Sunday, October 29, 2006

Artistic Endeavours

You know, I’ve always had some desire to draw. Being able to draw is actually there on my wishlist. Well this blogging thing has bought me into a little bit of contact with a few artists, and some sketching blogs. It got me thinking, why can’t I draw? Even though I believe I don’t have any artistic talent, surely a lot of drawing is based on a foundation of techniques and skills that can be taught and learned? I haven’t done any engineering drawing for many many years, but I was reasonably OK at that. So I could visualise shapes and objects, see and draw perspective, and so on. Surely mastering some basic ‘technical’ skills and techniques would be within my grasp and mean I could at least learn to draw at a level of ‘technical’ competence, even without artistic talent? So there I was in the shopping mall, and the bookstore had a “Learn to Draw” book on special.

So I drew about 10 circles and cubes from the exercise lessons in the book and then started in on Still Life. These are my first two drawings, a couple of cups from the cupboard, took about 30 minutes each. I know they’re not much, but I’m bizarrely happy with them for my first ever attempts. The other thing is, when it comes to drawing and the equation, ‘Me + Art = ?’ the answer is Staedtler Mars Lumograph wooden pencils. Mechanical pencils don’t really enter my thinking when it comes to art. Strange.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sheaffer Intrigue Mechanical Pencil Review

This Sheaffer Intrigue has a range of technically advanced features that are unique to this writing instrument. Please ensure you read the use & care guide fully before using it. Failure to do so may reduce the performance of the product.

Well, that’s what it says on the outside of the cardboard box and then you open it up to reveal this!

Crikey! Looks like it’s straight out of the ready-room on the Enterprise – the pencil of Captain James T Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard, but, ummm…, I haven’t graduated from NASA Astronaut school so I’m not sure I’d be capable of using this pencil with all its unique ‘technically advanced features’.

But then again, maybe it would be my entry into another life. You know, Commander Bond and I, living the live of fast cars, beautiful women, and …, international intrigue! Obviously these ‘technically advanced features’ would be fantastic stuff – electromagnetic bullet deflector, ‘knock-out’ gas dispenser, timer detonator - WOW, life was going to be really exciting now I was a man of Intrigue.

So, time to read the ‘Use & Care Guide’. Normally of course, as a real man, I wouldn’t read the instructions until all else had failed, but with such ‘a range of technically advanced features’ this was clearly a special case. So what did this great tome of technical wizardry reveal? Well, pages of stuff in foreign languages I don’t understand, and… oh yeah, it’s an auto-advancer. There’s no knock-out gas dispenser. Ah well, dreams are free, and they say a good imagination is a healthy thing – probably even for a pencil nut.

Sheaffer was acquired by BIC in 1997. The Intrigue was released in 2000 and discontinued around early 2005, but there is still a little bit of new stock available from online retailers. Apparently the Intrigue fountain pen really was an intriguing design, and really was made in the USA.

The Intigue mechanical pencil comes in two finishes, “Whale Shark” which is a rather interesting design of light dots on a blue background, and “Satin Nickel with Palladium” which is my model. It is a two-tone bright nickel/chrome finish. The front sections are slightly darker chrome, like there is a hint of bronze in the chrome, and the upper section is in normal chrome. The only markings on the pencil are ‘Sheaffer’ around the centre and the ‘White Dot’ symbol on the pocket clip.

You know I often find the grip on shiny all metal writing instruments to be a bit of a contradiction, somehow simultaneously smooth and slippery, yet not that bad. The Intrigue fits this pattern. There is no specific grip section or enhancements so the grip can be a little slippery on the smooth metal finish, but overall it’s reasonably good. The Intrigue feels very light for its all metal construction and size.

