“It’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools.”
That proverb has always bothered me. It seems to imply that if someone was truly a good craftsperson he should be able to overcome, in the midst of a project, any impediment: a dull hatchet, a broken blade, a cracked handle. In my experience, good craftspeople are more concerned, not less, about their tools. They prefer to buy high-quality tools, care for the tools they already own, and fix or improve the ones that need it. Tools are an extension of the maker’s mind and hand — not to mention the instruments of her very livelihood — and she tends to them accordingly.
It’s also been my experience that using good tools can actually make projects turn out better because they are just so much more enjoyable to use. As a writer who writes nearly all his early drafts by hand, the tools of my trade include pencils, pens (to a lesser extent), and paper. Because I spend so much time writing by hand — between three to five hours a day — I’m unapologetic about wanting to use good tools. While I don’t believe I’m capable of writing the elusive “Great American Novel,” if I was, I’d like to think I could write it using even a package of badly made, foil-wrapped “Happy Halloween” pencils I got at the dollar store. But I’d rather try to write that book without getting distracted by a pencil that is scratchy, warped, too soft, impossible to sharpen, incapable of holding a point, and unattractive. Besides, there are so many AMAZING pencils out there right now, why would I want to use anything else?
When I was kid living in rural Kansas, my parents would sometimes drive us into town on Saturday to go to Walmart. On those mornings, the five of us boys were allowed to pick out one new toy each. But often I didn’t buy a toy. Instead I spent that money on a new notebook and some new pens or pencils. I remember one morning in particular, driving back home. I must have been 10 or 11 at the time. I was sitting in the front passenger seat of our minivan, and my mom looked over and saw me smelling my new notebook.
“Johnny, what are you doing?” she asked.
“What? I love the smell of a new notebook.”
“That’s weird,” my mom said, not unkindly.
We drove a while more, then I said, “Mom, have you ever thought about how powerful paper is?”
“I’m certain I haven’t,” she said.
“It’s very powerful,” I said. “Wars are fought with guns and bombs. But wars are started because of what’s written on paper.”
She looked sideways at me again, but kept driving. When we got home, I did what I always did: went to my room, closed the door, and flopped on my bed. I opened my notebook and wrote in the top-left corner of the page: CHAPTER ONE.
In honor of National Pencil Day, I’m offering a list of my current top five favorite pencils, as well as a few of my other favorite analog tools. I hope they inspire you to try a new pen or pencil, to treat yourself to a high-quality new notebook, and to relocate the simple, childlike joy and possibility of pencil and paper.
You contain whole worlds. Some you know about, but others are undiscovered. All are waiting to be explored.
1. Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni HB: I didn’t think any pencil could unseat the Blackwing 602 as my favorite pencil. That’s my assumption now about the Hi-Uni HB. Not only does it write gorgeously, it looks beautiful (especially the red of the exposed cedar), and it is an absolute pleasure to hold in the hand. It’s balanced and the lacquer on the pencil is remarkably soft. I could use this pencil all day and not get tired of it. Selling for about two dollars apiece, these pencils — and the two Blackwings below — are expensive. But these tools are so important to my writing life that I don’t mind paying a premium for quality. The biggest threat to my pencil budget — a threat I actually encourage — is my eight-year-old daughter (also an avid writer with discerning tastes), who likes to permanently “borrow” my good pencils. Like most non-U.S. pencils, the Japanese-made Hi-Uni HB doesn’t come with an eraser, so I pair it with my Tombow Mono NP block eraser.
2. Palomino Blackwing 602:It was the Blackwing 602 that made me fall in love with pencils all over again. These pencils are recognizable by their distinctive flared erasers. For decades, Blackwings were a favorite of creatives like John Steinbeck, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, and Chuck Jones. (I’ve even seen characters using them in episodes of Mad Men.) But the storied pencil was discontinued in the 1990s. In 2010, California Cedar bought the lapsed trademark and began manufacturing the Blackwing again, using California incense-cedar and high-quality Japanese graphite. They are available now in three versions, featuring different colors and different lead grades: soft, medium, or firm. I prefer the firm 602, which comes emblazoned with the slogan, “HALF THE PRESSURE, TWICE THE SPEED.” Blackwings are longer than most pencils, and for the first few sharpenings they feel slightly out of balance. But it’s worth it to push through. Within a day or two, the extra weight of the larger eraser and ferrule actually help the pencil nestle perfectly into the crook of my hand.
3. Palomino Blackwing 24: Another Blackwing, I know. California Cedar recently created this limited edition pencil in consultation with John Steinbeck’s son, Thomas Steinbeck. As I said above, the elder Steinbeck loved the original Blackwings. This new pencil’s name is an homage to his practice of sharpening twenty-four pencils at a time. Dressed all in black, with an extra-firm lead, the Blackwing 24 is meant to be the ultimate pencil for the easily-distracted, highly-motivated writer. It is also incredibly handsome. I went a little nuts when I first saw it online and bought four boxes. Thankfully, I love how it writes. Check out this great video of Tom Steinbeck discussing the design process and trying the Vol. 24 for the first time:
4. General’s Cedar Pointe #2: Even with these other luxurious pencils available, I still reach often for the more modestly-priced, American-made Cedar Pointe #2. I love the genuine natural wood finish, love how the pencil gradually turns darker from the oils in my hands, even love how fragrant it is. It writes with a smooth, dark line. The lead doesn’t smear and it erases well. There is an interesting history of pencil-making in the United States — a history that includes the family of Henry David Thoreau — but there are few American pencil manufacturers today. I’m happy that a pencil as good as the Cedar Pointe is still being made here.
