“How I wish I may do it as gallantly as you:” A letter written in pencil to Dorothea Lange by John Steinbeck

Just across the bay from San Francisco is Oakland, a city that often lives in the shadow of SF, but has so many cool attributes in its own right.

On Sunday, I went to one of Oakland’s gems, the Oakland Museum of California. In addition to some amazing permanent installations, we saw a temporary exhibit featuring the photography of Dorothea Lange, a prolific documentary photographer from the early- to mid-1900s.

She’s perhaps best known for her series on the displaced farm families as they migrated from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s, and on the forced internment of Japanese-Americans by the US government during World War II.

(And among a certainly online community, she’s also known for having a Blackwing Volumes edition tribute — the red-ferruled Volume 344.)

The photography was powerful, the narrative was fascinating and there were really great interactive elements of the exhibit, featuring creative photo cropping, grouping photos to tell a story, and other immersive lessons.

A display featuring a letter written to photographer Dorothea Lange by author John Steinbeck in 1965. Displayed in the Oakland Museum of California.

But the piece that really held my attention was a letter written to her by John Steinbeck just a few months before her death in 1965. He thanked her for the use of her photographs for a collection of articles he wrote in a pamphlet called Their Blood is Strong, about the Great Depression and American migrant workers.

(If you don’t know who John Steinbeck is, I can’t help you. But let’s say for the sake of this article that he’s a guy who wrote books and is perhaps the most famous modern pencil user. He also has a Blackwing Volumes tributed to him — the all-black Volume 24.)

When I got up close to the display, I noticed that the letter was written in pencil! Its a bit hard to tell from this photo, but the marking is extremely dark. If Steinbeck was writing with one of his favorite three (the Eberhard Faber Mongol, the Blaisdell Calculator 600, and the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602), I’d guess that it’d be the Blackwing.

(An Erasable group member put together a project called The Steinbeck World Tour, a collection of those three pencils that was mailed to participants, so they could experience them. I got to try them out in Spring 2016, and can speak from experiecne that the Blackwing is indeed the darkest and smoothest. Although the Blaisdell is pretty close.)

The Steinbeck Trio: three pencils lauded by Steinbeck.

The Steinbeck Trio: three pencils lauded by Steinbeck, accompanied by a baseball card and an Field Notes pocket notebook with an Erasable sticker.

I love this quote from Steinbeck’s letter to Lange:

We have lived in the greatest of all periods. If the question were asked, if you could choose out of all time, when would you elect to have lived, I would surely say — the present. Of course we don’t now how it comes out. No one ever does. The story ends only in fiction and I have made sure it never ends in my fiction.

A transcript of Steinbeck's letter to Lange.

Notice how great Steinbeck’s handwriting was. It’s hard to believe, since he wrote so much by hand, that his pencilmanship didn’t degrade over time. But I guess when you’re writing a letter to one of “the giants” like Dorothea Lange, you slow down and take your time so your writing is legible. Even if you’re John Steinbeck.

Thank you to the Oakland Museum of California for the exhibit, and for giving me the opportunity to see this artifact of an  interaction between these two giants.

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Plumbago Magazine, Issue 2 is for sale as a pre-order!

I’m really excited for the second issue of Plumbago, my zine project. If you’ll remember, the first issue came out late last year. It was a bit rushed, since I was trying to produce an issue in time for a Zine Fest at the Facebook Analog Lab.

Turns out, I made far too few copies, and because it was assembled entirely using the photocopier, several features in it were pretty heavily distorted.

This time around, I wanted to produce a higher-quality issue, to see how that felt.

Well, it feels pretty great! Weighing in at 36 pages full of photos, comics, illustrations, and written features, I present Issue #2!

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This isn’t a real image of the magazine, so the cover could look totally different than this. Just saying.

This time, I need to spend a bit more money on producing the issue, so I opened it up for pre-orders to fund the initial print run. Please help out by placing a pre-order!

