This is the Musgrave Tennessee Red pencil presentation box:
Gorgeous, isn’t it? Just look at that reddish and golden timber. It glows:
The pencils inside are equally beautiful. They’re made of Eastern Red Cedar, in the USA, and this is the 24 pencil presentation box. I have two of these, as well as a paper box that has 12 pencils. I’ve had them for a few months, but I haven’t had the nerve to sharpen them until earlier this week. They were just too good looking to sharpen.
Now this isn’t to say that these pencils are perfect. Musgrave points out on their site that these pencils can have modest visible wear due to the soft nature of the wood, and the core may be slightly off centre. A rummage through the pencils that I have proves that these warnings are justified. But it still is a gorgeous pencil:
The pencil is lacquered which does protect the wood somewhat, and a lot of thought and care went into designing the imprint on the barrel (text, colour, font, symbols) – and a lot of restraint too. The imprint, ferrule, and eraser don’t call attention to themselves. This is a pencil that’s all about its beautiful, sweet smelling wood.
The Tennessee Red is a joy to sharpen. The cedar smell is intoxicating, and if the pencil wasn’t such a good one I may have just sharpened it all away. But it comes with a smooth, dark lead that feels and behaves like a B grade despite being a #2 (or HB) pencil. It’ll be a delight to sketch with this beauty. You can see it in action below, on a Baron Fig Confidant.
These aren’t cheap or widely available, and if you are outside the US they are even less cheap and more hard to come by. They are, however, worth the price and worth making an effort to find, and not because they are the best pencils in the world, but because it is clear that someone made an effort to make a modern American pencil that doesn’t shame its Eagle and Eberhard Faber vintage counterparts. It’s a beautiful, sweet smelling, wonderful woodcased pencil that is a joy to use and would make any stationery lover smile. And who can’t use a reason to smile these days?
Happy national pencil day! I recently bought this delightful bouquet of vintage pencils at a local stationery store. They include vintage Jerusalem Pencils (and slightly less vintage PanArt pencils, made in the same factory, post forced name change due to bankruptcy), Eberhard Faber Mongols, and A.W. Faber Castell 9000 pencils (pre-Faber Castell). I paid more than what the seller wanted, so he threw in three sharpeners.
I have the pencils a spin, to celebrate the day. My favourites are the Jerusalem Pencils Shalom 777 F pencil (which is a seconds pencil, and that’s why it probably survived for so many decades intact) and the Eberhard Faber Mongol 482 #2 pencil.
Take some time to explore local stationery stores and flea markets for NOS and vintage pencils. They all tend to work exactly as they did when they were first issued (the erasers won’t work and the wood may be a bit brittle so be gentle with your sharpening), and they are usually beautifully designed.
The Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood is one of my favourite pencils. There are those who hate its burnt caramel smell and have nicknamed it “the stink wood,” but I am not one of them. I love how the Swiss Wood smells like, how it looks like, and especially how it writes like. The pencil is a joy to hold, the tip lasts forever, and it puts down a dark and smooth line that is great for writing and sketching. Its only real downside for me is its price — the Swiss Wood is expensive, and only getting more expensive with time.
So when I saw that Caran d’Ache was creating a Swiss Wood in collaboration with Nespresso, I added it to my Cult Pens basket together with the Nespresso Fixpencil. What can be more cool that the Swiss Wood with a Nespresso theme and some added recycling thrown in? This three pack of pencils was very expensive, but I decided to treat myself.
Boy do I wish I hadn’t.
As with the rest of the Caran d’Ache x Nespresso collaboration, the pencils come in a 100% recycled box. The box is cleverly designed with coffee bean shaped cutouts that show glimpses of the pencils inside, and debossing that shows off the pencils’s shape and coffee beans to highlight what the recycling story in this collaboration is about. The rest of the “recycling story” is in the pencils’ lead, which is made of 25% coffee grounds. The pencils are made of FSC certified beech wood, which is the same as the normal Swiss Wood. You can find all this information on the back of the box:
Inside the box are three very expensive pencils. They look (and smell) just like the Swiss Wood except for the imprint on the pencil body, and the dipped end-caps.
The end-caps are metallic, and come in golden yellow, light green, and a bronzish red. They aren’t metal end-caps, but simply end-caps dipped in paint, just like the red Swiss Wood end-cap, only in different colours.
