Wes Anderson’s palettes always fascinate me. And sometimes I use a certain pencil that puts me in mind of one of his films. This happened in a big way with the Ticonderoga 2014 (and 2015) Target back-to-school exclusive pencils — especially the pink ones. So Ticonderogas figure strongly into these collages. I made these images almost two years ago and never posted them because I was not happy with the quality. I found them while looking for something else, though. While I should really re-shoot them in better lighting and perhaps change out a few of the pencils, I’m just going to post them here now.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
See earlier Moonrise Kingdom post, from perhaps the film with the best Pencil Action.
Now that The Boy is into pencils, I feel like our house is going through another phase of fat pencils, to match the second phase of diapers and bottles. He only recently started using colored pencils and graphite. I started him on the My First Ticonderoga, the pencil that seemed to give his sister The Pencil Bug in 2012.
Last week, he climbed into chair at the dining room table and picked up his sister’s hand-sharpened Tri-Conderoga and drew on her art (which produced giggles and then screams from the artist, who was drawing some nice houses). Between that severe triangular shape and the fact that fat pencils are round and roll everywhere, I picked up some Musgrave Finger Fitter pencils. Hen, from Rad and Hungry, sent a wonderful assortment of some really nice, fat pencils from her travels to Charlotte about two years ago, and there was this huge, triangular pencil I’d never seen before in the package.* Amazon started carrying them recently. These current ones are made of some kind of different wood, and of course Musgrave packages them in a glorified sandwich bag these days.
Henry got started early this Saturday morning, though Charlotte has cranked out three drawings already, before I am finished my first large stein of coffee. Wait, seven. (What’s in that chocolate milk?)
*(I swear I didn’t steal any, even though I’m a lot bigger than a toddler.)
So. Charlotte started school today. Pre-K. She has been my constant companion for over four years. I did not have an easy night’s sleep or morning. But this is not the kind of blog where we wax emotional. However, there is still, of course, plenty to talk about on a pencil blog about the first day of school.
We bought the stuff on her school supply list. I assumed that six #2 pencils meant 1/2 dozen of fat learner’s pencils with big erasers for little students in Pre-K. So I dug through the bins at Staples to make sure that she got the best six in the store. While not on the list, I made sure to include a Pink Pearl and German-bladed pencil sharpener. Charlotte came home with 5 pencils in her backpack. I asked why. She said they are not supposed to have fat pencils.
Well. Hey hey hey. This means she can basically take whatever she wants to school for pencils! Holiday pencils. Disney Fairy pencils. Heck, Blackwings if she wants. So I took her to The Archive before our favorite restaurant opened for dinner and let her pick any six pencils she wanted.
This is what she came up with.
She picked the EnviroStik first, then an old (2005) Forest Choice, though I made her take a new one, to be sure the eraser works. Next, she requested that I open a 2014 Target-exclusive pack of Ticonderogas for “the blue one.” She picked a regular (new, matte, Chinese) Ticonderoga, then a black one (Chinese, smooth). Finally, she went for the bright silver of the Musgrave Test Scoring 100. These were pointed on a Deli sharpener (not too long) and are contained in an empty Ticonderoga box, for school tomorrow.
I scoped out the sharpener situation in the room, but I couldn’t get any pictures because a Little Guy was sobbing in the chair nearest: crank sharpener mounted where Small Children can reach it and an industrial electric sharpener behind the teacher’s desk. I did notice a pencil cup near it, and what the teacher wrote on was written in pencil. If I see her with a red/blue pencil, I’m gushing about this website and the even better podcast of which I am thankful to be a part.
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.
@pencilution Can you send us your address?
— Dixon Ticonderoga (@DIXONTICPRANG) May 5, 2014
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.
(This is something I contributed to Pencil Week on Pen Paper Ink Letter.)
Stormy Night in Borrowdale
The legend holds that in the early 1560s (1564?), a large tree – possibly an oak – was uprooted in a storm. Either a traveler or a shepherd or a random passerby notices chunks of a black substance hanging from the upturned roots. Graphite was first believed to be a type of black lead. It was referred to as wadd, black lead and plumbago, from the Latin, meaning “that which acts like lead.” Its existence was well-known throughout Europe at the end of the sixteenth century, and folks with needs for portable and/or erasable writing or drawing equipment were seeking plumbago by 1610 in London.
It was not until the chemical composition of graphite was uncovered in 1779 by K. W. Steele that A. G. Werner suggested the name by which we now know this magical substance: Graphite, from the Greek graphein, meaning “to write.” Graphite is a type of carbon, located molecularly between coal and diamonds. Because of this molecular structure, it works well as a lubricant. Because it is carbon, graphite marks do not fade or react with paper. As such, barring an assault with eraser-bearing enemies, pencil marks really are forever. Sharpie, for instance, fades on plant stakes. Pencil never fails me (General’s Kimberly 9XXB, as it were).