Just a few features you’ll find in this issue:

  • “What I’ve Learned from Field Notes”: A piece by urban sketcher Tina Koyama
  • “Rabbinic Musings in Graphite”: about how pencils aid in the intense study environs of rabbi school by Mordechai Lightstone
  • “How to Keep Score at a Baseball Game Using a Pencil”: A piece by Gregory Dresser
  • “Are You Too Obsessed with Stationery?:” A quiz to help you measure your sickness
  • A comic by the Mad Penciler
  • An editorial by Dr. J. Frank, encouraging you to lovingly destroy your pencils
  • And lots, lots more.

This issue will be $10 each, but during the pre-order period, it’s $8. Head over to the Plumbago page on Erasable.us to order a copy now!

Neat & Super Dark: An overview of the colorful uniqueness of Indian pencils

One of the great ironies of wooden pencil merchandising is that for a product that’s a symbol — perhaps the symbol — of globalized industry, we see so few of the on the shelves in the United States. There are Ticonderoga pencils, of course, and Write Dudes. If it’s a fancy store, there are some Japanese and German brands, and of course there are bottom-shelf no-branded pencils. I barely even notice those anymore.

But what about Indian pencils?

This post is not a review of any specific pencil made in India. For that, you should check out in-depth reviews by my friends Mike at Lead Fast and Dee at The Weekly Pencil. You could even listen to the a recent episode of The Erasable Podcast where Mike talks about them.

What I do want to do here is celebrate Indian pencils, and give you a few resources if you want to explore them on your own.

What’s so great about Indian pencils?

As Mike said on Episode 75 when asked this same question, they’re one of the best quality pencils for the price. And the way they use color and typography make it, aesthetically, much more interesting than the vast majority of the pencils you can buy around here. As iconic and trusted as the yellow pencil is in the US, it gets a little boring after a while.

And for less than two dollars for a 10-pack, most pencil models are super cheap. Even if you spend that same amount shipping it over here.

In a nutshell, they’re a breath of fresh air in a market where attractive pencils are usually extremely expensive (Blackwing and Tombow, for example) and inexpensive pencils are terrible performers and, well, just boring.

CW Pencils

My very favorite pencil shop in the world  is Caroline Weaver’s shop, CW Pencil Enterprise. She has one of the best selections of wooden pencils in the US, with exclusive stocks of Viking pencils, Hindustan, and a few other brands. It was from her I learned about the Nataraj Pop, which I’ve written about here before, and a few others like the Apsara Joi.

She introduced me, and a lot of my pencil-centric friends, to Indian brands like Nataraj and Apsara, both made by Hindustan Pencils, and the standard of what I think associate with Indian pencils.

The Curios

A few months ago, I got a message on Facebook from Suraj Singh, a pencil fan from Faridabad, India. He runs a small online stationery business, The Curios. Suraj is a member of our Erasable Pencil Community Facebook group, and wanted to know if the group would have any interest in buying Indian-brand pencils from him. Of course we would!

He sent me a price sheet, and I realized there were brands I never heard of! Pencils with names like “Camlin Flora Chhota Bheem,” “Navneet Stallion Full Black” and “Rorito Trizy” stuck out to me. I wanted one of everything.

Luckily, Suraj has a plan for that. He offers a sampler pack of either one or two pencils of every variety he offers, and for really cheap. I bought the 2-pack sampler which includes 110 or more pencils, for only $14.50!

My sampler pack from The Curios came like a brick wrapped up in a manila envelope, and didn't look anything at all like drugs.

(Shipping was almost twice that amount, though, but still a good deal considering it came more than 7500 miles to get to me.)

The full selection of what came in my package from The Curios India. All this for only $14.50! I ordered the 10-pack of Apsara Pop pencils separately.

The full selection of what came in my package from The Curios India. All this for only $14.50! I ordered the 10-pack of Apsara Pop pencils separately.

