Pencil for Long-Term Writing, Part 2: Pencils.


According to this blog’s stats, the post from 2010 about long-term writing and pencils is one of the most visited posts on this site. While we are behind in answering mail, we recently, we heard from Don, who asked

“I am wondering if you have any suggestions as to what kind of pencil lead to use for a high quality, long lasting journal?”

I think this is something to explore further, since some pencils (and some papers) perform better than others at keeping your writing safe for the future. Today, let us take a look at what makes a pencil effective for long-term writing, since (as we all know) Pencil is Forever. We’ll cover paper and accessories in two subsequent posts.

When I think of  good Journaling Pencil, there are some considerations I like to, er, consider. In re-reading this list, it could also serve as a Guide to Selecting the Write (!) Pencil in general, in some ways, though the models on that list might be somewhat, or even very, different if that was my intention here.

Darkness
While a German 4H will lend itself to an extreme degree of smear-resistance, it will not make a suitably dark mark for most users’ readability. While a hard pencil’s marks might actually be there on the page, I’d prefer to read them with the naked eye. And as I quickly approach Middle Age, that naked eyesight is not getting better.

Point Durability
A pencil is more likely to continue to make crisp lines if the point is durable and keeps its sharpness without crumbling and making a mess on the paper. I seldom go for the softest option. I like a point that stays crisp and clean for journaling.

Smoothness
A smooth pencil requires less pressure to make a mark. It indents the paper less, and that is always a good thing if you are being careful about your writing — not to mention fighting hand fatigue.

Smear-Resistance
Hard pencils resist smearing, but they can indent the paper due to the pressure required to make marks with them. However, some soft and/or dark pencils resist smearing more than others. This is a sort of Grail to which a lot of individual pencil models seem to aspire, along with a blend of darkness and point retention (a term I do not like).

Ghosting/Graphite Transfer
Almost all pencils and almost all bound books I have used involve the transfer of graphite between pages to some degree — at least when writing on a page which has writing on the other side. I always use a sheet of smooth paper between pages in such instances. A custom-cut piece of an outdated map (a method I’ve used for years) will last through several notebooks, and paper from a Rhodia pad cut to size works very well, too. Please note that cleaning the “blotter” sheet periodically with an eraser will yield maximum results.

Balance
What I look for is a pencil that is a good balance of darkness, smear-resistance, and smoothness. This is difficult to quantify or even to qualify. So I will list some examples of pencils which I personally find to be useful for long-term writing.

Staedtler Wopex – While there are many Comrades who eschew this extruded piece of weaponry, none can deny that the damned thing just won’t smear. It is also difficult to erase (possibly marring a journal full of mistakes, but maybe we shouldn’t run from our mistakes). You cannot have it all. But you can have this fantastic pencil in more colors if you buy from European sellers on eBay.

Blackwing (Firm or Extra-Firm cores only) – For some reason, the Balanced core in the Pearl (and 725) seems to smear more than the others. It has become my least favorite core for journaling. The MMX is lovely, but you can kill a quarter of a pencil writing about a good camping trip. The Firm core in the 602 (and 211, 56, and 344) and the Extra Firm in the 24 and 530 are both smooth and do not smear readily on good paper, though I learn more toward the smoother side of the spectrum of acceptable papers for long-term pencil writing.

General’s Layout – This pencil is oddly smear-resistant, with a durable point, for a pencil which produces such black marks. The slightly wider, round body is a bonus for True Writing Comfort.

Camel “Natural” HB – There’s not much to not like about this pencil. It definitely makes a much lighter  line than most Japanese HB pencils I use, but the point durability and aesthetics are top-notch. And I don’t always want something so soft and/or dark.

Faber-Castell Castell (9000 in the B-4B range) – This pencil can run easily through the 4B range without becoming a blunted, smeary mess. The exact grade you might enjoy will depend on how much darkness you demand and what paper on which you are writing. Try a 4B on Moleskine or Field Notes paper (see the next post), and you will understand that of which I speak.

