With a catch phrase of “We make ‘em like they used to!”, Retro 51 market a range of “cool ‘50s inspired products and accoutrements of life” to help you take a trip back down Retro Lane. Their “cool products” include the extensive range of Tornado writing instruments, which has a large variety of mechanical pencils. I have the “Sudoku” and “Crossword” pencils, and the “Postmaster” rollerball pen. The Postmaster is decorated with real stamps, under a coat of lacquer. The Sudoku has two sudoku on it - thats the lower one in the picture for all you puzzle solving types.
The Tornado range of pencils are metal bodied with a host of different decorative styles, and they look good - attractive, unusual decorations on a big solid shortish barrel, with nice shiny metal trims. I particularly like the knurled metal top. I am not normally a fan of uncovered erasers, but somehow even that doesn’t look out of place on these pencils, at least when it’s brand new. Retro 51 do a nice job of gradually reducing the sudoku or crossword as the barrel narrows – you don’t lose any of the puzzle, it just shrinks in size. I don’t have any evidence, but I am slightly unsure of just how hardwearing the barrel decorations will turn out to be over time.
As you can see in the photos, there is no specific grip section. The finish on the barrel can be a little slippery but gives an average grip and it is a good 10 – 11mm wide in the likely grip area. Being a metal pencil it is reasonably heavy, but is well balanced. The pocket clip is a good springy piece of steel. The eraser is decent size and a rubber compound, but it only has average erasing power. Certainly good plastic erasers are far superior. Also when the eraser wears down or gets dirty it doesn’t look the best.
The Tornado comes with excellent presentation cases. For the price, I think they are the best of any brand, bar none. Each one is customised to its particular model with some witty remark or relevant decoration. For instance the Postmaster case is made out as a small airmail package, and the pen is packed loose inside with shredded materials. The Sudoku case has some sudoku on it and asks “Do You Sudoku?” I like the buttons and string tie idea on the cases as well. But wait, there’s more! With the pencils you get a container of spare leads, and a container of eraser refills. That’s another nice touch which many others could learn from. You can spend hundreds of dollars on some pencils and not get a spare eraser or stick of lead. Retro 51’s whole presentation makes a lot of premium brand manufacturers look like cheap penny pinchers.
Here in New Zealand we don’t really get tornados, not like the central USA and other places. The only tornado I have seen was just a little wee fellow, about waist high, twisting his way down the shopping centre kerbside throwing leaves and paper up into the air. Rather exciting for someone who has never seen one before! On the other hand though, the small town of Greymouth down in the South Island of NZ was recently very badly damaged by a “proper” tornado, and about 15 or 20 years ago there was a tornado just a few kilometres north of where I live. It turned a historic wooden church and the nearby very large pine trees into matchsticks. I could hardly believe it when I went to have a look. Sadly a person was killed in this incident.
With all this talk of twisters, and that name, it is hardly surprising that the Retro 51 Tornado is a screw mechanism pencil. You wind that knurled section on the top around to advance or retract the 0.9mm lead, or propel and repel to use the formal terminology. Screw mechanisms, and “thick” leads were commonplace back in the 50’s so it’s all appropriate. The screw mechanism is a bit of a mixed bag. On my Crossword it is relatively smooth, but not on my Sudoku, where you can hear it twisting around inside the barrel, like a spring turning round scraping against the cylinder walls. Also, unlike ratchet mechanism you get some forward / backward play as you advance or retract. When you advance the lead out it will push back in a bit when you press it to the paper. Overall this mechanism is not as good as others I know, like some old pencils or modern Faber-Castell E-motion or Yard-O-Led.
The pencil is pocket safe as you can wind the lead right back inside the tip. As is the case with most screw mechanisms you replace the leads via the tip. You have to do that for each one, there is no automatic refill from a lead magazine. You can store some spare leads inside the barrel but its just storage, and they sometimes tend to get broken in there.
At 0.9mm the Tornado lead is a little thicker than most mechanical pencils these days. Personally I would like them to offer it in a 0.7mm as well, certainly that would be my preference. One problem with the lead is graphite dust. As you write, a lot of dust starts to accumulate around the tip and gets onto the paper. At first I thought it might be the brand of lead so I tried out a Pentel Ain 0.9mm HB lead, but although it was a definitely better, there was still a problem. After a bit of investigation and a few trials I finally decided that the main cause of the dust is that as you write the lead is pushed against the inside edge of the hole in the tip, and that this was grinding away on the lead, creating dust. Again this is not a problem I have encountered with the Faber-Castell E-motion or Yard-O-Led pencils.
Overall the Retro 51 Tornado has much to recommend it, but personally I think its competitors like the E-motion or Lamy Scribble are better, although dearer.
- Best Points – The great looks and excellent presentation. These really would make a great present.
- Not So Good Points – The graphite dust and mechanism problems.
- Price Range – Mid.