Saturday, August 28, 2010

The new Blackwing pencil

[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.

[Old imprint.]

[New imprint.]

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 about 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.

Other Blackwing posts
All Blackwing posts (Pinboard)
Duke Ellington, Blackwing pencils, and aspirational branding
The Palomino Blackwing pencil and truth in advertising
Palomino Blackwing non-users
Nelson Riddle on the Blackwing pencil
Stephen Sondheim on pencils, paper
John Steinbeck on the Blackwing pencil

Other reviews
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)

comments: 21

Other Elaine said...

My favorite part of this post: 'Click for a much larger view.'
That just makes me curl over a bit 'cause it's just so....cute.

Adair said...

I will send my thoughts to Cal Cedar, but here are a few impressions:

I find the new Blackwing to be even smoother and darker of lead than the original. The smoothness is simply exquisite---I mean EXQUISITE. I didn't experience any crumbling of the lead. Of course, being a softer lead, it requires more frequent sharpening, so I can only hope that the new Blackwing will not be too expensive---I see myself going through one to two per day, maybe more. This is the best lead that I have ever experienced, superior to the Palomino, the vintage Blackwing and the best Japanese pencils. It is THE new pencil of our time!

I agree that a dark-blue or graphite-gray lacquer would be beautiful, and closer to the original, but if it shoots up the price of the pencil, then please keep the matte black. I can live with it. I found the eraser to leave many "ghosts," but all my erasers had trouble with this very black lead. I also agree with the need for better stamping of the gold lettering, and I, too, had many gold flecks on the barrel. The return of the classic motto would be nice. But the bottom line is, I would buy this pencil even as it is in the pre-production model.

Cal Cedar included some packaging proposals, and I will urge them strongly to stick to a box with an elegant, simple typography and the pencil logo instead of the proposed sketch of a sports car, which reminds me of a cheap drawing pencil set. It would be even better if they could reproduce the Rodchenko-like typography of the Blackwing boxes from the 40's...It is critical that these pencils be marketed not only to artists but to writers and musicians as well. No sports car drawing, please!

All of this aside, I must conclude that the new Blackwing seems to me to have improved upon the original, which I didn't think possible. I only hope that it proves affordable to use on a daily basis and that it doesn't become a luxury pencil. If the price of the new Blackwing is reasonable, we will be free, finally, of the overblown ebay market.

I am honored to have been among the first to test this remarkable pencil, and I thank Cal Cedar for bringing back the favorite tool of legendary American artists, writers and musicians. I wish Cal Cedar complete success. Put me down, please, for a gross!

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine, these pencils will be much better for crosswords than that inkless pen. :)

Adair, I was very interested to read your thoughts. I think we’re in agreement about the writing experience. I’d be willing to pay more for a pencil that comes closer to the original, but I don’t see myself going through a pencil or two a day. :) By the way, the “crumb” of lead is just the tiniest speck. Perhaps it’s a matter of my sharpener (though it didn’t happen with the old Blackwing).

I’ll have to look at that page that came with the pencils. I thought it was some sort of advertising for school supplies (colored pencils) and didn’t realize it had to do with the Blackwings. I agree, the car (and tree) need to go.

Adair said...

I forgot to mention that I tested the new Blackwing on refined Rhodia paper, average Moleskine paper, and rough canary-yellow scrap paper. On each, it literally glided over the page. Breathtaking! This pencil is not twice but three times the speed! Also, I not only tested it against the last 1990's Blackwing but against the 1930's version as well (thanks, Sean!). The 1930's Blackwing was significantly darker and smoother than that of the 1990's, although the last incarnation of the Blackwing could hold a point longer. The new Blackwing proved even darker and smoother than the 1930's model, but it shared its need for more frequent sharpening.

Gunther said...

Michael, thank you for your review and for sharing your observations – I am impressed by your attention towards even the smallest details! Your suggestions for the design changes are great as well.

