Monday, October 29, 2007

Two Woodcase Pencils

Up until now, my main posting on woodcase pencils has been my two “Wooden Weeks” where I used a different woodcase pencil each day. Well ever since then I have wanted to do a little more on my two favourites, the Forest Choice and the Mars Lumograph, particularly as the Mars Lumograph wasn’t ever reviewed over at Pencil Revolution. So, finally I got around to doing something about this and I spent a week using Forest Choice as my pencil of the week, followed by a second week using Mars Lumograph. Now I never claim to be an expert on mechanical pencils, and I have much less experience with and knowledge of woodcase pencils, but for what its worth, here are some of my thoughts on those two wooden writing sticks. For the purposes of review, I only used the HB grade of each pencil.

California Cedar Products “Forest Choice” #2 (HB) Pencil
One thing I really like about a brand new woodcase pencil is the length, so much longer than a mechanical pencil. A nice “wand” to wave around and make a little magic with J Forest Choice take the woodcase look to the ultimate. The wood is polished super smooth. I’m never actually sure whether there is some very light wood-polish or lacquer finish used, or whether it’s just natural wood with an exceptionally smooth finish. Either way, the feel of the wood is great. Also of course you get to enjoy seeing the grain of the incense cedar that this pencil is made from. It’s a great look, and fits in with what appears to be the marketing concept for Forest Choice. The name Forest Choice, the plain “natural” wood look, the certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, the plain corrugated cardboard packaging, obviously all combining to push those eco-green environmentally friendly type pencil buttons.
At heart I’m a 0.5mm mechanical pencil type of guy, so I always have a few issues with the much thicker leads in woodcase pencils. I have found that I often hold the pencil fairly high up thus getting a low acute angle to the paper which helps keep the lead sharp. My weeks of using woodcase pencils have reinforced to me how important the sharpener is to woodcase pencils. So, I tried out a selection of sharpeners as part of the review, namely Staedtler 512 001, Dahle 53443 (both with plastic shavings containers) and a small KUM wedge sharpener.

These three sharpeners had rather different characteristics in use. Firstly they all felt like they had a different “bite” on the pencil, with the KUM being the roughest, peeling the thickest layer of wood off the pencil. The Staedtler was similar, but the Dahle was very different, taking off a much thinner layer of wood, almost shaving rather than cutting or peeling a layer off like the others. The effect on the lead was also noticeable, with the lead being much less prone to having fractures or shattered rough sections when sharpened by the Dahle.

Now you probably won’t be totally surprised that I felt it necessary to try and quantify this difference in the sharpeners. So, out with my trusty micrometer to try and measure the thickness of the shavings. It’s still rather subjective in that how hard you push the pencil into the sharpener makes a big difference, but I tried to be consistent. My experimental results are fairly clear – the thickness of the shavings were:
KUM = 0.27 – 0.34mm, average = 0.31mm
Staedtler = 0.26 – 0.31mm, average 0.29mm
Dahle = 0.15 – 0.25mm, average = 0.19mm
This was all in line with my visual assessment of the sharpeners. Like I said, Dahle was very “gentle” compared to the others.

All this sharpening does of course allow plenty of opportunities to get a whiff of incense cedar.

In use, the lead of the Forest Choice is quite dark for an HB grade woodcase pencil. It is clearly darker then the Staedtler Mars Lumograph HB lead. Its about a B or maybe a 2B on the Staedtler scale. On the other hand, it is a little more smearable than the Staedtler HB.

The Forest Choice has a soft pinkish rubber eraser tip, and it’s actually quite a good eraser. I have recently become rather addicted to a book of logic puzzles, and I find the eraser very useful for correcting errors, tidying up working calculations, etc. I thought I would do a quick comparison between the Forest Choice eraser tip and the standard Staedtler Mars Plastic vinyl eraser. With lightly applied Forest Choice pencilling, both erasers work well, but with heavily applied lead, the Mars Plastic is better, although the Forest Choice eraser tip was still fairly good.Photo: Eraser test

Some final words. The Forest Choice #2 is a great pencil, I really like it, but it’s not perfect. In particular, the leads seem to have a few quality control problems. They lay down a good smooth dark solid line when everything’s going according to plan. But…over the past few months I used three different pencils from three different packages bought at different times. With one pencil the lead was very prone to breakages, on another the lead had many hard inclusions that were annoying and very scratchy on the paper, and everything was “A-OK” with the third one.

Link to the review of Forest Choice at Pencil Revolution.
You can check out the California Cedar company and their products via sites such as Forest Choice, Timberlines blog, and CalCedar.

Staedtler “Mars Lumograph” 100-HB Pencil

Staedtler are one of the heavyweights of the international woodcase pencil industry, and have been involved in the industry since its infancy. The Mars Lumograph is their flagship pencil, so you would expect a lot from it.