The imprint on the pencil is very similar to the original Swiss Wood, with the addition of the Nespresso logo, and the sentence: “A Recycling Story is in Your Hands”. The imprint is very crisp, and I like the font they chose for it.
Here is where things started to go downhill. The clever and beautifully designed box that holds the pencils chipped into one of them, taking out a chunk. Not great for such an expensive set.
The end-cap is only dipped in paint. For this collaboration, especially considering the price, I expected the end-caps to be made of aluminium from recycled Nespresso pods. As it is, painted end-caps are a disappointment. Here are a bunch of modern and vintage pencils that cost much less and have better end-caps than the Nespresso Swiss Wood:
Here’s a close up of the end-caps. From top to bottom they are: Nespresso Swiss Wood, Tombow Mono 100, Eberhard Faber Colorbrite (vitage), Mitsubishi Hi Uni, General’s Kimberly, Eberhard Faber No Blot (vintage). If they could do it why couldn’t Caran d’Ache?
Here’s the Caran d’Ache Swiss Wood next to the original Swiss Wood. They look very much alike, apart from the imprint and the colour of the end cap. However, it’s not what’s outside that makes or breaks the pencil (pun intended) — it’s the core.
The core of the Nespresso Swiss Wood is made of 25% recycled coffee grounds from Nespresso capsules. The Nespresso Fixpencil had a similar recycled coffee ground core and was terrible. Is the core in these pencils as bad?
It’s not that bad, but it isn’t great. The original Swiss Wood has a dark and smooth core that holds a point for a long time. The Nespresso Swiss Wood has a fragile core that is scratchy and lighter than its counterpart. It isn’t unpleasant to use to the point of being unusable, but it feels cheap, it looks cheap, it’s everything but a premium pencil in a world full of excellent premium pencils that cost less. There are actual white streaks in the writing it produces. If I want white streaks in my writing I can pick up a cheap ballpoint. For the price of these pencils I expect a better writing experience than the Swiss Wood, not a worse one.
The Caran d’Ache x Nespresso 849 collaboration produced some stunning pen designs. So far the pencil part of the collaboration hasn’t gone so well. I’d buy the Nespresso Fixpencil and toss out the lead, but I’d utterly avoid the Nespresso Swiss Wood. You get a worse pencil for a higher price, and the veneer of being good for the planet. Reduce, reuse, recycle are said in that order for a reason. In this case reduce, as I wish I had.
Caran d’Ache’s Fixpencil is their legendary clutch pencil offering. While the classic Fixpencil has a plastic body, the Fixpencil 22 is made of aluminum, giving it both an added weight and a more luxurious finish. The Nespresso Fixpencil 22 is also made of aluminum, hence the 22 in the name, but it’s aluminum body is partially made from a recycled Nespresso capsule, and it comes with a lead that’s partially produced from recycled coffee grounds. Just like the previous Caran d’Ache x Nespresso849pens, this brand collaboration is all about recycling with class.
The box that the Nespresso Fixpencil arrives in is similar to its 849 counterparts: it’s made of 100% recycled cardboard and there’s a Nespresso capsule shaped cutout in the box that shows off the colour and texture of the Fixpencil. Clever embossing and tasteful design and branding make this a superb gift to give to someone who enjoys using pencils (with a caveat that I’ll get to later). The box is the most recycled thing about the product (being 100% recycled), but at least Caran d’Ache is honest and transparent about the quantity of recycled materials inside the fixpencil and lead: 25% of each, respectively. So there is a fair bit of “greenwashing” going on here.
The clever design of the box continues once you open it. It really shows off the beauty of the Fixpencil design and just how vibrant and warm the orange “ochre” colour is. It glows. You can also see the subtle texture the Fixpencil has.
Here is my first, albeit minor, quibble with this product: it’s not ochre. It’s reddish orange. It’s mandarin. It’s anything but the yellowish brown that ochre brings to mind. I have no idea why it was so poorly named.
Caran d’Ache 849s and Fixpencils normally have very little branding on them. The Caran d’Ache brand is tucked discreetly under the clip and generally all that you see is the “Swiss made” with a white border around it just above the clip. The Nespresso collaborations are different in that Caran d’Ache adds an additional imprint to the pen/pencil: “A Recycling Story is in Your Hands”.
