Saturday, June 21, 2014

Autopoint All-American Mechanical Pencil Review

Autopoint All-American Mechanical Pencil Review

Two Autopoint articles in a row, what’s going on? Well, when Jason Bender of Autopoint contacted me a few months ago and I suggested an interview to him, he also offered to send me a pencil for review, and I said “Yes thanks”. So, here we have the Autopoint All-American mechanical pencil.
Autopoint All-American Mechanical Pencil, light blue, 0.5mm

The All-American is available in a variety of colours and in four lead sizes – 0.5, 0.7, 0.9 and 1.1mm. Multiple lead sizes per model is definitely something I approve of. There is also the related model, the Jumbo All-American. For this review I am using a 0.5mm light blue All-American, which was supplied in a cardboard package.

Like most Autopoints, the current All-American is a child of the 1970’s, and it looks it. I don’t mean that in a negative way, I mean that in the good way - it looks like what it is; a design object of its times, a contemporary of the Pentel P205, vinyl LPs and the Apollo spacecraft.

The main plastic body of the All-American mechanical pencil is 10 sided, a decahedron in cross section. It transitions rapidly to a conical tip section which itself finishes with a metal tip. At the other end of the pencil there is a round metal eraser housing and non-removable pocket clip. The plastic is hard and shiny, a good quality product. The pocket clip and body shape combine so that this pencil does not tend to roll on your desk.
Autopoint of Janesville

In the hand the All-American is a fairly lightweight pencil. The grip zone is smooth without any enhancements so that might be a problem for some when held for a long time. The lead sleeve is a short fixed 2.5mm long metal pipe, so this pencil is not pocket safe. Although shorter than the usual 3 – 4mm long draughting sleeves, the sleeve is probably just long enough for draughting work so this pencil is something of a generalist, suitable for general writing and some technical work.

I believe Autopoints main point of differentiation and claim to fame is their Grip-Tite lead holding mechanism. The lead advance is a screw mechanism, you hold the tip and twist it to advance the lead. To retract the lead you twist the tip the other way and then press the lead back into the tip. The metal pipe tip itself has a small slit in it. The split pipe tip is essentially fractionally undersize for the lead and so squeezes and holds the lead right at the extreme end of the pipe. This prevents lead wobble and rotation, and Autopoint claims it reduces lead breakage. I agree with them. I certainly did feel that lead breakage was much less than usual during the two weeks I used the All-American as my daily mechanical pencil. On the down side, the screw mechanism is not as convenient as a push top ratchet mechanism, but I certainly did get used to it, particularly as recently I was using the Uchida Drawing Sharp S which also has a screw mechanism. The Autopoint mechanism is markedly firmer and stiffer to rotate than the Uchida, which I found to be good, and means you are less likely to over extend the lead. Overall then, I am impressed by the Grip-Tite system.

To replace your lead with a new stick you must remove the tip section of the pencil and reassemble. It is not difficult, so nothing to be too scared of. Just a note though about the leads. The Grip-Tite system requires that the lead and metal tip match together. As we know, the various lead manufacturers around the world have some differing and wide tolerances on the diameters of their leads and as such you may encounter problems using brands of lead other than Autopoint brand lead refills.
Autopoint Grip-Tite refill instructions

The All-American’s eraser is uncovered and obviously intended for general use rather than the tiny emergency only use erasers that many mechanical pencils have. I am not a fan of the appearance of uncovered erasers, but this one is coloured grey so won’t show unsightly graphite smears on white when it has been used. Putting the eraser to the test, it performs quite well as shown below. The eraser is replaceable, and the holder allows you to extend it a small amount.

You remove the eraser to access the lead storage chamber. Remember though, this pencil is a tip feeder, so the lead is stored inside the body but it does not self-feed when your current stick of lead is used up.

With the name All-American, and Autopoint being both proud Americans and that rare beast, a survivor of the American writing instrument industry decline, I am a little surprised that their American origin is not featured more prominently. The packaging has no reference to country of origin and the pencil body is unmarked with any model number or name. The markings on the pencil are all on the metal pocket clip – “Autopoint” and the lead size e.g. “.5” on the face of the clip, and in very small letters on the side of the clip, there it is, “USA”.
Pocket clip markings, note USA on the side edge.

Overall then, the Autopoint All-American is good pencil, and you should have one in your collection.

•    Best Points – The Grip-Tite system.
•    Not So Good Points – Requirement to use Autopoint brand lead
•    Price Range – Low.
•    Does this pencil make it into the Top 5? – No.

Dimensions – Length 143mm, diameter 8mm across flats of body. Balance point about 80mm up from the tip.