Early Pencils/Graphite Doohickies
In the beginning, graphite was used to mark sheep. But then artists and individuals who did fieldwork requiring note-making on the go started to use it to make more sophisticated marks than merely putting a dark smudge on wool. Chunks of pure graphite were used at first. These were sawed into sticks and wrapped in sheepskin, later in coiled string. Small pieces of graphite were even inserted into hollow ends of reeds and twigs.
The earliest wooden pencils were made from pure chunks of graphite, sawed to fit into grooved pieces of wood. This pure graphite from the famed mine in Borrowdale is still considered to be the largest and best deposit of graphite ever discovered. These pencils had leads with a square cross-section because that was the shape into which they could easily and reliably be cut. When one sharpened these pencils, the lead could be fashioned into a round shape with relative ease. Generally, the lead did not go all of the way through the pencil, since the last few inches were unlikely to be used.
By 1726, small pieces of graphite which would otherwise be wasted were ground into powder with a mortar. The impurities were removed by sifting, and the powder was mixed with sulfur. This was melted, and workers would knead this mixture on boards, like bread. When it was cooled, it was sawed into cakes which were then in turn cut into square pencil leads. Outside of England, where the Borrowdale mine is located, pencil makers in countries like France and Germany were almost always reliant on the use of binders to form graphite composites from the inferior graphite available. Other binders used in this way included gum, shellac, wax and insinglass (fish bladder goo). These binders produced scratchy pencils that did not leave a dark mark. German pencils were notorious for containing enough sulfur that the cores would become soft and would produce a brimstone-like smell when held up to a flame.
The mine at Borrowdale was guarded and protected by the Crown, and men worked under loaded guns. The graphite unearthed there was used to make crucibles for manufacturing cannonballs, among other things, in addition to pencil leads. Because of the mine’s bounty, there were no major efforts in England to make pencils in the composite manner used by the rest of Europe until it became clear that the mine was becoming empty.
In 1793, England and France were at war. France could not get pencils made with pure Borrowdale graphite or even the inferior – but still usable – composite German pencils. The Minister of War wanted to find someone who could produce superior pencils for the nation’s needs – someone who could do it in France. Nicolas-Jacques Conte’ was born in Normandy in 1775. He was a portrait painter before the revolution and worked as an inventor and engineer after that. He wore an eye patch because of an injury resulting from a hydrogen gas explosion, when he was working on balloons for use in war. He answered the War Minister’s call and, in a matter of days in 1794, he came up with the idea to mix powdered graphite with potter’s clay as binder. The paste was put into molds and dried. When dry, the leads were packed in charcoal and baked at extremely high temperatures. Conte’ patented this process in 1795, and the modern pencil lead was born. These leads were brittle and could not be sawed, as the soft sulfur composites and pure graphite could be. So the shape of the wooden barrel was changed, to account for a deeper slot into which the square lead would be laid. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Conte’ method was widespread in Europe.
Graphite Pencils in America
Legend has it that the first American pencils were made by a young woman in Massachusetts (Medford or Danvers, or somewhere else). She took pieces of Borrowdale graphite, mixed it with gum arabic and stuffed the mixture into a hollow twig (the tree species varies according to which version of the legend one accepts). Perhaps the first large-scale pencil manufacturer was William Monroe, a cabinet maker in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There is evidence that he attempted to master the Conte’ process.
There was also Joseph Dixon. Yes, that Dixon. He branched out from crucibles and made stove polish and pencils from graphite. He quit making pencils for a time when merchants in Boston told him that he’d have to use fake foreign labels to make his pencils marketable. He did teach the basics of pencil making to John Thoreau (father of the famous Henry David/David Henry) before that, however. Because Dixon might have known about the Conte’ process, John Thoreau might have also. But in the 1820s, there is no real evidence to suggest that the Conte’ process was known in America.
In 1821, John Thoreau’s brother-in-law Charles Dunbar found a deposit of graphite in Bristol, New Hampshire. He partnered with Cyrus Stowe of Concord to mine this excellent graphite. However, they mistakenly only took out a seven-year lease. They enlisted the help of John Thoreau because they had to tear out as much graphite in seven years as they could. Both dropped out soon after, and John founded John Thoreau and Company. John Thoreau’s pencils were made with a composite of ground graphite, glue, bayberry wax and spermaceti. Because of his superior graphite, he was able to sell his pencils without a foreign label and received notice from the MA Agricultural Society in 1824. Still, they were inferior to French or German pencils made with the Conte’ process.
