Monday, October 22, 2007

Faber-Castell TK-Fine Vario L Mechanical Pencil Review

Faber-Castell TK-Fine Vario L Mechanical Pencil Review

The TK-Fine Vario L is Faber-Castells top of the line offering in technical or draughting pencils, and judging by comments and emails I have received over the corse of this blog, it certainly has its share of fans. I first thing that struck me when I picked up my TK-Fine Vario L was how light it was. The kitchen scales make it 15grams. From its length and amount of metal componentry I just expected something more weighty and substantial in the hand. Having said that, the metallic componentry is mostly at the front end so it does have a reasonably front-heavy balance. The other first impression I get from this pencil is its overall “look”. It looks quite good – a long, slim, technical appearance. It also looks “well made” – the metal and plastic components all look like they are good quality items, that this a pencil that was made to last. Mr Penny-Pincher was not involved in its manufacture. No one would be surprised to see this pencil in the hand of a prominent designer. But it is also a rather dated appearance, a sort of 1960’s or 70’s industrial look, although some might suggest that is actually also a rather current look.

I must also say that one time as I was looking down the length of the pencil I was suddenly struck by the similarity to a Sky Tower type building. The looks grew on me even more after that architectural revelation.

The lead sleeve is a 4mm metal tube for draughting work. It isn’t retractable. This pencil is super pocket unsafe. The tip section includes a lead hardness indicator window. You can rotate it around to show 2B to 4H, including F. Personally I think this hardness indicator is at the wrong end of the pencil. If you have a couple of pencils loaded with different lead grades and store them in a cup or holder point down then you can’t tell which is which until you pull it out of the cup. I also tend to find the indicator a little distracting in general use, as its right down there in the line of sight of the tip as you write or draw. However, others may argue you should store your pencils upside down to protect the long thin lead sleeve from damage. If that is your practice, then the indicator is correctly positioned.
OK, well up at the other end of the pencil there is a twist out eraser. The twist action is very smooth and easy, and the eraser is a little under 4mm diameter with about 26mm of usable length. The compound appears to be vinyl and erases quite well. The thin diameter means you can do some reasonably detailed fine erasing, but the compound does seem to have a slightly annoying habit of sticking to the paper. As the top of the pencil, the eraser cartridge is also the push top that activates the ratchet lead advance mechanism. It is a very positive noisy ‘clicky’ type, 10 clicks will get you 7mm of lead. My pencil is a 0.5mm model, but 0.3, 0.7 and 0.9mm are also available. You pull the whole eraser cartridge out of the body to access the lead refill magazine. The metal pocket clip is quite stiff but functional. Perhaps the TK-Fine Vario L’s main point of difference is its rather unusual adjustable lead cushioning system. You hold the metal grip section and twist the body one way for the “hard” setting and the other for the “soft” setting. On hard setting the lead is rigid, but on soft setting there is several millimetres of spring loaded retraction up into the lead sleeve if you push down hard on the lead. The theory is that this cushioning reduces lead breakages, etc. I’m not entirely convinced by this variable cushioning feature. When set to soft, the amount of lead movement sometimes seems excessive. I’m tempted to think this is all a bit pointless, just a marketing ploy, that a standard “fixed” cushioning system, or even no cushioning, would have been fine. Call me crazy, but I also thought there was a little bit more sideways play in the lead on “soft” setting than on “hard”, but someone will probably tell me that’s impossible.

The upper part of the body is a hexagonal plastic section, but the lower part is a nice round cross-section shiny metallic (chrome?) grip zone. It has some shallow circumferential grooves cut into it and flares out slightly at the base. The grip section is about 8mm in diameter which is relatively thin. Back at the beginning of this review I said, “...and judging by comments and emails…it certainly has its share of fans.” Well, unfortunately, I’m not really one of them. I’m afraid that in my book, the grip section is a complete let down, and ultimately ruins this pencil for me. The small diameter and shiny surface somehow combine to produce a very unsatisfactory insecure slippery grip. Faber-Castell have manufactured this pencil for a very long time so it must be a successful seller and many will disagree with my assessment, and maybe I am going overboard here, but this is the worst grip I have used in a very long time. Sorry, but that’s my personal opinion. I’ve got other plain shiny metal pencils, but they tend to be fatter. I think the problem is the combination of thin pencil and shiny metal grip.
  • Best Points – the looks, the eraser.
  • Not So Good Points – the grip.
  • Price Range – Low/Medium.

