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).
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.
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 :)