Robert M. said...

Thanks for the review. I have to admit I'm a little underwhelmed by the aesthetics of the new pencil. The old one looks so much cleaner and better-executed...the new one's paint job reminds me a bit of the Ohto pencils I have laying around. I do hope that they can bring up the quality finishing a bit.

I'm curious about the softness. I have some Mitubishi Uni 4B penmanship pencils (in the USA you can get them from JetPens) which supposedly have a special formula for smooth writing, and they are indeed very soft and smooth (I like them more than 2B Palominos), but they dull rather quickly, and fine points on them can snap pretty easily in some situations. Is the new Blackwing's lead at that level of softness? Just curious.

I've found that the 2B Mono 100, while not the same waxy feeling, is my favorite general combination of darkness, smoothness, and point strength and retention. Most of my other 2Bs are just too fragile.

WoodChuck said...

Michael - Thanks for the post. I definitely look forward to your more detailed feedback on the questionaire as well as from Adair. And I definitely appreciate your participation in this process.

Sticking to my prior comment on Sean Malone's Blackwing Pages blog I am trying to refrain from specific responses to feedback and comments directly related to our new product itself until I have most all of the data in.

I would like to clarify however a point about the packaging concepts mentioned by Adiar which I thought had been communicated as part of our mailing. This is that none of the specific creative artwork on the packaging concepts shown are final artwork. Both Adair and your comments with respect to the style of art relative to the traditional users of the Blackwing box is spot on and in fact I had already communicated similar instruction to our designer for the next round.

Also, I find your last comment about the difference in graphite performance from the 1930s to 1990s production interesting. I had not specifically considered that this is another potential variable in any comparison between original and new Palomino Blackwing.

Finally, I am currently working on a series of posts for my Timberlines and What's new blogs to address our overall Blackwing revival project to begin this comming week. These will certainly address feedback and many comments being raised here in your post and elsewhere though cannot all be completed until I have all or most of our feedback from these samples.

Thanks again for participating.

Michael Leddy said...

Adair, I’d add that I switched off to a Mongol No. 2 while using Blackwings. The Mongol point felt like a sewing needle by comparison. Scratch, scratch.

Gunther, I look forward to reading your review.

Robert, I don’t have the Mitsubishi pencils you mention. Maybe someone else can make that comparison.

Chuck, thanks so much for the chance to be part of the Blackwing story. I look forward to the finished pencil.

Anonymous said...

I want some soooooooooooooooooooooo bad. (Badly? I'm an economist, not an English major (but boy do I wish my English skills were better.)

I wants it, my precious.

Michael Leddy said...

Lisa, they’re coming this fall.

With to get and to want, bad is correct.

I got it bad, and that ain’t good. (Duke Ellington–Paul Francis Webster)

I want you. I want you so bad. (John Lennon–Paul McCartney)

Adair said...

I've been using the Palomino Blackwings all day. The balance of these pencils is perfect, perhaps superior to the original Blackwing, which could feel top-heavy sometimes with the large ferrule. I don't know how this was achieved, as the ferrule seems identical to the original. The only potential problem is the frequent sharpening required. This Blackwing does not hold a sharp point for very long at all, which is the trade-off for the smooth, soft black lead. If there is any way to lengthen the longevity of the point, yet retain the astonishing smoothness of the lead, I would urge Cal Cedar to try it. But I'm not a metallurgist or chemist, so forgive me if this is an absurd suggestion. The frequent sharpening cuts into the life of the pencil significantly---I doubt mine will live long enough to require eraser replacements. This could be a turn-off for writers, even if I happen to welcome the frequent pauses for sharpening, rather like stopping to light a cigarette between paragraphs---good for collecting one's thoughts!

I have not yet experienced any lead crumbling at all, not even of small fragments, but it could be because I use a Carl Decade sharpener, which makes an exceedingly clean, sharp point. I must try a "Granate" hand-held sharpener from Germany, but I'm afraid to trust these great pencils to anything but the Carl...

