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.
So a few years back I was at the main branch of a local art supply change while they were getting rid of a large amount of inventory by slashing down its prices. I was there to stock up on art supplies, and most of the sale inventory consisted of poorly made knock-off pens and no-name novelty print pencils, so I skipped the sale baskets and made a beeline for the tills. As I was standing in line my eye caught a small basket in the corner of the nearest sale table. It looked like it was full of Faber-Castell 9000 pencils offered at a 10th of the price of a Faber-Castell 9000. I left the line and went to investigate.
Now my go to pencil for sketching is the Faber-Castell 9000, and although they are excellent pencils, they are not cheap, and I use to go through quite a lot of them. Here I was offered a pencil that looked like a Faber-Castell 9000, was made by Faber-Castell, at a “practically free” price. I couldn’t test them, as they were all unsharpened, but I dug in and grabbed a few of the weird assortment of harnessed on offer: 2B, HB and 4H.
They were Faber-Castell Regent 1250 pencils made in Brazil, and what little I could find about them was people saying that they don’t compare to 9000s. I of course planned to add them into my rotation, which is why I almost immediately lost them. This happens quite often with pencils in my house, since my cat loves to steal them and play with them, so I usually hide the good ones and let him play with ones that I care less about. The result is that when it comes time to looking for a certain pencil I only have a vague idea about the various areas it can be in.
Now that I’ve found them, to the review:
The Faber-Castell Regent 1250 are Brazilian made pencils that look like twins of the Faber-Castell 9000, minus the grey band on the tip. They don’t seem to be widely available outside Brazil, which is both frustrating and understandable. The Regent 1250 poses a risk to the 9000 sales: it’s a much cheaper counterpart that offers graphite performance that’s on par with the 9000. Artists aren’t usually swimming in money, and if FC made the 1250 widely available my guess is that their 9000 sales would take a significant hit.
The Regent 1250’s body is where is where it falls short of the 9000, though I sincerely believe that not enough to justify the reviews that it has gotten so far. The 1250 is cheap and offered in Brazil because it’s made of abundant cheap Brazilian wood. The result is a pencil with a woodcase that doesn’t sharpen as nicely or easily as a 9000, and that has a somewhat rougher finish when it comes to the lacquering.
The wood is not terrible, and it doesn’t chip and break in large chunks. You just have to put a little more elbow grease when sharpening with a sharpener. If you sharpen with a knife you probably won’t feel the difference at all. The lacquer isn’t pretty: you can see pits and bumps in it, though they are not deep enough for you to actually feel them. The wood on the pencil isn’t consistent in its looks or particularly attractive.
These pencils only look premium from a distance. Up close they look battered and bruised. However, these are meant to be artist tools not museum pieces, and what’s most important about them is their graphite. Everything else has to be good enough, and so far it’s been good enough.
I doubt that if I saw two sketches, one made with 9000s and one made with 1250s, that I could tell the two apart. The graphite looks and behaves practically the same, both in drawing and erasing.
It’s so tempting to look down at these pencils as cheap trash, but look what you can create with them:
The graphite is smooth, the pencils hold a point for a long, long time, and they’re a joy to use, especially since I don’t have to feel so precious about them.
If anything I wish I could have purchased a wider range of Regent 1250, but seeing how they work I doubt that FC would ever widely offer them outside Brazil, as they would cannibalize the sales of their 9000.
It’s frustrating knowing that a company has the ability to offer a good product for artists at a non-premium price and chooses not to. I understand the market forces at play, but I still find them annoying. And to all those who had a chance to use a 1250 and looked down on it: don’t judge a pencil by its lacquer.
Since I’ve been working from home I’ve had more time to dig into my stationery and art supply stash and add new things into my rotation. My favourite lead holder is a vintage Eagle Turquoise Prestomatic 3377, which is all metal and a little on the heavy side, but it’s a fabulous sketching tool. If I want to carry something lighter around I fall back to the all time classic Staedtler Mars technico.
