Monday, July 10, 2006

An American Revolutionary Wooden Week

A few months ago I put my mechanicals away and spent a week using woodcase pencils. Now I chose pencils available here in New Zealand which means they were from the German pencil companies, Staedtler and Faber-Castell. About that time a very friendly American comrade sent me a selection of fine pencils from some American companies, and as July 4 approached, it somehow seemed appropriate for me to once again put my mechanicals away and have an “American Revolutionary Wooden Week”.

When I first opened the package containing these American pencils I was astonished. How could something as simple, basic and generic as a pencil be so different in the USA to NZ? Now my wife has picked up a small amount of pencilness from me and she brought in the mail that day, and was curious to see what was in the package from America. When I opened it up she just took one look and said “Wow, they’re nice looking pencils”. So what’s so different about them? I think the first thing I noticed is that they pretty much all have eraser tips, and lots of fancy ferrules, whereas here in NZ, pencils just have plain ends. Then most of them were unsharpened, whereas here you get sharpened pencils. Most of them are plain one colour paint jobs whereas here they are often multi-coloured and/or striped. Several of them were “natural” wood-grain finish which I have never seen before, and none of them were brands that I had seen before - I didn’t really even know Papermate made woodcase pencils! So from this sampler of America’s finest I chose these for my working week:

  1. Papermate American Naturals HB 2
  2. California Cedar Products Forest Choice
  3. Papermate Mirado Classic HB 2
  4. Dixon Ticonderoga Black 2 Soft
  5. California Republic Palomino HB

So first up the American Naturals. I recalled Raven’s Revolutionary posting on sharpening with a knife so I thought I would give that a go with this plain simple piece of pencil wood. Actually I quite enjoyed it, and was surprised at how easy it is to carve the wood away, but let’s just say I need a lot more practice! There are far too many Health & Safety issues for me to get away with knife sharpening at work in the long-term. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the finish on the Naturals. Some sides of the hex were quite rough compared to others, but on the positive side it would improve the grip properties. The lead was OK, not particularly smooth feeling, but the eraser was just useless, smearing stuff around and not fully erasing.

Tuesday was Forest Choice. I just love the finish on this pencil, its fantastic. A smooth light lacquer really showcases the wood, and feels great to the touch. The lead was better than the Naturals, but perhaps not quite as dark. The eraser was miles better. On the one hand it’s good to have minimalist markings on a “natural” finish pencil like this, but I would prefer them to mark the grade (2, HB?) on the pencil. Overall a great pencil.

Wednesday was Papermates turn – who even knew they made woodcase pencils? The lead in the Mirado seemed pretty good to me. A fraction on the light side, but very smooth - I guess that’s extra wax in the core or something. A nice paint finish but not as good as some.

Thursday was Ticonderoga Black day. Obviously the marketing team at Dixon decided they were going to expand their export markets and start selling to New Zealand. So they sat down and came up with the Ticonderoga Black. Matt black body and eraser with silver writing, just like the uniforms of New Zealand national sporting teams, making us think of the All Blacks or the Silver Ferns every time we see that pencil. But then those clever Dixon marketing folk went even further, and just to clinch the deal, thought “Hey, lets paint the ferrule in the Australian national sporting colours so those Kiwi’s will not only be reminded of themselves but also of their constant rivalry with the Kangaroos”. Boy, it’s easy to see why those exec’s at Dixon get paid the big bucks. But then something went totally wrong and they forgot to send some to New Zealand. Go figure! The lead is really smooth and if it was just a little darker, this might well be the perfect pencil.

So onto Friday, and the much vaunted Palomino. It’s a great pencil with an excellent paint job, but without the eraser tip it was the odd-man out in this American sampler. I think this is the pencil I had to sharpen the most often, implying its lead was the softest.

Overall I really liked the extra weight and top-heavy balance provided by the eraser tips. These are all great pencils, (except perhaps the Naturals) but there are two stand-outs for me - the Forest Choice and the Ticonderoga Millennium Black. Both are now regulars in my wooden pencil holder.