As soon as I opened the box, I was in love. Aesthetically, they came in varied, bright colors with contrasting end caps. Bold, foil-pressed typography with fun descriptive words (like “Learn with fun” on the Eco-buddy and “Neat & Dark” on the Rorito Quicky). There was a high percentage of triangular pencils, which Ive always been into. It’s just an explosion of color and fun, which I don’t see a lot of around.

The colors, the designs, the typography, and the words on these assorted Indian pencils are unique and just so delightful to me.

The colors, the designs, the typography, and the words on these assorted Indian pencils are unique and just so delightful to me.

Sure, the high-end pencils that go around our community are beautiful — the newest Blackwing Volumes edition celebrating Lake Tahoe is an example of the aesthetic beauty that special, high-end pencils can bring — but these Indian pencils are something else. They’re maybe not as polished and “special” in their design. Their bright colors are commonplace, which really appeals to me.

How do they write?

Generally, they write well. As I mentioned, I don’t want this to be a review post. Some are dark and buttery, like the aforementioned Rorito Quicky or the Flair Dotcom D100 (which looks a lot like the Faber Castell Grip 2001), and some are light and scratchy like Victory HB (Not to be confused with the Victory HD, with “unbreakable graphite.”)

Without stereotyping too much, I would say Indian pencil that advertise as being “extra dark” write a bit lighter than Japanese pencils of the same. They aren’t quite as exacting in their core grading (one pencil has “HB+” written on the barrel — what does that even mean?), but at a fraction of the price, I don’t expect them to be.

How do I get some of these pencils?

If you want a box of assorted Indian pencils, reach out to Suraj. The easiest way is probably through his Facebook Page, though if you dont use that platform, you can email him, too, at thecuriosindia@gmail.com. If you’re in the US, just remember that shipping will likely cost more than the product itself, and still take a couple of weeks to arrive. That’s pretty standard and expected.

He also sells those pencils by boxes of 10, if you know what make and model you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for one or two pencils of more limited availability, perhaps to add to a larger order of other pencil ephemera, head over to CW Pencils. They have a smaller selection, but some of the best, like the fabulously hand-marbled Nataraj Marble Pencil or the Apsara Absolute Extra Strong.

There are lots of assorted sellers on Amazon, but at this point, I don’t know enough about them to recommend them. They seem to offer pretty good prices, often with shipping built into the cost, but often, they seem to be much slower in shipping than the two sellers I mention above. Buy from there at your own risk.

And meanwhile, check out a few of these reviews of Indian pencils on other fine pencil blogs:

Two more Blackwing notebooks to complement the Slate

It’s been a minute since I’ve written anything about Palomino Blackwing/Pencils.com/CalCedar. But it’s not for want of any new products from them. They’ve been busy!

Their latest release is a great follow-up to my post in Summer 2014 about the Blackwing Slate, a Blackwing-branded A5-sized journal. Since that release, they haven’t said much about their line of paper products, though I’ve seen the Slate in most stores that carry their pencils. I figured they’ve been concentrating on their (very ambitious) quarterly Volumes releases.

But it was in the last Volumes release that they gave us a taste of what’s to come. The Volume 205 edition (the “jade” edition) included an extra. A small, single, pocket-sized notebook with the same leather-ish polyurethane black cover as the Slate.

blackwing-notebooks-1Later on, they announced it was called the Blackwing Clutch. And they followed that up with the Summit, a larger, 8.5 x 10” edition.

blackwing-notebooks-2Like the Slate, the Clutch and the Summit are plain black with a creamy, thick paper. Unlike the Slate, they are perfect-bound with a contiguous cover from front to back, similar to a Write Notepad notebook. And they have a soft cover; similar to a Moleskine, though with a better, thicker cover.

One thing about both of these new notebooks was bugging me — the name. The “Slate” makes sense — it’s another name for a handheld writing surface. But what about the “Clutch” and the “Summit”?

