In April of 2020, I took a month-long tour of my pencil cups, posting a brief profile each day at my blog. Those posts are no longer available, and I’ve collected them all here.
I’m not a collector, so these are (with a few exceptions) the pencils I use daily. I’m not a visual artist, so I don’t have too many pencils with darker cores; as a writer, my preference is for lighter, firmer pencils.
Also, I was originally trying to keep most posts under 280 characters so they would appear in full in the Micro.blog timeline, a constraint no longer applicable to a static page like this. I will therefore be expanding some of the profiles over time.
Finally, I should mention that links to the wonderful CW Pencil Enterprise are broken, since they permanently closed in November of 2021. A terrible blow. Support a local shop near you. This page of alternatives may be helpful.
My small selection of Japanese pencils. Mostly experiments or novelty buys. The Tombow 2558 is wonderful, especially the H; but I found the rest unremarkable, and not worth the price to me. (December 2021: I have put several back in my rotation, which has made me reconsider my earlier, less charitable opinions. Updates to follow.)
1: MMX (Soft)
Here’s where it started in 2010. Palomino, clearly inspired by the Moleskine resurrection, bought the Blackwing trademark and found a functional ferrule machine somewhere, and the passable-facsimile Blackwing was born.
They blew the play out of the gate by issuing a Blackwing that wasn’t a 602. The color of the barrel was wrong; the graphite was much softer than the original Eberhard Fabers (closer to a 6B rather than a 3B — the whole appeal of the original Blackwings was that the graphite was firm enough to wear down slowly like an HB despite laying down a dark line); and it didn’t even have the classic motto on the side.
They released their 602 a year or so later, with a much more appropriate look and core, but it seemed to me that they were feeling around in the dark. The frequent gratuitous redesign tweaks have confirmed this. They’re pencils, for fucksake, why overthink it?
I didn’t try them out for a few years, probably until around the time they introduced the Pearl (in 2013, if memory serves). I ordered a starter pack and, other than the 602s, the graphite was absolutely not my type. My wife, however, instantly loved the Pearls, so I bought a bunch more for her. She prefers darker pencils, but the MMX was too dark even for her.
I picked up a few Volume 73s just cuz they were such a pretty blue. I use them for underlining.
2: Pearl (Balanced)
Whenever a Volumes edition comes out with the Pearl core, I buy some for my wife. 33 1/3 and 42 are her favorites. I bought a bunch of Volume 1s because I really like round pencils. But Pearls are still a bit too dark for me to write with regularly.
3: 602 (Firm)
For a long time, my favorite core. The best core for actually writing. Other than a few fugitive Volumes (24, 530, 54, and 10), the 602 core was the firmest Blackwing offered until they finally issued the Natural with the “extra firm” core.
I fell hard for the 344, and bought a lot of them.
4: Natural (Extra Firm)
So, Palomino recently introduced a standard pencil to their lineup using the previously rare “extra firm” core. All three pencils pictured here are supposed to have the same firmness. Bullshit. The 530 is almost an HB, the Volume 10 is a firm B, and the Natural is indistinguishable from the 2B 602 core.
I love the Vol 10 immodestly, and have a large stock of them. I’ll be writing with 10s and 344s for decades at this point.
I don’t have to buy Blackwings by the dozen because the incomparable Wet Paint in St Paul sells them individually, in several cups right by the cash registers. So it’s not a major financial investment for me to try them. If I always had to buy them by the box, I probably wouldn’t have more than that starter pack and the subsequent box of Pearls for my wife.
And I’ve largely stopped collecting Blackwings. They were never my everyday pencil, and I have a very large stock of my favorite pencils. In the meantime, I’ve got plenty if I’m ever in the mood for them, and my wife has all the Pearls she needs for quite some time to come.
(Okay, I probably could have dialed the snark back a bit — I do like Blackwings, but compared to many of the other pencils I have, use, and love, they’re fairly unremarkable. And they tend to suck the oxygen out of the room whenever pencils are discussed, eclipsing many other pencils equally worthy of attention. In the end, though, as Anton says, it’s all about writing in pencil as much as possible.)
(Dec 2021: Since this original post in early April 2020, I bought a dozen of the limited “Eras” Blackwings, and I hope to write up a small review some time soon because they’re quite nice. Not nice enough to make me change my generally low opinion of Palomino, however. Especially considering that they produced a “Volumes” edition honoring Woody Guthrie and they did not print THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS on the barrel.)
