Sunday, June 18, 2006

Retro 51 Tornado Mechanical Pencil Review

RETRO 1951

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.

Dimensions – Length 131mm, diameter 12mm at widest part. Balance point about 75mm up from the tip.



Anonymous said...

Fantastic review!
I've been eyeing that postage stamp pen lately. And on Amtrak last week, I saw a lady doing a puzzle in pen and not doing very well, and I thought of that pencil. Maybe she would have had less trouble with it...
We pencil bloggers are thinking on the same wavelength, no?

Anonymous said...

You should try the Xonex Sudoku or Crossword Mechanical pencils. These are new to the market and they don't leave the lead dust. Very comfortable to write with and not so top-heavy. Xonex version costs much less too and you still get the nice gift box for presentation! I picked mine up at Indigo Books and Music in Canada. Their website is

kozmo said...

I disagree. I purchased two of these, only to discover 1/16 to 1/8 inch of up and down play with the lead (2 to 3 mm). The U.S. distributor said that it's part of the design. They also said that if I pay shipping charges to and from their main office, they would replace the pencils ... but the problem will still exist.
I suggested that they buy a Pentel of any other competitor, take them apart and see how they anchor their lead so solidly.
I love the feel, heft, fully retractable point and large eraser of the Retro, but the play with the lead is a major engineering flaw.

Anonymous said...

I find that my 0.9 mm Pentel 'B' lead wiggles side-to-side in my Tornado Crossword. It alwo seems that the flattened section of the point is always on the paper -- it seems to to swing down even if you rotate the pencil to try to get a sharp edge to write with. Is the lead also loose rotationally? There seems to be some discrepancy in the lead specification, as some on-line dealers list replacement Retro leads as 1.1 mm.

Anonymous said...

Retro make 0.9 and 1.1 pencils. The lead rotation is just the way it is. Overall its not a particularly good pencil mecahnism.

Anonymous said...

The Retro pencils use 1.15 mm lead. Is there any other source for 1.15 mm leads? thanks

Anonymous said...

Wow. I never thought I would write a comment on a pencil blog. But I need some pencil help.

I'm a graduate math student and I like my pencils.

I have tried a variety of retail pencils. I found the Pentel Twist-Erase .7 mm and for the most part I like it.

But, I spend a lot of time with my pencil and I would like a really cool one!

I recently got two Retro Tornados and I hate them. The 1.15 lead writes like a crayon and the volume of lead and eraser that I go through makes them expensive and difficult to maintain (i.e. I can't go to staples and get refills).

Does anybody have a recommended pencil that fits the following?

What I like in order of preference:
(1) large diameter body
(2) stylish, good looking
(3) .7 mm lead
(4) commercial lead refills (I'm willing to spend more on eraser refills if needed)
(5) exposed eraser (long like the twist erase would be nice.)
(6) under $100

I'd be willing to trade two Like-New Retro 51's with full refills if anyone is interested.

Thanks for the help.


Anonymous said...

Justin Try this -
Faber Castell Grip Plus 0.7. More likely to be found in Art Retail stores - although could be different in your country?? 2 1/2p

jderyck said...

My 3 year old Tornado just failed, apparently Retro 51 will not repair a pen or pencil over 1 year old. By contrast I have cheapo mechanical pencils which served me through high school, university and grad school which still work.

Anonymous said...

Retro switched to a new 1.15mm mechanism in 2008. Vast improvement over the previous mechanism. No wiggle what so ever. Even if out of warranty they will usually replace old faulty mechanisms with the new one for just a shipping and handling charge.

che pablo said...

