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.

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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, regardless of the place of manufacture, both the Regent and Norica pencils are strenuously marketed as “German” pencils ;)

 

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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).

I tried it, too!

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Gunther has already shown us that the rubbery skin of the Wopex can be peeled off. Now, I always admire how his curiosity can lead to some truly innovative experiments involving pencils, but so far had not felt any need to duplicate the results – until yesterday, when I was turning my pencils tins upside down for some spring cleaning and I found that my Wopexes had accumulated quite a lot of dust and grime, which was difficult to rub off. That, combined with the fact that I had always thought of them as rather heavy, made me take a knife to it. Just to see what happened.

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Results:

I rather like the more “natural” feel of the bare-skinned Wopex. It’s lighter too, although still not as light as other pencils. Staedtler, do you really have to rubber-coat this pencil? Why not market them nice and raw, like this?

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Lessons learned:

Don’t try this too often. The skin doesn’t come off that easily and you need to pull quite hard. But if you must, use a stub, and for God’s sake turn the pencil point away from you when you pull!

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!