Last year, in honor of National Pencil Day, I published a list of my Top Five pencils. I also described a few of my other favorite analog writing tools, including some pencil sharpeners, pens, and notebooks.
Today is National Pencil Day 2017. To mark the occasion, I’m going to update my Top Five list. There’s been some movement. A young upstart has burst onto the scene and a new contender is knocking on the door.
But I also want to address a question I frequently get. It goes something like this: “You’re not in the fourth grade, so why do you still do write with a pencil?” I was asked this question again earlier this week, and I’ve been trying to articulate my answer ever since. So far, I’ve come up with six reasons:
Reason #1. Pencils aren’t connected to the Internet.
Every writer I know—and me above all—is looking for reasons not to write. We’re prone to procrastination and distraction. Suddenly we care about how neat the office is. We wander through our bookshelves. We look for inspiration in the newspaper, in our backyard, in the bathroom, at the coffee shop, in front of the TV.
The Internet, in particular, is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it gives me access to the store of all recorded human knowledge. On the other hand, it seduces me with up-to-the-second updates on spring training, celebrity dating rumors, the hottest movie trailers, and the latest antics of the Trump administration. Checking my email or social media for the twentieth time suddenly feels vitally urgent.
Some people can stay focused while writing on a computer connected to the Internet. I can’t. I might be tempted to write on a computer disconnected from the web if the next five things weren’t also true.
Reason #2. Pencils can be taken anywhere.
I keep a capped pencil with me, either in my pocket or behind my ear, wherever I go. On a hike, on a bike ride, in line, in a meeting, waiting for a friend in a restaurant, etc.—I use a pencil and a pocket notebook to capture inspiration, brainstorm, doodle, make lists, write myself reminders, work out a knotty creative problem, write some scraps of poetry, or keep my three-year-old occupied. I could pull out my phone to do all this. But the phone isn’t as pleasurable to use (see below), and again it’s too easy for me to get sucked into Instagram, the New York Times, or YouTube. (I really do have very little self-control.)
To sharpen my pencil on the go, I carry this great keychain sharpener.
Reason #3. Pencils are a tactile pleasure.
Simply put, I enjoy the physical experience of writing with a good pencil. That’s important, since it’s not unusual for me to spend four to six hours writing with a pencil on any given workday.
Once you’ve spent enough time writing with pencils you begin to notice small but important differences between them. You notice balance and weight, how soft or hard the lead is, or the unusually sharp angles of a certain hexagonal pencil. You develop a preference for lighter or darker lines, for a smoother or scratchier writing experience, for thick lacquers or natural finishes.
So much writing happens inside one’s head. I like the contrasting materiality of pencil and paper.
Reason #4. Pencils spur creativity.
There are certain things you can’t do with a pencil and paper…and that’s a good thing.
Constraints encourage creativity. This is true in many areas of life. The poet, the conscientious farmer, and a married couple submit themselves, respectively, to the poetic form, the limits of the soil, and the marriage covenant. Pushing too far beyond those boundaries drains vitality and creativity, or worse.
According to David Sax, author of The Revenge of Analog [Powell’s | Amazon], one of the reasons we’re witnessing a resurgence of vinyl records, film photography, stationery, and brick-and-mortar retail, is that artists and consumers are recognizing the power of limitations. Sax quotes Chris Mara, a veteran recording engineer and the co-owner of Nashville’s Welcome to 1979 recording studio: “People think limitations are a bad thing. But it moves the process forward, in a good way. You can easily get lost in the process. It’s easier to stick to the plan when you have limitations.”
In a chapter called “The Revenge of Paper,” Sax says “the physical constraints of a blank page present a certain creative freedom.” To illustrate this paradox, he tells the story of global branding agency Landor Associates. Years ago, every designer in the Milan office of Landor Associates received Adobe’s Photoshop software. “Overnight, the quality of their designs seemed to decline.” After a few months of this, the firm gave all the designers Moleskine notebooks, and forbade the use of Photoshop during the first week of a project. “The idea was to let their initial ideas freely blossom on paper, without the inherent bias of the software, before transferring them to the computer later for fine-tuning. It was so successful, this policy remains in place today.”
