Pentel Black Polymer 999

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The Black Polymer 999 (“three-nine”) is a legendary pencil produced by Pentel. Although its death is mourned by countless fans, its name does not even appear on a list of notable Pentel products on Wikipedia, eclipsed by its more popular siblings, the mechanical pencils, ballpoints and erasers. Introduced in 1986 at a price of 100 yen per pencil, it was soon followed by the 999 Alpha, which was 200 yen per pencil. (The ad for the 999 Alpha here is dated 1987, the natural-grain version dated 1989. As for price, the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni cost 150 yen per pencil.) The 999 Alpha seems to have gone out of production around 2000, and the regular version followed suit about ten years later.

The Black Polymer 999 is actually a profoundly strange pencil. Its “carbon-graphite” lead contains polymer instead of the usual clay, which makes the lead stronger and blacker at much smaller diameters (the particulars are discussed in the comments of a post at Contrapuntalism). Pentel pioneered the Hi-Polymer lead for its mechanical pencils in 1960, and it would go on to produce even thinner leads of up to 0.2mm (1973) based on this technology. So this is a woodcased pencil that contains mechanical pencil lead – an obsolete and abandoned form, supposedly brought back to life by new, improved technology! Well, the clay-and-graphite formula has proved more resilient than the Pentel people ever thought, since the Black Polymer 999 is gone but the ordinary pencil is still here.

Which is our loss, since the carbon-graphite lead picked up a few improvements along the way. Because the lead contains 99.9% micro carbon particles (as opposed to the usual 70%), polymer-bound and of uniform shape, Pentel made five claims regarding its superior performance (bottom half of page):

1. It writes much darker, and photocopies better.
2. The lead is stronger, and doesn’t break under pressure.
3. It is smoother, and therefore does not cause fatigue even when writing for longer periods of time.
4. The lead holds its point much longer, and does not need sharpening as often as other pencils. Tests show that the Black Polymer 999 lasts a third longer than its competitors, and is therefore more economical.
5. Because the evenly shaped particles adhere better to paper, there is almost no smudging.

Are all of these claims true? Certainly, in one review, the Black Polymer 999 performed very well vis-à-vis a drugstore pencil on a smudge test (last photograph). I did my own smudge test, and while I didn’t feel that the Black Polymer 999 delivered dramatically different results compared to other flagship pencils such as the Lumograph, Castell 9000, or the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni, I did notice that the carbon graphite lead was blacker. Also, there were notable aspects other than the ones touted above: another photo from the same review shows five 4B pencils – two Mitsubishis (left) and two Tombows (right), with the Black Polymer 999 in the middle – and you can see right away that the BP 999 has by far the thinnest lead! So I compared my BP 999 HB (center) with two other HB pencils, Craft Design Technology (left, also by Pentel) and the Tombow Mono 100 (right).

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The difference in lead diameter is not as pronounced in the HB as in the softer, darker grades, but I noticed an interesting detail. The carbon graphite lead seems to shine less when subjected to light; this is what products like the Mitsubishi Nano Dia claim (which employs a similar technology I guess), and I suppose that the carbon does indeed absorb light better than ordinary lead. The lead of the Mono 100 shines a blinding silver, even given the variations in angle.

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And how does it write? This pencil produces a smooth, black, even line; this is definitely not a sketching pencil but rather a superlative school or drafting pencil, and the legend says so, appropriately. Another Japanese review says, “This pencil writes pretty matte, without the oily feel usually found in domestic pencils.” (I wonder if the Japanese manufacturers are indeed more liberal in their use of oil?) As for myself, I would venture to say that the BP 999 is smooth but with a funny feel, as if the lead was coasting over microglobules of silicone, but frankly I’m not sure if I would have been able to detect the difference if I hadn’t been told. In the same vein I’m not sure if I can tell the difference between the lead of the BP 999 and that of the BP 999 Alpha. The Alpha has a different coating – glossy instead of matte, and the pencil itself it slightly heavier too, so that changes the whole writing experience somewhat. However, because I find the surface of the original BP 999 a bit disconcerting (it has the kind of surface that makes a noise every time your fingers brush up against it), I think the Alpha does provide a better writing experience.

All in all, a fine, handsome pencil, lamentably lost to posterity. Let’s hope Pentel comes back to woodcased pencils.