Disclaimer – For the purposes of this review, Autopoint supplied 2 All-American pencils and 2 tubes of lead refills to me free of charge.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Autopoint Interview

Autopoint were a significant name in the American mechanical pencil industry throughout the middle part of the 20th century, and a particular strength of the company was corporate gifts and advertising pencils. Like many writing instrument companies of the time they went through a succession of corporate owners, eventually ending up in the Gillette / Papermate stable. However around 1980 Papermate divested the Autopoint name and machinery, selling to a group of businessmen, and Autopoint again became an independent entity.

Recently I was contacted by Jason Bender, the President and owner of Autopoint Inc. He offered to send me a few samples, and I expressed an interest in learning more about the current Autopoint. So here’s a Q&A with Jason.

1.    Hello Jason. Thanks for agreeing to answer a few questions about your company. Perhaps you can start by telling us a little about yourself, and how and why you came to own Autopoint?
I am married with two little boys and a dog that runs the house. I love spending time with my family and enjoying life as much as possible. I currently have little life outside of work and family. We purchased Autopoint in January of this year and have been consumed turning it around, and getting the Autopoint brand back out to people.

I am a drafter by trade; my class of draftsmen were the last class to take a hand drafting class and I fell in love with it. I had to relent to using various CAD programs if I wanted a job but I still love the hands on element as well as the vision it took to be able to make something look accurate. I moved from drafting into estimation and sales for a commercial construction company. After years of doing that I decided that I wanted to be a business owner.

My wife and I set out with a very wide net of businesses that we would be interested in and initially pencils had nothing to do with it. We finally were about to give up on our idea when right in my back yard there was a mechanical pencil company for sale. I almost instantly was hooked. I noticed that people who use pencils every day are fanatical about their specific pencil. Myself I was a Pentel Graph 1000 user, I bought my first one in college and have had a handful since. Autopoint has a quality product that has been around for a long time, plus the brand recognition is fairly high. Once I started looking at Autopoint I realized that deep down I was a pencil nut. After stepping back a few times and making sure that this was really the right decision, my heart and mind were all in and my wife was on board. I am convinced the brand has staying power and hope our users feel the same way.

2.    I believe the Autopoint product range was drastically reduced and redesigned in the 1970’s under Gillette/Papermate ownership. Is it this product range and machinery that is still the basis of the current range?
Gillette indeed drastically cut the product line down in the 1970’s. The core products are the same as they were when Gillette redesigned the Twinpoint and All American. Before Gillette sold the business to the previous owner they sold off a majority of the assets to make the pencils. When we were cleaning up the shop and moving some things around we found hundreds of documents dating back to the founding of the company in the 1920’s. I have all of the blueprints to the old machines and products. Maybe one day we can bring some of that stuff back.

3.    Tell us a little about Autopoint as a company today.
Autopoint is located in Janesville Wisconsin USA. We currently have nine employees, six in the shop and three (two full time and one part time) in the office. All of us in the office step out to the shop to help build pencils as needed. We ship approximately 60 orders per day. This year I expect to have right around One million dollars (USD) in sales, our current production volume is approximately 1,500 pencils per day; we have room to grow.

4.    How do Autopoint products make it to market these days?
Autopoint over the last few years has relied on ad specialty, online sales, and a few retail locations. All of our current retail locations are located internationally. Since I have purchased the company I have pushed hard to get us back into the retail market. I am working with several buying groups and a few local stores to get our pencils in front of a wider market.

5.    Do you export outside of the USA?
Yes we have customers all over the world. There are stationary shops in London, Taiwan, and South Korea that sell a lot of our pencils. We sell products to the Saudi Arabian Air Force and the Kuwaiti Navy, as well as my government. We sell to individual customers in Africa, Australia, Canada, all European countries, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Middle East, and Mexico.  I would love to expand that presence.

6.    What is your goal with Autopoint?
I do see a significant increase in sales as we move back into distribution. We currently have zero presence in major retail stores and I intend to change that starting locally at first. If a big box store came to us tomorrow and said I want to carry your pencils I would have to turn them away, we could not supply a national chain.

I want to expand the Autopoint line up, I have been playing with the idea of making a metal pencil. A heavier pencil feels more stable. I also want to add a line of pens made in the United States. A lot of the products that comes from the Asian market has poor quality and reliability issues. The manufacturing base here specifically in the Midwest is some of the best in the world.

7.    In producing your mechanical pencils, how much is carried out in-house as opposed to sub-contracted? For example, do you mould your own plastic barrels, press the metal components, etc or is the factory more of an assembly operation?
Our barrels and tips are molded about 45 minutes drive from our factory; metal parts come from the east coast. The device that propels the lead are assembled and pressed into the tips by machines in our plant, the final assembly is done by hand, this puts the quality control in the hands of the assembler, and they take ownership of the build and make sure that what gets sent out is a quality product.

