Stenographic Pencils, Continued

One of the most commonly employed search terms that lead readers to this blog concern stenographic pencils and their use. I’ve noticed that people who take the plunge into pencils almost always go through this stage: steno pencils are cool, unusual, rare but still available, just about (the Staedtler Stenofix is gone but Faber-Castell still makes the 9008). My own interest in them has waxed and waned, but all throughout, I had the niggling sense that I hadn’t really understood them: why certain specimens were hard and some soft (how were they supposed to be, hard or soft?), why they were offered in the limited but confusing range from HB to 2B, and whether round pencils really were better for the job. The answers were outlined to me early on, back when I first talked about stenos, but it wasn’t until recently that the penny really, finally dropped. 

Somewhere on the Internet (can’t remember just where), I came across the classification: firm leads for Gregg users, softer leads for Pitman. So the answer to all my questions was in fact really simple: it depended on what system you used.  It’s just that it took me a long time to visualize the differences between the two systems and how they would translate into different needs without actually learning shorthand myself. 

The picture became much clearer after I understood that the Pitman system, popular in Europe, consists of geometric shapes and lines of thin or bold strokes. This means that symbols are made up of (to grossly generalize) circles and parts of circles and straight, angular lines. (The same shape can denote different sounds depending on the thickness of the stroke.) In contrast, its American rival, the Gregg, is based on the ellipse, which is the same shape that forms the basis of cursive penmanship, and employs the same curvilinear motion to propel it forward. As John Robert Gregg himself explains in Basic Principles of Gregg Shorthand:

The fundamental difference between geometric [i.e. Pitman] shorthand and Gregg shorthand is this: Geometric shorthand is based on the circle and its segments; Gregg is based on the ellipse, or oval.

As geometric shorthand is based on the circle, its characters are supposed to be drawn with geometric precision, and are struck in all directions. The characters, being struck in all directions, necessitate continual change in the position of the hand while writing. 

As Gregg Shorthand is based on the ellipse or oval, it is written with a uniform slope, as in longhand. Its characters are, therefore, familiar and natural to the hand, and like longhand do not require a change in the position of the hand while writing.

This being the almighty Oval.

For us, perhaps the most relevant fact that can be gleaned from this is that Pitman users have to re-learn how to hold a pen or pencil. Gregg says Isaac Pitman said in his Manual:

The student should be careful not to hold the pen as for common writing, for this position of the hand is adapted for the formation of letters constructed upon a totally different principle from those of Phonography. The pen should be held loosely in the hand, like a pencil for drawing, with the nib turned in such a manner that the letter “b” can be struck with ease. 

In other words, Pitman users “draw”(I would even say “sketch”) the characters. I once sat next to a former professional stenographer at a calligraphy workshop (she took notes in what I now realize was Pitman), and she told me that her teacher always made sure that the students held their pencils lightly enough so that the teacher could pull the pencils out from their grip at any time without resistance. 

While the grip is feather-light, pressure is applied from time to time to produce thicker strokes, so softer pencils are necessary. I wondered whether the soft tips might not dull quickly, but on second thought the stenographer would be “shading” only intermittently, so the tip probably won’t wear down as fast as a normal soft pencil would. (In any case the stenographer can’t press down too hard, since it will only slow her down.)

In contrast to Pitman, Gregg users “write.” The symbols are joined together more, there is no line variation, and I imagine a page of Gregg would look a lot more like normal longhand writing than a page of Pitman. It’s interesting, though, how much the system’s founder emphasizes its “easy” and “natural” qualities, on top of the practical advantages its practitioners enjoy using the same hand and finger positions and the same movements as those of longhand:

It has been said that it is impossible for the human hand to make a perfect circle in rapid writing. On the other hand, elliptic figures are natural and easy to the hand; indeed, the making of an ellipse or oval is one of the first exercises given a child in learning ordinary writing. 