Finally, I emailed Alexander, Blackwing’s brand manager and asked. He said:

“The ‘Clutch,’ because it will (hopefully) come in clutch when you have a great idea on the go, and because it opens like a clutch bag. The ‘Summit,’ because we envision this being more of a meeting/desktop/workplace notebook, and because it’s our largest notebook offering.”

(“Clutch,” for those of you who don’t know, is slang for “performs under pressure.”)

Aesthetics

blackwing-notebooks-iphone

I’m a fan of the matte black covers — they match my iPhone really well, so when my notebook and phone are laying on a desk next to each other, it looks like I planned it that way.

That said, I’m generally drawn to stationery items with a bit of color. The Baron Fig Three-Legged Juggler and the Write Notepads Kindred Spirit are two notebooks that come to mind.

But these are subtle and classic, and complement their pencils really nicely. Blackwing pencils are themselves not subtle (though I do think most of them are pretty classic), so unlike a bright pocket notebook (Say, the Field Notes Unexposed edition), these notebooks won’t draw attention away from them.

The Form Factor

One of the big advantages to the Clutch, Blackwing says, is to use it sideways, in “clamshell mode,” as it were. Two things about this:

  • That’s not a particularly unique value proposition — you can do that with any saddle-stitched or perfect-bound pocket notebook. And really, anything that’s graph or dot-grid ruled.
  • Also, the notebook isn’t particular good at being used sideways like that — the binding is very tight and it’s hard to break the spine on some pages.

Like other perfect-bound pocket notebooks, the Clutch is bound in such a way that in order to let it lie open, one must “crack” the spine —

bendy-blackwing-notebookThe Summit makes no such claims. The binding is a bit different — it’s more of a traditional journal, with the cover material tucked underneath the end sheet.

The Paper

Like the Slate, these two has a thick 100gsm ivory paper. It’s luxurious and smooth, but kinda smeary. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it in the Slate, but looking back, the Slate’s paper seems toothier. Check out the smear from this Blackwing Pearl:

smear-testAnd that’s not even the softest Blackwing out there.

Despite the smeariness, I like it a lot. It feels like paper befitting a luxury brand.

I am, however, not a huge fan of the dot grid here. It’s well-spaced — just about the same as the Baron Fig Confidant. But the dots themselves are big and bold, which makes them feel a bit intrusive. I would much prefer them to be smaller and lighter.

blackwing-notebook-7

The darker but smaller dot grid of a Blackwing Summit notebook next to the grayer but bigger dot grid of a Baron Fig Confidant

Both the Clutch and the Summit come in dot grid, lined and blank (the latter two I haven’t tried).

The Price

This is where you really see what “luxury brand” means. Like their pencil counterparts, this is not cheap. A three-pack of the Clutch notebooks are $14.95. The Summit is just a dollar cheaper than the Slate, at $21.95.

Is it worth it?

This is something you’ll have to determine for yourself. For me? It’s worth the quality they put into the notebook. They seem way more sturdy than the $12-per-pack Field Notes (only time will tell, though).

However great the quality is, I still would prefer a bit of color in my notebook. The Baron Fig Confidant and Vanguard limited editions are great for me in that regard, as are Write Notepads’ pocket notebooks. The Blackwing notebooks don’t appeal to me, aesthetically, as much as they do. If you like a subtle, classic black, I wholeheartedly recommend them.

I will certainly keep coming back to Blackwing for pencils, though. My Volumes subscription renews in a week, and that’ll be the start of my third year as a subscriber.

Check out the Blackwing Clutch at Blackwing602.com. And the Blackwing Summit. And if you haven’t seen it before, the Blackwing Slate is the hardcover journal sized right in the middle.

And thanks to Blackwing for providing me a pack of the Clutches and Summits at no charge for review purposes.

The Waverley Tartan Cloth Commonplace Notebook: Beautiful, but oddly ruled

I love plaid.