So, onto the main event, the auto-advance system. Well, actually it is a twist action ratchet lead advance mechanism as well. The twist action is a little difficult to do one-handed as the top 2/3rds of the pencil twists around. The lead sleeve is a conical cone for writing purposes. You operate the twist action the other way to retract the cone for pocket safety. When you want to start writing you operate the twist action to pop the lead sleeve out and then you can manually use the twist action again to advance the lead or you can just start writing. The auto-advance system is quite good and smooth. Probably about as good as they get. There is very little feeling of scraping along the paper as you write, and minimal “scrape through” on existing lettering as you cross over already written lines. I enjoyed writing with it. It seems to work well with either light or heavy hand pressure, although a heavier pressure seems best. When you first start writing you don’t have to manually advance any lead out, but I seem to feel that things worked better if you did. Probably just psychological but its what I felt.

The eraser is a small to mid size one, but very hard to get at. You unscrew the very tight fitting ‘hard to unscrew’ top cap of the pencil. The cap is sealed with a rubber o-ring. No idea why. Waterproofing doesn’t seem to be a requirement for the pencil. You refill the lead chamber via a hole under the eraser. It is a small hole so you can really only feed in one lead at a time and you can’t see how many leads are in the chamber or simply turn the pencil upside down so they fall back out for you to check. Basically its a 'go in and stay in' system. The leads are 0.7mm size. The lead loaded in the pencil by Sheaffer seemed a good quality lead, but these days Sheaffer don’t offer refill leads and neither their literature nor website recommend any particular brand of leads. I contacted Sheaffer customer services to ask what leads they recommended as refills, and they replied any reputable brand, e.g. Pentel or Parker.

Despite the lack of electromagnetic bullet deflector or knock-out gas dispenser this is a pencil worthy of inclusion in any serious collection.
  • Best Points – The auto-advance system.
  • Not So Good Points – Ridiculously difficult to get at eraser.
  • Price Range – High, but clearance specials available.

Dimensions – Length 138mm, diameter 11mm at widest point. Balance point about 70mm up from the tip.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Royal Coronation Pencils

As a citizen of the Realm of New Zealand, I am of course, a loyal subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Some people think we should redesign our British influenced flag and become a republic, but I think most of us are fairly uninterested in the whole issue. Why bother? She seems like a nice lady, pops over here every once in a while for a cup of tea and a chat, but otherwise leaves us alone. There aren’t any big problems with the current situation, so just leave things as they are, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”.

Her Majesty was crowned 53 years ago, back in 1953, June 2, to be precise. Souvenir sellers made a few extra pounds that year, and the mechanical pencil companies wanted a slice of the action.

This ‘Eversharp’ solid sterling silver mechanical pencil is hallmarked for the London Assay Office, 1953, and also carries the additional special 1953/4 commemorative hallmark for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Unfortunately the hallmark stamps are too small for my rather basic camera to handle, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

British hallmarks are strictly controlled by the UK government. Up until 1773 the death penalty applied for counterfeiting hallmarks, but it was then changed to 14 years transportation to Australia. Now I’m a Kiwi, but I’m not so biased that I can’t admit that Australia’s a pretty good place too. “Hey, Australia. Nice beaches, cold beer, hot babes, alright – let’s counterfeit some of them hallmark things!” So these days its 10 years in prison, but you don’t get a free trip to Australia as part of the deal.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the following special commemorative hallmarks have been declared:

1934/5 Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary
1953/4 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II
1977 Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II
1999/2000 Millennium
2002 Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II

I also have this nice little 11cm long coronation pencil by ‘Makri’, who I haven’t otherwise heard of. It has “Coronation, E II R, 1953” printed in a shield on the body. It is in excellent condition. The crown on top is complete with little glass jewels in it. The blue and red stripes are a bit wavy though, not really sure if that is by design or they just couldn’t do any better at the time. You twist the metal tip section to propel the lead.

