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 ;)

 

Some More Red-and-Blue Pencils (3)

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My first red-and-blue pencil was the Mitsubishi 2637/2667. Now, after trying many other brands, I realize that the Mitsubishis were actually on the softer side of the spectrum; on the other end are the vintage American colored pencils (such as the Eberhard Faber Colorbrite and Eagle Verithin), which are specifically formulated for writing and therefore have harder and stronger cores.

Tombow bicolor pencils (second and third from top in the picture above) seem to offer a good compromise between these two extremes. I assume that the regular Tombow 8900 V/P and the Ki-Monogatari natural-finish bicolor pencils share the same cores, since I could not detect any meaningful differences; both are very good. The Ki-Monogatari has painted bands at the ends, which make you hesitate with the sharpener – another instance of the ephemeral luxury so often associated with pencils.

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The Kitaboshi vermilion-and-Prussian-blue pencil (the top pencil in the first picture) was one of those lesser-known and seldom seen (at least outside of Japan) pencils that I would have loved to have “discovered” for myself, but it was disappointing. It is harder and fainter than the Tombows.

The 9608 bicolor pencil from A. W. Faber, and its modern successor from Faber-Castell, are both wonderful. I especially love the older, chubbier 9608; its “red” core has a bright fuchia tone to it that doesn’t show up well in pictures but sets it apart from the other red-and-blues (the blue is less inspiring).

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I was able to try the handsome modern 9608 thanks to Gunther :) May its production be assured for decades to come!

Some More Red-and-Blue Pencils (2)

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Here are some modern American red-and-blue pencils: a General’s Red & Blue Crayon 1201 and a Musgrave Harvest Thick 725 Red and Blue Combination pencil.

The Harvest is actually pretty good, the colors strong and the core smooth. But core centering is just terrible (something I also noticed about Prismacolor Premier colored pencils). Up until now I only knew of two ways to tell whether the core was off-center: one, looking at the ends; and two, sharpening them (which is inconclusive because it may be your sharpener that’s off center). Now, thanks to the Musgrave Harvest, I’ve discovered a third clue. If you roll an off-centered pencil on a flat surface, it won’t roll evenly, but will swing like a pendulum where the core weighs it down (i.e. where the wood is thinner). Interesting, but I wish I didn’t have to know.

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I don’t like the General’s. The reflective surface is a bit garish, and the colors are weaker. The red in particular writes as though it contains only half the pigment, with the unpleasant feel of something like styrofoam rubbing against the paper. I don’t think I would have bought this if it had been pre-sharpened and thus available for testing in the store. I would recommend the Harvest, but only if it’s properly centered.

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.

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.