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.)
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.