Here’s a similar pencil, of unknown brand. The top piece on this one is a circular shield standing up with “Coronation, June 2, 1953” on one side and a jewelled crown on the other. If the British press is to be believed then sometime in the future this young lady will be Queen. She will therefore be our first Queen to have walked the catwalk modelling her underwear. But some of those royals from older times were a pretty raunchy lot, so a bit of a lingerie parade is rather tame stuff in comparison. I will be surprised if they have mechanical pencils celebrating her future-husband being crowned King. I’m sure there will be a few coins and other things, but unfortunately I think the day of the souvenir mechanical pencil has been and gone. :(

Of course Her Majesty does have another link to the world of pencildom. The well known pencil company Koh-I-Noor took its name and colour scheme from the famous koh-i-noor diamond, which was once the largest diamond in the world. Her Majesty can wear the koh-i-noor, because it is part of the Crown Jewels, set in the coronation crown of the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

Footnote: The wooden pencil companies wanted some of the action too - see Pigpog for a Coronation Souvenir wooden pencil.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Waterman Hemisphere Mechanical Pencil Review

Waterman Hemisphere Mechanical Pencil Review

Apparently Waterman started back in 1883 and quickly grew to become one of the big players in the American and international pen trade. In 1926 their French agent started manufacturing in France. I’m not sure of the financial relationship with the French off-shoot, but after World War II the US company started to get into trouble, and in 1954 they ceased manufacturing in the USA. However JIF-Waterman continued in France and these days are part of the Sanford group, along with Parker, Rotring and others. They still brand themselves as ‘Waterman Paris’, but I’ve got no idea how much French input there is in their design and manufacture.

As far as I’m aware there aren’t any pen shops here in NZ, but a few years ago my wife and I were taking a short-cut through a small mall in town and there before my eyes was a pen shop! I say shop, but really it was a counter or a booth type outlet. You couldn’t walk inside. The counter ran right across the front and the retailer was inside with the pens all displayed on the walls. Still, it was a separate shop that sold writing instruments as its main product. We were in a hurry, but stopped long enough to buy something, namely a Waterman Hemisphere pen-pencil set in black lacquer with gold trim. I was surprised that such a shop could survive in a small market like NZ, and in fact they shut down before I could get back there. But still, at least I can say I’ve actually been to a specialist writing instruments shop! Maybe one day I’ll be so lucky again.

The Hemisphere is available in a selection of different finishes, but in black lacquer and gold trim, it has a simple classic elegant look. Very attractive. Actually the black lacquer body is not quite a matt finish, and it does get a little polish or patina with use, but the gold is very deep lustrous colour; it certainly looks like a good thick coating of high purity metal. The pen and pencil sitting together really do make an impressive sight.

This pencil uses 0.7mm lead and has a short 2mm sliding sleeve suitable for general writing. It is fully retractable for pocket safety. The lead is advanced by a twist action ratchet mechanism. The whole top half of the body twists around through a half turn to advance the lead, and then springs back to its original position. You can advance the lead one-handed with good dexterity and a bit of practice.

There are no special grip enhancements, but the grip is quite good. The lacquer seems to keep a somewhat “cool touch” feel about it. I like the feel of the lacquer when you hold the pencil idly in your fingers. It’s actually quite a heavy pencil, but well balanced. For some reason I am always a bit surprised by the weight. Its not that its super heavy, just that it’s heavier than I subconsciously expect from its size and general appearance.

The Hemisphere is fitted with a mid size eraser, but its not very convenient to get at because you have to pull the whole top half of the body off to get to it. You then remove the eraser to refill the lead chamber.

The pocket clip is a spatulate sort of shape. I quite like the look with the cut-out centre allowing you to see the black body beneath. It is a good solid metal clip, but not all that practical because its quite stiff and not spring loaded. The Waterman ‘W’ logo is on the pocket clip and the words ‘Waterman France’ are on the centre band. The only other marking is ‘0.7’ on the lead chamber tube.

As far as I am aware, the Hemisphere mechanical pencil is only sold as part of the ballpoint pen-pencil set. The ballpoint pen is a twist action like the pencil, but rather stiffer to twist and the ballpoint clicks into place when properly extended. It’s a good smooth writing ballpoint. I’ve never had any complaints about blobbing ink, skipping, etc. The set comes in a small presentation case - nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. My case has a few small age-spots after 5 years or so. Overall as either a pencil on its own, or as part of a set, I’d happily recommend the Hemisphere.
  • Best Points – Simple classic looks, good solid feel in the hand. The twist action ratchet mechanism is interesting for a change.
  • Not So Good Points – Eraser is inconvenient to get at. Might possibly be sensitive to lead diameters, see this post.
  • Price Range – Mid/High (that’s for the pen-pencil set, and although I don’t normally comment on pricing, it seems like a good deal).

