Ticonderoga Checking Pencil: Chinese Version.

I’ve long been a sucker for checking pencils. I always keep at least a small supply of the particular pencil that is easiest version to find in the US, the Dixon Ticonderoga Carmine Red checking pencil.

Mexican on top; Chinese on the bottom.

As recently as last year, these were advertised as being made of cedar. I was chiding myself for not picking up more of these, when I came across the newest version while out shopping for my kids’ back-to-school supplies yesterday.

On the left, the new version that is made in China has a wonderful finish.

The latest version is made in China, and the finish has a matte feeling to it. The lacquer is thick and evenly applied, and the pencils themselves are a little wider. They feel like the newest version of the Ticonderoga neons, which are really wonderful pencils. These are easily the best-finished checking pencils with erasers I’ve ever seen for sale in the United States. I have to admit that I’m bothered by Ticonderoga’s move away from cedar, but their recent pencils are really remarkable.

The marks that the new version leaves on paper are not quite as saturated, but the core feels much smoother and less tacky and waxy. While I wish it was darker, I definitely prefer the writing experience with the newer one.

Definitely pick up a small pack of these if you have a use for red pencils. My son, who is obsessed with red, is a huge fan and recommends them.

Blackwing Volume 42.

If you say that it feels like we just got a Blackwing Volume two months ago, you’re correct. Apparently, Blackwing is moving up their release schedule, starting now. We will see the winter release in November. I can’t say I prefer this schedule or the old schedule more, but I do appreciate that Blackwing is being intentional and consistent.

Volume 42 is here! This fall’s release is, at first glance, another baseball pencil. Only, it’s not. It’s dedicated to Jackie Robinson:

In 1947, Jackie Robinson was called up to the Major Leagues by the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier and providing much needed momentum to the desegregation movement that extended well beyond baseball.
The Blackwing Volume 42 is a tribute to Jackie Robinson and those who pursue their passions, creative or otherwise, regardless of the obstacles in their way. It features our balanced graphite, a blue imprint and eraser, road gray ferrule, and the iconic red 42.

Read even more here.

Aesthetically, I find this pencil to be unexpectedly striking. One might be forgiven for thinking it is merely a differently stamped Pearl from the pictures online, but this is not the same finish as the Pearl. Instead of the iridescent Pearl, this is a glossy white — thickly and perfectly applied. It also looks simple at first glance. But the ferrule is new, and this is the first time that Blackwing has used two colors on the imprint — and the first time since spring 2018’s Volume 54 that we have seen such a brightly-colored imprint. On the white barrel, it’s stunning. Combined with the blue eraser, this pencil is anything but boring.

The new ferrule is named after the away/road uniforms that baseball teams wear while playing away from their home fields (and of course, Home White refers to the home field uniform). I would love to see this ferrule on a permanent Blackwing (can you imagine it on the Natural?).

I feel like I should mention that the ferrule connection issues experienced by quite a few Comrades over the last few Volumes seem to have been solved now — at least so far as I can tell from the dozen I have.

Those of us who wanted a point guard to match the Mars Pencil are in luck, as Blackwing has produced a Road Gray matching protector — included free with subscribers’ boxes. (Best extra yet?) In place of the usual “B” logo on the end, this protector sports Robinson’s 42. Swoon.

Blackwing has always been very good at packaging, and I love that the last few releases have had matching (recyclable) packing materials. In deep blue, this release is no exception.

Also included in this season’s subscriber box: stickers! Seen below, these are getting stuck on something quick.

My only real issue is the core. Putting the “balanced” core into a white pencil would seem to invite the charge that they just painted a Blackwing Pearl. I notice that they have been careful not to put the MMX core into the black limited editions they have put out. On the other hand, it’s technically the Balanced core’s turn at bat. So maybe I’m just saying this because it’s my least favorite Blackwing core (though your least favorite Blackwing core is still a great core, no?).