Unlike the Forest Choice, the Mars Lumograph is usually sold untipped, well at least around here anyway. It has a smooth high quality lacquer finish – a mid blue for the main body with a white ring and black cap on the top. The Staedtler name, etc is printed on in silver, and barcode etc in white. It’s a nice look, but personally I prefer the Forest Choice au natural. Even though both Forest Choice and Mars Lumograph are both HB grade lead, they are very different. The Mars Lumograph lead is considerably lighter that the Forest Choice, but it is still very smooth, a little firmer, the point lasts a little longer, and it has none of the quality control issues I mentioned above with the Forest Choice lead. Not that the Forest Choice lead is weak, but I think Mars Lumograph is stronger.
Photo: Box of 12 Mars LumographsPhoto: Check out the claim,"...unbelievably..."

Staedtler are a little vague about which wood they use for this pencil, but its much lighter in appearance and doesn’t have the aroma of the Forest Choice incense cedar. Also unlike the Forest Choice, the Mars Lumograph comes pre-sharpened. Check out the sharpening, look really closely, it’s a very interesting adze-sharpened look. The Mars Lumograph sharpens quite differently to Forest Choice. All the sharpeners seemed to work a little better with the Mars Lumograph. The wood peeled off cleaner and smoother, and the lead was left in a much smoother clean state.

Although I haven’t reviewed them here, the Mars Lumograph is available in a full range of lead hardness grades, unlike Forest Choice. Also there is a traditional stenographers round pencil version, the Mars Stenofix 101-HB. Same pencil, just the body is round instead of hexagonal. The dieing art of shorthand – in my first year at work, we had a secretary who took dictation in shorthand with a pencil. Cool.
Photo: Stenofix & Lumogragh
The Staedtler Mars Lumograph is another great pencil, although quite different to Forest Choice. Both are worth checking out.


Anonymous said...

A nice post. I hadn't heard of the Mars Stenofix - it looks nice. I will keep an eye out for them.

Do you have any of the no longer made Australian Mars Lumographs? It would be fascinating to compare them with the German version.

I also like the Forest Choice. It's a real all-rounder quality-wise. I've even seen it for retail sale in Canada, which is a good sign.

Did you discover a cause of the sharpener discrepancy? A more acute blade in the Dahle perhaps?

Kiwi-d said...

Hi Stephen
I do have a couple of Australian Lumographs, but only in unusual hardnesses – 5B, 4H sort of stuff. Nothing in HB or B which I feel would be the best ones to do a comparison with.
Regarding the sharpeners, I lack the equipment etc to properly investigate, I just assume that the blade on the Dahle protrudes less into the “circle” of the pencil hole than do the other sharpener blades.

Anonymous said...

These pencils don't click.......


DD said...

I've never seen Forest Choice. I will need to check them out! I have some Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils, and I do like them.

Anonymous said...

the lettering on my lumogragh is gold

Anonymous said...

Hi Dave, it appears that one of your sharpeners is a long point sharpener. Any chance this explains to some degree the discrepancies in your sharpening results?

Barrel Of A Pencil

Kiwi-d said...

Ahhh, well spotted eagle-eye Barrel.
You are quite right that the opening photo shows a KUM long point sharpener. I had only just got it when I took the photo. However, it turned out to be faulty, and sharpened an elliptical cross-section rather than round cross-section onto the lead. Thus I didn't use it in the tests. The KUM in the test is the small wedge, not the long point.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever tried the wall-mounted hand-cranked pencil sharpeners?

Their mechanisms look much like this:

The Boston KS is one of the best IMO.

It looks like Dahle has a good one too:

Anonymous said...

Although the Dahle might produce a fine point I cannot recommend it - the metal jaws that hold the pencil leave severe "bite marks". I have two manual desktop sharpeners from Carl, bought from Bundoki. They are great, and the holders are rubber-padded so that they won't leave any marks on the pencil.

Anonymous said...

Try the table top sharpener from they are sturdy with all metal drive and produce a superior long point. They also sell these on ebay for about 15USD each.

Anonymous said...

I just tried my first Forest Choice and it is an all around rocking pencil, but damn if my very first one doesn't have inclusions in the lead. The Forest Choice is a beautiful pencil to look at and to use and it writes for the most part a very smooth and dark line, but darn it the inclusions are there. You can be gliding along marveling at tis pencil's performance then all of a sudden there's grit in your buttery soft writing experience. But I still like this pencil, wart and all. It's a keeper!

Barrel Of A Pencil

Andrew said...

To answer the 2 and a half year old question, I have some Australian made lumograph HBs.

They're very different pencils. Both were old stock at a stationery store that they seemed to be trying to get rid of them earlier this year. There are a few primary school students in the area who would have no idea they're using Lumographs instead of a Pacific or Tradition...

Contrary to Dave's, the German one is made of some fragrant wood, incense cedar I guess? Very strong and unmistakable smell when they're sharpened. There is no fragrance from the Australian pencils.

The markings on the Australian one are all uppercase, larger font, and in white. No barcode back, and the Staedtler number, 100 is on the front.

They seem to write the same. I'm fairly sure the Lumograph cores were imported from Germany.

Kiwi-d said...

Thanks for the info Andrew.