Dimensions – Length 134mm, diameter 9mm at widest point. Balance point about 75mm up from the tip.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lead Shape

What shape is your pencil lead? I guess if you ask that today the answer would be ‘round’, with some implication of what a stupid question that was, what other answer could there be? (Apart from carpenters of course.)

Well leads weren’t always round. Early wooden pencils used square or rectangular leads, partly because when you started with a slab of raw graphite and cut it into sheets and strips you finished up with a square or rectangular lead. These days our modern leads are extruded from powdered graphite mixtures. Think of a tube of toothpaste, the graphite mixture is squeezed out (extruded) through a small hole. But the little hole could be any shape at all – round, square, triangular or anything.

So, why are leads round? There might be lots of manufacturing reasons for leads to be round, but from a draughtsman’s point of view, I can think of one major reason. If you hold your pencil perpendicular to the paper then the line it draws will be of constant thickness, no matter how the pencil is spun around, because the diameter of a circle is constant. Not so if your lead was square, rectangular or triangular. The thickness of the line would vary depending on whether the lead was orientated so that the outer edges of the line were drawn by the faces of the square or the corners of the square.

Engineering drawing places considerable emphasis on detail, including line thickness and darkness. It is important that a line is of constant thickness. The person at the front of the class with a big red pencil will deduct marks for variable line thickness and darkness! Draughtsmen are trained to hold their pencils perpendicular to the paper so that lines are of constant correct thickness. A round lead held at an angle to the paper starts to create a chisel point which will lead to variable line thickness if the lead is then rotated or held at a different angle.

Modern mechanical pencil mechanisms generally hold the lead quite tightly so it does not rotate around as you write, but this was not always the case. Not so long ago when many pencils were screw/slider mechanisms the lead was often only loosely held. As you wrote, a flat face chisel point was worn on the lead. Then if you rotated the pencil around a little to keep the point sharp the lead could rotate back as soon as you applied pressure, so you were back where you started.

The solution to this problem was to somehow stop the lead being able to twist around in the pencil mechanism. Here are two common methods from “older times”.

The first was to push your lead through a hole that it didn’t quite fit. Since pencil lead is not really that strong, you can fairly easily force it through. Here is an example from Eversharp where they make this part of their sales pitch. The round lead is forced through a sort of star shaped hole. I suppose back in the early/mid 1900’s the “rifled barrel” evoked powerful advertising concepts like military precision, and the ‘modern machine age’.

The second method was to not have a round lead in the first place. If your lead and the hole in the pencil tip were both square then you didn’t have any problem. Here is another Eversharp, this time with square leads! The little lead containers are stamped “Eversharp Red Top Square Leads” and on the lead chamber of the pencil is stamped “Use Only Eversharp Square Leads”. Actually the hole in the tip of the pencil isn’t all that square. Like the few others that I’ve looked at it appears to have been a circular hole and then pressed square. Sometimes they are more like a ‘circle squashed a bit square’ than a true square.

Well if I’ve had ‘The Lead Cup’, perhaps in the old days they had ‘The Lead Wars’? The “Squareheads” versus the “Rounders”? Here’s part of a Sheaffer advert from National Geographic magazine, May 1938. Note how they draw the circle around the outside of the square and claim over 20% increase in strength for round vs square leads. I guess the other guys just then drew a bigger square enclosing that circle, and claimed another 20% increase in strength! Luckily the “Lead Diameter Non-Proliferation Treaty” ended hostilities some time ago. (Yes I’ve gone mad again :)).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Life of 2000

This is a bit of a follow up to my review of the Lamy 2000 mechanical pencil. A while ago I reviewed the Lamy Scribble, and then what my Scribble ‘gets up to’. Well, here’s what my 2000 gets up to.

