Like many artists who work in an analog, one-dimensional format, pencils have always been part of my art kit. I sketch things out with them, then ink over it. I haven’t really used pencils as a medium in itself since high school, when there would be some sort of “pencil art” component to art classes. No, other than a token set of colored pencils I kept throughout the years, pencils was a means to an end, a necessary step to realizing my art. As such, I really haven’t given pencils much thought.
I’ve primarily used some form of “mechanical” pencil over the last three decades. Regular wooden pencils are okay, but since I would often travel with my art, they weren’t as practical as a good mechanical pencil–I would need to remember to bring a separate pencil sharpener and figure out what to do with the shavings (unless it was one that contained the shavings, and those units were bigger.) Eventually I started using what are called lead holders or clutch pencils, basically taking the long, thick lead of a traditional wooden pencil and putting it in mechanical pencil housing. They worked ok, though I hated “pointing” them–just like a wooden pencil, the tip would need to get sharpened. (And sharpened quite frequently.) That annoyance plus the inability to use them with my drafting templates as the lead was too thick to fit in the holes meant I abandoned lead holders and moved back to regular old mechanical pencils, the ones with thin leads and click-click-click.
I used a few “whatever” mechanical pencils over the years, but the first one to really “click” with me (ha!) was one I found at Japanese clothing-home goods-stationery retailer MUJI, who have a location in downtown Portland. I got a “Low Center Gravity” pencil sometime in 2019 and was smitten enough with it that I bought another one. I thought that would be the last word on pencils for me for quite a while.
But no. When I started following some stationery blogs a while back, mechanical pencils became a topic of discussion. I started reading about them, and then perusing the Jet Pens website. It became temping to try one or three, as even the “nicer” mechanical pencils don’t command the “rarefied air” prices of certain fountain pens. But it’s also easy to go down a rabbit hole and fill your head with terms like “double knock” and “retractable pipe”. So within a couple months I had bought four new mechanical pencils! What did I get?
- Zebra Techo TS-3 Mini Mechanical Pencil. I got this one because it is so tiny, just a hair under four inches long. I haven’t really used it yet. It sits comfortably in my Rickshaw Sinclair Model R pouch, there if needed.
- Uni Kuru Toga Roulette. This one goes into the territory of “overengineered Japanese stationery products”, an area that I’m starting to love. A problem with any regular mechanical pencil is how the lead wears down on one side, prompting the user to rotate the pencil to keep a “sharp” line. (You probably do this without even really noticing.) The Kuru Toga line fixes this by continuously rotating the pencil lead while you write. It’s a neat trick. You can see the mechanism rotate via the “orange window” at the grip. This is on the fancier, more “traditional drafting pencil” side of the Kuru Toga line, and has a nice balanced feel while drawing.
- Blick Premier Mechanical Pencil. This made in Japan pencil is sold exclusively by American art supply powerhouse (Dick) Blick. The trick with this one (and what makes it premier) is the retractable pipe, or lead sleeve. If you look at any traditional drafting pencil, there’s a short pipe at the lead opening, a sleeve to protect the lead when being used with drafting templates at the like. This pipe is liable to bend/break if dropped, or can poke a hole through a pocket. A retractable pipe alleviates this issue. This is sometimes a feature in more expensive drafting pencils, but this one retails for about nine bucks online. 1 I also like how this one feels, with a nice knurled grip area.
- Rotring 600. This is the fanciest of the bunch, and with a price tag a little north of $30, enough of purchase that I internally debated it for a bit. What won me over finally is the fact that this mechanical pencil is made of brass vs. the more common aluminum found in metal mechanical pencils. And I am a sucker for a brass writing instrument! The Rotring 600 is a bit of a cult pencil and features that fine German engineering (though the pencil is now made elsewhere.) It doesn’t feature a sliding pipe, but I don’t put pencils in pocket and keep them protected while in transport, so that’s not an issue with me. I really like using it! And I dig the gold color of mine, but also wish they actually had a raw brass version.
And that’s it for now. Maybe I’ll get another one (I’ve been eyeing the Platinum Pro-Use 171 with all its modes) 2 but I don’t think I can get into mechanical pencils the same way I did fountain pens–the lead is the lead, the holder is different. Nevertheless it’s still nice to have a small stable of nice mechanical pencils and pick out one to use on my feelings or need.
As for “plain-ol” wooden pencils, there’s one particular brand that gets talked about in reverent tones, and that’s Blackwing. Before I got my hands on one, I thought they were all hype, a pencil built around a “story”, much in the same way Moleskine did with their marketing. I had no intention of buying one. Then someone put a free one in with an stationery order (the black “Palomino” one) and now I’m hooked. I’ve picked up a few other versions that are waiting to be tested. 3 And I’ve also grabbed a few other brands of pencils, all of them lovely. I’ve avoided the traditional pencils for so long, it’s nice to use them again. They probably won’t be my daily carry (I still don’t like having to carry around a pencil sharpener) but they are nice to use at home. Who knows, maybe I’ll do a good ol’ pencil drawing at some point?
Mark at Just Sketches has a good post on pencils here.
1 One major knock against Blick is the online price is usually cheaper than the in-store price by a serious margin, (That is, if it is even in stock at the store, which isn’t often the case.) And to actually get the pencil for the listed online price, you’ll need to fill your cart with enough items to qualify for free shipping, usually about $69.
2 I also own a more basic Pro-Use that is in the “reserve fleet” of art supplies.
3 To note: Buying a box of Blackwings isn’t cheap, a dozen usually come out to about $30. I’ve gotten around that by buying single pencils at various shops. It’s much easier to try ’em out when paying $3 per pencil instead.
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