General’s Cedar Pointe HB – This is a great all-around pencil. When I first tried them circa 2005, the leads were too hard for journaling. But they have softened the formula since then, and this is one of the most balanced cores I can think of. This certainly extends to long-term writing.

Premium Japanese HB – I cannot decide between the Tombow Mono 100 or the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni. Both make smooth, dark marks that stay put.

I am sure that I am forgetting some, and I know I am leaning heavily on pencils I have used recently. What are some things Comrades consider and some favorite journaling pencils among us friends?

Review of Tombow Mono 100.

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[This review has been in the queue, waiting for the holidays to be over. If traffic stats are truthful, folks were happily not online much over the holidays – which is refreshing!]

Jetpens was kind enough to send a few Tombow Mono 100 pencils to Pencil Revolution HQ in HB and 2B. These are Top-Of-The-Line drawing and writing pencils from Japan, in a thick and very glossy lacquer. The printing is both informative and tasteful. And, golly, the gold stamping is nearly perfect. These are just beautiful pencils, and I did hesitate for a moment before sharpening them up. But I was glad I did.

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The Tombow Mono 100 is just as pleasing a pencil underneath all of that shiny paint. The cedar sharpens perfectly, and the cores are dead-center. The core is one of the best things about this pencil. At the risk of being…I don’t know what, I find it best to compare this pencil to its nearest cousin, the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni HB. The Tombow Mono 100 is darker, but the lead feels harder for some reason. Only through squinting mightily and repeating the tests could I figure out which pencil smears, erases and ghosts best. Unfortunately for the Tombow, the Hi-Uni smears less, ghosts less and erases more cleanly. But the differences are very slight and likely accounted for by the Mono 100’s increased darkness. I think it balances itself out, to be sure.

The 2B feels exactly like a slightly softer version of the HB pencil, which is one of the greatest compliments that one can pay to different grades of the same pencil. I cannot be not the first person to use two grades if the same pencil that feel like totally different pencils. This is far from the case with the Mono 100; the consistency is remarkable. I generally prefer a darker pencil for writing, but the 2B is a bit too dark for me. The HB is fantastic, and I would certainly love to try the B grade for writing, too.

Where the Tombow really differs from the Hi-Uni is in the color/temperature of the graphite mark. Like the Palomino Blackwing 602, I find the marks from the Mono 100 to be almost blue or cold in nature. This is certainly not a point against either pencil – or a point for it – but it was something I noticed and enjoyed noticing. Being January, I find this fitting.

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The case is very different from all other pencils I have owned, in that it seems to be designed for the desk top – as opposed to the desk drawer for the Hi-Uni or the supply cabinet for cardboard-boxed pencils. Frankly, it is just incredibly cool. Jetpens has great photos of the case on their site here.

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I do have a few qualms with this pencil. The finish is so glossy that it shows scratches very easily. I don’t understand the aesthetic or symbolic rationale of putting an off-center white stripe onto the plastic endcaps. Indeed, mine did not all line up exactly, which is a surprising put-off for precision. Also, the case does not protect the finish of the pencils the way that the Hi-Uni’s case does. In fact, all of our samples were considerably scratched up from travelling across the country.

Oddly our 2B and HB pencils have different logos for Tombow and for the model itself. I am not sure which is newer, or if the difference is something else. Please do clue us in if you are In The Know.

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The Tombow Mono 100 is a wonderful pencil, with a top-shelf finish as well as great wood and graphite under the hood. Even the case is nice. Certainly, they are expensive. But perhaps, like myself, Comrades cherish such Precious Pencils and use them until they are merely tiny stubs. I would not leave these on a desk at work, unless you really like your co-workers. Someone in my house walked off with a few already, since I left the case out — Unguarded. This does not happen in HQ as often as one might think, and the tastes around here run closed to sparkles and pink pencils. So this is a ringing endorsement from my daughter, who does not like a lot of high-end pencils.