I use these lead holders as sketching tools, and so they normally hold B or 2B leads from Staedler, Mitsubishi, or Caran d’Ache. Good quality leads aren’t cheap, so I expect any lead holder I use to protect them sufficiently well, as well as provide a solid grip that works in many drawing angles. Any added bells and whistles, like clips, a lead sharpener or a built in eraser, are just not things that I’ll use, so I don’t take them into account when I decide whether to purchase a lead holder or not.
The Caran d’Ache Fixpencil is not a new lead holder on the market, but it is a new lead holder for me. Something about its price range and design made me think that it’s a lead holder for people who like to write with lead holders, not so much for people who like to sketch with them. Lead holders ordinarily have a very functional, “tool-like” vibe to them, and not a lot of polish. Contrary to that, the Caran d’Ache Fixpencil is a sleek and polished thing of beauty.
Having used the Caran d’Ache 849 I was worried that the Fixpencil would have the same slippery texture, with a grip that isn’t up to the task. If I’m drawing with a lead holder, then I’m working fast and loose, and the last thing I want to worry about is the holder flying out of my hands. Unlike other lead holders, the Fixpencil doesn’t have a knurled or striated grip, but rather uses a sandpaper like texture on its grip section instead. As I shift my drawing angle a lot, I find that texture really unpleasant. I also wonder how superficial it is, and whether it will wear down to sleekness after a relatively short time.
The Fixpencil is a thing of beauty, with the same minimal branding as the 849, and the same clip and body design. Apart from the clip, there are no bells and whistles here, but that doesn’t detract from the holder. It comes with a B Caran d’Ache technograph lead, which is excellent.
I watched an live streamed concert from Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, and sketched the singer using the Fixpencil and a Leuchtturm1917 Sketchbook and it worked well. I would never use it as my main lead holder, as I don’t like the grip, but your milage may vary, especially if you plan to write and not sketch with it.
If you’re just starting your sketching journey I’d recommend the Staedtler Mars technico line, whether vintage or new. They are ugly ducklings, but they are great, relatively cheap workhorses. I’d recommend trying the Fixpencil before you buy it, as you may find its grip section as unpleasant as I found it, or it may be one of your favourite tools.
I was searching for a craft knife when I stumbled upon this cool pencil just lying around, being beautiful but of no use to anybody:
I’m pretty sure that I bought it somewhere in London, perhaps in the London Graphic Centre or in stationery section of Foyles, but in any case it isn’t new.
It’s an unlacquered woodcase pencil with a chequered print, a B grade core and it appears to be a Tombow Ki-Monogatari, part of their eco pencil range.
It has a silky smooth finish, and it’s one of the most attractive woodcase pencils I own. The wood is not cedar, but by the way it sharpens and feels it’s high quality stuff.
You can see the grain of the wood very nicely here:
And also come through the chequered pattern:
It sharpens like a dream, with a perfectly centred core and no splinters or chunks falling out. High quality wood, high quality design, so what about the core?
This is a Tombow pencil and one of the things that Tombow do exceedingly well is make woodcase pencils. Drawing with this pencil is a dream – it glides on the page, there’s no “grit” to the core, it offers a good range of shading for a B grade, it doesn’t smudge and it keeps a point really, really well. This is a grade A drawing pencil.
I found this pencil by accident, totally forgetting that I ever bought it. I have cool stuff, so why don’t I use it?
I have no idea what the actual model of the pencil is, I’m just guessing that it’s a Ki-Monogatari, which means that this isn’t a “you should buy it” review. It’s a “go open you stationery drawer(s) and see what cool stuff you find there” post. Treat yourself to the stuff you already own.
Vintage copy pencils are magic (albeit oftentimes poisonous magic). You take an ordinary looking and behaving pencil and dip it in water and purple, turquoise or blue ink comes out. The Sanford NoBlot is probably the most well known pencil in this category but there were dozens of others made by various pencil companies. The Israeli pencil manufacturer “Jerusalem Pencils” had a copy pencil by the worldly and sophisticated name of “Park Avenue” (very Israel in the ’70s and 80’s). Of the local vintage pencils available in Israel it’s not the easiest pencil to find, although it’s also not the hardest.
