Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Lead Cup - Pool B

With three European heavyweights and a respected, but lesser known Japanese competitor filling out the numbers, Pool B was expected to be hotly contended. And what a contest it was. By the time play finished the crowds were exhausted.

Competition see-sawed back and forth. Spectators were surprised at Germany’s Faber-Castell placing last in the opening event, the blackness contest, but defeat spurred Faber-Castell on, giving them crushing victories in the next two events, smear resistance and erasability. The other three competitors were constantly jockeying for position, snapping at Faber-Castell’s heals.

The strength test is always the most important event, but with all four competitors so close, it was going to be a thrilling finale. Who would have believed it, from nowhere Zebra grabbed the lead, charging past the others as if they weren’t even there. Faber-Castell crashed to an unbelievable last placing in the strength test. The fans were agitated and organisers put the riot police on stand-by. Luckily calm prevailed, and the crowds dissipated, stunned by the events they had witnessed.

The individual event placings were, from first place to fourth:
BlacknessRotring, Zebra & Waterman (2=), Faber-Castell.
Smear ResistanceFaber-Castell, Rotring, Zebra, Waterman.
ErasabilityFaber-Castell, Waterman, Rotring, Zebra.
StrengthZebra, Waterman, Rotring, Faber-Castell.

So with an overall score of 11, Zebra from Japan narrowly snatched victory from Germany’s Rotring and France’s Waterman, who were both on 12. With 14 points, Faber-Castell finished last, a placing which will be talked about for years to come.

The bookmakers’ odds are being re-written as people start to consider the possibilities of Pool C. Could a heavyweight like Mont Blanc also stumble to last place? Could a little known Asian like Micro from Korea pull a similarly stunning victory out of the bag? The results will be in soon enough.


So, here's a little snippet from the individual competitons. The photo shows some parts of the tests. On top row is part of the Blackness test and the next two rows are from the eraseability tests. It's interesting on the bottom row of heavy penciling, how differently the various leads react to a light swipe of the eraser. I guess it's an effect of the amount of carbon black and wax / oil in the lead - some like the F-C erase well, others like the Rotring and Zebra just immediately coat the surface of the eraser and then it just slides on over smearing and / or not erasing as it goes. Of course they all actually erase fairly well if you give them a good scrubbing. I think in the finals I will consider introducing several different eraser compounds - rubber, vinyl and vinyl-free plastic.

Also for the final there will be a bit more information and review of the finalists.

Rain Interrupts Play
Sorry sports-fans, but rain has interrupted play. Either that or I'm off on holiday. Anyway, I will be absent from the blogosphere for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Staedtler Graphite 779 Mechanical Pencil Review

The Graphite 779 mechanical pencil has that typical Staedtler look – blue plastic body, metal trims and black rubber grip. You just know it’s from the same stable as the Mars Micro 775, but it doesn’t have the colour coding for lead size and I think it’s the better for it, just that little bit plainer and simpler. Overall the look is a bit better than the Mars Micro’s. Not great, but better. Actually as well as the choice of 0.5mm or 0.7mm lead size; there are two sub-models of the 779. The difference is just in the choice of top caps.

The 779 is a push top ratchet mechanism pencil. There is a small eraser under the metal cap, and you can get the cap back on without activating the lead advance mechanism. The eraser compound is like the 775, but unfortunately not as good as the Staedtler Mars Plastic series of erasers. The pocket clip is a functional simple spring steel clip. The lead holding sleeve is tapered and not suitable for draughting, but it is fully retractable.

So far so good, but the 779 has two features worthy of detailed discussion. Firstly the rubber grip. Well it’s a contoured moulded rubber piece with a leather wrinkle type pattern in it. Initially it felt a little greasy or oily so I gave it a good clean. That definitely improved things. This grip feels much more “rubbery” than the Mars Micro 775’s grip. It is a hard compound so there is little to no cushioning but you definitely get that rubber feel. You feel some element of grip from the rubber, much more than the 775, but I’m still not really convinced that it is that much better than a normal plastic moulded grip section.

