blogosphere is spreading the word of the Bullet Journal. While I go through notebooks too quickly to organize them (and perhaps this would make me a good Bullet Journal Canditate), this system looks like it could do some folks some good.

So, in the interest of doing good, and with much respect, I feel I should correct something that, as a pencil blogger, seems absolutely vital to me:

“For the most part, I use pens because pencils fade. One of the great benefits of Bullet Journaling is that over time you create a library of them. The only time I use pencil is when I’m sketching or adding items to my Monthly Calendar’s event page, because all plans are subject to change.”

Indeed, pencil marks are graphite, which is carbon. Pencil does not fade. Ink fades (most inks). Soft pencil marks that get fondled a lot and graphite marks which fall victim to Nefarious Weilders of Plastic Erasers can lose their marks. But, generally, pencil marks last longer than marks made by some smelly ballpoint, bleedy rollerball, greasy gel pen or pricey fountain pen. Water, dirty hands, UV light and time can damage most inks.*

That is all. That said, is anyone trying this out who might like to share her/his experience?

*(Yes, I know, there are bulletproof inks like some Noodlers and Microns. But those are not most inks. If we include those, let’s include pencils which are not erasable also.)

Review of Daycraft Signature Notebook.


A few weeks ago, Mr. Lee at Daycraft sent us a box of samples. Daycraft is a leading Hong Kong brand of planners and diaries:

Daycraft diaries, notebooks and planners are designed in Hong Kong and manufactured in Dongguan, China by Tai Shing Diary.

Tai Sing Diary was established in 1988 and has over the years won a well-deserved reputation for getting things right. (more)

I was immediately struck by two things, which where somewhat related. First, these notebooks are sort of small. By no means is that a bad thing (and they do make larger books also). Being used to Moleskines, I didn’t expect the scale with the detail that Daycraft books have. What I mean is that these are just really carefully designed and carefully made books! See the photo below showing the size, compared to a Field Notes book, which is very pocket-friendly.  But they have all the symmetry and care we find on larger, much more expensive notebooks.

Vitals:
Cover Material: “Fine Italian PU” — Human-Made, flexible material.
Paper: 100g cream-colored paper with 6.5mm lines in grey ink.
Binding: Sewn.
Size: A6.
Page Count: 120.
Unique Characteristics: Beautiful design and construction; colors end-papers and page edges.
Origin: China.
Availability: For now, mainly Asia.  You can get them online with international shipping here.

The book in question today is the Signature Notebook. These come in two sizes (A5 and A6 — we were sent the smaller size) and have a softly textured cover. It looks and feels like soft leather, but it’s some kind of human-made material. Aside from leather issues (if you have them that is), this means that the softness does not preclude durability, the way that soft leathers often (not always) do. The bookmarks, end-papers and edges of the pages have colors that coordinate with the covers. In our case, we have the brown cover and red-orange accents. The effect is striking, while still being nicely low-key.

The cover is completely flexible.  The binding is sewn, with a satin bookmark. The paper is cream-colored 100g, lined paper, with 6.5mm lines printed in about the same grey as Moleskine lines. The cover is slightly rounded at the corners, but the papers are not rounded at all. Because of the generous over-hang, this is not an issue. The entire book is very light-weight and flexible. At A6 size (a little larger than a small Moleskine), it’s not exactly pocket-sized. But it could fit into a jacket pocket, purse or bag easily. I carry mine in the pocket of my puffy vest with no problems, especially since the book is so light.  Once you get past the first page, the book lies flatly on the desk or table, and the binding feels very very secure.

(Comparing size to a Field Notes Raven's Wing.)

We promised Mr. Lee a pencil-specific review, and this book is a treat for pencil lovers.  The paper looks a lot like the color of Moleskine paper: cream with grey lines.  It’s much more stiff and at least twice as thick, however.  While soft pencils prone to ghosting (Palominos, Faber-Castell 9000 4B, Blackwings, soft General’s Pencil Co., etc.) do ghost, they do not ghost with the intensity that they do on thin paper.  Daycraft’s paper has a texture which is very nice for graphite, having much more tooth than Moleskine paper but slightly less than Field Notes.  It doesn’t wear your point away, but it doesn’t shy away from taking some of that graphite off and keeping it to make marks, either.  Smearability is about average, which accounts for the majority of papers I ever use.  The lines are definitely not dark enough to distract you when you write in graphite (which I’ve noticed can be a problem with some papers lately), and they are nicely-spaced for using wooden pencils.

This is a notebook that surprises you with its price tag, especially considering the design and quality upgrade over Moleskines and some other books. Frankly, this notebook (and the other items they were kind enough to send us which we’ll write more about in the future) puts to bed the stupid supposition (don’t laugh; people claim it all the time) that quality goods cannot be made in China.
While it’s disappointing to see some companies move production overseas (I’m thinking of Dixon and it’s serious American heritage), Asian production does not mean a lack of quality any more than American production necessarily means that something is better made.  There are better made than a lot of American and European notebooks I’ve used and seem more carefully assembled than any Moleskine I’ve bought in the last three or four years.

Unfortunately, Daycraft does not currently have an American distributor, but you can purchase from an Australian dealer that will ship worldwide. It’s worth it.