I don’t think there is anything I can add to what has already been said about this famous pencil. However, because it did serve as my Starbucks moment in appreciating fine pencils, and because by its iconic status it frames much of the discussion on pencils nowadays, I want to touch upon it now rather than later, if only to refer back to it in later posts.
Now, I haven’t always been a pencil enthusiast (at least not consciously), but I happen to be a 20-year subscriber of the New Yorker magazine, and it was through one of their online posts that I first came to know about the Blackwing. At that time I was deep into fountain pens, and thought the article amusing, so I posted the link on Penhood. And thought nothing more of it. But then several months later, one of the members came up to me at the biannual pen show and handed me two Palomino Blackwing 602s.
The Palomino Blackwing 602 was the first pencil I had seen or used in a long time that made me sit up and take notice. It looked great – it was longer than other pencils, and had this amazing ferrule with what I now know enough to call a “clamp” eraser – and it wrote differently from any other pencil I had ever used up until that point. People at Penhood fell head over heels in love with it; group orders ensued, and now California Cedar products are readily available at large Korean stationery stores. In the midst of all this I was vaguely aware of the existence of an “original” and some controversy surrounding the brand, but since there weren’t any genuine Blackwings lying around to invite any comparisons, it seemed pointless to pursue the matter further. So I was quite happy with my Palominos, until one day another Penhood member donated an Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. (What is it about pencils and pencil love that inspire such acts of generosity between complete strangers?) It was my first vintage pencil and I guess there was no turning back from there.
The EF Blackwing writes smoothly, with this fabled “floating” quality upon paper – as if the lead is not in 100% contact with the fibers but rather suspended momentarily above. It is not the smoothest pencil that ever existed, nor the best made (I sense some coarseness some days), but it is the rare pencil that combines smoothness without the corresponding level of blackness. The graphite particles do not smear as much on the paper as artist-grade pencils of a similar degree (2B~4B?) do, and the tip lasts much longer. And there is definitely an element that “cushions” the impact that the lead makes upon contact with the paper. The Blackwing is not for people who write precisely, but rather for people who sketch and draw and correct, people who can stand a slightly dulled tip for some time in exchange for a gliding sense of motion.
The ferrule is perhaps the most noticeable feature about its appearance, but I think it also performs an important function. As PencilTalk points out, the Blackwing’s balance point is much further up towards the end compared to other pencils. This means that the ferrule tips the weight towards the back, helping you to hold the pencil at a lower angle to the paper, and to loosen up the pressure in your hand. In other words, the heavy ferrule seems necessary for a Blackwing to be a Blackwing: “half the pressure, twice the speed”. I confess I prefer heavier pencils for this reason, and am glad that the Palomino Blackwings brought this type of ferrule back in current use.
Most pencils that put themselves forward as a substitute for the Blackwing end up going down the B lane, e.g. darker, but without the unique “cushion” effect that the Blackwing formula has. With many other pencils, the lead erodes much quicker, or tends to crumble. But the Blackwing’s magic derives, surely, from the fact that it was a pencil not noticeably darker than an ordinary No. 2 that happened to be exceptionally smooth: in that sense, among the many interesting pencils I encountered while going down this list of possible Blackwing substitutes (I have so far tested nine out of the 16 pictured), I think the Mitsubishi 9850 comes closest to recapturing that ideal. The 9850 makes it into my all-time Best Three! More on it later.