Now the second point is it has a sliding sleeve. The Staedtler webpage on the 779 doesn’t mention it, but they mention the sliding sleeve feature of the 779 in their downloadable document “Product Information, Mechanical Pencils”.
You start off writing just like with any other pencil but when the lead is worn down so that the metal sleeve touches the paper, it starts retracting. It then still feels fairly smooth when you are writing; but your writing is definitely not as dark on the paper and you get some scrape marks through your writing. Eventually the sleeve will end up semi-retracted back into the tip and whilst it still works, you can tell things are not really at the optimum setting. Overall the best thing to do is to treat it like a normal push top ratchet pencil and just have the sliding sleeve as a back-up for a few words when the lead runs down.
  • Best Points – The sliding sleeve.
  • Not So Good Points – Not really any, other than some personal “Dave Things” like the look and the rubber grip.
  • Price Range – Low.
Dimensions – Length 150mm, diameter 9mm at narrowest part of the grip. Balance point about 65mm up from the tip.

So, another German pencil means another notable German with a New Zealand connection. Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky (1828 – 1868) was a Prussian-born farmer, goldminer, “adventurer / mercenary / soldier”. As a commander of the Forest Rangers (the “special forces” of the time), von Tempsky attained legendary status for his daring actions during the New Zealand Wars. However, one mans daring is another’s foolhardy recklessness, and von Tempsky met his end in battle, some contemporaries saying his continual (unsuccessful) pursuit of winning a Victoria Cross led him to one foolhardy action too many. As a talented amateur painter, he probably knew a thing or two about pencils. This is one of his watercolours, portraying one of his engagements with Maori forces.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Lead Cup - Pool A

Getting ready for the start of play in Pool A, the talk was all about second place. The pundits were expecting Japan’s Pentel to be the winner, with America’s Parker and Germany’s Staedtler putting up a good fight, but ultimately being left to battle it out for second place. Wildcard entry and rank outsider Student’s Choice from China was expected to be completely out-classed.

Pool play went largely as expected. Students Choice was completely out-classed in the all important strength tests, but did finish a creditable second in the blackness test. Parker put up an outstanding challenge in the strength test but was ultimately piped at the post by Pentel. Perhaps these efforts then left Parker exhausted because they finished last in the blackness test.

The individual event placings were, from first place to fourth:
BlacknessStaedtler, Pentel & Students Choice (2=), Parker.
Smear ResistancePentel & Parker (1=), Staedtler, Students Choice.
ErasabilityStaedtler, Pentel & Parker (2=), Students Choice.
StrengthPentel, Parker, Staedtler, Students Choice.

So with an overall score of 7, Pentel was the clear winner of Pool A, followed by the quiet achiever Staedtler on 10, Parker on 11 and Students Choice last on 18 points. The poor showing in the blackness test really hurt Parker as they would otherwise have beaten Staedtler into second place.

Attention is now turning to Pool B where the competition is expected to be intense and even.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Pentel Sharp P205 Mechanical Pencil Review

Pentel P205 Sharp Mechanical Pencil Review

pentel p205 mechanical pencil plus accessories
When I first started learning mechanical drawing, my classmates and I nearly all used the Pentel P205 because it was the mechanical pencil sold by the school stationary supply shop. Class upon class of budding little Kiwi engineers were raised on the P205, and so, at least in my part of the woods, Pentels claim that the P205 is “The #1-selling automatic drafting pencil and the industry standard” was unquestionably true. I am sure that it is the mechanical pencil that I and my contemporaries will forever judge all others against. I haven’t really worked as an engineer for many years and it’s quite a long time since I last picked up my P205. I spent the review week in a pleasantly nostalgic mood, remembering the times when I had a real engineering job in a factory – helping design products, tooling, jigs and fixtures, and so on. My mood was helped along by the coincidence that the very week that I was using my Pentel P205 was the week that the Pencil Revolution posted their interview with pencil hero Henry Petroski, who it turns out is also a user of the P205.

