Tombow Mono Penmanship Pencils (and a comparison with Mitsubishi)

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I recently got some Tombow Mono Penmanship pencils (aka Tombow KM-KKS) along with some other Japanese pencils. The Tombows are hard to find, but they are exactly the same kind of pencils as the Mitsubishi Penmanship pencils (note the same imprint – Tombow only has “pencil (鉛筆)” added on at the end) so most of what I’ve said about the latter holds for the Tombow too. So this time I was curious as to how the two pencils compared.

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The back of the box was taped shut, making it impossible to open it from that end. The pencils were tightly packed together and it was difficult to get them out at first.

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The printing is surprisingly messy for a Tombow Mono. You’re supposed to write your name (なまえ)… on the blue barrel?

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This seems like a more logical place:

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The first glimpse I had was pretty impressive. Thick lead!

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But then, I remembered that the Mitsubishi had very thick lead too, despite their being the same degree (4B):

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No comparison. The paint job and printing of the Mitsubishi are also superior (the Mitsubishi 9850 wins over the Tombow 2558 in that regard too. Tombow just doesn’t seem to care that much about such things). The Tombow writes smoothly enough, but to me it seems to be around 90% to Mitsubishi’s 100%.

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The thick lead of the Mitsubishi gave me an idea…

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Why? Because none of the carpenter pencils or chisel-point pencils I tried so far really gave me what I wanted, which was the graphite version of a Pilot Parallel pen. They were on the whole not dark enough, even the grades that were supposed to be darker (2B, 4B). But maybe this thick, dark, smooth and break-resistant lead could do the job? Tapered to a chisel point:

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And… action!

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Now this would qualify as a Penmanship Pencil in the Western sense. Either this, or a German 2H pencil that keeps its point forever, for cursive practice :)

Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship Pencils

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I’m taking a break from writing about vintage pencils and turning to some currently available ones. I first saw the Mitsubishi Uni Penmanship (Kouhitsu Shosha-yo 硬筆書写用) pencil on Lexikaliker and have left comments on other blogs about it since then, but maybe this is a good time to organize the information scattered here and there in one place.

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Calligraphy in Japan consists of the writing of Chinese characters and Japanese kana, and have traditionally been taught using ink and brush. However, with time other instruments have been introduced into the classroom for convenience’s sake, pulling traditional calligraphy in the direction of everyday “penmanship”: felt-tipped pens, ballpoint pens, and pencils, categorically called “hard pens (kouhitsu)” as opposed to the soft brush. Of all the Asian nations that teach Chinese calligraphy, I think Japan stands out for the emphasis it places on everyday hard-pen penmanship, and its use of pencils in practicing this art. There is a Kouhitsu competition held each year, separately from the usual brush calligraphy competitions (you can see some writing samples here). The pencils seem to be used mostly in elementary schools (and no doubt demand is driven by teachers who designate exactly which kind to use); older students move on to more sophisticated instruments.

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These penmanship pencils are intended to mimic the feel and effect of the brush as much as possible: to clearly indicate the movement of the stroke as it starts, stops, strengthens or weakens, widens or fades out altogether. In doing this, it channels two seemingly contradictory demands: the need for the lead to be very dark and soft, but resistant to the pressure exerted on it. The legend “Pressure-Proofed Lead” indicates that while the lead may be as dark and smooth as any art pencil, it is strong enough to withstand any child’s sweaty effort. This is actually quite a feat! Let’s see what else Mitsubishi says about this pencil:

  • The lead breaks down evenly when it comes into contact with the paper, resulting in very dark, bold, and distinct lines.
  • The lead is imbued with a special oil that reduces friction when writing.  
  • The thicker lead allows you to make both fine and bold lines, depending on the way you sharpen it.  It is also capable of producing the effects characteristic of a brush (stops, sweeps, etc.)
  • High-quality clay makes the lead stronger, saving you the trouble of frequent sharpening.

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The interesting thing about these pencils is that there are specific variants available only in certain parts of the country (and, needless to say, seldom exported abroad). The prefecture of Saitama, northeast of Tokyo, is said to be a strong supporter of penmanship instruction; accordingly, Mitsubishi manufactures two deluxe versions of the Penmanship pencil, the Super DX 8B and the Fude-Enpitsu (Brush Pencil) 10B, for distribution in Saitama only. Even Tombow seems to have made some sort of special edition for Fukuoka. (These special editions don’t show up on official product pages.) I haven’t managed to figure out why these particular prefectures should be so enthusiastic about penmanship or how they got the pencil companies to cooperate, but in any case you really have to marvel at the kind of market that generates such specific demands and the manufacturers that oblige them.