I don’t know if it’s because of my ten years of Catholic school — or perhaps in spite of it — but the colorful, patterned cloth has appealed to me for as long as I can remember. Perhaps none have been present in my wardrobe more than Black Watch plaid — a simple, understated green and blue plaid with roots in Scottish military garb born out of the unsuccessful Jacobite rebellion in the early eighteenth century.

I had a Pendleton wool scarf, which I cherished, and, in my late teens and early 20s, even a wool sweater vest!

Ladies.

Thats why, when I first became aware of Waverley’s tartan cloth-bound collection of journals from my friend Gary Varner’s blog, I was instantly lovestruck.

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The Mitsubishi Uni Palette 2B: Dark, soft, and hard to smudge

A month or so ago, a member of the Erasable Podcast Facebook group posted a picture of some pencils he bought from Japan — a Mitsubishi Uni model called “Palette” which bills itself being “designed for students.

The Mitsubishi Uni Palette pencil

According to the box, Mitsubishi says:

“Palette stationery is designed to help students develop their imaginations and think independently through the joy of writing.”

What really struck me at first about these, when seeing a picture of them, was the three shades of bright, brilliant blue on the pencil barrels. From a rich Navy blue down to a vibrant Baby blue varnish, with bright pearly-white imprints, this stood out to me, especially compared to its higher-end cousin, the understated maroon Hi-Uni.

My wife, considerate person that she is, noted my enthusiasm and went about tracking down a pack. She found a seller on Amazon that shipped from Japan, for free! Of course, it took almost a month to arrive, but when it did, I was so excited to break it open.

Aesthetics

As I mentioned before, the most striking feature of the pencil is the bright blues it comes in. It feels a lot more fun and light than the darker, serious maroon, black and gold of the Hi-Uni. It makes a lot of sense, being for students.

The Mitsubishi Uni Palette pencil and the Kum Masterpiece sharpener

The ends were unfinished, which was a bit disappointing. One of my favorite things about many Japanese pencils are the dipped or capped ends that often have a pinstripe or some detailing to finish it. A bright white to match the foil stamp would have been nice. But to keep costs down, I completely understand why it was bare.

The Mitsubishi Uni Palette pencil

Upon closer inspection, I was pleased to see that all the cores looked perfectly centered inside the wood. The casings seemed perfectly aligned and there were no chips or paint overspill despite the dramatic woodgrain.

Shavings from the Mitsubishi Uni Palette pencil and a Kum Masterpiece sharpener

The pencil sharpened like a dream. As with many Japanese pencils, It sharpened smooth and the wood sheered off in almost one piece. I used my Kum Masterpiece, my favorite hand-held sharpener, to get that razor-sharp long point I prefer.

Performance

The first thing to note is how dark and smooth it is. For a 2B, it was so rich and smooth — waxy, almost — that I thought it was an error. Surely this was a 4 or 6B!

Writing test with the Mitsubishi Uni Palette pencil

Because it was so soft and smooth, it didn’t hold its point for very long. It could be because I was writing on fairly toothy paper — a Baron Fig Confidant — but by the time I got two-thirds of the way down the page, the point was quite dull. I wasn’t even pressing very hard.

Writing with the Mitsubishi Uni Palette pencil

However, what really makes this pencil stand out is the smudgeability (is that a word?). As soon as I wrote a few words, I ran my finger across it and barely got a smear. This felt more like a 2B than something softer and darker.

A smear test with the Mitsubishi Uni Palette pencil

What makes it “designed for students”?

The day I opened up these pencils, I had lunch with a friend of mine: Bruce Eimon, who started Think on Paper .Co, a company specializing in Japanese stationery. He was raised in Japan, and deeply understands the Japanese stationery market — how it reflects that industry’s values, their philosophy of product design, and how they approach creativity and learning.

It’s important, he says, for Japanese schoolchildren to understand how to use a pencil. They spend a lot of time taking tests — writing and filling in little bubbles on a standardized exam. This pencil is soft and dark, so students don’t have to press too hard, which can affect their handwriting. It’s lightweight and relatively thin — for little hands — and is probably relatively smudge proof because those hands are often clumsy and are dragged through the graphite markings.

