Hand Tools Archive

Low Tech Pencil Fascination

david weaver
A couple of years ago, Derek wrote an article about pencils in the workshop. I bought a lead holder at the time, but due to my carelessness, it's just not for me in the shop - plus the sharpeners seem to require too much care for my use.

Shortly after that, I noticed that my kids (who love to go into the shop) often take pencils and draw on everything. That isn't a big deal to me - some of my videos show strange drawings on my bench legs in pencil, pen and marker - they're welcome to do that as long as they stop when I ask them to stop. So, pencils everywhere - I got the cheapest pencils I could find that still had a wood case (sidetrack - there may be a few people here around age 40 who remember going to school and getting one princess HB pencil per month, and in the early 80s, the inexpensive pencils had poor graphite mixes in them, and also had some kind of glued together wood case - the pencils flexed, they were uncomfortable to hold, crappy to sharpenn....just bad to use).

Anyway, the penalty to be paid these days for the cheap pencils is slightly hard lead that's also very fragile. The kids' bad habit isn't so much using the pencils on things I don't want them to (I'm not that kind of "precious" person with "precious" things), but the issue is that they will use a pencil in some part of the shop, set up a workspace for themselves, and a year later when I get to the bottom of a lumber pile, i find pencils all over the place under and behind it.

At work as i'm aging, I start to write more of what I'm doing, and at some point, I got the bright idea to look up what pencils are the nicest to write with.

Well, that's about as debatable as which sharpening stone and which plane blade orientation, etc, but the japan-made blackwings received favorable talk about everything except price. Tons of others (tombow, mitsubhisi 8950, hi-uni, etc...also get good press, and some can be inexpensive if you're willing to get them directly from japan).

I found trying a couple of the blackwing types that there is a 4B hardness pencil, their softest - black colored case - that is superb in the shop. There's wax in the graphite in the pencil, it's not hercules strong, but still is very resistant to lead breakage. The graphite never breaks up into the case while sharpening, and it leaves a very dark mark.

Anyone else ever fooled with pencils made for drawing or writing, etc in the shop? With the blackwings, I'm in love. Price, not so much (a little more than $2 a pencil), but writing at work with the 602 (HB/#2 hardness roughly) or pearl (probably 2B) is just wonderful and it encourages me to keep my summary thoughts on paper - slowing me down and allowing me to examine what i'm thinking. The black pencil, I don't favor quite so much, but in the shop, it is just wonderful.

The only rule I have now with pencils in the shop is that the blackwings are off limits for the kids. I wish there was a cheaper way to get them, but it looks like the company that controls the brand is very careful to market them and make them unavailable elsewhere.

The other side topic that goes along with this is what pencil sharpener? The always fantastic David Barnett suggested a small two-size kum sharpener, and at the time, I also bought 24 of those. You could buy one for $7, or you could have 24 of them for $20 at the time. Same as the blackwings, a chance to get a bunch and dispense them to people at work. They are a fabulous sharpner, and for round case pencils with round erasers, there's a quick thrill of putting a new pencil in a cordless drill and making one long smooth continuous shaving out of the waste in about a fifth of the time that it takes for a boston ranger to sharpen a pencil.

I'm considering (after the guitars, chess pieces and some other things) attempting some pencil making if I can find leads that match the blackwing quality. Until then, I've also got tombow and mitsubishi (one set from 8H to 8B for my daughter, who is starting to take an interest in drawing) pencils on the way to see if some of them are close to the blackwings in terms of lead composition.

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