The rest of the country makes do with regular Penmanship Pencils in 4B and 6B, hexagonal and triangular. The writing experience is enhanced with a plush writing mat that provides a sort of cushion underneath the paper. Specially ruled penmanship practice pads are also available. In other words, this is a highly specialized pencil dedicated to a very specific purpose, and I really don’t understand the reasoning behind the decision to bring this pencil to North America. Yes, it is a very well-made pencil, dark, smooth and break-resistant, but the culture or the script system that gave birth to it doesn’t travel. Here, it’s probably too dark for everyday writing and needlessly strong for drawing or sketching. If you happen to have this pencil, I recommend that you get hold of a Chinese-character primer and practice a few strokes. Then you’ll see what this guy can really do.

Vermilion and Prussian Blue

Why do Japanese red-and-blue pencils so often incorporate these two particular shades? Why not scarlet, carmine, ultramarine, or cobalt blue? In the case of vermilion, it’s easy to answer: the pigment was available from ancient times, and was the orthodox “red” to the primary black of sumi ink in East Asia. Even today, personal seals are stamped in this particular color. Western manuscripts also make heavy use of this pigment: in fact, the use of vermilion is so pervasive across cultures that we might ask why Western pencilmakers don’t use vermilion more often.

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(Splashes of vermilion in manuscript fragments, McGill University Library)

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(Modern vermilion ink, and a calligraphy textbook written in the medieval bicolor scheme of black and vermilion)

The case of Prussian blue is more interesting. I recently came across this paragraph in Sarah Thompson’s catalogue for the exhibition of the ukiyo-e master Hokusai that just ended at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (yes, I live within driving distance of Boston but didn’t get to see it. *sob*):

One major source of inspiration for the Fuji series seems to have been the introduction of a new pigment to the printmakers’ palette, the synthetic color known to the Japanese as Berlin blue and to Europeans as Prussian blue. Invented in the eighteenth century, the pigment had already been known in Japan for some time, but when the Chinese as well as the Dutch began to import it, the price dropped sufficiently to make it practical for use in prints. Around 1830 there was a craze for “blue-printed pictures” (aizuri-e) done entirely, or almost entirely, in shades of blue. (p.21)

This exciting new pigment, which did not fade easily, got Hokusai started on the series that he became most famous for: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. (There are actually forty-six pictures in all.)

The first designs in the series were printed almost entirely in shades of blue, to capitalize on the fad for the newly introduced pigment. A little later, when the public had become accustomed to the new colorant, additional colors were used for subsequent designs in the series, and for reprints of the earlier ones. (p. 21)

In other words, Prussian blue made a pretty sensational entry into Japan. One of the major appeals of Hokusai’s art is surely the dramatic and abundant use of that particular color: the most famous picture in the series (and at the same time arguably the most recognizable image in all of Japanese art), The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is practically awash in Prussian blue.

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However, it would be simplistic to argue that Mitsubishi and Tombow chose Prussian blue as their standard just because it was Hokusai’s signature color. According to stationery journalist Tsuchihashi-san, the answer is more prosaic: when the Mitsubishi 2667 was first produced in 1914, it was still difficult to manufacture bright, vivid colored cores for pencils, and therefore Prussian blue had to stand in for a brighter blue. Perhaps they chose it over other blue hues simply because the pigment was cheap and easy to handle. But I’d still like to think that Prussian blue lives on because of this small but very real connection to the nineteenth century, when it, however briefly, ruled the world.

Eberhard Faber Colorbrite Colored Pencils

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This was my haul for National Pencil Day (surely foreigners can celebrate too?). I seem to be on a roll regarding colored pencils these days, but the truth is I don’t use them much. I try, though. And I keep on buying them compulsively. I left the two reds in the sharpened condition they came in; I sharpened the rest with the Deli 0635, which my son calls the “kitty sharpener” and which I use for almost everything these days. Colored pencils are, in general, better sharpened with handheld devices because they have thicker and softer cores, but the Colorbrite core is thinner and harder so sharpening with crank sharpeners is not a problem.

The Colorbrites write very similar to the EF Mongol Red-and-Blue 860, so I would guess the formula is more or less the same. The lead has some drag to it (some colors more than others), but on the other hand it is stronger and keeps its point longer than other colored pencils that write more pleasantly. I tried some old Mitsubishi Polycolor pencils for comparison (they write with much less drag) and some tips broke upon impact – so maybe this is a necessary evil?

There are two interesting things about this set: one is that three pencils carry this “Recommended for Print Marking” legend. The others don’t.

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The other thing I noticed is that the colors contained in this vintage set seem to be a bit different compared to sets that are currently available. With smaller sets there are probably some hard decisions to make regarding what colors to put in and what to leave out, and I find the differences between past and present “standard” color selections very interesting. I present below, from left to right, the Eberhard Faber Colorbrite (12 colors), the Staedtler Noris Club Jumbo (10), and the Faber-Castell Jumbo (10) color pencils for comparison.