This is a great pencil — both aesthetically (it’s understated without being boring) and theme-wise (it’s no surprise that we’re happy to see Blackwing move past their monochromatic first year of releases). I’m leaving my dozen, open, around my home, daring anyone to snatch one — so I can buy another box.

Write 4th of July.

One of my favorite things about Write Notepads & Co is that they can just drop a small batch of limited editions when inspiration strikes, since everything is actually made by them, in house, in Baltimore. This is not to minimize the work that goes into bringing these editions out. The last “just because” edition was the Keats, and it was a thing of beauty. This edition is no less well-planned or well-executed. I love it.

The latest is the 4th of July edition, dedicated to that day in 1776, when we, ahem, told George that we did not wish to play with him anymore. Or, if you will, when we flipped the British the bird. Being from Baltimore, where we fought off the British at Fort McHenry, feelings run a little…strong. (I’ve become an Anglophile as I hit middle age, and not just for the tea and the good TV, but I don’t advertise this around town.)

From Write:

For this pocket notebook edition, we reprint parts of the 1823 facsimile of the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on three notebooks. Each book was then hand sewn with red thread and trimmed and collated by us. Therefore, each book is identical yet slightly different in its unique way 鈥 a kind of perfect imperfection.An interesting fact to note: The second printer commissioned by Congress in 1777, was Mary Katherine Goddard, a publisher and postmaster in Baltimore, MD. Her reprints called the Goddard Broadside was the first to include the names of the signatories. 

What’s really different this time around is the sewn binding. These are put together by hand right here in Charm City, in red thread. The result is gorgeous notebooks, with lovely belly-bands to boot.

Jon and Chris and Co. kept this run to a small 243 packs, and they went fast. Make sure you’re on Write’s mailing list for the next surprise edition. And, remember, their summer release is yet to come. (More images below, with matching Blackwings (Volumes 73 and 16.2 and the TWA collaboration).

[Disclaimer: While I bought these books with my own money (and they were even delayed because they fell out of Chris鈥檚 car on the way to the PO), I have been writing for Write鈥檚 blog and am, in some small capacity, on their payroll. This does not influence my reviews; I鈥檓 not sure that Chris and Jon read this blog. But I thought I鈥檇 put it out there. (See my first two pieces here and here.)]

Reviewing the Dixon Ticonderoga.

A 2004/5 American-made Ticonderoga and a 2010 Chinese-made Ticonderoga, both well-loved.

This is a daunting task. The one and only time we ever published a review of the classic yellow Ticonderoga, it was 2005. The review was written by a professional reporter and photographer. It is still one of the most read posts according to the Magical Stats Machine. But the Ticonderoga is no longer made in the USA, and it’s more expensive now. It’s a completely different pencil.

Over a decade ago, Dixon moved their production out of the United States, and everything changed. Some of this was bad. Some was good. But nothing was consistent. To be honest, by the time my oldest child started school in 2014, the teacher’s insistence on Ticonderoga pencils was basically meaningless. The pencils sporting this brand were made in Mexico and China, and even the color of the barrels was inconsistent. The Mexican-made pencils seemed to have harder cores and sloppier paint jobs. The Chinese-made offerings were darker and softer (and, around 2010, more…yellow). There was Microban on some of the yellow pencils, and there was even a blue model made in Mexico who’s branding profile was that it was coated in that questionable substance.

Matte black Ticonderogas. The current version is glossy and disappointing next to this fragrant beauty.

Before that, the pencils were made in the USA, and there were two other variants. The “Black” has survived, though the Woodgrain is long gone. I owned exactly one pack of the former that I bought at a grocery store in Carbondale, Illinois. I’m fairly certain that this is the only one I have left. The Millennium (pictured) was a gift from Caroline Weaver, and the USA-made “Black” that superseded it might be my all-time favorite Ticonderoga for its matte finish and pleasant memories of fall 2004 and discovering the writing of Bruce Chatwin.

A version of these showed up around a decade ago as an extra in packs of yellow pencils. I’d love to track some down.

