The Lost Art of the No. 1 Pencil

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There’s something special about American No. 1 pencils. Due to an unenlightened childhood in which I never learned to distinguish between drafting pencils and common writing pencils, and biased by a tradition of labelling pencils by H’s and B’s instead of numbers, I was slow to discover American pencils that employed numerical degrees – and even when I did, I stuck to No. 2’s for a long time. But once discovered, the unparalleled smoothness and glide of No. 1 pencils have proved addictive. I recently drafted a letter with a No. 1 pencil and I had the incredible sensation that it really was an extension of my arm, the thoughts and phrases flowing. (After that I wrote out a fair copy with pen and ink, and it was a series of abrupt starts and stops compared to the pencil.)

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One thing that I still haven’t managed to figure out is this: is the lead of a typical No. 1 pencil identical to a B(or 2B)? Because I have the distinct impression that the No. 1 pencil writes softer, but not as dark as, the corresponding degree in the drafting-pencil line. I would love to know if there were indeed any differences in the formula. The presence of the ferrule and eraser (and therefore the heft) would necessarily change the writing experience somewhat; also different manufacturers would have produced different combinations of dark and soft. In any case, the No. 1 pencil is a superbly made instrument, the art of which now seems sadly lost.

The No. 1 pencil still comes up in online searches, so they are still being made; however, it has effectively gone out of our lives (in North America), as the usual big-box stationers and even small retailers don’t stock them anymore. Moreover, after what Mary Norris of the New Yorker has written of modern Ticonderoga No. 1’s, I would be wary of any modern purchases. It is Japanese pencils that now best approximate the feel of old No. 1 pencils: in addition to the obvious alternative, the Palomino Blackwing, the pencils that come to mind as possible substitutes are the Mitsubishi 9850 and the Tombow 2558. But Japanese pencils write blacker; they’re not the same. It’s something I’d like to see again, a properly made No. 1 pencil, bearing the legend Made In U.S.A.

(The plastic-ferrule Mongol is from Sean; and the Mirado No. 1 has had at least two illustrious owners before me. Thank you Sean and Gunther!)

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4 thoughts on “The Lost Art of the No. 1 Pencil

  1. The Mirado 174 No. 1 has long been a favorite of mine – the vintage ones, not the ones currently being produced. They are getting hard to find though, so they must have a following!

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  2. I recently tried an untipped EF Mongol 2B and was wondering if it’s similar to a No. 1 (I’ve never seen No. 1 in my life!). It’s definitely harder and not as black as the Japanese 2Bs, which I’m more used to, but I wasn’t surprised since I’d read this post. I heard that General’s started re-releasing the Cedar Pointe No. 1, so I’m going to try that next.

    Oh, and your Japanese looks AWESOME. :)

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    1. You know what, strokes in Japanese and Chinese characters come out better when you use a No. 1 pencil :)

      And did No. 1’s disappear so early on? I had thought (or hoped) it to be a more recent phenomenon. Properly made No. 1 pencils have a distinct feel, and I think the companies back then did a really good job of making different pencils for different purposes. I’ll keep an eye out for that General’s :)

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