Craft Design Technology Pencils: Old and New

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Soon after I published my post on CDT pencils, they changed. Specifically, the original Pentel pencils were discontinued, and the manufacturer was switched to Camel. The pencils were redesigned and packaged in sets of three instead of the original dozen. I finally bought a pack out of curiosity, to see how the new pencils were different.

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(The back of the former No. 18 box)

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(The back of the new No. 32 three-pack)

I have to confess I approached the new CDT pencils with a certain amount of prejudice. As is widely known, the best thing about the old Pentel CDT pencils was that they used polymer lead, just like the Black Polymer 999 . Any renewal meant the loss of that particular feature and the possible end of woodcased pencils from Pentel. So I wasn’t inclined to look kindly upon this company I’d never heard of, but any sincere effort to make good pencils should be welcome, right? Camel does go back more than 60 years and is an established pencilmaker based in Tokyo.

The first thing I noticed was that the lead wasn’t perfectly centered for all three pencils. The Pentel pencils were much better in this regard. (Pentel is said to have outsourced production of these pencils so they are not really “made” by Pentel except for the lead, but I use the word for the sake of convenience.)

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(Camel-made CDT pencils)

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(Pentel-made CDT pencils)

The printing has changed from black to silver, and is a bit uneven. The paint on the new pencils seems thicker and more glossy; the tactile experience is different. Could it be that they needed to apply more coats in order to mask the darker wood?

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The eraser is a pleasant surprise. It’s well molded and securely attached, and erases well (the texture reminds me of the standard Staedtler Mars white eraser). It’s not quite the cheap gimmick I expected it to be. This ferruleless cylindrical eraser seems to be something of a Camel speciality; it’s functional and blends in okay with the original CDT design (but it would have been better to match the shape of the eraser to that of the pencil, since right now the edges of the hexagonal body stick out a little from under the cylindrical eraser). I’d love to take it apart to see exactly how it’s attached to the pencil and how much eraser there is, but I’ll wait until I use it up some more before I take a knife to it.

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So how does it write? It’s not necessarily darker but it’s a bit softer. It reminds me of a Tombow 2558 with some grit thrown in. The unit price (calculating from pre-tax retail) has jumped from 133 yen to 166 yen per pencil. All in all, it has its merits, but the new CDT is a different beast altogether.

Craft Design Technology: The Project

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Today I got a dozen CDT pencils in the mail. As everyone knows, the pencils are made by Pentel. I have long wondered about the strange product name, the unusual color, and the limited availability of this item. Now that I’ve looked it up, it reminds me very much of the design project called WiLL (1999-2004).

I don’t know if this is done in other countries as well, but in Japan, once in a blue moon, there are these “design projects” in which several companies come together in a common branding exercise. WiLL, the most recent in memory (and the only one I know enough to tell you anything about) was a cross-industry branding campaign targeted at young women, and brought together such companies as Kao (cosmetics), Toyota (cars), Matsushita (later Panasonic, household appliances), and Asahi (beer). The brand WiLL was supposed to stand for a particular, individualistic, stylish way of life that women in their 20’s and 30’s supposedly aspired to, and each company in the consortium came up with quirky products that they thought would appeal to such a segment of the market (examples being these from Toyota and Asahi). The products were then branded with the orange WiLL logo (instead of the name of the manufacturer) and presented to the public as components of an organic whole. The reasoning was that, if you identified with the concept of WiLL, then you would presumably be happy with any WiLL product.

The project was relatively short-lived, because the products didn’t sell very well, and some sold less than others. (They realized that consumers shopped for individual items based on their own merits, not for a brand. Duh.) Also, there seem to have been differences among the firms in the way they approached, and benefited from, the brand.

Now, Craft Design Technology seems to be another of these consortiums, with a couple of notable differences: CDT concentrates on stationery and office products (its ultimate objective is to “transform the office”, it says), and there is a separate corporate entity (namely CDT) that provides the creative direction and conceptual design for the product line (developed together with such firms as Intentionallies and Winkreative).

The items themselves are made by CDT’s “partners”, reputable firms of long standing in the stationery industry. They are specialized producers of dependable products that work well and last forever. For example: Lion! I have a Lion stapler that’s exactly thirty-five years old and it still works fine! and Shachihata! When you go to work for a Japanese company you get a personal seal made by Shachihata that you can use to stamp all company documents that cross your desk. Shachihata is to seals what Kleenex is to tissues – they even call them Shachihatas. But you see what I mean – their image could use some jazzing up. And this is where CDT comes in: to present a collection of good but staid things in a new and consistently designed package.

And this in turn raises questions about the long-term viability of this type of collaboration. Design by its nature can become outdated – are they bringing out new, different lines? So far they seem to be pushing just that one line; if so, are they adding new products to the existing line often? (Three of the writing instruments made by Pentel for this line have gone out of production.) How popular are each of the items? Are they keeping the participating maufacturers equally happy, and are they cultivating new partnerships? Even if the pencils sell like hotcakes, if the other items are not selling, then we have to fear for the line itself. Well, they are in their ninth year now, and I do hope that the current stationery boom in Japan is giving them a boost. Item No. 17 (it says No. 18 on the box, but never mind) is said to have been the “starting point” for the whole collection, so its production is (hopefully) assured, but who knows? It would be exciting if Pentel were to make another sort of boutique pencil for a new CDT line…