This opens up another interesting line of thought. Would longhand still be considered “natural” today? Because although cursive writing has indeed evolved over the centuries in slanted and interconnected form, penmanship is a learned skill, and there has been enough disruption in the past few decades that not even Mr. Gregg would be comfortable declaring the fundamentals of cursive writing to be universally applicable. I wonder, will the loss of penmanship influence the way pencils are made in any meaningful or noticeable way?

*Many of the steno pencils pictured above come from Gunther’s collection. Thank you, Gunther :)

Staedtler Initium Lignum Fountain Pen Review

This is one of those fountain pen posts I’m trying to keep out of this site, but this time you will forgive me because it features a venerable pencil brand that has made forays into a new market (or, rather, re-entered it): Staedtler’s Premium line, comprising resin, wood, and leather-accented writing instruments. I saw the new lineup for the first time while still in Canada, and was very surprised and pleased to see it; however, I had the not quite favorable impression that they were trying to do too much at once (e.g. everything from ballpoints to $2,000+ collectors’ items) instead of expanding the collection slowly and organically as they learned the ropes. I also felt the aesthetics were vaguely reminiscent of the Graf von Faber-Castell line. The price tag was outlandish: upwards of CAD 200 for a steel-nibbed pen. This particular model, the wood-barrelled Initium Lignum (the only one I considered buying, then or now), still costs CAD 279 (plus 15% tax). I liked the idea, I was a fan of the brand, but for that kind of money I could get myself a proper gold-nibbed pen (or two) from other manufacturers. So I passed on it then, until I got wind of a CultPens sale* that included a free leather-bound Atoma notebook with any Initium pen, so I took the plunge. Pricewise it was now or never.

A new pen, like a drop of water in a desert :)

However, once the euphoria subsided, I was unfortunately reminded of all the other reasons I didn’t buy it back then. It’s not only the price. The pen itself looks very nice, but the balance feels all wrong. It’s a heavy pen, and that by itself is not a huge problem (I have some Waterman heavies that I am quite fond of), but the problem is that that weight is not distributed evenly across the pen but overly concentrated at the nib end. The cap is substantial, too, and all this makes for a very top-heavy pen: it threatens to slip out of your hand when you try to write with it, because the grip section pulls it downwards and there is nothing to counterbalance it at the back. (And no, posting the cap doesn’t work either, because it then threatens to topple over backwards.) Perhaps I tend to grip pens more lightly than other people, but this is because I was told at the beginning of my pen life that I was unwittingly wrecking the soft nib of my Pelikan M300 by pressing down on it too much, and I have had to relearn how to hold a pen since. This is important, as this is precisely one of the advantages of using a fountain pen – it allows you to write for longer without your hand cramping. If a fountain pen forces you to hold it like a ballpoint, something is wrong.

I also should have known better than to buy a pen with a metal grip. I’ve avoided those ever since my experience with the Graf von Faber-Castell Pernambuco; these kind of pens look fabulous but are less than optimal for actual writing, because they are heavy, and they slip. (Come to think of it, I always tend to gravitate towards wood-barrelled pens, but once purchased, they don’t seem to make it into my regular rotation much.) I’m very curious where Staedtler sources its nibs, or whether they make them in-house; this particular nib is smooth enough but can be a bit slippery on paper like Tomoe River. I personally find the nib a bit small given the size of the pen and the price; small nibs, like the one on the Waterman Charleston, make me feel shortchanged, and I believe they write worse too.

Well, this wasn’t a rational purchase. I had tried out the pen in the shop and I knew what was coming. But strangely, inexplicably, I still wanted it, even with all its shortcomings. Brand loyalty is a funny thing: the sight of the logo-engraved cap peeping out of my pen pouch makes me happy, and I am willing to accomodate it, get used to its quirks, and see what good I can coax out of it. Sometimes a pen proves itself better than you initially thought it to be: I didn’t think much of my Kaweco Sport at first, for example, but later on I found that it never dried out, not even for months, which was pretty impressive for a cartridge-use pen in that price range. I’m curious to see what happens with my Initium. As for Staedtler, I do wish they will stay committed to the Premium line, but learn from their mistakes and come up with better models. There must be enough inspiring material in the Staedtler archives for them to make use of in this retro boom!