Of course the normal logos are where they usually are, with the addition of the Nespresso logo to the Caran d’Ache logo under the clip.
The Fixpencil is a joy to use because of its form factor, which is just like the 849, and the wonderful finish on the pencil body, which adds subtle texture that makes the Fixpencil fun and easy to hold.
And now we come to the worst part of this collaboration: the pencil lead. The Nespresso Fixpencil doesn’t come with the normal fabulous Caran d’Ache pencil leads. Instead it comes with a pencil lead that has 25% coffee grounds in it and is supposedly a B grade lead. It’s terrible. The lead is scratchy, so light that it writes like an F or even an H grade lead, and hard to erase. After testing in on my standard pencil testing Baron Fig notebook, I threw it out and replaced it with a standard 2B lead from my regular stash. Not recycled, but actually usable.
Here’s a close up where you can see in the word “scratchy” where the lead actually dug into the paper.
The Caran d’Ache Nespresso Fixpencil is a joy to use and will make for a fabulous gift once you pair it with a box of good quality B or 2B pencil leads. It’s a beautiful take on an already great product that I just wish also included the normal Caran d’Ache lead lineup.
As I’ve recently overhauled my sketching tools and have grown to like my new setup, I’ve decided to document my current sketching kit, as a reference to myself and others.
First up are my pen and pencil cases, the Nock Co Sinclair and Tallulah. I used to use the Sinclair as my main sketching case because:
It can hold much, much more than three pens. Much more. Mine had four Staedtler Fineliners, two or three Japanese brush pens, a white gel ink pen, five Faber Castell Pitt brush pens, a mechanical pencil, an eraser, a woodcase pencil, a sharpener, a waterbrush, and a folded paper towel square.
It has two zippers, which means that you can sneak in extra large pens, like the Sailor Fude ones, or full length pencils, and still zip the case around them.
The Sinclair is no longer my main case and I now use it to store a more extensive selection of sketching tools (mostly Faber Castell Pitt brush pens). The reason is that it can hold so many pens that I was tempted to fill it to the brim and bring all those pens with me. As I decided that to gain speed I needed to pair down my sketching tools and expand my watercolour palette, I replaced the Sinclair with the much slimmer Tallulah.
The Tallulah is marketed as a two pen case. Oh, Brad. I have four Staedtler Fineliners, a Uni-ball Signo Broad white gel ink pen, a woodcased pencil, three (!) Sailor Fude fountain pens and a waterbrush. If the Tallulah had two zippers instead of one I could have closed the case. As it is, I keep it open and propped up in my sketching bag, as sort of a pen organizer. If I need the Tallulah to close, I can pare down my pens to one or two Sailor Fude pens, lose the waterbrush (if I keep two Sailor Fude’s in my kit), and replace the woodcased pencil with a mechanical one, or lose the pencil entirely as I generally work directly in pen and watercolour these days.
The Tallulah is so slim and light that it really works with my low profile sketch kit. It’s actually the anchor around which I built my new kit, with the other two being the Stillman and Birn Alpha sketchbook that I’m using, and my Schmincke watercolour tin.
If you are an artist looking for a storage solution for your pens and pencils, I highly recommend giving the Nock Co Sinclair and Tallulah a try. They are handsome workhorses that can take a beating (especially the zippers) and can hold many more pens than you would normally imagine.
Today is national pencil day, which is just an excuse to showcase my latest vintage pencil finds from visiting a very old local stationery shop. Oftentimes shops like these still have new old stock of vintage pencils, and in my case I’m usually looking for local Jerusalem Pencils, but I often find other interesting things along the way.
In this case I got a very large haul of Eberhard Faber Mongol #2 pencils, which I think are really good looking in terms of typography and ferrule design. Most of them are unsharpened, which is a bonus treat, although as usual with vintage pencils time has rendered their erasers unusable.
The real find for me were some very old Jerusalem Pencils (based on the logo), in this case coloured pencils (black and red). These are very waxy with relatively little pigment, but I don’t intend to draw with them anyway, and it just tickles me that didn’t translate “sunset” to “שקיעה” (or sunset in Hebrew) but rather chose to transliterate it, to give the pencil a more cosmopolitan feel.