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Even with two extra colors, the Colorbrite doesn’t have black. It has two yellows and two reds though (the “scarlet” is closer to vermilion), and a pink, which in modern sets doesn’t usually get a chance till you pass the 18+ mark (maybe because boys famously never use it?). It also very generously allows for a minty light green. The Colorbrite has more affinities with the Mitsubishi No. 880 Mini colored pencil set.

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Maybe the difference stems from the fact that the Colorbrite is more of a “writing” pencil (hard, waterproof, smearproof etc.) than a coloring pencil? By the way the color selection in the higher-end Van Dyke line is also very interesting. Hot pink there too!

Some More Red-and-Blue Pencils

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Since my last post on red-and-blue pencils, I’ve had a chance to try some others.  The Caran d’Ache Bicolor 999 could almost be a hexagonal variation of the Mitsubishi 2667; the red, leaning heavily towards an orangey vermilion, is very similar, as is the texture of the lead, although the Mitsubishi feels slightly softer.  (The blue of the CdA Bicolor is a much brighter cerulean though.) Eberhard Faber seems to have had a very different idea of the definition of “red” – theirs is a bright rose, and the blue is a violet-tinged navy too. I confess I was secretly rooting for the Eagle Verithin 748, Eagle being my favorite vintage brand, but it turned out to be a case of Stiftschmerz – the colors are all right, the red being closer to a true crimson than the others, but unfortunately it has a high-pitched noise that can make writing a bit unpleasant. My vote (within this selection) goes to the Eberhard Faber Mongol 860.

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Red-and-Blue Pencils, Old and New

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The other day I got a box of Mitsubishi red-and-blue pencils, purely for sentimental reasons. We had some at home back in the early 80’s, and I had always loved their look; and besides the urge to stock up, I was also curious whether there had been any changes in the meantime. (Because Japanese pencil designs change so rarely, and because they produce some models so consistently, it can take much of the fun out of collecting – modern pencils often look and write the same as those decades old.)

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There are four model numbers, depending on the ratio of vermilion to Prussian blue. My older pencils had more of vermilion (7:3), whereas this time I opted for half and half. It’s mostly American and Japanese companies that’s been making these kinds of red-and-blue pencils – I wonder why they aren’t as popular or as available in other countries. I now know that many German manufacturers, inluding Faber-Castell and Lyra, also make these kind of pencils (the Color 873 and Document 9608 among others – please see comments below!)

On the older box there is a JIS mark in front (discussed in an earlier post), and the price (600 yen) is noted at the back. It was for a long time standard practice in Japan to mark the retail price of a product on the packaging, the numerals encased in a rectangle like this (though it is starting to disappear). On the newer box you have the now ubiquitous barcode, the recycling symbol for paper products and a note saying that the carton was made using recycled paper.

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The imprint on the pencil is remarkably similar – well, the letters on the modern version are infinitesimally thicker. I so want to say that the new pencil writes as well as the old one, but surprisingly, I do notice some differences. The wood has become whiter. The vermilion lead is harder, lighter and noisier, although it still writes well. The Prussian blue on the other hand has not changed much, it is still satisfyingly dark, but, again, makes more noise. Seems like I should save the old pencils.

The Joy of Inexpensive Pencils

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Two office-grade pencils I’ve discovered fairly recently are the Mitsubishi 9850 and the Tombow 2558. In Japan they cost about 50 cents each or less, occupying the lowest end of the quality-pencil cost spectrum. They are not THE cheapest pencils that Mitsubishi and Tombow produce (for example, the Mitsubishi 9800 and the Tombow Mono J, 8900, and Ki-monogatari pencils are cheaper) but they remain very affordable and is possessed of a quality that is way over what their price sticker may suggest. I personally don’t derive that much satisfaction from either the Hi-Uni or the Mono 100, but am bowled over every time I use either the 9850 or the 2558.

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Of the two, if forced to choose I would opt for the Mitsubishi 9850. I have more affection for the brand itself, and I love the color (a very unusual reddish burgundy), the precise silver lettering, and even the slightly raised barcode in white. There is another model with a slightly different number, the 9852, that has been in production for almost sixty years and which Mitsubishi has been commemorating this year in limited editions of four additional colors (I got the navy blue as a gift from a friend – thank you BM!). However I don’t think the lead in the 9852 is identical to the 9850, which I find more satisfying. Maybe the legend – “for office use” vs. “master writing” – really do point to differences in the formula?

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That said, there are days when I do feel the Tombow 2558 glides better on the page. The Tombow is not very lovable, at least to me – it has the kind of color that belongs on an American pencil, not a Japanese one, the imprint can be uneven, and the ferrule is dull compared to the 9850’s bright silver with rounded white eraser. However, it writes well, so well in fact that I was tempted to try the H and B grades too. While I still feel that the HB is best, the H is also a good choice. It writes very clean. The B grade was a surprise though – not in terms of quality (which is predictably good), but because it reminded me so much of the Palomino Blackwing from the very first stroke. Could it be…?