* This blog is not associated with CultPens in any way. I got to know of this promotion thanks to Matthias @Bleistift – they had the same offer last November.

Pencil-Shopping in Montevideo (And Thoughts On Cedar)

During a recent marathon bookstore-hopping session I came across some unusual pencils. In general, the pencil pickings in this country are pretty poor; in ordinary mom-and-pop stores it’s usually some vile Evolution-like green thing on offer, and at the better stationers they stock Faber-Castell Goldfabers and Staedtler Traditions. That’s about it. Not even the standard Castell 9000 or the Mars Lumograph can be easily found. Given this situation, you’d think the Brazilian subsidiary of Faber-Castell would be a big presence here, and it certainly is for colored pencils, but for some reason graphite pencils, especially ones just a couple of rungs higher than the neon Grip 2001 variants, are difficult to locate. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to come across some Brazilian-made Faber-Castells in a proper box.

The model name, Regent 1250, is unfamiliar to me and so I don’t know where they are supposed to fall within the spectrum of local FC offerings, but they don’t seem like total cheapies. The ends are scrupulously dipped, and the lead writes smooth and soft, slightly darker than the original Castell 9000’s. It’s interesting that the body color is not the usual dark pine-green you associate with modern-day Faber-Castell but something closer to the olive green of yesteryear. Also, Faber-Castell seems to have a local quality designation apart from the usual “SV” (maybe it’s just a translation?).

The most notable aspect of this pencil is the choice of wood. Inexpensive pencils often make use of pale, coarse-grained wood, and I can accept that as part of the need to control costs, but this specimen is a bit extreme. The wood is so coarse that the body, even coated with paint, appears pitted. This may be galling to the pencil purist, who rightfully considers woods such as red cedar the best: cedar is just soft and brittle enough, even-textured, fine-grained, nonresinous, light enough for bulk transport, and with a pleasing color and odor. (Thank you for the article, Sean!)

However, on a recent return visit to San Pedro de Timote, I came across an article in the American Hereford Journal on appropriate woods for fenceposts, and it gave me some perspective. As you may know (or not – I didn’t), maintaining good fences around his pastures is one of the top priorities for a rancher, since, apart from the obvious problems of theft and escape, raising a purebred herd is all about planned parenthood, which means ensuring that none of your Hereford girls have a sliver of a chance of meeting an unknown bull. Which is where fences come in. The article listed around a dozen different kinds of wood, and cedar was one of the top three candidates, capable of giving nearly thirty years of service in its untreated state. The woods at the bottom of the list (ash or some such) could only manage a paltry seven on average.

Considering that the same trunk could be chopped up to stand sentinel in the fields, come rain or shine, for thirty years, or grace a room for half a century or more as a heirloom cabinet, or be converted into several hundred boxes of pencils to be whittled away: which is better? Nowadays even old barn doors and fences are said to be repurposed to make vintage-looking furniture. Good wood has a surprisingly long life. On the one hand we are fortunate that red cedar was once considered so plentiful, and that manufacturers of that time left some extraordinary specimens to be admired and emulated. But on the other hand it certainly was an unsustainable luxury.

But should this warrant such a steep descent as with this Regent 1250? One of the main reasons FC maintains production facilities in Brazil is surely because of the plentiful supply of wood, and even here in neighboring Uruguay you notice how easy it is to grow and maintain forests here, given the temperate climate and abundant rainfall. I’m all for making pencils where it’s easy to make them, but please, let’s try to grow the right kind of tree. The Regent has a perfectly decent core, but the wood lets it down too much.

*                           *                          *

That day I also scored a couple of red-and-blue Nataraj “checking” pencils. I now have positive proof that Nataraj pencils exist on this continent.