Basically I use my Lamy 2000 in a rather inappropriate environment. I work in a large warehouse distribution centre. I’m an office worker, a “shiny-a*s” who gets to sit and polish his bottom all day, as some might say, but I end up out in the warehouse most days to see someone or check something out. It’s one of those fancy paperless, computer controlled warehouses – you know, one of those systems where the computer knows how big every one of the 10,000 different items is, how many can fit onto each shelf or pallet space, what’s the shortest walking route for a picker to fill these 10 different customer orders on his way around the warehouse, etc, etc, etc. All fine in theory, until something goes horribly wrong and then its out with pencil & paper, to start all over again and try and sort out what’s caused the problem.

I keep my hi-viz vest stocked with a few requisites so that whenever I grab it and head out to the warehouse I don’t have to worry about such things. So, my Lamy 2000 lives in my hi-viz vest, it fits nicely into the pencil pocket on the vest. That’s one reason I always place some emphasis on a pencils pocket clip, because mine gets used a lot at work.

0.5mm lead really is too fine for this sort of job. It’s good for writing in a note book, but I often end up scrawling on boxes or scrap cardboard and something thicker really would be better, maybe even something like Faber-Castell’s 1.4mm lead. But I guess I’m a creature of habit. I started using 2000 as my ‘working’ pencil when I was in a ‘0.5mm or nothing’ frame of mind. I really like my 2000, it’s a 0.5mm, and that’s all there is to it - I just put up with a few lead breakages.

Like a lot of people I’m not without a bit of stress at work. One way I keep things calm is to have a couple of important objects that make me take a little time out. I use a ‘good’ Wedgwood mug at work so every time I have a cup of tea it reminds me to just chill out for a moment; I’m supposed to be enjoying a refreshing brew from a piece of fine china. Likewise with my Lamy 2000. I’m often out in the warehouse because something’s not right and 2000 gives me a little reminder to just take things a bit easier, enjoy a little stroll around the warehouse, writing a few notes with a fine pencil.

There are two other things that 2000 could be a bit better adapted to for this working environment. Firstly, there is a bit of dust and grime around and that can get on your fingers, and then the brushed finish on the 2000 can trap some of that dust and grime. But a quick wash tidies things up. Secondly the torpedo shape is not the best for anti-roll properties. If you put the 2000 down in a hurry or on a sloping surface you can get a bit of roll before the pocket-clip stops it. It’s not that it’s bad, just something that could be a bit better in this particular situation.

Perhaps these deficiencies really just go to show what a great pencil the Lamy 2000 is, because I choose to put up with them and keep it as one of my main pencils, rather than change. It’s funny, on the one hand I don’t really think of Lamy as one of my favourite brands, but on the other hand, both my main pencils are Lamys, so it must be one of my favourites.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Plus or Minus How Much?

Last week when I was using my Waterman Hemisphere pencil it ran out of lead. So, I grabbed the tube of 0.7mm Staedtler leads out of my desk draw and put three sticks of lead into the magazine. Then I started activating the lead advance mechanism and a stick of lead just fell right out of the tip. Then another. Stupid me, I had obviously put 0.5mm leads into my 0.7mm pencil. So I grabbed the Staedtler tube of leads again and ….no, they were 0.7 leads. Stupid Staedtler, they had obviously put 0.5 leads in a 0.7 tube. So I pushed one up the lead sleeve. Ummm, well it seemed to fit tightly and actually be a 0.7mm lead. But again it just fell straight through when I activated the lead advance mechanism. Then one of the lead sticks actually seemed to work. So I played around a bit. All three leads were 0.7mm but two of them just kept falling straight through and the third one didn’t. One explanation seemed to be that there was a minute difference in the diameter of the leads.

I’m sure you will be surprised to hear that a guy like me just couldn’t let something like that go by! An investigation would have to be launched.

Out with my micrometer! Mine is a 0-25mm, in 0.01mm increments – that’s about 0–1 inch in 0.0004 inch increments. The small piece of original unknown brand lead in my Waterman measured 0.715/0.72mm diameter. The two Staedtler leads that kept falling through measured 0.685/0.69mm and the one that worked measured about 0.695mm. Well, that seemed to support my theory that the problem was related to the lead diameter.