Carpenter pencils are something I rarely find in stationery stores but do sometimes find in flea markets. In this case I lucked on three perfect Jerusalem Pencils Carpenter 199 pencils.
Even rarer for me are these Jerusalem Pencils Office 46 red and blue dual pencils. One of them is badly warped and another is slightly warped, but they still have their handsome imprint with an art deco-y font.
These are more modern, as they have the Pan Art imprint, which means that they were likely made after Jerusalem Pencils was forced to rebrand itself after its bankruptcy. They’re charcoal pencils, and it will be interesting to give them a spin. I love the font selection here as there’s a lovely flow to it.
These are the last Jerusalem Pencils of the bunch, Pan Art coloured pencils from the 1000 and the Al Greco 6000 line. These are quite modern but I still haven’t seen them too often so I added them to the pencil pile.
Here’s a pencil that I’m pretty sure was made by Jerusalem Pencils, but there’s no telling it if was under that name or Pan Art. It was sharpened at both ends so you can just make out that it’s an HB pencil, and enough of the imprint is left to know that it was made in Israel and is called Oriole.
And here we enter the realms of the unknown pencil brand, where I just bought pencils for their imprint and style, such as this Patented Drawing “Liberty” pencil:
Which was made by the Pai-Tai Industrial Co LTD.
These Student 101 pencils from a Croatian company called TOZ Penkala (thank you to a penaddict slack user for helping me with this):
These L&C Hardtmuth Studio 941 7 and 18 pencils that just have the best imprint font and logo:
These Marco 4100 coloured pencils which I bought for the Comic Sans “Superb Writer” imprint, it made me laugh.
And these random pencils all bought for their imprints: Springer, Factis “Eraser Pencil” 3012, and Warm Heart Color Pencils.
Of all of these I’ll probably only be using the Mongols, but I find having the others fun, and I may be able to swap a few of them for some other vintage pencils that I can enjoy.
If you follow any makers on YouTube you probably saw this ugly yet somehow charming little mechanical pencil in action. The Paper Mate SharpWriter is a strange beast, full of surprises. It’s a mechanical pencil with a twist mechanism in the tip instead of a click mechanism under the cap, it actually has a serviceable eraser, and it’s non-refillable. It’s as if Paper Mate saw the “Think Different” ad and said, “yes, but how can we apply that to a mechanical pencil?”
First of all, you can buy the Paper Mate SharpWriter in many different widths, as long as they’re all 0.7mm. This has the added value of saving Paper Mate the need to indicate the lead width on the pencil, because there’s only one width to rule them all. I can’t honestly fault them for that. It’s a pencil that’s meant for students and bills itself as having less lead breakage, and so 0.7mm is the way to go.
There are some interesting things going on with the business side of this pencil. First and foremost, that’s where the lead propelling mechanism is, which caught me by surprise. It’s a twist mechanism, and it’s pretty sophisticated as it allows you to easily extend and retract the lead to suit your needs. The second part is the “lead cushioning mechanism” which means that the lead springs up and down as you right, preventing you from breaking it if you exert too much pressure. It works, but I’m not a fan as it makes me feel as if the lead is broken inside and I have to extend it to get rid of the small broken piece and reach the “real” lead left inside. It’s going to take some time for me to get used to it.
The eraser is downright phenomenal, as it actually erases things quite well, and doesn’t tear into the page. The lead itself is a solid HB 0.7mm lead that is smooth and on the slightly darker side of HB.
The Paper Mate SharpWriter isn’t a pretty of fancy mechanical pencil, but it’s comfortable to hold, lightweight, and has a playful colour scheme that recalls a woodcase pencil. And like a woodcase pencil, it’s disposable, which is where my only real beef with this pencil lies. Yes, this is a student pencil, and so it’s likely to get lost or somehow broken (it’s far from flimsy, but where there’s a will, there’s a way), and if the pencil won’t be lost, the leads will, and yet… The last thing the world needs is more plastic waste.
So, do I recommend the Paper Mate SharpWriter? No, and not because there’s anything wrong with the pencil, it’s just that there’s very little justification for a disposable mechanical pencil when there are cheap, good and even great refillable options to be had in the market.