Really nice workhorse pencils. (Also pictured, an E+M pencil extender from CW Pencils)
When it appeared in the late 1800s, this was the first gold pencil; it’s the model for every yellow pencil that has followed.
A lighter HB, almost an F. The slightest gritty resistance against the paper, very satisfying. Great for extended writing.
I don’t know anything about these pencils. I bought six of them for 50 cents each at CW Pencils when I was there in December. Nice dark lines, perfectly scratchy. Great for underlining.
Another purchase from CWP last year. One H and one 2H. They both run a bit dark, closer to an HB. Good grittiness on the paper, which I always prefer.
(2021-12 Note: I’ve since bought a dozen more of the 2H. Love these pencils.)
Swiss pencils that seem flamboyantly, defiantly expensive. I prefer firmer cores, so I bought two 2Hs. They feel similar to other German and Austrian pencils: smooth, waxy. Not quite my type, but they behave very well on toothy paper.
I have some newer ones in a box somewhere, but these three are from the late ’70s, early ’80s, when I was playing a lot of D&D. The 9007 (with the ferrule and eraser) is a 5H: good for the first draft of a map, which I would ink over later.
A nice no-nonsense pencil. Apparently as iconic to school kids in the UK as the Dixon Ticonderoga is in the US.
(I have some Mars Lumographs somewhere — in the same misplaced box as my other Castell 9000s, I guess — and I like them a lot, too.)
Excellent pencils. Good lines, and they hold their point well. So many pencils are marketed for sketching and drawing, but if it’s a good pencil, anything from B to 2H should be good for writing, too.
Nice cheap pencils from Palomino. Creamy graphite, dark but not too dark. I have some Golden Bears and Prospectors, too, which I also like, but their hexes are too sharp for sustained writing. These feel better.
Oh look: typical Palomino brand-drift.
Fantastic pencils, extremely close to my ideal pencil. Lighter core, like an F. I have maybe eight, but I’ve never bought any: they just randomly turn up in the package with my FN order. At one point, Elliott Bay sold pencils from the same mystery source.
A pencil made from recycled newspapers, pressed in layers like tree rings, which creates a lovely effect as you sharpen it. Typical Musgrave: A bold, smooth core, and a crappy eraser.
More Musgraves tomorrow.
(3rd image via CWP.)
Musgrave cores tend to run a bit dark for my taste, but these are good, solid pencils. Pity the Ceres tends to get a Beatles song stuck in my head.
A no-bullshit pencil. Very light in the hand, and a perfect HB core. I need a lot more of these.
(2021-12 Note: I’ve since bought a dozen more.)
After CW Pencils had closed their NYC storefront and shortly before they suspended their online shop for the first big Covid lockdown, I ordered a bunch of pencils from them, including a dozen Musgrave Tennessee Reds. It was kind of an impulse buy, like candy at the checkout, but I had been persuaded (by Pencil Revolution and the Weekly Pencil) that these were pencils worth getting.
And they are just gorgeous.
I knew, going in, that this early run was marred by uneven cores, which was true for three or four in my dozen.
But I didn’t care. It was worth it for the Red Cedar. This wood is intensely aromatic, with a rich spicy scent. It summons deep memories of old wardrobes and chests. You can still buy small blocks of Red Cedar to put in drawers with your wool clothes, since its oil repels moths. (Or maybe it kills the larvae? I don’t know — dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not an entomologist!)
In the 1800s and through about the 1920s or ’30s, it was also the most common wood for pencils. Shortages (among other reasons) eventually led to it being replaced by Incense Cedar.
Of the original dozen, I set aside the several with really bad off-center cores, then my wife snatched some up, and I’ve got two or three nearby. As usual, a little darker than I like, and the erasers are pretty terrible — but my goodness, what lovely pencils.
One of the most ubiquitous pencils in the US. When I was a kid, I tended to use other pencils more than Ticonderogas — the Venus Velvet, for example (and others to be mentioned later this month) — but these pencils were everywhere in school.
And they’re still everywhere. There’s always a few in the jar in the kitchen for making grocery lists. I have dozens of newer Ticonderogas scattered around the house, both US-made:
…and newer ones from after the redesign and the move overseas:
And I have a few left from my childhood (these are probably forty or fifty years old):
A Sundance and an Exacta. Two excellent pencils I’ve had forever. I wish I had more of these. I don’t write with them anymore; they stay in my small nostalgia jar with a few other rarities.