Like other manufacturers, Dixon used to make custom pencils with their own quality and branding, rather than the usually junk promotional pencils we see today. Behold, this lovely Baltimore City Government pencil from decades past, and its lovely green foil customization. Imagine having pencils you know will work well with your company’s name on them!

It’s just a Ticonderoga.
Wait, no. It’s a Charm City Dixon!

In recent years, we have found different colors of Ticonderoga. There have been Target-exclusive colors twice, neon models available at Staples (recently replaced by greatly improved versions), stripes, metallic paint, natural barrels, even muted hued Ticonderogas. The quality on these has never been consistent. They have been made in different countries. And the wood even varies. It’s frustrating that, for a number of years, you never knew what you were going to get when you bought a box of Ticonderogas. One would hope that such a veritably iconic brand would venture to be somewhat consistent, to maintain a level of quality control that could live up to the reputation of the pencil. But this has not been so.

Breast cancer awareness pencil. My wife’s OB used to keep these around her office.

For instance, while someone in the company has denied this in a Facebook group, another pencil industry insider has confirmed this for me: the back to school Ticonderogas and the large packs available at places like Costco are not the same quality as regular Ticonderogas and are not intended to be (This could certainly no longer be true, and I’d be happy to have this information corrected!). In the past, such pencils have been made of non-cedar wood, and a quick glance spots shoddy paint and badly glued ferrules. These are clearly targeted at teachers and office managers who insist on yellow Dixon Ticonderoga pencils merely through brand recognition. Plus, over the last year, Ticondergas have been showing up with “premium wood,” not cedar. The packaging had been bragging about “American Cedar” for a few years, and I have bought at least one pack of pencils with that package that were very clearly not made of cedar inside over the last few months. With the current shortage of cedar, Dixon has opted for less fragrant wood species.

Three versions of the F grade pencil. Check out the episode we recorded about this special grade on Erasable. http://www.erasable.us/episode/57

However, in recent years, the quality had been on a considerate and almost consistent up-tick. While from 2009-2017, I would have to hunt around through the Ticonderoga offerings at the store to get a good box, by 2018, I was able to purchase them online and trust that I would get a quality set of pencils. I sent some to my children’s school and was happy that a brand I used to love seemed to be getting their act together. I am particularly talking about the pencils made in China. Production quality is at least as good as the last US-made runs of this pencil, and the cores are unquestionably superior. They are darker, smoother, and even stronger. The paint job is excellent for this price range. The new neon version (with blue, not purple, and matching erasers) is so lovely that I would stock up a gross or two if they were made of cedar.

A “hackwing” Ticonderoga I made from a pencil whose ferrule busted off when someone sat in it.

I still miss the Woodgrain and the matte-finished “Black” (formerly the Millennium), and I hope that Dixon returns to making their pencils from cedar in the near future. But the Ticonderoga pencil is definitely not the same pencil that it was ten years ago. Of course, that’s part of the problem. The well-recognized brand’s pencils only shared that famous ferrule in the last few years. If the quality and consistency stay where they have been for the last year or two, I would be a very happy penciler. We’ll be keeping an eye out and stocking up on the cedar versions that we can find.

A very short and fat My FIrst TIconderoga with a custom clip. This is from around 2010.

Check out Leadfast’s great post on checking out Ticonderoga.

The Goldfield: Winter Release From Write Notepads & Co.


Joe Gans was the first African-American to hold a world boxing title. When he took home $11,000 from 1906’s Match of the Century in Goldfield, Nevada, he opened the Goldfield Hotel in Baltimore, where the main USPS center now sits near the Shot Tower. Gans was a legend in Baltimore, along with The Goldfield, where Eubie Blake played regular gigs and where Jack Johnson liked to hang out. Today, Gans is largely unsung in his native Baltimore, and Chris Rothe from Write Notepads & Co. has been part of an effort to change that for years. I hope I’m not giving away privileged information, but I know that this edition has been in the works for at least over a year, and I think the care that went into this edition shows.

