One Writer’s Hunt for the Perfect Pencil

by Harry Marks

Hemingway used them. Steinbeck, too. I was as shocked as anyone to learn pencils are used for more than just filling in the bubbles of a Scantron sheet. In the documentary Six By Sondheim, composer Stephen Sondheim explains his love of one particular pencil, the Blackwing 602:

I work entirely with Blackwing pencils for a number of reasons. One is it’s very soft lead and, therefore, wears down very quickly, so you can spend a lot of time re-sharpening them, which is a lot easier and more fun than writing.

I can’t say I share Mr. Sondheim’s passion for sharpening. Stopping the stream every few seconds would be agony, the opposite of an easy life, but everybody’s got the right to their own happiness.

I’ve tried the 602. I wanted to like the 602. I actually do like the 602, but not for writing longer pieces. It’s fantastic for quick notes and scribblings, but wears like butter on a hot pan. The graphite just melts into the page and its lines eventually mutate into a rarely seen cuneiform language not even readable by yours truly. I needed something different, but I wasn’t sure where to look, so I did what any person with no patience and a toddleresque demand for instant gratification would do: I turned to Twitter.

My requirements were simple, but perhaps a bit lofty:

  1. A dark, crisp line
  2. High point retention to avoid constant sharpening
  3. As little pressure as possible necessary

Within hours, I’d made a deal with Tim Wasem of the educational and enlightening Erasable podcast for a swap. He’d send me a sampler pack of harder pencils and I’d send him meth an unused box of Blackwings that had been sitting on my desk for months. I’d stared at that box with guilty eyes for a long time. An unsharpened pencil is a sad thing. Who was I to deny its contents their true purpose? They deserved to have their potential revealed atop a small mountain of curled wood shavings.

Mr. Wasem’s variety pack arrived a few days ago and since then, I’ve been trying each pencil until its point runs flat, then moving onto the next. My testing ground is a Midori Traveler’s Notebook where I’ve been outlining my new novel. The lineup is as follows:

The dirty dozen (seriously, my hands have been covered in graphite for days)
  1. Palomino ForestChoice – #2
  2. General Kimberly 525 – B
  3. Tombow Mono 100 – HB
  4. Tombow Mono – B
  5. Mitsubishi Hi-uni – HB
  6. General’s Test Scoring #580
  7. Nano Dia – B
  8. Palomino – B
  9. Mitsubishi 9850 – HB
  10. Tombow Mono – 2B
  11. General’s Layout Extra Black No. 555
  12. Musgrave Test Scoring 100

Sidebar: Wondering what the “HB” and “B” gradings mean? Click here.

Rather than write up a small paragraph explaining each one (hear that high-pitched squeal? That’s the air escaping the room), here’s a list of each pencil with corresponding notes written out in that pencil’s respective graphite.

pencil samples
Isn’t this better than a dissertation on each one?

My favorites were the Mitsubishi 9850 and the General Kimberly. Both provided smooth writing experiences and required much less sharpening than the others, and since a box of Kimberlys is five dollars cheaper than the Mitsubishis on Amazon, I may stick with them exclusively for the time being.

One might ask, “Why not just use a pen?” Well, One, I did. I used a Pilot Hi-Tec-C 0.3mm to write this novel’s outline, as well as my entire third novel. However, after listening to episode 27 of Erasable and learning that water-soluble ink isn’t the best choice if I plan on revisiting my notebooks in 30 years, I decided to make a switch to a more permanent solution.

I’m still waiting on another pack of samples from another podcasting friend, Will Fanguy of the Dot Grid podcast, and if there’s anything that fer-rules in there (ha ha pencil puns, ::crying emoji::), I’ll be sure to update this post with my findings. And it’s not like I’ve used every pencil on the planet. Something tells me I’ll be searching for my own version of Sondheim’s Blackwing for a long time. I may find it on my upcoming pilgrimage to CW Pencils, I may not.

One thing, however, is certain: I have some spectacular friends in the pencil community who are eager to help a guy find the right tool for the job.

They aren’t #2. They’re #1.

That’s the last pencil pun. Promise.

UPDATE 1: Ryan Gray on Twitter was kind enough to point out my buffoonery for not remembering the fabulous folks at JetPens! If Amazon isn’t your thing, check them out instead. I’ve always been super pleased with their selection and customer service. And if you ask them for advice/recommendations, they’re always happy to offer an expert opinion.