It was pretty hard to find out anything about this pencil. It seems to have been made (or at least distributed) by Crown Zellerbach.
Nice pencil. Mostly harmless. I like that the “o” of “No” is a little stylized pine tree.
More from my CWP visit in December. Like the Black Warrior and the Ticonderoga, another ubiquitous pencil in American schools. After a long descent into mediocrity, the Mirado has just been discontinued. (Maybe someone — not Palomino! — can buy the name and reissue it.)
Another classic. I can’t remember how long these three have been with me, in a pencil cup or drawer. Years. Exquisite core: smooth, dark, but firm. And you may have spotted one on the cover of this book.
Nice, easy pencils. A dozen for maybe $3. I can resist everything except temptation.
Made in the US — which means General, Musgrave, or Moon. I haven’t dug into this, so I’m not sure, but my gut sez Moon. The erasers are too good for Musgrave.
Fairly smooth core on the soft side of HB. Given my preference for harder, grittier graphite, I can’t say exactly why I’ve fallen for the Try-Rex, but I have. It’s such a lovely pencil.
CWP’s Baseball Scoring pencil makes me miss my Mom, who was a huge baseball fan. She’d have loved this pencil. I remember sitting in the bleachers with her, filling out the ballot for the all-star game every year.
During my pencil renaissance in the mid ’00s, these were the first pencils I fell for. I loved the green and gold — and that ferrule! I used 2H to 4H. (It was a long time before I moved to HBs.) And I started looking out for the “General” brand.
These both feel slightly firmer than true HB.
The Scribe, like the Bugle, is a fantastic minimalist pencil.
The Pacific was, for a time, in the running for my favorite everyday pencil, until it was superceded by another (stay tuned).
Three excellent pencils. To my eye, they lay down almost identical HB lines, but the Supreme may be the darkest, the Badger feels a bit creamier than the others, and the Semi-Hex has a hollow feel, implying a less dense core.
This was the second General pencil I discovered, after the Kimberly. I used to find them in the craft section of Fred Meyer. For years, they were the most common pencil at my desk. And they are absolutely the coolest looking things.
Very similar to the Pacific, it is a mildly gritty HB verging on F. It puts down exactly the right line on every paper I use. Also, round barrel, which I love. After years of collecting, trying, and using pencils, these are my favorite.
The FaberCastell American 2.5 was the only pencil I used for most of high school and all of college. It was cheap, unpretentious, and easy to find. I would buy a dozen (or two? I can’t remember) every fall and work through most of them over the school year.
I settled on the 2.5 because of its point retention. It lay down a good line like a 2, but was just firm enough to last a whole class period of note-taking without losing much of its point. I could start out with three or four freshly sharpened pencils each morning, and get through the day without visiting a pencil sharpener. (Also, no one else used them. Boring yellow pencils were everywhere, sure, but not with an uncommon number like two point five. If I saw one kicking around, I knew it was almost certainly one of mine.)
During college, I gradually switched to pens, until that was almost all I used. I remember the last Americans I bought in the early 90s, after not having picked any up for a while. There were no 2.5’s so I got a dozen 2’s instead. The pencil stock at St Paul Book and Stationery struck me as eerily small: instead of both sides of an entire aisle devoted to dozens of different kinds of woodcased pencils, there was a grim little ghetto with only a few selections from the most common brands.
Years later, when I was rediscovering the pleasure of writing with pencils, I got all misty and nostalgic for my boring old Americans. I rounded up as many as I could find from our junk drawer, and the back of our home-office supply closet, and from scattered pencil cups. I found more than I expected, even some that were still unsharpened:
Several from before FaberCastell acquired Eberhard Faber—
But only three of my beloved 2.5’s—
(Yes, the stubby one has a staple in it. I have no idea why.)
Recently, due to all these pencil posts, I found myself comparing the 2.5 to some of my other pencils. Depending on the paper, I can’t tell it apart from the Field Notes, the Bugle, and the Goddess. No wonder these are some of my favorite pencils: I like them to the extent that they behave like the 2.5.
A week or two ago, I found some 2.5’s online, and I decided to buy a dozen. (Cheaper than Blackwings!) I don’t collect pencils for their own sake. If I buy a pencil, it’s with the sincere expectation that I will use it. So I will be sharpening and using all of these 2.5’s. Slowly, but surely.