The details from Write Notepads’ site:

Our winter 2017 pocket notebooks take users on a journey to the turn-of-the-century jazz club at The Goldfield, the exquisite hotel in Baltimore owned by boxing legend Joe Gans. The outer box is foil-stamped in 24kt gold on a spot-UV pattern. Each notebook echoes this Victorian-era pattern in a spot-varnish and features letter-pressed gold ink on an 80# black cover. Inside of the books, you will find 70#, bi-color ruled stock. These sets are proudly made in Baltimore, hometown of Joe Gans.

The box of these books is very stiff, and they arrived in perfect shape. The gloss of the varnish is difficult to photograph (not that I know anything about photography anyway), and the image of the boxer is perfect. The flap to open the box is improved in this model, too.

Inside, you are greeted by a card featuring Gans in front of the notebooks. This is a lovely touch, reminiscent of Lenore.

The notebooks have a subtle echo of the varnish on the covers and a heavily letter-pressed image stamped in gold on the front. I really like the choice of 80# stock here. Write Notepads pocket books have an initially stiff PUR binding and have more pages than other pocket notebooks. The 80# paper provides some flexibility and avoids over-killing the beefiness of the notebook.

Inside, Comrades will find a new paper: cream-colored with two colors. The horizontal lines are blue, while the vertical margins are red. The effect is lovely here, where bright white paper might be jarring.

The pencils are bridge pencils, which are thinner and shorter than regular pencils. Made in the USA by Musgrave, they sharpen well in a crank sharpener prone to producing longer points and also in the KUM Masterpiece (shown). These came out beautifully, and the tiny ferrules are as bright as holiday lights.

The extra in the deluxe pack (which also ships to members) is something you might spot, but I won’t comment on it. I was tickled when I got it though.

There’s something very…BALTIMORE about this release. We are not a city that gets a lot of positive attention, when we get noticed at all. Crime statistics and TV shows skew what it’s really like here on the ground. We live in a place full of hidden gems (like Blackwing beer) and fascinating stories. Poe is buried here, and we have the most literary of any name for a sports team. If Comrades ever pass through, you might find someone (ahem) very happy to share a coffee/tea/beer/water with you over some pencil chat.

Hurry, while you can buy the bridge pencils, the regular pack of notebooks, and the deluxe pack. And shipping is free until the end of the year.

*I feel like it at least deserves a footnote to mention that this is the first release from the major subscription/seasonal/membership models that is dedicated to a person of color. We’ve had two Blackwing Volumes dedicated to women, which is fantastic. I hope the trend continues toward honoring folks of all identities.

(These products are part of a membership paid for from PR funds, not a sample from Write Notepads & Co.)

New Blackwing Styling.


All three flagship Blackwing pencils are getting small make-overs. The MMX and 602 are getting new erasers. The Pearl is getting a new eraser and new stamping. If you’re into pencils enough to read this blog, this is notable news!

I’m not sure how I feel about the change of the MMX’s eraser from white to black. I’m used to the white. I still have a few gold-specked pencils from the first run (October 1, 2010), and the ferrule was much less gold, nearly silver. The pencil looked great with a white eraser in that format. More recent versions with the Very Gold Ferrule leave feeling: meh. So maybe I am happy about this change to a black eraser.

The new pink eraser on the 602 makes me happy. That’s all. I like pink erasers, and I’ve come to prefer it on the 602. I think that being such a faithful remake, this is a necessary change.

The Pearl gets the biggest update, with a white eraser and gold stamping. My daughter is obsessed with the Pearl lately, and I’m afraid to show her this. The new logo (with the trees) looks sharp stamped on the Pearl in black, but I like that the gold foil will bring it more aesthetically in line with the MMX and the 602. Three finishes, three cores, and three erasers gives me a nice sense of symmetry. However, that sense is disturbed by one thing:

I want the “original” 2010 Blackwing to display the moniker I gave it as a joke that has been largely adopted by the Erasable Facebook community. My oldest daughter was born in 2010, and it’s a special year to me. Plus, being a product of Catholic schools, I like Roman numbers (and have two tattoos featuring them). The fact that the 602 and the Pearl have extra names after the “Blackwing” text makes the MMX look like it’s missing something.

