There is a legendary pencil called the Blackwing 602, first manufactured in the 1940s by the Eberhard Faber company. Eberhard Faber was founded by John Eberhard Faber, himself part of the “ancient” Faber family of pencil manufacturers in Bavaria. In the mid-1800s, he started shipping American ceder back to Germany for pencil manufacturing, then established the first American pencil factory in NYC. The company’s pencil operations were acquired from Staedler by Faber-Castell in the late 80s, and then by Sanford (a division of Newell-Rubbermaid) in the late 1990s. The Blackwing was manufactured until 1998, when parts for the eraser ferule—the metal band that holds rubber to wood—ran out . Individual pencils became very desirable, fetching high prices on Ebay.
I first became aware of the Blackwing through artist friends, though I didn’t pay much attention because I like mechanical pencils. Recently, though, the pencil has been recreated by California Republic Stationers under their Palomino brand, and there’s been some buzz on the Internet about it; I became aware of it through BoingBoing. Curious, I ordered a box to see what all the fuss was about.
I’m not an expert pencil collector by any stretch of the imagination, and although I like mechanical pencils for their consistency, I do love the feel and smell of wooden pencils. The crunchy-crisp sound of wood being carved away sharpens my hunger to create, and there’s something therapeutic about carefully maintaining a point as you draw. It forces you to slow down, and contemplate the shape of the lead as you sketch. And for such a simple object, there are a lot of subtleties. The graphite formulation is critical, as is the method by which it is held firmly by the wood. There are beautiful details in the quality of the paint and eraser ferule, the lettering, and in the feel of the lead as it moves over paper.
One of the selling points of the Blackwing 602, both for the original and Palomino’s homage, is that it expresses a dark line for relatively little pressure, and yet retains a reasonable point. Apparently writer John Steinbeck loved the 602, as did Loony Toons animator Chuck Jones. While I have never used an original Eberhard Blackwing 602, I thought I’d evaluate the Palomino version of the pencil to see what it was like. At $20 a box, it’s a relatively-affordable way to connect to the history of creativity while trying something different. I purchased mine at Pencils.com.
The pencil itself is a dark-gray, with a black eraser held in a square holder (the “ferule”). It resembles a flat paint brush. It’s distinctive and a little weird. I found the shape to be helpful in switching between spot and wide-area erasing, though I didn’t do much testing.
I see on the back of the box that these pencils are manufactured in Japan. The Japanese take their writing instruments just as seriously as the Germans, you know, so it’s not surprising. Over on the Kaufmann Mercantile store, there’s a good synopsis of the Blackwing 602’s reissue (with citations, even), which is worth reading.
I read that some people recommended a two-stage pencil sharpener, so I grabbed this one when I ordered through Pencils.com. There are two holes. You use the first hole to sharpen the wooden part of the pencil; it doesn’t sharpen the lead core at all. For that, you use the second hole, which works solely on the lead to create a nice sharp point, tapering to a slightly-different angle than the wood. It’s an interesting idea; this particular sharpener is designed specifically for Palomino-brand pencils and will prevent oversharpening. In the image below, you can see how the lead is left relatively-untouched (middle) until it’s sharpened in the final pass.
After reading some criticisms online about the pencil, I took some macro photos of various details. Zoomed up close, you can see that it’s not exactly perfect in printing detail and alignment, if that sort of thing is important to you on a mass-produced pencil. I do not know how this compares to an original 602.
The major difference I see is in the quality of the wood finishing and the paint. The Blackwing’s paint job appears to be slightly metallic, though it could be sensor noise in my camera. The surface finish is also considerably smoother. One of the mass-market pencils has the slight depressed lettering, with a bit of ink creep around it.
First, I tried writing with the Blackwing, outlining some business strategy that had been on my mind, so I could see how the pencil’s point degraded over time. I found that it was good for about 70 words before I found that I really needed to resharpen, which isn’t too bad. Given that a page is about 250 words, that means I’d probably want to sharpen 4 times. 250 words is enough to completely relate one thought with two or three supporting points, if one is writing fairly efficiently. I wonder if the desire to conserve the point and write clearly would affect the way I compose my writing? I will have to give this a try; as much as I like typing on my Model M keyboard (clackity clack), the ease with which I can type makes for some verbose writing.
Evaluating the writing, I was struck by two things:
- The writing was dark. Not amazingly dark—as I’m used to using a fountain pen loaded with Noodler’s Bulletproof Black, a pencil isn’t going to look super-dark to me—but pretty good contrast even in bright sun filtered through a huge plate glass window at Starbucks.
There was surprisingly little smearing. If I wiped my thumb across words it would smear, but overall I didn’t see much crumbling of lead (a problem with soft pencils) that I might expect. I’ll have to compare to other pencils I have to see if this is normal.
