I invited pencil afficionado and co-host of the Erasable podcast Andy Welfle to educate me (and you) all about pencils, including the best pencils you might not have heard of.
A lot of people already know about Blackwings, but what are some other premium quality pencils people should have on their radar? And premium doesn't necessarily mean they need to be expensive either!
There are so many fantastic pencils out there that aren't made by Blackwing. Check out anything made by Tombow (I love the Mono 100 particularly) and the or Mitsubishi (The 9000 or anything in the Hi-Uni line are my favorites) Your local art supply store or Japanese gift shop probably has them). But there are several American pencils you should consider, too — the Tennessee Red by the Musgrave Pencil Company in Shelbyville, Tennessee is a great pencil made from red cedar instead of incense cedar, which has all sorts of natural color variations and a different smell to it. I also really like the General's Cedar Pointe, by Jersey City, New Jersey based company General Pencil Company. It's a naked-wood pencil that writes fabulously (Get the #1 for extra soft, dark lines)
All of these are more expensive than, say, an Office Depot-branded pencil or a Ticonderoga. But they're much less than a Blackwing.
What is one popular misconception people have about pencils that they should forget about?
Most people who have only used cheap, off-brand pencils or haven't used them since they were children think that pencils are scratchy, smeary or too light. They definitely haven't had much experience with good pencils. I like to tell people that pencils are like coffee — if you've only had pre-ground Maxwell House from a big plastic tub at your grandparents' house, you're definitely going to have a different experience than drinking an americano made from freshly ground Stumptown beans pulled by an expert. And maybe, after trying that latter cup, you still don't like coffee, and that's okay. But those two cups provide a much different experience. Pencils are the same way. Before you decide that you don't like them, try a nice one — it should be smoother and darker than you were expecting.
In what situations would you choose a pencil over a pen (and don't say "all of them")?
I think pencils especially shine when you're using them to make to-do lists or taking notes. In my job, I'm always doing a lot of both. I have a notebook where I capture weekly tasks, and make little notes, and little impromptu lists (as the Field Notes motto goes, "I'm not writing it down to remember it later, I'm writing it down to remember it now.")
Pencils excel at this task because it never skips. You can lay a pencil down on a desk, pick it up two years later, and immediately start writing with it.
When most people think of pencils, they think of good old American Dixon Ticonderogas from their school days, but there are some great pencils from all over the world. What are some of your favorite non-American pencils?
Some of the Japanese pencils I mentioned above are really fantastic, but I also love pencils from India. They're kind of hard to find in the US, but if you spend some time on Etsy or in online stationery communities (might I recommend the Erasable Facebook group), you'll find them. Generally speaking, they're beautiful, with bright patterns and unique stripes and lettering on the side of the barrel. And, broadly speaking, they're smoother and darker than American pencils tend to be. And best yet, they don't cost a lot of money. I've purchased a box of pencils for two or three dollars before. I love these hand-marbeled Nataraj Marble HB pencils — no two are alike — and this hearty Apsara "Absolute Extra Strong" pencil that's very hard to break.
What are some of your favorite pencil accessories?
You can't have a pencil without a way to sharpen it! I really like a long point on my pencil — it stays sharp for a longer lasting, finer line. And my two favorite sharpeners to accomplish that are a Classroom Friendly crank sharpener, and a Blackwing One-Step handheld sharpener. The latter make a slightly shorter point, but it's gently curved in to expose more graphite for a lasting point.
I also usually have a handheld eraser sitting around. My two favorites are both by Czech company Koh-i-Noor, but are very different. The Koh-i-Noor Magic Eraser is gorgeous and swirled with different colors of gritted rubber, and as you use it, it rubs away to reveal new and interesting patterns. It's a bit messy, but it erases really well. I also love the Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth Hexagonal Thermoplastic eraser. It erases cleanly, but is also a really pleasing shape to hold and to fidget with — it reminds me of a "worry stone" that you might run your finger on to reduce stress.
Andy Welfle is a co-host of The Erasable Podcast, an internet radio show about pencils and other analog tools of creativity. He also publishes Plumbago Magazine, a zine about the same (edited by your fearless blog editor Harry Marks) and 404 Magazine, a decidedly less fancy zine that combines UX and poetry. When he's not making media about stationery, he's working at a large software design team in San Francisco. Find out more at andy.wtf.