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.
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 The Millennium (pictured) was a gift from Caroline Weaver, and the USA-made “Black” that superseded it might be my all-time favorite Ticonderoga for its matte finish and pleasant memories of fall 2004 and discovering the writing of Bruce Chatwin.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out Leadfast’s great post on checking out Ticonderoga.