Henry David Thoreau did know something about pencils. In order to pay for his education, he went to New York City with his father in 1834 to sell pencils. Henry David Thoreau was looking for work after quitting teaching over disputes over beating the students. He wanted to make a better pencil. He researched pencils at Harvard’s library. Walter Harding, in The Days of Henry Thoreau, claims that Thoreau discovered the Conte’ process in an encyclopedia, in a library at Harvard. However, Henry Petroski (who literally wrote the book on pencils) maintains that there could not have been such an encyclopedia at the time and that Thoreau likely connected graphite and clay crucibles and got the idea to mix graphite with powdered clay. No matter which explanation is true, Thoreau experimented and mastered the Conte’ process, but he was still not satisfied because his pencils were still gritty. So he went about inventing a new machine for pulverizing the graphite wherein the finest particles rise on air currents are are collected in a box above the chamber of river stones which do the grinding. The rest remained to be reground.
Thoreau dreamed of a seemless pencil (one made without any cuts in the wood running parallel to the barrel) and even invented a machine which could bore a hole into a piece of wood through which a core could be inserted. Like Conte’, Thoreau discovered that he could produce different and consistent grades of leads by varying the graphite and clay mixture. Thoreau and Co. produced four different grades of pencil. Thoreau and Co. pencils were recognized as the finest American pencils in their heyday. Eventually, however, it came to an end. Smith & McDougal bought the superior graphite produced by Thoreau’s machine for electrotyping, which was all kept secret until the Thoreaus stopped making pencils altogether in 1853.
More on the Evolution of Pencil Anatomy
We have mostly looked at the evolution of the graphite core of the pencil, which does indeed account for most developments in pencildom. But certainly some other points merit a mention.
Pencil leads were still square as late 1830, when German pencil makers (possibly French or English) started to extrude the leads through a round die. Round leads did not become the norm until the mid 1870s. Modern pencil leads are boiled in wax, so that it coats every bit of graphite with this lubricant. The result is smoother writing and – often – less smearing. We even have pencils today which use something other than clay as a binder, such as extruded plastic pencils (Empire in the 1980s, the new Staedtler Wopex).
Some of the first wood-cased pencils were made of juniper species, and they resembled modern carpenter pencils. Because of the grain and balance of strength and softness, Easter Red Cedar was used in pencils until the early 20th century. The wood became so scarce that pencil companies would go around buying up cedar fence posts, replacing these fences with metal ones. Red Cedar was replaced by Incense Cedar, a Western species. Adjustment was slow to the new wood because, despite its name, it does not exude the strong aroma of Red Cedar. Incense cedar was often dyed red and perfumed, in an effort to make the transition smoother. Today, Incense Cedar is the wood of choice for the best pencils. Other species, such as basswood, jelutong and various pine trees, are used by different manufacturers in different countries.
At first, pencils were made individually, with a groove being cut to accept the core, and then another piece of wood was attached to match the shape cut out. Modern pencils are made from slats, which are pieces of wood into which grooves are cut to accept the leads. Glue is put into these grooves, and the leads are dropped into them. Then, an identical slat is glued on top of the slat containing the cores, and the sandwich is compressed until the glue dries. These are cut by precise machines into the round, hexagonal or even triangular pencils we are used to today.
Hymen Lippman is credited as being the first person to attach an eraser to pencils, in 1858. These were inserted into the non-business-end of the pencil and required sharpening just like the writing/drawing end. Eventually, erasers began to be attached by metal ferrules, which are crimped or glued onto the pencil and hold the eraser at the other end. During WWII, metal ferrules were banned in the United States, resulting in the use of plastic ferrules. Dixon Ticonderoga used a green plastic ferrule with two yellow stripes painted onto it, resulting in the color scheme of their iconic pencil today.
Teachers and other folks who fretted over children were resistant to the attachment of erasers to pencils, worried that the practice would encourage carelessness. Learning to write in the early and mid-1980s, we did not have erasers on our pencils. Still, most pencils sold in the United States do have attached erasers, while “art pencils” and pencils made in or for Europe usually do not.
While the use of two different grading systems in the world today can result in some confusion, a quick explanation of how these grades work makes them easy to understand and utilize. Pencils in the United States are generally graded from #1 to #4, with #1 being the softest and #4 being the hardest. Several manufacturers even produce a fractional pencil between #2 and #3, such as 2 ½, 2.5, etc.
In the rest of the world (and in American “art” pencils), there is a more sophisticated system by which manufacturers grade pencils. At the far end, there is the H range, which stands for Hard. The higher the number in front of the H, the harder the lead. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the B range. B stands for Black, and the higher the number preceding the B, the softer and darker the pencil mark. In the middle stands HB, which generally corresponds with the #2 pencil in America. In some systems, there is another pencil, F (for Fine) between H and HB, which is also a 2 ½ in American pencils.