Dimensions – Length 154mm, diameter 8mm at grip section. Balance point about 65mm up from the tip.

29 comments:

Ovidiu said...

Thank you very much for this review. I was expecting it, really. I like the TK Fine Vario "shape", but after your review I think I'll buy the plastic grip version instead of the metal one. The grip should be better. Thanks again, and keep up with your reviews.
Ovidiu

griffith said...

I agree with you. When I bought this MP(0.7mm), I also thought this would be the best pencil for me...but it wasn't, rather the worst, because of the slippery grip. The cushioning function, industrial quality, design are still attractive, but the grip is too uncomfortable. I hope it will be improved.

Henrik said...

Nice reveiw as usual. I was considering this one, but now I realize, it would produce a BIG writers cramp. I think Faber Castell confuses shiny metal with elegance? Anyway, another one to stay away from. You just saved me some money there.
Keep up the "reveiwing"

Donna said...

Just discovered your blog and love it! Question - how/where do you store your collection ? Or do you?

kiwi-d said...

Hi Donne
Well storage and display is a weak point for me, although I'm currently working on it. For display I have a glass topped oak case, but nothing yet to rest the pencils on inside. For storage I have lots of boxes! Seriously though, for storage of loose pencils I have recently started work on something better. A small set of drawers for A4 paper, then I have folded up some inserts from medium-weight acid-free paper, to make long "channel" inserts so i can get 26 pencils per drawer. I'll send a photo if you want.

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is certainly a case of different strokes for different folks because what I like best about this pencil is the grip. I have two of them (0.3 and 0.9) and have to keep a close eye or they'd hitch a hire with a co-worker - smiles!!!

Thanks for your review - I do appreciate the difference of opinion!

kiwi-d said...

Hi Anonymous – well absolutely yes, one persons super-grip is another’s super-slip. F-C have made this pencil for a long long time so obviously many like it and the grip, but from emails and comments I’ve had, I’m certainly not alone in being very dissatisfied with it. By the way, I compliment you on your lead choices – 0.3 and 0.9 – not the most usual of sizes, and as a combination?? Well most 0.3mm users seem totally dedicated to super-fine super-precision and everything else is…. J

Pawel said...

Thanks for the review. Although you were not very impressed with this pencil you wrote enough nice things about it that I decided to give it a try. The result: I don't find the grip to be bad at all (but I must say I have a very light touch - I do not press the pencil down very much) and the pencil has enough interesting features to be my most used pencil now.

The characteristics I look for in my "quest" for the perfect mechanical pencil are:
- 0.3mm version available, full range of lead sizes preferably.
- Technical or industrial look - something along the lines of Pentel Graph Pencil PG4 (http://www.leadholder.com/lh-thin-pentel-graph.html#pg4) or Rotring 500 (http://www.leadholder.com/lh-thin-rotring.html#500).
- Certain business appearance, too as I am an analyst rather than an engineer (business meetings etc.) I'd rather not have a pencil that has a plasticky yellow 0.3 mm version.
- Fixed sleeve, or if retractable it should be very, very stable (Pentel Graph Gear 1000 might do the trick I suppose).
- Lead hardness indicator, if possible.
- No rubber around grip, if possible.
- Useable, long, twist out eraser with replacements available and no cap - this one feature (or rather lack of it) keeps me from trying Pentel Graph Gear, P200 series and many other otherwise very good pencils.

And so, although my quest for the perfect mechanical pencil is not finished yet so far the Vario L is the closest match for me.

ssabot said...