  

There was also a fascinating eraserless version of the blue Staedtler Norica that I had previously assumed was only available in Canada. The imprint is slightly different (evocative of the minute differences between, for example, American and Canadian Mirados), and the local mystery Norica writes slightly darker and softer, but what does it matter, I was just so glad to see it again. Oh, and it is interesting to note that despite the place of manufacture, both the Regent and Norica pencils are strenuously marketed as “German” pencils ;)

 

Pencils, Onscreen and Otherwise

For the dreary winter months down here in the southern hemisphere, I have joined fellow Montevideanos in what seems to be one of their favorite pasttimes: Netflix binge-watching. And pencil-spotting is a sport in itself :)

This is Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At first I was so excited, thinking that the movie crew made the effort to track down a real Dixon Ticonderoga Millenium for the Millenium series – but upon closer inspection, it turned out to be just an ordinary Ticonderoga Black. What’s a Dixon pencil doing in snowy Sweden anyway? Maybe they just wanted a dark pencil to blend in with the monochromatic color scheme?

I was overjoyed to spot the rare Mongol 480 in Sophie’s Choice. (It may be a regular hexagonal 482, but that barrel looks round to me!) Stingo, the aspiring writer, has a cupful of these beauties on his desk.


And, last but not least: the humble Noris is called up in the service of Art. The soprano Renee Fleming shows how to use a pencil for vocalizing practice (start watching around 1:20; it lasts only a minute or so).

Staedtler Mars Lumochrom Colored Pencil Set

Here is a beautiful colored pencil set from Staedtler, to see the new year off to a good start :)

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I love the cover illustration – it gives you a very good idea of what Lumochroms were supposed to do, in those days.

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Pulling on the strap makes the tray stand upright. This mechanism has its disadvantages though – the edges of the tin are very sharp, and the prongs jut out of the frame. Tetanus shots necessary!

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One color is missing from the set, namely the 2618 (red). It’s interesting how Staedtler numbers the colors; the order doesn’t follow the modern rainbow pattern that progresses from shades of red through yellow and green to blue.

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I found that there were more variations to the older Lumochrom printings than I thought. Three examples are given below.

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The Mars Lumograph (And What Came Before)

The other day I received a delightful package from France.

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I wonder how these three particular pencils came to be packaged together. The box seems to be original to these pencils, despite the fact that it doesn’t carry the Staedtler logo, because the three pencils fit so snugly inside. Maybe it was a gift or sample package of some kind?

The crisp gold letters and the vivid paint, combined with the lead quality, show that German pencilmakers were really at the top of their game. I love the exquisite lettering, in particular what I privately think of as the “rainbow over Bavaria”:

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The way they are sharpened is also very interesting. The shapes are all different (and I think all are factory-sharpened):

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The Mars 1225 is known as the precursor to the Mars Lumograph. It was produced from 1908 to 1930, after which the Lumo took over. (I don’t know exactly when the imprint changed from “Made in Bavaria” to “Made in Germany”. )

Until very recently, I had made the mistake of judging all pencils based on my personal tastes; specifically, how a pencil performed for someone with a moderate to light grip, who wrote quick, loose cursive on lightly coated paper. But as I get to know more and more pencils, I realize that many of them (especially older ones) are made with a specific purpose in mind, and that is the standard by which they should be judged. If I haven’t been totally satisfied with the Lumograph in the past, it is because the Lumograph wasn’t made for ordinary people like me. Instead, we should ask (as with all draughting pencils worth their salt)*:

  • Does the pencil make a crisp, even line, unvarying in width, when ruled from one end of the paper to the other?
  • Does the graphite stay where it should, or does it smudge and soil the paper?
  • Is the lead break-resistant?
  • Are the lines opaque enough to allow for clear reproductions?

And this is where the Lumograph delivers. Talking about this pencil, I sorely feel the lack of an architectural or engineering background – the only pencils I am probably qualified to judge are the “general writing” pencils. Dear Lumo, I hardly knew you, let’s start over again!

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*I am indebted to the journalist Tsuchihashi-san, especially to his book on long-selling stationery items, and Gunther for the insights contained in this post. Gunther’s blog is a treasure trove of information, particularly on Staedtler history. I strongly encourage anyone interested in Mars pencils to read through his posts (and Google does a decent job of translating from German to English).