OK, Long live the revolution!, but back to the mechs.


Anonymous said...

Hmmm, how are you defining "American"?

From the packaging and manufacturer descriptions, the Forest Choice is a Thai pencil, and the California Republic Palomino a Japanese pencil.

And I completely agree - the Forest Choice has a very nice finish!

Kiwi-d said...

Yes I kind of figured someone would raise this. Bit of a vague definition. If I was smart I would have a pre-prepared answer for an anticiapted question, but I don't have one. Basically these 2 pencils are made for / marketed by what I believe is an American company (Cal Cedar, Cal Republic). One could also question Dixon as I think they are owned by an Italian group? But they manufacture in USA.

Basically I called them American on the same sort of basis that I call Staedtler and Faber-Castell German, even though they might be made in Australia, SE Asia, Brazil, etc. So kind of going back to the "traditional core" rather than strict WTO country of origin rules.

But certainly it's very debatable.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I never thought about international differences in pencil marketing. I have heard of different colors in different countries, but I never thought the difference would be so drastic...I mean, Papermate's woodcase pencils are the most common where I'm from. It's strange to think that in NZ they're completely unheard of.

Anyway, the Papermate "American" and "American Naturals" are embarrassments to their namesake. Don't think that anyone (anyone in the know, that is) actually uses those horrible things -- they're marketed as the bottom of the line economy pencils over here. Plus, they're made of basswood. Ugh.

There are two other pencils that it's a shame to miss: the Ticonderoga Tri-Write (identical in features to Dixon's regular Ticonderoga, but triangular and with an grippier lacquer) and the brand new Golden Bear from California Republic. The new Golden Bears are triangular and have a dipped end, solving the major problem of ill-fitting ferrules. They are some of my favorites for their ergonomic shape, but also high up there is the Palomino with eraser; it's a very nice and useful addition, if you prefer it there.

Anonymous said...

Interesting (and very good) write up. As for Papermate, its an oddity to those of us who remember when the various brands now owned by Sanford were independent, and the Mirado was a Berol Mirado, (and before that and Eagle Mirado, and back before WWII, the Eagle Mikado - The American Natural was originally an Eberhard-Faber American Natural (I have an old one here on my desk now)
For some reason, when Sanford decided to pick one brand for all the pencil brands they had taken over, they decided they would use one brand for all their "non-premium" writing instruments, including ballpoints AND pencils, and Papermate was the brand chosen.
Hence the travesty of a brand known originally for ballpoints being imprinted on pencils. Sort of like finding the Harley-Davidson brand on a bicycle.... ;-)

Anonymous said...

DIdnt harley strat out as a bicycle maker and then jumped on the new technology? Yes, the Dixon Black and Forest Choice are great. I like the palomino alot myself for its dark line but I only use them near sharpeners. And bring the FC's with me.

KAY PERE said...

Dave, I've just added a link to your post from my blog. I'm a big fan of the American Naturals pencils, but I have found there is a big difference in quality depending on where you get them. Not all are as rough as the ones you used. No idea why the manufacturing process would have so much variation.

My favorites, the smoothest, are made of something that looks like red cedar. The erasers on these work without smudging.

I've written more in my blog today (8/26/06).

Anonymous said...

just wondering, what pocketknife is that in the picture?

Kiwi-d said...

It’s a Japanese fold-lock, ‘Basic Tools’ brand, 440 Stainless Steel. I don’t think Basic Tools are around anymore. I’ve had it over 20 years, still as (very) sharp as the day I got it, but to be honest I haven’t used it an awful lot.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if anyone might be able to tell me where to find this pencil. On the pencil it says: Berol Eagle USA HB 2 . I have gone all over the place and searched high and low trying to find it. I think it might be out of production. Somehow my son found one and has declared it his pencil soul mate or something.