I got five of them and I must say I'm pretty satisfied... I was looking for a drawing pencil, and having 'seen them all', customizability became the most important criterion for me. The lead hardness indicator can be easily pulled off the pencil, as it's an ordinary plastic ring... just a bit of fingernails required :). This leaves a long and thin nozzle which looks very aesthetic and does not obscure the view while drawing, allowing for a lot of precision. In fact, I think it becomes one of the most comfortable nozzles I've seen to date.

As I mentioned, I bought the pencil with a bit of customization in mind (especially in regard to that awful-bottle-green-wannabe plastic pipe), so I did try to put it apart. I managed to do this without damaging the pencil, and it does seem to work flawlessly after putting it back together. There is however one problem - the connection between the plastic body and metal grip is friction-based, so it uses up every time you put the pencil apart.
Since I didn't find any place on the web giving instructions on how to put it apart, here it is:

-unscrew the nozzle (you might want to remove the lead hardness indicator ring first. If the nozzle sits very tight, grab it with pliers through a piece of cloth)
-pull out the rubber
-pull out the metal grip out of the plastic body pipe (it will go pop, so watch out not to lose the cushioning spring and a plastic part that acts as a lead funnel and rubber holder. It will fall out of the back of the pencil).

The front grip and mechanism can be put together to form a completely working pencil, without the pipe or the rubber, and without the cushioning mechanism. (mechanism... that's a one damn spring there!!!)
The rubber holder is a separate piece that sits on top of the lead container pipe. The green body does not seem to have any structural function, apart from protecting the internal mechanisms.

To assemble it back again:
-put the grip onto the lead feeding mechanism,
-put the cushioning spring onto the lead container pipe,
-snap together the plastic body and the grip
-put the plastic funnel into the back of the plastic body
-insert the rubber back in place, push it for the plastic funnel to snap back into place.

If you don't like the rubber compound, you can exchange it with any other of the same diameter (slightly above 3mm in my measures) without any problems.

The grip is a bit too small indeed... It isn't something you can't get used to though :) To me, it gives a better control of the tool, but that's just a personal preference...

Anonymous said...

Another great review. I too brought this pencil thinking that it was going to be "the one".

While I'm not so unhappy with the grip (I tend to hold pencils quite low, so my fingers come to rest on the "shoulder" of the grip just above the indicator ring) I am a little disappointed with the indicator ring itself.

After a year and a bit of average-type use, it's now completely loose and just spins on the brown base that displays the lead hardness.

Both pieces have also fallen off once or twice, which just leads me to fiddle with it even more to make sure it's not loose. I'd take it off completely but it makes the pencil look a bit "tippy toes-ish".

Only answer I can see is to glue it on as I'd rather have it secure & unusable than lost.

Don't get me wrong, though. It's a great pencil. I can't help but wonder what it would be like if it was done in an all-metal version with a sand-blasted grip and a better-built hardness indicator.

So i Guess it's back to the Pentel P205 for now...

:)

Appu said...

i need one where i can find one in Qatar

Ivan said...

i recently bought this pencil and it's probably the best drawing instrument I've come across. I'm an architecture student so I'm in a constant search for tools that would help and inspire my drawing and design process. this pencil (0.7) loaded with B leads seems to do exactly that.

the eraser is EFFECTIVE. full stop. the lead indicator doesn't seem to bother me, and in my opinion it is correctly placed. being pocket unsafe - yes, but then again, a pencil this fine deserves better treatment than being carried in a pocket. some respect, please!

personally, i don't get sweaty palms and fingers so the grip is quite sufficient, and the metallic end provides this extra weight that gives a very nice feel to the way the pencil behaves when drawing freehand. the balance is just right and it's a joy to use it.

didn't use it much for technical drawing because i do most of that work on a computer. but as a general drawing instrument for sketches, for the creative process and the likes - it's simply beautiful.

Gavin said...

Pawel,

I too am in a very similar quest with nearly the same criteria as you. I differ slightly in that I am looking for either a 0.3mm or a 0.4mm.

Would you please e-mail me with any suggestions that you might have. My e-mail is gafranks@gmail.com.

Thanks.

PS: Anyone else is welcome to make suggestions.