So far, these pencils have lived up to my first positive impressions.

Michael Leddy said...

Adair, you really know pencils. I agree that a longer-lasting point would be great.

Stephen said...

Michael, thanks for the detailed review. Lots of great observations!

(And the L and the A forming a ligature is another unusual characteristic of the old imprint.)

Michael Leddy said...

The ligature: great catch, Stephen!

Jenny Lerew said...

Hello Michael-great review. I don't think I would write any of it any differently myself-and I've got to whip up a post of my own for my blog as I too received the packet from Cal Cedar to try them out.

I didn't notice the "crumbling", but I and-so far-my other Blackwing-loving animator colleagues at work agree that the new version is darker, doesn't keep a sharpened point as long, and to me is also "louder" on the paper(a finely milled Disney-exclusive bond paper used for 2D animating and story work, made to withstand a lot of erasure and flipping)...seems rougher in its travel across the page.

My notes to the company noted the same dismay at the aesthetic differences on the wood, and the unfortunate suggested packaging design. I agree, it seemed cheap-looking. Not paramount when it's the actual tool that matters--but not doing them any favors in selling them, either. The whole Blackwing history is too special to sell with what looks like a clip art design on the box.

That said, while it isn't exactly the 602 (yet?), it's pretty close-and a damn fine drawing pencil. I'll buy them, that's certain.

Michael Leddy said...

Jenny, I look forward to seeing your review. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Unknown said...

I am among the pre-production testers eagerly awaiting the release of the Palomino Blackwing - as is. Quite frankly, I have never found that the production standard of the original BW was all that high, certainly not as high as Palomino products consistently are. The original Blackwing wasn't initially designed and marketed as the pencil it has become in legend (once it wasn't available anymore). Scarcity (and bloggers) have made it into a $20 - $35 pencil, which seems ridiculous to me. The original Blackwing was a very nice pencil, as were the Microtimic drafting pencils that are its cousins- it seems to me that the Blackwing was a re-packaging of the Microtomic drafting pencil into something for the day-to-day user - less specialized than drafting pencils, not more specialized as the perception is now. All I am interested in is a pencil with a wonderful core and a little style - it doesn't have to be an exact clone. I will be more than happy buying the Palomino Blackwings and I will leave the overpriced originals for the purists to scramble over on eBay.

Michael Leddy said...

Llaughy, the rising prices for Blackwings are hardly the work of “bloggers”: they’re a matter of people with significant amounts of disposable income who will pay for an object that means something to them. I am not one of those people. I would imagine that they’re mostly executives and lawyers.

It amuses me that you refer to “pre-production” pencils when, as we now know, these pencils are shipping as they are, even with, it now seems, the little bits of gold paint on the barrels. That the new Blackwing is not a clone doesn’t bother me (read what I wrote about the writing experience). Nor would it bother me if a pencil were produced that did not take my suggestions (or someone else’s) into account. What bothers me is Cal Cedar’s representation of these pencils as “pre-production” — it’s misleading, at best.

Unknown said...

I attribute the building of the Blackwing legend to the bloggers - I don't imagine the "executives and lawyers" would have know about them otherwise.

There is a detailed description of the decision making process behind the release of the PB "as is" on the Timberlines blog (posted yesterday). After reading that I don't agree with your assessment that we have been mislead.

Michael Leddy said...

Well, you’re entitled to your point of view, but not to your own facts. I for one was aware of high-priced Blackwings on eBay long before I saw anyone writing about them online. Do you think John Steinbeck and Stephen Sondheim (to name two Blackwing users) were influenced by what “the bloggers” have to say?

I linked in my post to the item you mention. Did you notice?

Michael Leddy said...

With benefit of hindsight, I’ve come to suspect that Llaughy is yet another Cal Cedar employee leaving comments that serve the company’s interest. See here, here, and here.