Brilliant.

If you’re in the US, it’s pretty hard to get ahold of these — CW Pencils doesn’t have them, and neither do JetPens or Pencils.com. As far as I can tell, I can only get them on Amazon. But, the good news is that they’re not expensive — less than $7 for a dozen. They just take a while to get here.

If you’re interested in picking up a dozen of these for yourself, you can find them on Amazon, here!

EDIT: Someone pointed out to me that there are also Palettes in gorgeous pastel colors with pink and orange in the package, and Palettes in a soft triangle shaped barrel!

Also, if you are reading this on your mobile device and have Medium installed, check this out — I was playing around with Medium Series, their new format similar to Snapchat or Instagram stories. I wrote this same review there, too.

The Viarco Vintage Collection

Whoa — it’s an actual pencil review! I haven’t reviewed an actual pencil since October, with the Baron Fig Archer. Of course, with the new renaissance of pencil blogs, you don’t need me anymore — I’m talking about impassioned publications like Lead Fast and, of course, the re-launch of Pencil Talk, which I’m very excited about..

However, there are some fantastic pencils out there that I want to explore.

Sometime last year, one of my favorite places on earth, CW Pencils, started selling a series of pencils from Viarco. They’re a manufacturer in Portugal that often flies under the radar here in the US (though among our pencil community, people are getting hip to them).

Making pencils since 1907, Viarco is a small but quality pencil brand that makes good quality HBs like the Premium 2001, or the Desenho 250 H (a dark, smooth pencils that CWP recommended for left-handers).

This series, the Viarco Vintage Collection, has six varieties of boxed dozens:

  • 1951: multicolored HB hex pencils with white stripes on the edges
  • 2000: Pearlized multicolored HB hex pencils with a bright stripe and cap on the end
  • 3000: Similar to the 2000s, but round instead of Hex
  • 3500: Red HB hex pencils with white stripes on the edges
  • 272D: Blue copying pencils with violet ink (originally used to transfer ink to other paper decades ago

What’s really remarkable about this collection is not how exceptional the pencils are in themselves — it’s the level of detail to which they recreated the originals. From the packaging to the paint on the barrel, they look incredibly similar.

As a fan of vintage aesthetics (I know, I’m a dirty hipster), I knew I wanted to try them. But, at $15 a dozen, I knew I didn’t want to pick them all up. I went for the multicolored packs; the 3000 and the 1951 sets.

Performance

I won’t spend a lot of time talking about how well they write — I honestly don’t think that matters as much. They’re not particularly remarkable. But they’re not terrible either. I would say they write dark and maybe a little on the scratchy side, like a General’s Cedar Point #2 or a Baron Fig Archer. The 1951 seemed to be the scratchiest of the two, though they were really similar. It really felt like what I usually expect a vintage pencil to feel like, if that makes any sense.

Construction and Aesthetics

It really seems like they went all out to replicate the vintage feel. The paint looks like it was really painted on, and the foil stamp on the barrel feels like it was really stamped — the 3000, for instance, had a deeper imprint in the center of the stamp than the edges, like like a round pencil barrel would dictate. The end-dip is just a little uneven, like maybe it was dipped by hand.

I actually have no idea if that’s the case — if Viarco actually dipped and stamped their pencils by hand. But if they don’t, they replicated it perfectly.

The cores are perfectly centered in the barrel — a look through both sets of 12 pencils shows that that’s the case for all of them. And the wood looks like it’s real cedar — it’s a bit darker and more fragrant than many modern pencils.

I’d love to get hold of an actual vintage Viarco so I can compare the two. If I can do that, I’ll report back here.

Meanwhile, check these out for yourself! CW Pencils sells all six varieties for $15 a boxed dozen, or if you can’t make up your mind, you can just buy the full set for $75.