Happy National Pencil Day!
For those of you who are new to pencils, or are “seekers”, yes, National Pencil Day exists. In our culture, everything gets a holiday, and for us pencil people, this is up there with Christmas. To celebrate, I want to walk down memory lane for a bit to a year ago, when I was introduced to the pencil that changed everything for me: the Palomino Blackwing, the Holy Grail of Pencildom.
Many people in the pencil community call this pencil the “gateway pencil”, and for good reason. When you switch from using a cheap pencil, to this beauty, it’s easy to get hooked.
There is a lot of history behind the Blackwing, which I don’t have time to write about at this point; however, I do want to talk about why I love the Blackwing, and that even while I discover new, really cool pencils, I always find myself with a Blackwing very close by.
What is a Blackwing?
The Blackwing is a “series” of pencils (the Regular Blackwing, sometimes called MMX, 602, and Pearl) that are now made by Palomino. According to the Blackwing website, The roots of the Blackwing go back to the 1930s, where the Blackwing 602 was introduced by the Eberhard Faber company. In 1998, it was sadly discontinued. However, these original Blackwings can still be found on eBay for about $40 a pencil, which would be a great birthday present for yours truly. In 2010, Palomino revived this historic pencil.
There are many big figures that were advocates for the Blackwing 602, most notably for me, John Steinbeck.
“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.” – John Steinbeck
What makes the Blackwing distinct from other pencils is their unique look. Instead of the traditional rounded ferrule (the metal or plastic piece on the end that holds the eraser), there is a flat ferrule. In addition to this, the eraser is held in a clasp that fits inside the ferrule, so that it can be adjusted as the eraser goes down.
Also, the lead is slightly softer in each of the three Blackwings than the traditional Number 2 pencil; the 602 being the most firm, the Regular Blackwing (or MMX) being the softest, and the Pearl being right in the middle.
Why I love the Blackwing
The Blackwing was the first high quality wooden pencil I used. The first thing that I liked about the Blackwing was their distinct look. The Pearl has a smooth white finish that doesn’t tarnish with use. It is shiny, but doesn’t slip from your hand as you write with it. With its black eraser and gold ferrule, it is beautiful to look at. The Regular Blackwing is jet black, with a matte finish, gold ferrule, and white eraser. The 602 which is a shiny gray, with a gold ferrule and black eraser, including the original slogan “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” on the barrel is based on the original Blackwing 602 (main difference being that the original Blackwing 602 has a pink eraser)
Paired with this, the smell of a Blackwing when it is sharpened rivals a fresh pot of coffee. While the aesthetic appeal of these pencils are great, my favorite thing is the way that they write. I echo Steinbeck in saying that they “really glide over the paper”. Depending on what I am doing, depends on which Blackwing I am using.
The Regular Blackwing (MMX)
With the Regular Blackwing being the softest of the three, I don’t use this one for writing. It dulls too quickly, and no amount of smoothness can justify how often I have to sharpen it while I am taking notes or writing in a journal; however, this pencil, in my opinion, is great to use when writing in books. I can get a very noticeable, dark line without having to press too hard, causing indentations in the page of my books. I also use it in my Bible, because I am able to make dark underlining without tearing the extremely thin paper that most Bibles are printed on.
The Blackwing Pearl is probably my favorite of the Blackwings. It is the one that I used first when I bought my Blackwings, so there is that attachment that comes from first love. Besides that though, it is great to write with. The graphite in the Pearl is what Palomino calls “balanced”, in that it is right in between the Regular and the 602, which is why I really like the Pearl. It is soft enough to allow me to have a nice, dark line when I am writing, but it is also firm enough so that the point of the pencil doesn’t wear out quite as fast. I use the Pearl most of the time for journaling, and sometimes for taking notes in class, depending on how long the class period is. If it is a longer class where I cannot get up and sharpen my pencil again, I usually go with a 602, because even though the Pearl does have good point retention, it cannot withstand an hour and a half of notetaking. Although, if I really want to use a Pearl, which is often, I will use the pencil sharpener I keep on my keyring and empty the shavings into an empty coffee cup.
The Blackwing 602 is what one might call the flagship pencil in this series. It was the 602 that was originally created back in the 1930s that people fell in love which that started this craze. The 602 has the iconic look: the beautiful grey barrel, the gold ferrule, the iconic slogan “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”. One of the reasons I love the 602 is the history behind this pencil. Although it is not one of the Eberhard Faber ones John Steinbeck would have used, I think it is cool to use the same type of pencil that Steinbeck would have used to write one of his novels. Besides the heritage of the 602, I like the 602 a lot because of its smoothness while writing; it lives up to the slogan that is printed on it. It is not scratchy at all when moved across the page. It is the firmest graphite of the three, but still slightly softer than your average Number 2 pencil, which causes it to write very nice, dark lines. Its firmness also causes it to have the best point retention of the three, making it ideal, for me, for note taking in class. I don’t have to sharpen it as often as the Pearl or MMX. It is just a delight to write with.
Why you should buy a Blackwing
For people who are new to pencils, a Blackwing is a great place to start. It is the pencil that got myself, and many other people into high quality pencils. The feeling of having an aesthetically beautiful pencil in your hand is satisfying. The Blackwing also draws attention upon the user, so be prepared for questions about the wonderful thing you have in your hands. Pair that with how smooth they write, the dark lines, and the smell of cedar when you sharpen it, the Blackwing is an all around great pencil. For people that are new to pencils, spending $22 for a dozen pencils seems like a stretch. However, you will find yourself enjoying your work, or whatever task you find yourself doing, exponentially more when you are using a high quality tool like a Blackwing. So skip on going to the movies for a week, and buy a nice box of pencils. Follow the links above to purchase some Blackwings from CW Pencil Enterprise, or if you live in Louisville, KY, take a drive over to Carmichaels Bookstore on Frankfort Ave to purchase each of these as singles if you do not want to commit to the dozen.