But I do understand the makers who have fallen for this ugly duckling.
Black erasers have become more common in recent years, with the Boxy perhaps being the most well known of the bunch. I have a few that I use regularly, and a few that just lounge in my stationery drawers waiting to be used. As I’m streamlining my sketching kit and the boxy is now the eraser I carry in it, I decided to test it out against the competition, starting with other black erasers.
In terms of price they’re all around the same price range with the Muji eraser being the cheapest of the bunch, and the dust catch and boxy being on the more expensive side of things.
I took out my Baron Fig Confidant, since I do all my pencil tests on it, and scribbled in it in a variety of pencils and even using a Caran d’Ache red blue pencil, though I don’t expect regular erasers to do well with coloured pencils.
The pencils that I used were the Blackwing 811 (a darker, softer pencil), a Viarco 3500 No. 2 (a standard HB pencil) and a vintage Eagle “Chemi-Sealed” Turquoise H pencil. These seemed like a fairly representative bunch of general writing pencils, at least in terms of graphite behaviour. Though I did later check them for art use, these erasers are meant to be used when writing more than when drawing.
I did a single eraser pass on the left hand side of the page, and on the right side I split each scribble into two and tried to erase it completely (leaving an untouched graphite barrier in between each side).
Then I tried to erase the coloured pencil, which I wasn’t expecting much success in, and here are the results:
A closeup on the one pass side. You’d normally not erase this way, but it does give a good indication of how good the eraser is going to be:
A closeup on the H pencil one pass attempt. I deliberately pressed down on the H pencil, because from my experience H pencils are easy to erase when you apply little or no pressure to them, but they’re pretty tenacious if you apply normal or strong pressure on them.
Here’s the split scribble test above and the H scribble test below:
Finally the Caran d’Ache red/blue eraser test:
At this point I was ready to give the victory to the Boxy, with the Mono Dust Catch a pretty close second, the Staedler Rasoplast in third place and the Muji eraser trailing behind. The Boxy and the Dust Catch also had the easiest “eraser crumbs” to clean (long threads of the stuff, easily brushed aside), and the Muji had the smallest and the worst. None of the erasers damaged the paper, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering that they’re all pretty soft.
I’d also point out that none of these erasers are what I’d call “best”. They’re good erasers, but even the boxy left graphite ghosts behind. There are better erasers on the market, but these in general behaved better than average (even the Muji), and the Boxy and Dust Catch are pretty good. They held up well even against the Caran d’Ache red/blue pencil, which surprised me.
Even though these aren’t “art” erasers, I decide to try to draw some doodles in pencils, ink them with a fine liner and check how much ink each of these erasers lifted.
Here’s the inking. You can see the pencil marks beneath, and I waited for the ink to completely dry before trying to erase the underdrawing.
The results were “ravishing” as to be expected:
You can look at the closeup below and see just how much ink was lifted. These are all terrible for art use, which again, isn’t surprising. I drew an ink line for reference under these, just so you can see how much ink was lifted. Also the top line of left hand dude’s sleeve wasn’t erased so you can compare that too:
The Muji erased faired the best at this part of the test, although I still wouldn’t recommend using it to erase underdrawings.
Of the four erasers that I tested, the Boxy and Dust Catch are the best, and of these two the Boxy is the one I would choose, because of its compact size and its slightly better performance. None of these erasers are terrible, but if you’re investing in a good box eraser (and you should) the Boxy is definitely one to consider.
And why are these black? Presumably to not show dirt, though I find that both frivolous and counterproductive. If the eraser shows dirt, then you know that may need to clean it on a bit of scrap paper before using it, so that it won’t transfer that dirt onto your clean paper. However, I suspect that the real reason is that black erasers just look cool, and the rest is just plain marketing.
I was going to write a blog post reviewing the Viarco 3500, and so I started writing a page of notes in my usual pencil review notebook (the Baron Fig Confidant). Once I started writing I realized two things:
The Viarco 3500 is a good looking but boring pencil. It’s an HB/No. 2 pencil that’s slightly gritty, slightly dark and soft and not much different than other branded pencils of its kind, like the Ticonderoga or the Palomino Golden Bear.
I wanted to reflect about the difficulties of drawing.