Not the prettiest pencil, but not too shabby.
When dry the Park Avenue writes like an F grade pencil, with a bit of a purplish hue. It’s not as hard and light as an H grade pencil, yet it is lighter and harder than an HB. It erases well when dry, and doesn’t smudge.
When wet the pencil lines turn purple, and so much more bold. You can either dip the pencil tip in water, write dry on wet, or for more gentle effects use a wet brush over the dry lines. Just don’t be tempted to lick the pencil tip or chew on it, as there’s a good chance that the lead is poisonous.
The Park Avenue is a deep royal blue pencil with a yellow imprint on it. Apart from the Jerusalem Pencils logo and the 999, I counted four different fonts printed on the barrel of what was meant to be a utilitarian office workhorse. This is in line with many vintage pencils, and this over-design, pride and attention to detail is why I like them so much.
I have too many pencils which I don’t take the time to use. Inspired by this episode of the Pen Addict podcast I decided to literally do a random draw: I randomly drew a pencil from the pile, and then I randomly drew something with it. Today’s pencil: the General’s Pacific 365 #2.
It’s a classic looking #2 (or HB) pencil, with for some reason three or four fonts on the barrel, depending how you count the numerals. It’s made in the USA, out of California incense cedar, and has a little red thing on the top that looks like an eraser, but trust me, I wouldn’t try to use it as one.
The green foil imprint quality is not great, with the “Pacific” imprint chipping the pencil’s coating. The coating itself is pretty thinly layered, but the core is perfectly centred and sharpens like a charm.
You can see the available shades that the General’s Pacific is capable of producing in the closeup of the sea turtle above. If you’re looking for a #2 writing pencil that could do for a quick sketch in a pinch, the Pacific ought to do the job. It doesn’t smudge and holds a point very well.
I erased a word between the “S” and the “LATIONSHIPS” on the left side of the closeup above. It erased out pretty well, even though the writing was dark and done with some pressure.
The phone above shows you the maximum darkness I was able to produce with the General’s Pacific. It’s not bad, considering that this is clearly not a pencil made for drawing, but one made primarily for writing.
If you’re buying from CW Pencils and are looking to add a workhorse cedar pencil with a fondness for fonts to your order, the General’s Pacific is a pretty good choice.
My latest flea market find is a red/blue Union No. 84 pencil from The “Master” Pencils Ltd, the English pencil company that also created the Golden Master pencils that I reviewed in the past.
The Union No. 84 is an oversized pencil, with a red and navy core. I love the choice of font for the imprint: it looks clean and professional.
The pencil is thick, built like a children’s pencil, and so the cores are extra large as well.
The navy core, almost black in appearance:
Finding a sharpener that can sharpen this pencil was a challenge. You’ll need one that’s designed for children’s pencils, yet is high quality enough to handle wood that has toughened over time, and a core that is still soft and brittle. I went with the M+R double brass sharpener Nr. 0603. Beware of the red core when you sharpen this pencil, as it can stain your hands.
Here’s the Union No. 84 next to the Caran d’Ache Bicolor 999, the golden standard for red/blue pencils. You can see their size differences quite clearly.
The navy tip of the pencil:
The red tip of the pencil:
The red tip of the pencil was much softer and more crumbly than the navy tip, but even though I was worried about it, it didn’t break with use.
I tested the Union No. 84 against the Bicolor 999, and discovered a few interesting things. The Union’s blue is indeed a shade darker than the Bicolor’s but it’s not as dark as I would have expected. The red shades of both pencils are virtually identical. The Union feels more like a pencil than the waxy Bicolor, with more feedback, and more shading possible when some pressure is applied. Both pencils erase poorly, but the Union erases better than the Bicolor, particularly the Union red, which doesn’t stain the paper.
I tested the pencils on a Baron Fig Confidant, my go-to pencil testing paper, and erased them with the Maped Technic 600.
The Master Union No. 84 is a lot of fun to draw with, beyond being useful for highlighting and correcting text. It feels like a proper pencil, and not a waxy crayon, and it shades enough to allow for doodles like this one:
The Union No.84 is great and fun, and so was the Spiderman movie. I highly recommend them both.