But enough of all this nostalgia - on with the real stuff. The Pentel P200 series of mechanical pencils come in a variety of colours and lead sizes p205 p207 and p209 mechanical pencils– The P205 (black) is 0.5mm, P207 (blue) is 0.7mm and the P209 (yellow) is… yes, you guessed it, 0.9mm. The P205 has a plastic body with metal trims. The plastic is a hard shiny material, very abrasion and impact resistant. The body is twelve sided – a rod of dodecahedral cross-section slightly tapering towards the tip. But in the middle, two faces are sort of joined into one where “Pentel” and the model information are printed on, so it’s a mixed eleven and twelve sided rod. At about 8mm across the faces in the grip section it is on the lower limit of my preferred size range. The grip section is grooved for improved grip, and is effective. Being a slim plastic design, it is a relatively lightweight but well balanced pencil. The pocket clip is a good strong metal clip which works well, but it can slip out of its recessed section and so twist around or slide up and down. It’s a minor point, but it can be a little annoying.

The lead holding sleeve is a 4mm long fixed metal sleeve - the ultimate for draughting and pocket stabbing! Give it half a chance and this baby will punch through and stab you quick as a wink. I do know some people have complained that the long sleeve can become bent over time, but I’ve never had that problem. I guess if you keep throwing your pencil into a pencil mug with a hard base then the sleeve could suffer some damage. But the long sleeve really is great for drawing and template work.

The push top ratchet mechanism is a fairly stiff “positive” one, which I like. The mechanism only advances the lead a very short distance for each activation – about ¼ to ½ less than many other brands of pencils, and some non-draughting Pentels. There is a small eraser under the cap which is better than nothing, but not by much. If you wear it right down you can have trouble getting it out to refill the lead magazine. There is also a lead clearing needle under the eraser, not that I’ve ever had to use it. The top cap is a tight fit over the eraser so you often advance the lead when pushing it back on.

I really like the look of the P205 in black - the black body, chrome pentel p205 mechanical pencil trimstrims and proudly marked “0.5mm Pentel P205” are a true classic look. This pencil reminds me of why I like Pentel – it’s not the fanciest, but it’s a good, solid, reliable instrument that just shouts out “efficiency”, “no-nonsense” and “I’m the pencil of real engineers”, and maybe architects too, but I’m not sure about that.
  • Best Points – In black it’s a true cool calculating classic look, with a real engineering lead sleeve.
  • Not So Good Points – The lead sleeve is not retractable.
  • Price Range – Low.
Dimensions – Length 142mm, diameter 9mm across faces. Balance point about 70mm up from the tip.

A long time ago, my P205 had a lot of input into the metal sheathed heating element inside this electric kettle. It was a good design, made for one of those rare customers – you know, the kind that was actually prepared to pay for what they wanted. Not rip-off expensive or anything, but they wanted a reliable element that would last a long time, would automatically switch off when the water boiled, and cut-out if there was no water. These days of course it’s made in China, not like in my day when we exported elements to China! Back then Chinese elements were rubbish, but times have changed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Lead Championship Cup

In June 2006 the World Cup kicks off in Germany. The nations of the world compete for the ultimate sporting prize, supremacy on the soccer field. As a rugby playing nation where soccer is a minor sport, it’s not surprising that New Zealand was, as usual, eliminated in the qualifying rounds. I’ve reviewed a lot of mechanical pencils, but not any leads, so it seems time to start the competition for the Lead Championship Cup. The competition is only open to 0.5mm HB grade leads, and consists of 4 pools of 4. The contestants will be fitted to a Pentel Fiesta mechanical pencil and compete in contests of blackness, strength, smear resistance and erasability. The four pool winners plus the two best runner-ups go through to the final round of competition where extra criteria are introduced and a winner declared.