5. Palomino Golden Bear: I started using the Golden Bear only last week, mainly because I heard it talked about so often on my favorite podcast, the Erasable Podcast. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. This is the #2 pencil we all wished we had in school. It writes well, especially for a pencil that sells for just $3 a dozen, or about 1/8 the cost of a Blackwing. Like the General’s Cedar Pointe, the Palomino Golden Bear is made in the United States. This solid performer comes in two finishes. I really like the blue, which also features an orange eraser and a dark orange stripe around the ferrule.
Here are a few of my other favorite analog tools:
I start every workday by sharpening a dozen pencils. But when asked to pick my favorite sharpener, I’m hard-pressed to choose between the Masterpiece and the Palomino-KUM Automatic. Both are manufactured by KUM, a German company. Both are inexpensive. Both are two-hole sharpeners. (The first hole cuts the wood, the second cuts the lead.) Both come with replacement blades.
These are great sharpeners, but my ideal sharpener would be a mash-up of the two. The point on the Masterpiece is slightly too long to my preference. The Automatic captures shavings, but the casing is made out of plastic and feels flimsy. In fact, I have to order a new Automatic every year because the little door breaks off. And because I carry a pencil sharpener in my pocket, I sometimes get graphite dust on my hands. In contrast, the Masterpiece is solid, with less plastic, and it comes in a neoprene pouch. (My wife and I joke that I should find a way to attach it to my belt, so I could have a pencil sharpener holster…or the world’s geekiest fanny pack.) But the Masterpiece doesn’t catch shavings. Not a problem in my office — where I use an old ashtray — but in a coffeeshop I have to collect my shavings in a saucer like Hemingway.
My ideal hand sharpener would:
- Make the point of the Automatic
- Contain less plastic, and feel more solid, like the Masterpiece
- Come with a pouch like the Masterpiece
- Catch shavings like the Automatic
While I use mostly pencils, there a couple pens I still return to often.
Zebra F-301: This has been my go-to ballpoint pen for years, in both black and blue inks. It’s the perfect length, with a stainless steel barrel and a comfortable grip. If I ever found out the Zebra F-301 was going to be discontinued, I’d work hard to buy a lifetime supply.
Pilot Precise V5 RT: I looked for years for a bold pen that could join the Zebra ballpoint as my other standard. I used the Zebra Gel and the Pilot G2s for a long time, but it wasn’t until my friend Eryn introduced me to the Precise RT that I felt good calling off the search. This is a great retractable pen. It has a rubber grip and a needle tip, and writes with a clean skip-free line. Like the Hi-Uni pencil, this pen is a tactile pleasure to use. The Precise RT comes in two sizes: .5 mm or the .7 mm. I’m wild about the extra-fine V5.
Field Notes: My everyday notebook, I always try to keep one Field Notes in my back pocket. I use it to capture ideas, observations, meeting notes, quotes I want to look up later, book and music recommendations, and more. Looking through my current Field Notes I also see grocery lists, to-do lists, some poetry, random thoughts about my fantasy baseball roster, and some changes I want to make to my blog. Many of the things I write in my Field Notes get “processed” later in my journal, in my calendar, in Evernote, or in a writing project somewhere. My favorite Field Notes is still the Oregon County Fair edition, which I can buy at Powell’s Books.
Baron Fig Confidant: My newest journal, and probably one I’ll stick with for a long, long time. Great paper, great design, and it lays flat!
Rhodia Weekly Planner: This is my third year using the Rhodia Weekly Planner. (I buy the orange edition.) Relying on a calendar on my phone just doesn’t work for me. I have to write stuff down, and I especially like writing on paper as good as Rhodia paper.
Moleskine Volant: I use the large Moleskine Volant for my Bullet Journal. I’m not wild about Moleskins, despite their impressive literary pedigree. But these notebooks will do the job until I find an alternative I really love.
Yellow Legal Pads: I use yellow, narrow-ruled legal pads for nearly all my writing drafts. I prefer recycled paper, but I haven’t yet found a recycled legal pad that doesn’t chew through my pencil lead. Right now I’m using TOPS-brand legal pads, but if you have other recommendations, let me know!
Questions: What are some of your favorite analog tools? What are some of the pencils, pens, and notebooks you find yourself returning to again and again? Are there certain types of writing projects — poetry, letters, etc. — where only analog tools will do?
Note: Scattered throughout this post are Amazon.com affiliate links. If you purchase any of these items through Amazon, I receive a tiny percentage of the sale, at no extra cost to you. I put these links in as a matter of course, because the very little I make each year through affiliate links help defray some blog expenses. That said, I actually encourage you to explore the following outlets. These are where I buy nearly all my pencil-related gear:
- CW Pencil Enterprise: A brick-and-mortar pencil store in New York City. If I’m being honest, this is higher on my to-visit list than the Statue of Liberty.
- Pencils.com: The online storefront of California Cedar Products Company. One of the best pencil collections on the web.
- JetPens: A great collection of pencils and pens, specializing in Japanese products. This is where I get my Hi-Unis, Tombows, etc.