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.]