The contestants are
Pool A – Pentel, Parker, Staedtler and Students Choice
Pool B – Faber-Castell, Rotring, Zebra and Waterman
Pool C – Cross, Mont Blanc, Micro and Caran d’Ache
Pool D – Lamy, Pilot, Papermate and Insung Hands

Pool A kicks off in a few days. Let the competition begin!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Staedtler Mars Micro 775 Mechanical Pencil Review

A while ago I said that after my course of “rubber grip re-alignment therapy” was completed I would start to review some mechanical pencils with rubber grips. Well, here is the first one, the Staedtler Mars Micro 775 mechanical pencil.

The Mars Micro comes in 4 different lead diameters, 0.3, 0.5, 0.7 and 0.9mm and the shaft at the top of the pencil is colour coded for each different thickness. Mine is a 0.5mm pencil so the shaft is a burnt orange sort of colour. There is also a small window section at the top of the body that you can see this colour through. To be honest I don’t find the look of this pencil particularly attractive. There are four distinct colours on this pencil - silvery metal tip, pocket clip and cap, orange top shaft, black rubber grip and blue plastic body – and they combine to give a rather uncoordinated look.

The lead holding sleeve is 3mm long, intended for draughting work as well as general writing. It is retractable, but unlike most other pencils you sort of have to force it, to make it retract. Mine was sold as loose stock without instructions and I felt it necessary to check on the Staedtler website to see if it really was retractable. Also when the sleeve has been retracted and you first activate the push top ratchet mechanism to advance the sleeve out of the body you again have to be forceful. It’s easy to push the top button not quite hard enough so that the tip only advances three-quarters of the way out of the body. But having got it correctly out, I will say that the push top ratchet lead advancing mechanism is extremely smooth, one of the smoothest mechanisms around.

My pencil has one really annoying feature. It squeaks when you write. It sounds like the lead holding sleeve is squeaking against the plastic bushing that centres it in the tip section. A very annoying noise, but I suppose a tiny drop of silicon oil would put a stop to it.

The pocket clip is a good strong spring loaded functional piece of apparatus. There is a small eraser under the top cap. It is a rather sticky compound and the waste tends to form little balls and stick to the eraser.

So what about the rubber grip? It is a hard black compound with slightly raised rectangular dots to enhance the grip. The compound is quite hard so I don’t think there is any real cushioning effect, and I don’t think it’s a “grippy” compound that makes you feel like your fingers won’t be sliding around it. In fact I think the plastic barrel has just as much, if not more, friction with your fingers. Also the rubber gets a slightly damp feel to it after a short use. So basically I don’t like this rubber grip. I feel that it’s a gimmick, something to provide the illusion of comfort and improved grip, but it’s just an illusion. Overall I find this mechanical pencil a bit disappointing.

  • Best Points – Very smooth lead advance mechanism.
  • Not So Good Points – The squeaking when you write, and very stiff retract / extend action.
  • Price Range – Low.
  • Dimensions – Length 149mm, diameter 9mm at widest point. Balance point about 70mm up from the tip.

So, who is the sailor with cap and pipe? Well, since the German pencil companies are important players in the New Zealand market, I thought I would take the opportunity to mix pencils and history, with some notable Germans from NZ history. First up is the “Sea-Devil”, Count Felix von Luckner (1881 – 1966), who captained the German commerce raider “Seeadler” during World War One. After raiding through the Atlantic and on into the Pacific Ocean, his luck finally ran out and his war came to an end as a POW in NZ, on Motuihe Island, just a 20 minute ferry ride from where I am typing this posting. Even though he was the enemy, his daring deeds and chivalrous, humane wartime conduct made him a popular figure. Many years after the war, he returned to New Zealand and toured the country to great public acclaim. He also toured the USA, and despite his having sunk several American vessels he was also warmly received, and made an honorary citizen of many cities that he visited.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A Few Leads

Just recently I have been trying to expand my rather neglected stash of lead refills. There is actually quite a huge variety of leads available, in various little tubes and containers, on header cards, and so forth. Some are rather utilitarian in their looks, others are a bit more artistic. Here a few quick pictures of some of my leads.