So, just what size are 0.7mm leads? 0.7mm plus or minus how much? Obviously Staedtler think 0.685 – 0.695mm is OK, but Waterman don’t because that size doesn’t work in their pencil. I grabbed a few 0.7mm samples from other brands and got to work with my micrometer. I’ve rounded the results to 0.005mm bands as there is a bit of variation in each piece of lead, and from one piece to another of the same brand.

Mitsubishi Uni = 0.685 – 0.69mm
Staedtler = 0.685 – 0.695mm
Pilot Eno = 0.70 – 0.71mm
Waterman = 0.705 - 0.71mm
Faber-Castell = 0.71 – 0.715mm
Pentel = 0.715 – 0.72mm
The original piece in my Waterman = 0.715 – 0.72mm

In all my years of penciling, I don’t think this has ever happened to me before.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Lamy 2000 Mechanical Pencil Review

Lamy 2000 Mechanical Pencil Review

Well it’s been a long time coming, but finally I am getting around to reviewing a pencil that I use on a daily basis, the Lamy 2000. It’s a long smooth torpedo of a pencil – no grips, side buttons, logos, fancy colour schemes or patterns; just minimalist simplicity.

The body of the Lamy 2000 is made from fibreglass-reinforced Makrolon, that’s Bayer’s brand of polycarbonate, so it’s the good stuff from the world of engineering plastics. Excellent toughness and stability, they make ‘bullet-proof glass’ from polycarbonate. The 2000 has a ‘brushed’ finish which gives it a very nice feel in the hand. Smooth yet not, it’s a very tactile experience - almost a ‘wood’ sort of feel. A fellow employee came into my office the other day and in the middle of a rather animated discussion wanted to draw me a diagram, so he grabbed the pencil off my desk, and just came to a halt. “Wow, this is a nice pencil” as he ran it through his fingers. I made a deliberate point of getting it back from him after he had finished the diagram. “Mine” I said, “This one doesn’t go walk-about”. The brushed finish also means the grip is pretty good on this pencil. Over time it also starts to get a little bit of a polish or patina on the area you grip it by. I’ll leave you to decide if that’s a good thing or not. Personally I’m not all that keen on it, but some folk definitely are. The tapering body also helps with the grip as you can effectively choose to grip it where it feels best. Being mostly plastic it’s not a particularly heavy pencil, but it’s still got a reasonable weight to it.

The brushed finish is carried on through to the metal parts as well. The tip and pocket clip are brushed stainless steel. The pocket clip is excellent. Its spring loaded and works really well. “Lamy” is stamped in small plain insignificant letters into the side of the clip. There are no other markings on the pencil, apart from a ‘5’ on the top button to indicate the lead diameter. As usual, Lamy don’t go out of their way to push any sort of brand recognition. In fact, I’ve seen a Lamy 2000 ballpoint which is about 30 years old and it doesn’t even have the ‘Lamy’ on the side of the pocket clip.

The mechanism is a push top ratchet. Mine is 0.5mm lead, but 0.7mm is also available. There is a small eraser under the top button; occasional use only! You remove the eraser to refill the lead magazine. There is also a needle to help clear any lead jams, but I’ve never had any problems like that. The tip is not retractable. It’s a small short cone for writing only, but it’s a little sharp to be classed as totally pocket safe.

Lamy say, “The Lamy 2000 has been writing its way into design history since 1966. Even today, many people regard it as one of the world’s most modern writing instruments.” Well, for what it’s worth, I agree. Lamy designer Gerd A. Muller did a great job with this one.

  • Best Points – Classic simplicity.
  • Not So Good Points – Not fully pocket safe.
  • Price Range – High.

Dimensions – Length 138mm, diameter 11mm at widest point. Balance point about 65mm up from the tip.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Blogger Beta

Well as you can see I've moved on up to the new Blogger Beta. I decided to also change to a new template, which I kind of like, but its a slightly different width so some pictures and text have realigned themselves. Sorry if it now looks a bit funny on your browser. Actually I suppose somethings always looked out of alignment on other browsers and screen resolutions.
I've added a few Labels, but if any of you have some smart ideas about suggested Labels/Tags, then do share.