So far, gentle nudges to get Mr. Berolzheimer and team to officially change the name to the MMX have not been successful. I think they think I’m kidding. I am not kidding! MMX! MMX! MMX! My naming services can be purchased for a mere one gross of the newly-coined MMX pencils. Cheap!

Whatever one might think about the details, I appreciate that the folks at Cal Cedar are still working to improve their pencils. We get new Blackwings four times a year, and they haven’t forgotten about the three that started it all. That makes me feel good for the future of pencils.

Read more at Blackwing’s site.

(Image borrowed from Blackwing’s Instagram account.)

Blackwing Diversity.

BW_div
At Andy’s suggestion, here’s another list of potential Blackwing Volumes editions dedicated to women and people of color. I’ll repeat what Andy said: I am not聽accusing Blackwing of being racist or sexist or anything of the sort. I imagine they didn’t realize that the first five…look like this. And for all we know, we’ll be pleasantly surprised by the fall edition.

EDIT: One might do well to read closely before sending me nasty messages or leaving comments with fake email addresses accusing me of something I didn’t say or even imply. That says more about, well, you, than it does about me. Snark is not even wit, and wit is certainly not wisdom.

EDIT 2:聽Were I or we interesting in shaming Palomino or accusing them of ill-will, that would have been easy enough to do, using the same keyboard I used to clearly indicate that we are *not* accusing them of anything. The continued charges that this blog and other pencil blogs have been on some social crusade (and I鈥檓 not talking really talking about comments here 鈥 largely this has come through Facebook and poorly-constructed and cowardly emails from burner accounts) smells like the 鈥渞eactionary鈥 鈥渂ullshit鈥 of which we鈥檝e been accused.

Check out Andy’s list, which is Amazing!聽And Less’s list!聽And Dee’s!

Virginia Woolf: Volume 59, her age at her death by suicide in 1941.

Hermione Granger: Volume 919, her birthday. The pencil would be burgundy, with gold accents and a custom burgundy eraser — a nod to House聽Gryffindor.

Simone de Beauvoir: Volume 1949/49, publication of The Second Sex.

Emily Dickinson:聽Volume 1,800, the estimated number of poems written by her. This pencil would be matte white, with a black ferrule and eraser.

Frederick Douglass:聽Volume 1845, the year of the publication of his Autobiography.

Betsy Ross: Volume 15, the number of states in the union when the British attacked Fort McHenry in their attempt to take our country back (sorry, Brits). This pencil, of course, needs to be red with a blue ferrule and white eraser. The Rockets’ Red Glare edition.

Barack Obama: Volume 2008, obviously. This pencil is left-handed, though, and comes in the blue of the ties he used to wear.

Emma Goldman: Volume 22, the prison term she received for her attempt, with Berkman, to assassinate Frick. This pencil聽is black with a red ferrule and black eraser.聽Either the MMX core on a newer, darker core.聽It doesn’t @#$% around.

Mother Teresa: Volume 2016/16, for the year of her canonisation (Sept 4th, good time for it). Pencil is white, with a blue ferrule and white eraser.

Marie Curie: Volume 0311, the years she won the Nobel Prize in Physics (1903) and the prize in Chemistry (1911).

Anne Frank: Volume 1947/47, the publication of her diary (not the English edition).

Nelson Mandela: Volume 27, the number of years he spent in prison.

Maya Angelou: Volume 1993/93, the year in which she read “On the Pulse of Morning” at Clinton’s inauguration.

W.E.B. Du Bois: Volume 1909/09, the year he helped found the NAACP.

Thurgood Marshall: Volume 1954/54, the Brown v. Board of Education decision that changed American history.

Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume 1946/46, the year in which, while serving as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, she聽oversaw the first draft聽of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Serena Williams: Volume 4, the number of her Olympic gold medals.