PPS: Dave, this is a very fair review and your honesty has convinced me to give it a try. Although if I am having trouble with grip, I will prbably put some clear heat-shrink-tubing on it to reduce slickness.

Anonymous said...

Consider using "open ended" (ie with corrugations exposed) corrugated cardboard for your pencil storage - it seperate the pencils by exactly the right distance and is free when you get it with some packaged goods. Its a bit hard to find otherwise. I use 1.5mm mountboard backing with the corrugated cardboard glued to this backing. I have used your method as well dave - this is is just a bit easier. I also make my own triple story pencils boxes made from the 1.5mm mountboard.

Tuppencehapenny

kiwi-d said...

Corrugated cardboard - thats a good idea. My concern would be that over the long term the cardboard is not acid-free or archivable and might attack some of the pencils.

For instance, within a few weeks of putting my erasers on an unsealed wooden shelf they had badly leached and stained the wood.

Anonymous said...

Dave - I had the same thoughts as you. It would be great if someone out there knew where to buy the inserts that come with fancy pencil boxes. Hints anybody?

Tuppencehapenny

Anonymous said...

Dave how do you put lead in these.

kiwi-d said...

Just grab the green twist out eraser cartridge, pull it right out of the body and underneath is the tube to fill up with lead. Then just push the eraser cartridge back in.

Anonymous said...

I have 4 of these, and am about to buy a fifth one - to replace one I lost 10 years ago.
The grip is fine, I think. I actually hadn't thought of the metal being slippery. May be because I have small hands.
Great review, thank you!

Anonymous said...

I love this pencil. It has a very good grip, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

bought a 0.3mm recently. love the 0.3mm, not a fan of the pencil. like others the grip is way too skinny and slippery for me (waggles sausage fingers provocatively).

wanna know how i made it better? slid on a section of surgical tubing to cover the grip from top to bottom. much better now!

that said i'm looking for a "better" 0.3mm pencil. if only the Staedtler 925 Premium was pocket-safe. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

Well, I'd like to have one of those high quality mechanical penciles in here cause I need to change the crappy "rotring" ones which are the only ones avaliable in the markets in my country -Egypt, UNFORTUNATELY- cause the ones in here are designed to be eaily broken near the grip part - so you have to buy a new one! - but the problem is?? I really had enough buying new ones just to get the same broken grip again!!

If anyone can tell me how to get that in here, I'd be very thankful!

Anonymous said...

Another thing, I just received one of this and think it might be "defective" ... at least it is very strange, when i turn it to "soft" (follow the triangular as if it is an arrow) it is hard, and when i turn it to "hard" it is soft... maybe it is supposed to be like that, but I wanted to be sure.. Hope to get a fast reply!

frodginald said...

Are the cartridges that hold the eraser for this pencil available to be purchased? I am worried that the plastic teeth will break when changing erasers.

frodginald said...

Are the cartridges that hold the eraser available for purchase? I love the pencil but am afraid those plastic teeth that hold the eraser will break when swapping erasers. What is the procedure to chage the eraser. It would be great if the cartridge that holds the eraser is available separately

Richard Gilbert said...

I was looking for a replacement for my old Sanford Technician II, from which I had removed the rubber grip because I like a smaller grip, and the slippery plastic beneath was never an issue for me. I also HAD to have the fine twist-up eraser, and very few mechs have that these days. I just received the newest TKFV and so far it is exactly what I was looking for with no mods. And yes, it looks great. We will see how it stands up to my ridiculously heavy pressure.

Anonymous said...

I just got this and the grip is incredibly secure: as good as the rubber one on a Pilot Hi-TecPoint V5. Although I understand how this can be slippery for other people.
And yes, the Soft isn't much useful as of now (ten minutes of writing). And yes, the lead indicator does come off with a bit of force.

Johnny21ic said...

What about the Staedtler Hi-Tec 07 925 17. I would like to know more about this one. Please, I will wait for comments.

Anonymous said...

I've a TK Fine Vario L 0.5 all the way from 1995 and it's still working perfectly. It's amazing how it lasted. The gold engraving's faded though. It's a fabulous piece of writing and drawing pencil. :)