[Blackwings: a new Palomino and an old Eberhard Faber. Click for a much larger view.]
[Note: The “pre-production” Blackwing, it turns out, is the new Blackwing. See below for an explanation.]
While waiting for two pre-production Blackwing pencils to arrive in the mail, I began thinking about an old song: “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” Sentimental reasons are reason enough to like the Blackwing: the sheer dowdiness of the design, the roster of distinguished users — Archibald MacLeish, Nelson Riddle, Stephen Sondheim, and John Steinbeck among them. Somewhere — where? — I’ve seen a photograph of Duke Ellington with Blackwing in hand. The Blackwing even boasts a slogan — “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” — as if this pencil were a personal brand, like a cigarette. Sentiment aside, the Blackwing is a pencil whose smooth lead makes writing a simple pleasure. I’d walk a mile for a Blackwing.
California Cedar Products’ choice to revive the Blackwing cannot be explained by profit motive alone. It’s a labor of love, evident most obviously in the recreation of the Blackwing’s distinctive ferrule. (The breakage of expensive-to-repair ferrule-making machinery helped bring production of the original Blackwing to an end.) The care that has gone into the new Blackwing’s manufacture is considerable: I immediately noticed that each pencil’s ferrule and imprint are in alignment, so that the Blackwing name is visible when the pencil lies flat (that’s not the case with every old Blackwing). My new sample Blackwings are not perfect: one has minute specks of gold paint on the barrel; the other has thin black streaks across the imprint. (The streaks are visible in the photograph above.) As Henry Petroski notes in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1992), few pencils, if any, turn out to be perfect when subject to close inspection.
[The new Blackwing makes a noticeably darker line, no?]
Writing with the new Blackwing is a pleasure. The lead is soft and smooth and doesn’t smear, though now and then a tiny crumb breaks off. The new Blackwing’s point wears more quickly than that of the old Blackwing, and the new pencil’s line is noticeably darker. (An older California Cedar HB Palomino pencil in my possession is, to my surprise, darker and softer still.) The new Blackwing’s eraser works well but not perfectly, leaving a slight trace of lead on a yellow legal pad and a slight sheen on a Moleskine calendar page. But this eraser doesn’t destroy paper, as the erasers on my old Blackwings do, and did, even when new.
The differences in appearance between the old and new Blackwings are many, and likely — for sentimental reasons — to be significant to the dedicated user. The brand name appears in larger and more eccentric lettering on the old Blackwing (note especially the C, K and G). The imprint on the new Blackwing is not nearly as crisp, though the lettering does have the advantage of being readable in any light. The Blackwing slogan is missing from the new pencil: perhaps the cost of printing on two sides of the barrel is prohibitive. Most important though, I think, is the change in color. The old Blackwing has been described as charcoal-grey or smoke-grey, but I prefer to think of it as graphite-grey: the Blackwing has the shiny grey look of pencil lead itself. The black, gold, and white design of the new Blackwing is not nearly as attractive. To my eyes, it suggests a now-dated idea of luxury, reminiscent of hair-tonic bottles and whitewall tires. Yipes.
My suggestion to California Cedar: the visual appeal of this pencil is likely to be as important to potential customers as the quality of the lead. Witness the speculation that just brewed as to whether the Blackwing slogan would appear on the barrel. Change the color of the barrel to graphite-grey, drop the gold band, and enlarge the Blackwing imprint. Stamp the Blackwing slogan on each pencil if that can be done at a reasonable cost. A pink — or grey? or black? — eraser would be a significant improvement. Appearances aside though, the new Blackwing offers a writing experience that will be a pleasure in any color scheme.
[I refer in this post to “the old” and “the new” Blackwing, but I am, of course, evaluating tokens, not types.]
[All photographs by Michael Leddy.]
September 13, 2010: Production Blackwings are now en route to the States from Japan. It’s not clear whether they differ in any respect from the pre-production samples.
September 15, 2010: California Cedar has been, I think, misleading — at best — in describing these pencils as “pre-production” samples. I evaluated the new Blackwing with the understanding that my comments (and those of other Blackwing fanciers) would help to shape the finished pencil. The very short turnaround time between the distribution of samples and the shipping of finished pencils to the States now makes clear that changes in design based on users’ evaluations were never in the offing. The “pre-production” Blackwing, it turns out, is the new Blackwing. So why send out “pre-production” pencils? You can read Cal Cedar’s explanation here. There’s more discussion (and a bit of subterfuge) in the comments on this post.
I for one won’t be buying — not because of the new Blackwing’s design but because of what I consider to have been a misleading marketing effort.
Blackwing, Reborn. (The Blackwing Pages)
Mark Frauenfelder, First impression of the new Blackwing pencil (Boing Boing)
Palomino Blackwing pencil (Pencil Talk)
Wiedergeburt eines Klassikers [Rebirth of a Classic] (Lexikaliker)
Other Blackwing posts
Nelson Riddle on the Blackwing pencil
Stephen Sondheim on pencils, paper
John Steinbeck on the Blackwing pencil
Saturday, August 28, 2010
By Michael Leddy at 6:46 PM