Friday, November 15, 2013

Wood Pencils

Last week, I was at North Park University and in my classroom well early for my 8 am class.  For the first time in the three months of teaching I noticed an old fashioned pencil sharpener on the wall across from my classroom.  I took a photo of it and posted in on Facebook with the message:  “They used to be everywhere. Literally Old School.”

Back in the day, when I was in grade school, the pencil was the most used writing tool for our school work.  Sure, we were required to have a pen but that was only for writing essays or themes. For everything else, we used a pencil and the #2 wooden pencil was the pencil specified in the school supply list.  Every classroom had a pencil sharpener.  While I could tolerate a duller pencil for handwriting, I preferred a sharp pencil for arithmetic so I definitely put the pencil sharpener to good use.

There were mechanical pencils back in those days, but they were horrible.  The only ones I had any experience with were the Scripto brand.  They had very thick leads and always wrote like a wooden pencil that was on the verge of needing sharpening.  The manufacturing tolerances were so loose that the lead was barely held in the pencil.  At least, this was my impression.   I was never impressed with the Scripto products even though they were probably the largest producer and seller of mechanical pencils in those days.   I simply preferred wooden pencils and a good sharpener.  

Wooden pencils we used back then came in a fixed color scheme. The lead, or graphite was blackish grey, the sharpened part of the wood was cedar colored, the pencil bodies were yellow, the ferrule (the metal cylinder that holds the eraser to the pencil body) was kind of golden, and the erasers were pink.  This was the school supply standard.  I recall we were asked to get two of them and they lasted the entire school year.  For me, the erasers always wore out before the pencil was too short to write with.  I loved those cap erasers which basically extended the useful life of the pencil.  Again, one of those cap erasers would last a couple of years.  When the pencil became too short, we would use one of those in our compasses.

These days wooden pencils are bought by the dozens for the standard.  They can be personalized.  The come in a variety of colors that range from bare wood to a wide variety of colors including metallic and glitter finishes.  While in my school days, we used the numerical Conte/Thoreau scale for lead hardness.  John Thoreau, a pencil maker, was the father of Henry David Thoreau.  The only options in my world then were the ubiquitous #2 and the lesser used  #3.  Sometime in the 80s or 90s, lead hardness , today we have moved to the numerical, H for hard, and B for black scale which allows for 20 gradations of grey to black and hardness.  HB is basically the #2 and B is the number 3.  

For me, mechanical pencils took a quantum leap forward in the late 1970s.  I was in graduate school when I got my hands on my first Pentel .5mm mechanical pencil.  It was a dream.  Pentel mechanical pencils set a new standard in precision design and manufacturing.  Their refills exhibited, to me, the highest quality in writing consistency.  Unlike the Scriptos, these new pencils were like writing with a freshly sharpened pencil all the time.  The body held several leads.  The original erasers were not the best.  They were small and did not last long.  They were also under a cap and hard to use, but in subsequent designs they started adding twist erasers that easily last the life of the pencil.  I loved the design and utility of these and have used them ever since.

I teach math and statistics courses.  I buy Zebra brand pencils at the beginning of each semester and give one to each student.  I tell them all mathematics and statistics should be done with pencils.  I ask them why and eventually someone will reply “because you can erase.”  Exactly right.  Then I ask them “What is a pencil without an eraser?”  No one gets this right.  The answer is “essentially a pen.”  Most use the pencils I give them on exams but some still use pens and end up with scratch outs when they inevitably make errors.  One of the Zebra’s variants is a mechanical pencil that looks like a yellow wooden one.  These are my favorite throw away mechanical these days.  

In googling around preparing this piece, I learned that wooden pencil sales have  increased in the past few years.  All kinds of folks are gravitating to wood pencils.  The cutting edge of this boom may well be in Hollywood where the pencil of choice is the Palomino Blackwing 602.  The pencil was originally created by Eberhard Faber 1930s  to be the best writing pencil ever due to it’s unique waxy graphite lead and flat replaceable eraser.   The pencil was the favorite of Vladimir Nabokov, John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Stephen Sondheim, Stanley Kubrick and others once they began using it used it for all of their creative work.  Supposedly, Shamus Culhane the famous Disney animator known for the Heigh-Ho part of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was buried with on these pencils in his hand.  

Per a 2011 article in Fortune Magazine, The great Blackwing pencil brouhaha:
The Blackwing survived a change in ownership when Faber-Castell USA bought Eberhard Faber in 1988, and again in 1994, when Faber-Castell was bought by Sanford Corp., a division of Newell-Rubbermaid. But the machine that made the clips for the eraser ferrule had been broken for years and never fixed. When the Blackwing stock became exhausted in 1998, Sanford decided that its low volume -- only about 1,100 gross annually -- made repair uneconomical. With that the Blackwing died. Almost immediately, scarcity created a rush of demand by collectors. By 2001, Blackwing pencils that had originally sold for 50¢ would change hands on eBay for up to $40.
The Blackwing trademark was not renewed by Sanford, it was bought up by California Cedar Products that marketed pencils under the Palomino brand.  The company is owned Charles Berolzheimer II, a Stanford MBA and the sixth generation Berolzheimer to be in the pencil busines (think Berol writing instruments).  Berolzheimer worked to get a supplier of ferrules, improved on the graphite formulation, and changed the color of the eraser from pink to black.  They went into production in October 2010 and can be found online for $20/dozen ($1.67 a pencil).

I am thinking about buying a box and see what the fuss is all about.  Before I do that, I am going have to search high and low to find my old mechanical suction cup pencil sharpener.


  1. I think I still have my sharpener with the suction cup lol. The pencil is my choice. The pen is there for legal documentation.

  2. I was about to order one of these:
    Does this count?