A box of these beauties was languishing together with other art supplies in a stall in London’s Spitalfields market. I saw the box, saw their name, “The ‘Golden Master’ Pencil” and I couldn’t resist.
Just look at this design:
Who doesn’t want “Silken Graphite”? Or “A High Grade Pencil in Hexagon Cedar”? I’ve rarely seen a company take such pride in a pencil, outside of the Japanese market.
British made, from an era where Britain made things — and in London, too!
The pencils aren’t really Golden Master HB, but 2B (a bonus from my point of view). They’re labeled as such on the pencil, and strangely enough as two Bs on the box. I’ve never seen 2B pencils labeled that way. I wonder if they printed six Bs for their 6B pencils. I doubt they’d have room on the box.
In any case, the pencils slide out of the box in a sort of cardboard tray that is pretty robust. It works just like an old Eagle Pencil box, and I wish that more modern pencil makers would use this design.
The pencil itself has a good coating of yellow lacquer that has withstood the test of time, and has “Made in England”, “Golden Master”, “Silken Graphite”, “Pencils LTD.” and the grade stamped on it in gold foil.
The hexagonal shape is sharper, has sharper edges, than more modern pencils do. It doesn’t cut into your hand, but you feel it, and I have a feeling that without the lacquer this pencil wouldn’t be as nice to use.
The pencils come unsharpened in the box, and they’re a standard pencil size. As you can see there’s no eraser and no ferrule, but I don’t mind that. I rarely use pencil erasers, but rather keep a block eraser on my desk, or scribble things out if I’m writing.
I drew a journal comic with this pencil. It’s very smooth and holds a point forever, but it’s not a 2B pencil in terms of darkness. It’s closer to a standard B, but there’s a chance that time has done wonky things to make the graphite lighter. It erases well, and every core in the box that I have is perfectly centred. If you can get your hands on these, I recommend giving them a try. They’re great pencils, and I wish that they were still in production today.
Since I work in watercolour which is notoriously not great for correcting and changing your mind mid painting, when there’s a face that I know that I’ll want to explore I usually create a “construction” sketch which I transfer to paper several times. I can then paint the portrait in different tones, or focus on a certain aspect that interests me, or take it to really wild places without spending too much time on the technicalities of the preliminary sketch.
I start the “construction” sketch on newsprint paper. It’s much more detailed and “searching” than it needs to be, but that doesn’t matter much. Ultimately only the lines that will help me construct the face and note where the major light and dark transitions are will remain. I draw this with a Faber Castell 9000 2B or 3B pencil that’s sharpened with a pocket knife to allow me to use it without having to pause for sharpening. Newsprint paper is pretty transparent and also generally too fragile for regular erasers, so I use a kneaded eraser to lift off unnecessary lines, or simply ignore them.
Once I’m done with that, I flip the page to the other side and scribble on it with a Faber Castell 9000 6B or Palomino Blackwing MMX. These are again sharpened with a pocket knife, and the point is to get as much coverage as possible. If I’m doing a lot of transfers then I might have to repeat this process, adding more graphite to the back of the sketch.
I then transfer the most important lines in my sketch on to a piece of watercolour paper. This is done by placing the newsprint paper with the sketch over the watercolour paper and going over the lines in the sketch with a 2H pencil (I use a Faber Castell 9000 2H, but this isn’t that important). The pencil needs to be a hard pencil for the lines to transfer to the paper below, but it can’t be too hard or too sharp or it will rip the newsprint paper. It’s also important to put just enough pressure when you’re tracing so the graphite on the underside of the sketch transfers to the paper, but not too much to bruise the watercolour paper. Using a 300 gsm watercolour paper helps protect it, but it’s mostly a matter of practice. When you’re done you get something like this:
The lines are pretty faint, which is great when working with watercolour, because they don’t distract too much from the figure once you start working.
I created about five watercolour portraits of Dame Judi Dench from this sketch so far, and there’s a good chance that I’ll go explore her some more in the future.