So here’s my page of notes on the Viarco turned into reflections on the drawing process:
This isn’t a “woe is me” post. It’s a “embrace the suck and take courage” post. Perspective is HARD. But it’s worth learning. And learning again. And learning again. And boy is it worth practicing. Why? Because while nobody is born knowing how to draw in perfect perspective, practically everybody can tell when the perspective is “off”. You can tell yourself that it’s an “aesthetic choice,” however, I do believe that you are cheating yourself out of something when you don’t even try to get the basics down. I know, I tried to do that for literally years. I have good enough hand-eye coordination that I could cheat some people some of the time. Then I tried learning it from books. I drew the boxes, the shaded ball, the room with the door and window, and I told myself that since I copied them so well, I now “knew perspective”. Hah. The minute a teacher sat me down and told me to draw the corner of a room, a still life of some boxes and a vase, and an old shoe the truth was all too apparent. I didn’t grok the principles behind those boxes and skylines and spheres and so I couldn’t extrapolate from them to the real world. I now have 11 plus years of knowing groking those principles and I still tell you that it’s hard.
You can cheat, and I did and sometime do cheat, the eye with colour and crosshatching, but it doesn’t take an art critic to point out that something is “off” in the drawing. The same goes for poor composition choices, muddy pigment mixtures, colours that unintentionally clash and cause unease. These are all very technical skills that require a good amount of studying and a great amount of practice to master. It doesn’t help that most of them are difficult to learn from books and tutorials and are still best taught in a live art class. It’s also frustrating that you usually work and work and work with little or no progress for some time and then suddenly your hand and eye and mind click and you jump forward a level or two. It’s so easy to give up before that. I have several times in the past. Then I found a new teacher and I got back to the grind.
Why do it? You don’t have to. Instagram and Facebook likes are independent of your drawing skills, and more related to tags, followers and how colourful and eye catching your work is. If you’re doing it for that, then there’s no point in doing it. But mastering the basics allows you to advance all your drawing skills at once, with great leaps and bounds. Every breakthrough I had with the basics allowed me to draw better, faster, with more confidence and to tackle subjects and locations that I otherwise would have avoided.
So, the Viarco 3500… It’s a good looking pencil to have around. Perspective, colour theory and composition? If you have any interest in drawing I highly recommend investing in mastering them.
When I was in London last year I picked up a few stationery items from Muji, most of them pencils that I hadn’t seen at Muji’s before. One of these items was a six pack of 2B natural wood-cased pencils. They looked gorgeous, they were very fairly priced, and 2B wood-cased pencils are my go to sketching tool (unless I think that there’s a chance that I may want to watercolour over the sketch, in which case it’s H for the win). If you have any interest in sketching, the 2B pencil is your best friend.
I don’t know what kind of wood the Muji natural wood-cased pencils are made of, but whatever it is it has a beautiful grain, it sharpens very well, and it smells lovely (though I doubt that it’s cedar). The pencils aren’t lacquered, but they do have a satiny finish that makes them lovely to hold and use, and like other Muji products, they have no logo on them, just the 2B grade boldly stamped in black foil.
Because of the natural finish and the woodgrain each pencil is unique and distinct, which is a nice bonus to natural pencils. They have no attached eraser, which is standard for sketching pencils.
They sharpen really well, whether using a knife or a sharpener. They don’t hold a point for long, but if you’re using them for sketching, you can just use a knife sharpened pencil and rotate the pencil to get much longer use out of it. The graphite doesn’t crumble or break easily, and it’s got a standard 2B darkness and point retention.
The Muji 2B natural wood-cased pencil writes a smooth, dark line that doesn’t smudge (unless you’re very determined), erases well and has the shading range that I expect from a 2B pencil (this shading range is what makes the 2B pencil the “goldilocks” sketching pencil grade). These are totally going into my sketching kit, and if I ever get a chance I’ll be buying at least another six pack again. I “chew” through 2B pencils at a terrifying rate, so these will come in handy. They are an absolute joy to use.
Yesterday was International Dog Day and so I decided to draw my friend’s rescue puppy. Nobody wanted this fellow because he’s blind in one eye, and it’s their loss because he’s a delightful scamp and a 14/10 dog. I’m so glad that he got a forever home.