First up, some glorious AIN premium leads from the mighty Pentel of Japan. Actually I think this is one my best “pencil photos” so far.

Asian Cartoon Leads

No nonsense from Switzerlands Caran d’Ache. They don’t even put their name on the lead container – just model and grade designations.

More no-nonsense Germanic stuff, this time two different containers from Faber-Castell.

Plastic injection moulds are very expensive things. Germany’s Staedtler obviously decided there was no need to make new moulds when they could update their look with a new label and a change from opaque blue to a more modern looking transparent plastic.

Parker have a rather nice unusual little round container for Duofold leads. But then also plastic containers like everyone else. Still sticking with the “sensible” grey and white colour scheme though. Note the two different labels on the same 0.5mm HB leads.

Cross prefer the headercarded style of leads to promote retail sales.

It's headercards too for Sensa, but you actually get Papermate leads when you buy Sensa. Or you could just buy the same Papermate leads with a Papermate headercard. Guess which is cheaper?

Then there is this Papermate container of unusual teardrop cross-section.

Maybe the “Conspiracy Theorists” really are right. Maybe there is only one big factory making all the worlds lead refills – they just put them into different containers and ship them out. Here’s Papermate and Schwan Stabilo - it's the exact same container, just a different coloured cap and printing.

Uni brand by Mitsubishi Pencil Co Ltd of Japan. Six different colours in the one container, and plain old ordinary graphite in the other. It is actually by chance, but that puts Japanese leads at the start and the finish of this posting, “the be-all and end-all”, probably appropriate given the state of their mechanical pencil and lead industry.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Rotring Part 3.

I almost wish I had never mentioned the future of Rotring a few weeks ago! Too much confusion for a simple leadite like me to handle.
So what's going on with Rotring? I don't know! It seems if you ask the right person you can get any answer you want. I've asked a few retailers around the world, and Sanford locally, and got answers ranging from "everythings deleted" to "absolutely nothing, its business as usual". But most do admit to there being a fair bit of confusion. So I think I will just give up, as it seems that Rotring will be continuing as a brand, either mainstream and/or producing some unique niche market products. But in the short term lots of retailers can't supply lots of Rotring products!

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Papermate Auto Advance Mechanical Pencil Review

A little while ago I listed the Papermate Advancer in my Two Bad Buys posting. I said that I would review the Auto Advance and try to be objective, so here goes.

I quite like the look of the Papermate Auto Advance. It comes in a selection of nice bright colours with black trims and silver lettering, and the barrel is a smooth contoured shape. The transparent body means you get to look inside and see all the complicated mechanism – lots of springs and other parts. Overall it’s a pleasing visual appearance. The only thing I am not too keen on is the uncovered eraser. I always think uncovered erasers should be some dark colour as white often ends up looking dirty. But as for functionality, this eraser works OK.

The grip section on the barrel is a very slightly frosted finish to enhance your grip. That’s good attention to detail. The pocket clip is a moulded plastic one, so as expected, it’s not much use, but better then nothing. Access to the lead magazine for refilling purposes is by removing the eraser. The plastic lead holding sleeve is retractable so this pencil is definitely pocket safe.

Now for the main event, the mechanism. This is a 0.7mm push top ratchet mechanism with the added feature of auto-advancing the lead as you write. The first push on the eraser advances the lead sleeve out of the body, and a second push starts advancing out the lead. This is just standard stuff. What happens is that as the lead wears down and the lead sleeve starts to touch the paper it retracts and the mechanism keeps feeding more lead out. It really works, and I take my hat off to the ingenuity of the designers. Another feature that many may find of benefit is that the auto advance system only allows a very short piece of lead out of the sleeve, so there is virtually no chance of breaking the lead. On the other hand the sleeve system means it’s no good for drafting, this is a writing pencil only. You can also override the auto advance by manually activating the push top ratchet system at any time. So far so good, but not all is well in “Auto Advance-ville”.