There is No Number Two
We all remember being required to use number two pencils for exams, but here’s the problem: there is no such thing. Manufacturers have different interpretations of different grades. Some contain different binders, different wax, no wax, extra carbon, etc. Even #2 Dixon Ticonderogas are different, depending on whether they were made in Mexico or China. (If you’re going to take exams in pencil, get yourself some Musgrave or General’s test scoring pencils!) Grades even vary by market or culture. For instance, German pencils run on the hard side, while Japanese pencils are generally softer and darker than pencils made in Europe or the US.
The modern pencil still does what it did 450 years ago: it makes marks. It has also undoubtedly left its mark on human civilization and various cultures. How many poems, philosophical theories, scientific insights or humorous characters might have gone unrecorded, were it not for the portable writing technology embodied by the pencil? Certainly, there are ballpoint pens and smartphones, but pencils were the first truly portable aids to memory and thought exploration. I carry one wherever I go, though never in the same pocket as my fancy phone.
The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (Henry Petroski)
The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (Walter Harding)
Staedtler Mars Lumograph HB (2004-5 stock)
General’s Test Scoring 580
PaperMate Earth Write “Premium”
General’s Layout (well-loved)
Palomino Prospector (current USA model)
Faber-Castell Castell 9000 4B
Staedtler Wopex (North American market version)
Halloween pencil from my family (Target 2011, pretty nice, actually)
General’s Draughting G314
Chinese Dixon Ticonderoga
USA Gold “Natural” (2013 model with blue foil)
Field Notes pencil
Forest Choice pencil
Ticonderoga EnviroStik (no C)
General’s Kimberly B
Palomino Blackwing Pearl
Mitsubishi Hi-Uni HB
Faber-Castell Castell 9000 B
General’s Cedar Pointe (very old and well-loved)
I wish I could take a picture of what it smells like. My odor-removal efforts took away the stale smoke smell and even the smell of metal. So the cedar and eraser aroma-combination had quite a blank canvas to fill. It’s like opening a treasure box.
This is more of a News Bulletin than a review — more of a Go Get Yours Now. At Target today, checking out their back-to-school offerings, I came across a pack of neon Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. These are made in Mexico and come pre-sharpened. They have the green and yellow ferrules and pink erasers we’ve come to expect. I paid $2.89 US for a pack of ten.
The package contains 10 pencils: two each of neon yellow, green, orange, pink and purple. Oddly, the yellow could fool one into thinking it’s a regular yellow pencil — and perhaps that something’s wrong with one’s eyes. Neon blue would have been nice instead, or even to make it an even dozen. But I suppose that no 80s throw-back product is really complete without neon yellow. In addition to stating that these are exclusive to Target, the label says that these pencils are made of “premium wood.” I have little idea of what this means. They look and sharpen like cedar but don’t smell like it. When I’m more awake, I’ll have to wear some down and do some sharpening and sniffing.
The cores are nice and smooth, yet firm. I haven’t gotten a chance to compare them to Chinese and Mexican stocks from recent runs since I wanted to get this up ASAP, before my daughter and her friends run off with all of these bright pencils and before Target sells out of them. But the leads seem to be as smooth as the Chinese Dixons I’ve encountered lately, which is a good thing — only less dark and smeary. They feel similar to the last American Ticonderogas to me, though I’ll have to try them more to confirm.
What’s perhaps most interesting, especially to Retro Grouch Comrades, is the recent addition/reintroduction of the word SOFT to the HB/#2 Ticonderoga pencils I’ve seen for sale this year. (I saw some yellow ones at Big Lots but left them there for some reason.) The printing is not as crisp as usual, but I like the reprise of the lead description.The simple graphics of today’s Dixon Ticondergas are nice, especially the lead number designation that is enclosed in the shape of the barrel’s cross-section. But the oddly…boastful printing of yore is missed, certainly.
Finally, an odd note: while Target sells a lot of Write Dudes pencils (most of the USA-made varieties), they do not sell those fat kids’ pencils I like. A lady we saw even checked with an employee. Bizarre. But if you like the Dixon Ticonderoga and very brightly colored pencils, these are a good catch. I have to squirrel away an orange one for camping/finding in my backpack.
Sadly, among our first reviews are two pencils Comrades would have trouble tracking down in 2013. But others are still around. We should probably re-review the Ticonderoga and Black Warrior, especially since those reviews continually rank among our most popular posts.
American Naturals (on which I wish I’d stocked up before they went away.)
Our very first review was of Forest Choice pencils, still ranked among my favorites.
It seems like Palominos have been around forever, but we Humbly (!!!!) reviewed them first here at Pencil Revolution. I still have that first pack, with slightly different paint colors.