One step in the process - the Tip Assembly Machine (TAM), which assembles the assembled shank into the tip cone and presses the Grip-Tite tip into the tip cone.
8.    Your pencils come in a variety of lead sizes; I would be interested in the percentage breakdown of sales by lead size.
This is an interesting question and varies by region of the world. North America and Europe both have tendencies to write heavier and favour the thicker leads, Asia writes far more precise and delicate and like the thinner leads. 90% of the pencils exported to the Asian market is 0.5mm, 1.1mm and 0.9mm are split evenly there. In the North American markets 0.9mm is the top seller, roughly 80%. 1.1mm is the next best seller at approximately 15%. 0.7mm gets a little less than 5% with 0.5mm making up less than 1% of our sales in North America. Europe is pretty close to the same as North America with more sales going to 1.1mm.

9.    Are your leads manufactured in the USA or imported?
The lead that we use is imported. We used to purchase our lead from the United States but the plant closed years ago. Autopoint has tried several lead makers but many of them could not hold the tolerances that we need as our Grip-Tite system does not have the flexibility of a clutch type mechanical pencil. It is also the key component to having a system that my five year old son struggles to break the lead.

You mention your leads need a tight tolerance, and your pencil system increasing resistance to lead breakage. Could you explain a little about the Grip-Tite system?
Our  Grip-Tite system is fairly simple, most mechanical pencils have a clutch that holds the lead and propels it forward. This clutch sits internally a fair distance back and is what holds the lead. The tip on a clutch type pencil supports the lead and if applying to much pressure acts as a pressure point on the lead. Grip-Tite holds the lead at the tip taking away the pressure point, we machine our tips to allow the lead to rub ever so slightly through the tip. This grips the lead to keep it from falling out. The tip has a notch in it to allow for minor expansion and as the writer applies pressure the lead pushes back against the plunger and actually causes the tip to contract down upon the lead.

Putting aside the difference in the length of leads, does this mean that common brands of lead refills will not work with Autopoint pencils? 
Other leads could work, we just do not guarantee that they will. We have had customers call and complain that the pencil broke because it will not hold the leads, they fall half way or completely out. Turns out they used up all the lead supplied with the pencil and bought a competitors lead. We require our lead to have a higher tolerance for this reason.
Ahhh, old time blog readers know all about various run-ins with lead diameter tolerances

Thanks very much Jason. I wish you every success with Autopoint, and I’m sure all readers do too.
For more information on Autopoint check out the Wikipedia page and Bob Bolins Resources. Also here on this blog, some discussion of the Autopoint 1948 Catalogue:
Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

PS – Coming soon to a blog near you, a review of an Autopoint pencil.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Uchida Drawing Sharp S Mechanical Pencil Review

Uchida Drawing Sharp S Mechanical Pencil Review

Several years ago Isu advised me that my mechanical pencil collection was missing a very unique pencil, namely the Uchida Drawing Sharp S. After some thought I decided he was right; the Drawing Sharp S was sufficiently unique that I did need to add it to my collection. Since then I have been umming and ahhing about getting around to reviewing it. Finally I have decided to cast doubt aside, take the plunge and say ‘Yes’.

Uchida are a Japanese company with roots going back to China in 1910. They distribute a wide range of office and art equipment and supplies. The Uchida Drawing Sharp S mechanical pencil comes in a nice but simple cardboard package with clear plastic sleeve. A tube of lead refills is also supplied. Note the packaging is marked with Catalogue Number 848-0014.

The Drawing Sharp S has a rather unusual look and a combination plastic and metal body.
Uchida Drawing Sharp S Mechanical Pencil

Weighing in at 17 grams it is much more lightweight in the hand than I anticipated from my first look at it. The plastic pocket clip is removable and it simply slides up off the gently tapering upper body. I wonder how secure it would be over the long term. The grip section is hard plastic cut into a square grid pattern. I found the plastic quite slippery and even with the grid pattern the grip is not particularly positive. For a draughting pencil I think this is a weak point.

There is a lead hardness indicator window for grades 3H to B including F. The tip is a 4mm fixed round lead sleeve. No question, this is a mechanical pencil for draughting work.

Markings on the pencil are Uchida Drawing Sharp printed on the metal upper body just above the lead hardness indicator. A sticker indicates the lead diameter 0.5mm.

The reason Isu said this was a unique pencil is because it is a modern draughting pencil with a screw mechanism. That’s right; to advance or retract the lead you wind the top half of the body around. Just to be clear, you are not twisting the body a half turn to activate a ratchet lead advance and the body then springs back, it is a screw mechanism like the old days. You wind round and round continuously and the lead just keeps coming out. The lead advance is continuous not incremental.