I am afraid to say that basically this mechanical pencil is unusable. What happens is that sometimes the lead sleeve just retracts back into the body, so your pencil just “plunges” into the paper from time to time. It does seem to be force related as the harder you push the more likely it is to happen, and if you are very light-handed it doesn’t seem to happen often, but overall it is just pretty random, and I can’t permanently write so light-handed. I have to say that this “plunging” is truly awful, and I considered terminating my usual week long trial by midday on the first day. But I persisted, if only to try and see if I could control the plunging by altering my writing pressure (within reason), angle of pencil-to-paper, or something. I failed. I thought perhaps I had a faulty mechanism so I purchased another pencil. It did the same thing, although I guess this does still leave the possibility that a batch or shipment sent to New Zealand was faulty and I’ve got two from the same faulty batch.

Another problem I had with the mechanism is that it is very smooth and silent. There is no audible “click” noise and it does not require much force to activate the push top mechanism. Several times I was just idly “playing” with the pencil and managed to accidentally extend a long length of lead out of the tip. Lastly I didn’t really like the feel of writing with the advancing system in operation. The plastic lead sleeve is actually scraping on the paper as it is auto advancing, and you can feel it. So overall I would like to acknowledge Papermate for designing an auto advance mechanism for this price, but its just unusable.

  • Best Points – Simple, clean attractive good looks, and the concept of auto advancing.
  • Not So Good Points – The plunging of the lead sleeve holder, and being able to so easily accidentally feed a whole lot of lead out.
  • Price Range – Economy.

Dimensions – Length 144mm, diameter 10mm at widest point. Balance point about 75mm up from the tip.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Two Dollar Shop

I just cannot believe how cheap some things are in the ‘$2 Shop’. Now that’s the New Zealand $2 Shop, so it’s more like US$1.25, which would be the ‘Buck and a Quarter Shop’?

For instance, take this Mechanical Pencil set. You get 6 pencils, an eraser and a refill pack of 30 leads, all for $2 retail. That’s $1.78 before sales tax. Now I’m no expert on industry margins, but I imagine the $2 Shop national buyer probably paid the Chinese manufacturer about $0.95 (plus shipping), so the manufacturer probably made them for $0.70. Take out the eraser, refills and packaging, that means each pencil probably cost about 9 cents (US 6 cents) each, to manufacture. You can use other retail and manufacturing margins to produce other figures, but which ever way you look at it, they were manufactured for staggeringly small amounts of money. I know the design of these pencils is ultra basic, the quality is questionable, the leads are very weak, etc but still, I really struggle to get my head around it.

Then there is the power and value of a brand, as you can get this similar mechanical pencil for NZ$2 with “Winnie The Pooh” branding. So, 6 generic pencils plus eraser and refill leads OR one loose open stock "Winnie The Pooh" pencil for $2, making old Pooh worth something like an extra 600% mark-up. That is perhaps appropriate given that Pooh is one of the worlds most famous pencil persons. After all, the English system of lead hardness grading was invented for him. Pencils are marked B for “Bear”, HB for “Helping Bear”, BB for “Brave Bear” and so on – well at least that’s what he thinks.

Economics is a strange and wonderful thing. Perhaps the “Catch 22” variety is at work here. I’m sure we all know the massive mark-up we pay for name brand items, particularly expensive name brands, but when you sit down and analyse it, it’s just mind-boggling.

Footnote: Original drafts of this posting created with Woodchucks excellent California Cedar Products “Forest Choice” woodcase pencil, a mighty fine piece of wood in any economic system.