This Built America.

From a press release we received at HQ:

Drawing With History: AOL鈥檚 This Built America Covers New Jersey鈥檚 General Pencil Co.

Jersey City, New Jersey (August 6, 2014) 鈥 This Built America, a new multimedia platform from AOL exploring the companies and people reimagining American manufacturing, comes to Jersey City this week to profile the General Pencil Company 鈥 a company built on family and dedication that has been going strong since Edward Weissenborn founded his second pencil endeavor in 1889.

In this episode, the fourth, fifth and sixth generations of the family discuss why keeping General Pencil in the family is the key to their business success. It hasn鈥檛 always been easy to keep the company afloat, or to turn away offers to buy General Pencil, but the Weissenborns feel a connection to their long running, made in America company.

For General Pencil Company, being chosen to represent New Jersey in This Built America is proof that founder Edward Weissenborn made the right decision banking on family business all those years ago, no matter the circumstance. 鈥淲e believe in America,鈥 says Jim Weissenborn. 鈥淲e are proud of our employees and the quality products they produce.鈥滭/p>

To view the full episode and more on General Pencil Company, visit http://www.thisbuiltamerica.com/new-jersey/.

General Pencil Company joins a national movement in This Built America that is devoted to supporting American companies and American-made products. AOL is proud to support the effort along with sponsor Ford Trucks. Through the year, the editorial and video teams will explore 50 states in 50 weeks to bring 50 stories of the people who are bringing back manufacturing to America. The platform is produced in coordination with Man Made Content.

Evolution of the Pencil.

Pencils of various ages. Mostly old.
Pencils of various ages. Mostly old.

(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 鈥 possibly an oak 鈥 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 鈥渢hat which acts like lead.鈥 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 鈥渢o write.鈥 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.

Not 400 years old. General's flat sketching pencil.
Not 400 years old. General’s flat sketching pencil.

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.

Graphite Composites

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.

Borrowdale Mine

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.

Conte’

In 1793, England and France were at war. France could not get pencils made with pure Borrowdale graphite or even the inferior 鈥 but still usable 鈥 composite German pencils. The Minister of War wanted to find someone who could produce superior pencils for the nation’s needs 鈥 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.

From Harper's Ferry History store, 2010.
From Harper’s Ferry History store, 2010.

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.

Replica pencil from The Shop at Walden Pond.
Replica pencil from The Shop at Walden Pond.

Our Thoreau

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.

Evolution? The Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil (left) does seem like the pinnacle of pencildom...
Evolution? The Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil (right) does seem like the pinnacle of pencildom…

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 鈥 often 鈥 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 鈥渁rt pencils鈥 and pencils made in or for Europe usually do not.

Pencil Grading

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 陆, 2.5, etc.

In the rest of the world (and in American 鈥渁rt鈥 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 陆 in American pencils.
B=1
HB=2
H=3
2H=4

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.

Conclusion

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.

Selected Sources

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (Henry Petroski)

The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (Walter Harding)

Hen’s Love for Pencils.

We love Rad and Hungry at Pencil Revolution. Those good folks are continually spreading The Pencil Message and gathering pencils from afar to share with Like Minded Individuals. Plus, Hen sent my daughter a box of really cool pencils last year that Charlotte still uses and talks about. So my ears were already open to Awesomeness when this was posted, and I was, well, moved. Please, Comrades, read Hen’s post about how she got into pencils. It will strike a chord with a lot of Comrades.

Harpers Ferry Sharpener.

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(Please excuse the bad phone picture.)
My Dad and I took a daytrip to Harpers Ferry the day after Thanksgiving (we always sort of go on a retreat). In the Harpers Ferry Historical Association‘s Bookstore, I looked for more of the “cedar pencils” I had bought there three years before. No reproduction pencils. But there was an oddly-placed wall-mounted sharpener on the shelf where the pencils were in 2010. I wanted to use it, but I was already drawing funny looks from the elderly lady running the register.