Reason #5. Pencils work(ed) for my favorite writers.
Some of my favorite writers used pencils, which makes me want to use them too.
John Steinbeck used a version of the Palomino Blackwing pencil described below, sharpening 24 of them at a time. Steinbeck said of the Blackwing:
I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.
Ernest Hemingway’s description of writing in a Paris café is one of the truest paragraphs I’ve ever read about writing tools (and writing inspirations):
I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write…A girl came in the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin…I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink. I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
My favorite writer is Wendell Berry. In an essay he wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 1987 called “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” Berry laid out the nine criteria he uses to decide when to upgrade his tools—whether those tools are for writing, farming, or other work:
- The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
- It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
- It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
- It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
- If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
- It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
- It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
- It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
- It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
For Berry, computers had been weighed and found wanting. He uses a pencil or pen and a piece of paper.
Reason #6. Pencils work for me.
It ultimately comes down to this. Writing is how I make sense of the world and my place in it. I think I’ve known this since I was six years old. What I’ve learned only recently is to trust the process. The physical act of putting pencil on paper is my “on switch.” If I can get past the procrastination, past the distractions, past the fear and the excuses, and just start writing—something will happen.
So beyond the grand statements, philosophical treatises, or the romance of literary tradition, pencils work best for me. If a computer is what work best for you, then by all means write on a computer!
But if you like pencils too, or if you want to see how much better wooden pencils can be than the crappy yellow No. 2s we were given in elementary school, here is my current Top Five list …with a bonus sixth recommendation, for the sake of symmetry.
1. Mitsubishi Hi-Uni HB
Not only does the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 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 feels thick and soft. I can use it all day without getting tired. Selling for $19 a dozen, these pencils—and the Blackwings below—are expensive. But these tools are so important to my writing life that I don’t mind paying a premium for quality. Like most non-U.S. pencils, the Japanese-made Hi-Uni HB doesn’t come with an eraser; it pairs well with a Tombow Mono small eraser.
2. Palomino Blackwing 602
The Blackwing 602 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 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. 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.
Blackwings are permanently available 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.” Palomino also releases quarterly limited editions. My number three favorite pencil last year was the Blackwing 24, an all-black, extra-firm homage to Steinbeck. The 24s are no longer available, which is why they aren’t on this year’s list. It felt extravagant at the time to buy four boxes, but now that they’re out of stock (and showing up on eBay for $85 a dozen) I’m glad I have extra.
3. 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.
4. Baron Fig Archer
Baron Fig is best known for its notebooks. Indeed, I now use various Baron Fig notebooks for my journal, daily planner, and bullet journal. But in 2016 Baron Fig debuted the Archer, a lightweight pencil that I instantly fell in love with. (Cupid’s arrow?) It is a permanent fixture in my regular pencil rotation. Baron Fig takes every aspect of the customer experience seriously, including its packaging. I encourage you to buy a quiverful of Archers today.
Earlier this month, Baron Fig released its own limited edition, a red Snakes & Ladders version of the Archer. I’ve read disappointing reviews. Still, I ordered a dozen, both because I want to try them for myself and because they are indisputably beautiful.
5. Palomino Golden Bear
I started using the Golden Bear after I heard it mentioned several times on the Erasable Podcast. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. 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 like the blue, which also features an orange eraser and a dark orange stripe around the ferrule.
Bonus Recommendation: Viking Element 1
The Viking Element 1, a Danish import, is balanced and buttery smooth. The matte black finish is so pretty, as is the box they come in. I’m not ready to declare the Viking Element my sixth-favorite pencil. For one thing, I’ve only been using it for a couple weeks. For another, I’m enjoying it so much I expect it to leapfrog the Golden Bear! Check back in on National Pencil Day 2018 to find out.
These are the three places I go to 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. Their shipping is great, and I look forward to the simple notes written by hand the the store’s distinctive yellow envelopes. The founder of CW Pencils, Caroline Weaver, just released a book that I’m excited to read, The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon.
- 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.
Don’t want to purchase a dozen before you know if you even like the pencils? CW Pencil Enterprise and JetPens let you buy singles.
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