With many screw mechanisms you store spare leads inside the centre of the mechanism just like in a normal modern ratchet mechanism, but they do not self-feed a new lead, you have to take a lead out and feed it in through the tip. I am not sure, particularly because the instruction leaflet is not in English, but the Uchida Drawing Sharp S did not seem to like it when I put a couple of spare leads down inside the centre mechanism, so I think it does not carry any spare leads in the pencil. You need to carry a tube of refills with the pencil.

The screw mechanism took quite a bit of getting used to with a 0.5mm lead. I have used screw mechanisms before, but that was always with thicker leads likes 1.18 or 0.9mm. These thicker leads have strength, and the amount of lead advanced did not really matter too much. The Drawing Sharp S is a 0.5mm lead so if you advance a little too much lead it is likely to break when you start writing. Now to be fair, this a draughting pencil and I was using it for general office work, but I still think my point is valid. You need to pay much more attention to how much lead you advance than normal.

Now for refilling the Drawing Sharp S. That’s where things get a bit difficult. The instructions are in Japanese, and my ability to read Japanese is non-existent.

Luckily though the Japanese retailer Bundoki provided a translation on request, but I think a little something has been lost in translation:
“When you take out the short lead, twist the barrel all the way right and take it out. Make sure the logo “Uchida” on the barrel is right next to the indicator window. Twist the barrel to left twice and refill a lead. Twist the barrel and push lead with your finger a little by little. If the lead breaks, please take out the cap and take the lead out.”

The small emergency use eraser is accessed by pulling the whole top half of the body off.

The Uchida Drawing Sharp S mechanical pencil, a contemporary rarity, a modern draughting pencil with a screw mechanism - only you can decide if it is a pleasure or a pain.

•    Best Points – Novelty value mechanism.
•    Not So Good Points – The grip, the lack of spare leads.
•    Price Range – Low.
•    Does this pencil make it into the Top 5? - No.

Dimensions – Length 141mm, diameter 9mm at grip. Balance point about 65 mm up from the tip.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

2014 Starts With a Rip-Off?

In mid January an auction for a Pilot pen & mechanical pencil set on my local online auction site piqued my interest. The details of the set were minimal and I was a bit suspicious about it all, but I thought I would put in the minimum bid and leave it at that. If I lost then no drama, and if I won and it was a second hand scratched Pilot lemon then it would have only cost me the equivalent of US $10.19 including postage. Well, I won the auction and in due course my Pilot pen & pencil set arrived.

Upon opening the parcel the Pilot hard case had a fair bit of edge wear and tear, so my hopes were not good. I opened the case, to reveal an annoying lemon set. I say annoying because as you can see the case is a Pilot case, but the pen and pencil were unbranded, not Pilots. Clearly I had been trumped and taken for sucker.

After a few seconds my annoyance and disappointment subsided and said to myself just calm down, relax, be cool. I had a good shot at returning them and getting my money back. Anyway, may as well investigate the lemons and see how bad they are.

Firstly I said before the pen and mechanical pencil were themselves unbranded. That's not strictly correct. Around the centre band of each is printed in black the word KICPA. KICPA? Never heard of that brand. Also it wasn't engraved or anything, rather printed on. A bit strange really. So, I googled KICPA pens and pencils and got next to nothing, except links to a couple of old eBay auctions, for pen and pencil sets with KICPA printed on them, in Pilot cases! So, maybe there was a little more to this than first thought.
Right, time to start pulling things apart to have a look at the entrails.
Hmmm... definitely not an el-cheapo mechanical pencil insert mechanism.
There's a lead clearance needle on the eraser. Again, not the mark of a cheap generic set.
Things are even clearer with the ballpoint pen. It again has a good quality insert mechanism, and a Pilot brand R-3 refill.
So, despite my initial reaction, this is obviously a genuine Pilot pen and mechanical pencil set. What then is this KICPA? First thought is this set is part of Pilots corporate gift programme and KICPA are a company who have bought them as gifts. Back to googling KICPA.
Ahhhh.... KICPA... The Korean Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Pen and pencil users! Well, that's my best guess anyway.

The mechanical pencil is 0.5mm push top ratchet mechanism. As you can see, the metal body is a gold colour with a pattern of long rectangularish flat sections. There's probably a name for that sort of pattern but I don't know what it is. Please enlighten me if you do happen to know.

The set is in very good condition, basically "as new" despite the condition of the case. Man, those Pilot cases. They really are spring loaded. You could lose a finger closing them.

There is a reasonably large community of Korean immigrants down here, so I can only assume a KICPA member has emigrated and tired of his/her set.

Right then, moving on. Whilst browsing my Korean backgrounds I came across this.

Hmmmm, Little Miss Bo-Peep Korea and her sheep and a "Beat This Caption"? Hey, are they poking fun at us down here? I used to get a decent number of hits from Korea... translation please... whats it say?