* Thank you, Gunther (of Lexikaliker), for giving me the chance to try these hard-to-find pencils! I hope you found this review worth reading :)

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14 thoughts on “Pentel Black Polymer 999

  1. Thanks for this informative blog post.
    Many years ago I bought a box of Black Polymer, maybe it was an order I shared with Sean, I’m not sure. I thought it’s a Japanese pencil so it’s soft, so I bought them in H. They were however unexpectedly hard and I haven’t used them since. Your blog post makes me want to dig them out and use them again 8^)

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    1. Matthias, sorry for replying this late! My first experience of the 999 was with the 2B Alpha so it was pretty dark and soft, but I agree, they don’t quite follow the Japanese grading. I would love to see a Black Polymer post at Bleistift :)

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  2. The Black Polymer 999 is indeed one of the best pencils I have ever tried. The joy of writing is excellent. I have only one which I received from a friend, and I honestly do not sharpen it anymore. You know why! The CDT item 17 is very very close but has not 100% the same lead.

    Do you know of other pencils which have the same lead or com as close to the Pentel BP 999? The Nano Dia eg?

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    1. Hi Baktasch! As Gunther says, Pentel states some other pencils that supposedly uses the same technology – but definitely not the Nano Dia (and that isn’t even Pentel you know ;) and not the CDT either because to me the CDT feels like it has more of a clay-ish component to it. I’m going to try the Black Polymer on my planner and see if it really smudges less…

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  3. Thank you for this detailed review, Sola! It contains many interesting details which can’t be found elsewhere, e. g. the translation of Pentel’s announcement on their Facebook page. – I haven’t shown this pencil on my weblog yet but your review motivates me to do so someday, not only because of the many important technical aspects.

    Just like the clay in the traditional leads the polymer works as a binder for the graphite. There are two types of polymer-bound lead, namely the unburned and the burned type. The first can be found e. g. in the WOPEX while the other is mainly used for thin-lead pencils and for the 999. The burned polymer lead is burned considerably longer than the clay-bound lead, and during this process a carbonization of the polymer takes place. The carbon created this way adds to the blackening and reduces the shine. Polymer leads glide very smoothly so the impregnation e.g. with paraffin isn’t necessary, and since oil, wax etc. in traditional leads affect the erasability the lead of the 999 can be erased almost perfectly (I wonder why Pentel hasn’t included this aspect in their list of claims). – However, this technology is not without disadvantages; one is the fact that the lead can be a little sticky under certain circumstances, depending on the paper and the writing pressure (however, unburned polymer leads can be – and often are – much stickier; the WOPEX is a notable exception). – The Pentel Black Polymer 999 is unique in the history of pencils!

    Baktasch: On this catalogue page from 2008 Pentel states that the technology of the 999 has also been used in the ECB, the TUFF and the Mark Sheet pencils. However, I can’t confirm that since I haven’t used the ECB and the TUFF, but as far as Pentel’s Mark Sheet pencil is concerned I doubt this claim – its lead is noticeable different from the one of the 999.

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    1. Gunther, thank you for the detailed comment – you have added more value to the post than the post itself :) I agree, the erasability is a very interesting aspect, and I will keep my eyes peeled for any comments made by Pentel in that direction.

      As for the “stickiness” – I did experience this with the softer grades, I thought it helped produce some very fine lines at the end of some strokes, but this doesn’t happen very often so I’m not sure if I’m sensing right ;)

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  4. Sola, my understanding is that the 999 is hard to come by, but outside of Japan at least, the Alpha is absolutely rare. Treasure accordingly :<) .

    Gunther, that is an outstanding explanation, especially about erasability! Would you elaborate on the circumstances that make gliding, smooth polymer leads "sticky" in some cases? Time to dig out a 999.

    Happy Holidays, one and all.

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  5. junius, I wish I could explain the smooth gliding and the occasional stickiness in detail but I can’t because I don’t know what happens on the molecular level during writing. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if both could be attributed to the same aspect. I will try to find out more!

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    1. Hi Baktasch, my opinion isn’t that reliable but I didn’t find the Nano Dia (B) to be comparable to either the BP 999 or the CDT in any way. It’s darker, softer and crumblier. I think it is indeed marketed to children (there’s the logo in hiragana, and a place to write your name), and I wouldn’t expect it to be of such a high quality…

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