My overall impression: Since this is my first critical use of a wooden pencil, it establishes my baseline for future comparisons. I didn’t notice any operating flaws such as scratchiness or failure to maintain a good writing point. It didn’t irritate me, and I didn’t feel I was lacking for anything, which I suppose is a good sign. It’s a pencil. It writes. ADDITIONAL NOTES I sharpened the Dixon Oriole 287 (a 2/HB pencil I bought from Staples) using the same sharpener and compared it head-to-head with the Palomino Blackwing 602.
- The Dixon wrote well, producing a black consistent line. I wondered if I was imagining the superiority of the 602.
Switching to the Blackwing, I was immediately struck by the smoother feel. While the Dixon didn’t feel gritty at first, it was harder and scratchier. The Blackwing almost felt “cushioned” by comparison.
Switching back to the Dixon and writing a couple sentences on a piece of thick paper in a hardback journal, the variation in the tip’s sharpness was pronounced as I rotated the pencil shaft. I also reduced my hand pressure by half (apparently I was pressing harder in step 1 and 2) as I warmed to the task of writing several letters rapidly.
Switching to the Blackwing once more, and writing with the lighter pressure, the difference in feel was a little less pronounced, as my hand was already getting tired and that was the main sensation I was experiencing. Line quality and darkness was very close to the Dixon. Looking at the writing under the sunlight, I can’t really tell them apart.
p>What it seems to come down to is a subtle difference in feel. The lead is a bit smoother and perhaps a tiny bit darker for the same pressure. The tip wears more evenly than the comparison pencil. The weight is a little different, and the wood is possibly a little denser. But it’s hard for me to quantify. I tried weighing the pencils but my desktop scale isn’t sensitive enough.
When I was a kid, I used to draw a lot of spaceships on graph paper, and developed a humongous callous on the side of my middle finger because I am a “hard presser”. With that in mind, I wasn’t sure that a pencil that required “half the pressure” would really work for me. For comparison, I grabbed a couple other writing instruments that were in my bag, a Lamy Safari medium-nib fountain pen loaded with the standard Lamy Blue cartridge and a Staedler 0.7mm mechanical pencil loaded with HB lead.
I was pretty rusty at drawing, over-shading and not maintaining a particularly clean line. Overall, though, it felt like I was really the culprit rather than the pencil. I didn’t find that I wished the pencil would go darker, nor did I feel that I couldn’t get what lightness I needed. The Blackwing just laid down the tone and I was not equal to the task of managing it well.
I used the eraser sparingly, lightening up some areas and trying to do a bit of cleanup around the edges. Usually the on-pencil erasers are kind of awful and gritty, but this one was fairly soft. The rectangular shape, actually, gave me finer control, which I liked.
Drawing with the Lamy fountain pen afterwards was kind of shocking. The Lamy, with its medium nib and smooth feel, is one of my favorite pens to use because ink just pours out of it. I kind of blew my drawing, having been thinking in terms of pressure-based toning as opposed to using stippling or cross-hatching (which is kind of difficult with a medium nib anyway). However, this did accomplish my main goal of “resetting my hand” after drawing with the Blackwing.
The Staedler 925 mechanical pencil I had with me uses a 0.7mm instead of the usual 0.5mm lead. The reason for this is because I use more pressure than most people, and 0.5mm lead tends to snap. 0.7mm is more resistant to it without giving up too much in fineness. I was surprised at how HARD this lead felt after the Blackwing. Through all high school I’ve used HB lead, and found it pretty good for what I used to draw. The linework was much lighter, and I found that I had to dig into the paper to get the variation in tone I wanted. I think in the past, I used to use single sheets of graph paper on a hard surface, which made it easier to get the darker lines. Drawing in a notebook, though, makes it a bit tougher because the layers of paper tend to act as a cushion. Then again, when I looked at the other side of the sheet, I didn’t see any signs of pressure. The HB lead is just harder than whatever is in the Blackwing.
I tried using the Blackwing to darken up some lines around the edges, but I wasn’t that happy with the results. It was around this time that I looked back at the writing I’d done earlier, checking to see if there was undue smearing. Nothing noticeable. That’s a good sign.
The one thing I can definitely say is that I liked drawing with the Blackwing more than I did with my Staedler 925, which I find SHOCKING. The Palomino Blackwing 602 writes pleasantly dark with no noteworthy irritations, though this may be the way that all pencils are. I have a few mass-market pencils lying around that I will compare them to. Until I evaluate more pencils, I can’t really say whether the Blackwing is an amazing pencil or not.
Aesthetically speaking, I like the ungainly proportions of the Blackwing very much. It looks like a writing instrument from another time, resembling more a long paint brush than pencil. The square ferule erase rocks; whenever I see this pencil, I think of a platypus. And it’s cool having a pencil with a history going back 70-odd years, reverse-engineering the subtleties of old-world craft in an affordable package. I dig the old-timey slogan, “half the pressure, twice the speed”, which I can also buy as a productivity war cry. YEAH! MORE WITH LESS!