I recently picked up both the Retro 51 Stealth and the Woerther Slight, both of which are 1.18 mm mechanical pencils. IMO, the Retro 51 is a better pencil.
Retro 51 Advantages (in no particular order)
1) The Retro 51 mechanism has only a slight side to side wiggle and no longitudinal wiggle. The Woerther has decidedly more of both.
2)The Retro 51 has an enamel coated end so there is none of the lead grinding that you noted.
3) I really like the easy access eraser. The Slight has an interior one that is quite small.
4) 1/2 the price even with spare leads and eraser. $30 delivered in the US.
5) Smooth advance mechanism. The Slight ground a bit until I lubricated it with Teflon grease.

Woerther Slight Advantages
1) Lighter at 19g vs. the Stealth 32g. Note that 32g is not particularly heavy.
2) I like the profile better. The Stealth breaks the curve of the body with the conical tip.
3) Inside the pencil is an amusing little capsule that holds spare leads.

The only other currently manufactured 1.18mm mechanical pencils that I'm familiar with are the Yard-O-Led and AutoPoint. Any information on those would be appreciated. the Yard-O-Led is simply out of my price range.

Anonymous said...

Faber Castell E-Motion wood and chrome pencil is what I recently purchased. Haven't tried it against the Retro but I recommend it. As an architect I use a lot of pencils and this one is a keeper. Plus, it looks great.

Anonymous said...

I just bought 1.15 mm leads. 12 leads for €2.20
they are produced by W├Ârther in Germany.
Delft, The Netherlands

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know where I can get refill erasers for my Retro 1951 Tornado pencil?

Thanks, John

Unknown said...

My Retro pencil has been crochety since I got it. Not smooth in advancing the lead, lead not stable, (moves in ever so slightly when put it down to use it). My husbands Sudoku pencil is stable and solid feeling. Mine is not. Now...I tried to advance lead that I could hear inside. It all came apart and now I cannot get it to hook up again. I am pretty mechanical-minded but this escapes me.

che pablo said...

If it is all apart, then there should be a small U-shaped hook connected to the piece that holds the end of the lead. The U-shaped hook should be placed inside the tube with a groove cut into it. The U shaped hook is placed on the coil. Twisting the pen pushes the pen up and down the coil advancing the lead. To minimize the backlash (the moving in ever so slightly) use a pair of needlenose pliars to squeeze the tines of U closer together. Then turn the hook and squeeze it so that the tines of the U are in-plane. That is, it's flat. Often, one of the tines of the U will bend out. I'm going from memory, so I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

I see many references to the Tornado's eraser. Mine kept falling out, as did my kids', so we just leave it empty. Looks "cool" I'm told.

che pablo said...

For erasers, you can buy OEM erasers here:
-or here:

These will also fit and are a bit softer:

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to disassemble the Tornado ball point pen? Mine is binding up with pocket grit, probably. I have removed the cartridge. Can I go further?

Anonymous said...

I love my Retro 1951. It uses a 1.15mm lead and it is by far my favorite writing instrument. I have used it for hundreds of hours without fail. I have no wiggle and for a beefy hand like me the feel of the instrument in my hand and the output suits me perfectly! Thanks for the excellent blog.

Time Waster said...

I need one of these...

Time Waster said...

Just got this baby in the mail today a black one.
Possibly the smoothest pencil I own due to it's lead thickness and weight. Not sure how much I'll use it though...this is the last time I spend 30.00 on a one pencil =)

Stormy said...

Im not sure where to write this comment so please excuse me if this is the wrong place. I was curious if anyone has had a chance to review a "RETRO 51" Hex-O-Matic ? it looks comparable to the "Rotring" rapid Pro. But it is more readily available in the U.S. and is a bit cheaper. Was just curious if anyone knows of a good review before I consider making a purchase. BTW awesome web page!

Anonymous said...

i have had my sudoku pencil since Christmas and have loved it. Suddenly the mechanism that pushes the led down has quit. Is there something I can do to replace or fix it?

Anonymous said...

I had just purchased a stainless steel tornedo pencil,but nothing beats the lamy scribble in terms of its looks and comfort.the tornedo may look nice but lamy scribble is still the one for me,both 0.7 and the clutch