Refreshed product lineup at Pencils.com

 

product_lineup

DISCLAIMER: Okay, so it’s been two years since I’ve worked at Pencils.com, so at some point, I should stop disclaiming myself. But, I worked there in early 2011. I am no longer paid or affiliated with Pencils.com in any official capacity. They sent me the products you see above for free, but they do not compensate me financially in any way.

There have been some seemingly subtle changes going on in the Pencils.com store recently. But they are important to note.

The lineup

First, they’ve eliminated the “California Republic Stationers” brand and rolled the Golden Bear and the Prospector into the “Palomino” brand. So, like the Palomino Blackwing, they now have the Palomino Golden Bear and the Palomino Prospector.

A Palomino Golden Bear next to the old California Republic Golden Bear

A Palomino Golden Bear next to the old California Republic Golden Bear. I appreciate that they don’t come factory sharpened now.

I think this was a wise choice. The California Republic brand for CalCedar’s pencils was pretty weak. No one really identified their pencils with that name. The Palomino, one of my favorite pencils in existence, is a much stronger brand, and made much stronger by the visibility of the new Blackwings being wrapped into their brand.

That, along with the new packaging, really showcases the brand of these pencils.

Secondly, no longer are these pencils made in Taiwan Thailand (Thanks, Charles!) — they’re manufactured right here in the US of A, at the Musgrave Pencil Company in Shelbyville, Tennessee. (Warning: their website is atrocious, in sort of an awesome way.) And even with this radical change in supply line and vendors, the price has not increased (or, admittedly, decreased)!

The biggest change — which is tragic to me — is that the triangular Golden Bears were discontinued. I love triangular pencils, and I really loved these. According to Charles Berolzheimer, the Pencils.com President and CEO, Musgrave just doesn’t have the tooling capability to make the triangular barrels.

I’m glad that I have a whole bunch of them left, though I usually give them out when I explain to someone about fancy pencils. I may have to be a bit more miserly about them now.

Charles also tells me the oft-overlooked child-focused Spangle will be discontinued, too, as they sell through their current stock. While I have a few of them, I haven’t used them enough to really form a coherent opinion on them.

Coming later this year, Pencils.com will have some changes in the orange tipped and untipped Palominos, too. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you more about them when I get to try them!

Differences in appearance and experience

First, the new USA-produced Golden Bears and Prospectors are noticeably heavier than the old ones. I need to get my hands on a digital scale to tell you how much heavier they are, but it’s not a burdensome heaviness — it feels more substantial, like it’s a fancy hardwood in the barrel.

The ridges of the hex shape are ever so slightly sharper, too, so you can feel the hexagonal shape. They’re not so sharp that they’d hurt your finger while you grip it, but you can definitely pick out every plane of the barrel. They’re not rounded edges like the old-style pencil.

There are some subtle changes in labeling besides the brand change. Instead of a “HB” label indicating the more classic European graphite hardness scale, there’s a “2”. From a marketing perspective, I understand why they did this. If someone was buying pencils for a standardized test, which explicitly say to use “#2” pencils, a typical American may be wary of a pencil that says “HB”.

The blue Golden Bear (with orange eraser) changed in fairly subtle ways. Instead of a blue stripe on the ferrule, there’s a red stripe.

The Palomino Prospector Pencil, top, compared to the California Republic Stationer's Prospector, below. Both from Pencils.com. Apologies for the light wash in this image.

The Palomino Prospector Pencil, top, compared to the California Republic Stationer’s Prospector, below. Both from Pencils.com. Apologies for the light wash in this image.

Differences in performance

Both Golden Bears and the Prospectors pencils by Pencils.com were put through a performance test.

Both Golden Bears and the Prospectors pencils by Pencils.com were put through a performance test. Click to embiggen. (Also, please pretend that said THAILAND, not TAIWAN. That was a factual error on my part.

I alternated use of each pencil on-and-off for about a week. I can tell you that I noticed no difference in performance in the Golden Bears, good or bad. To me, that’s a good thing — I really like the way they write. (I’d compare them to a Dixon Ticonderoga, but with the tactile feel closer to a Palomino.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of the way the Prospectors write, but at $2.25 for a dozen, they’re definitely worth the price. Both Prospectors are a bit scratchier than a Golden Bear, though the new one was the TINIEST bit smoother.

The erasers, which look and feel identical on both Golden Bears, performs identically. (I didn’t have my red Golden Bears with blue erasers when doing this eraser test, so just the erasers on the blue Golden Bear and the Prospectors were used.)

The Prospector was a different story. The new erasers feel a bit more vinyl than the grainy Taiwan Thailand-made Prospector. It erased better, too, if you notice in the photo above.

And in conclusion…

Before, I used my Palomino Blackwing (602) and my Palomino Proper almost exclusively, though I had a few triangular Golden Bears at work for quick notes. I think I may need to add these new blue Golden Bears to my rotation, though — it’s just a gorgeous pencil, full of color and personality, and now it feels better in my hand. I’m excited that the Palomino line is going to be made in the US, and for the same price as before.

The linkage

Advertisements

Sharpening a new (metaphorical) pencil

Wow.  Has it really been since January 7 since I last posted? I’ve been a bad blogger.

In the last three months, I’ve discovered a few things about myself:

  • I like using pencils.
  • I like talking about pencils.
  • I like writing about pencils.
  • I don’t really like selling pencils.
  • ↑ That last one’s the important part if you want to work at a pencil company

Don’t get me wrong. CalCedar is a great place to work. WoodChuck and my colleagues are motivated, friendly, and — best yet — love pencils. And while I’ve been happy living my passion these past few months, it tuns out that when I’m thinking about pencils for 40 hours a week, even I get a little burnt out. Plus, I really missed my local nonprofit community.

That’s why effective Friday, I’ll be ending my job as Marketing and Promotions Coordinator for Pencils.com. I will still maintain a relationship on a very part-time basis, managing their social media and developing relationships with bloggers. That’s what I find most fulfilling and what I think I’m best at. Meanwhile, I’ll be starting a full-time gig at a brand-new local arts and culture nonprofit. That’s my professional passion.

I’m lucky enough to be able to pursue my passions in life, which is rare. And I’m lucky that my friends and colleagues at CalCedar still want me to be part of their amazing dotcom venture. All around, I’m a lucky person.

Thanks for bearing with me! Hopefully this will mean that you’ll be seeing more from me on this blog. I have a few reviews coming up, and some news items.

What’s going on in your neck of the woods?

Economics of pencils

As you may or may not be aware, California Cedar is reviving the Blackwing brand! The pencil community is all astir with excitement about it. Building up to their release, CalCedar’s Charles Berolzheimer (or “Woodchuck” as he is known on his blog) is writing a series of posts about the “why” of their decision to lead up to the product release. While I try to figure out how I’m going to do a video review of my new strange pencil sharpener, I think I’ll discuss the first of these articles.

In his first article, “Why Take on the Challenge?“, he almost seems like he’s trying to talk himself out of it:

Anyone crazy enough to try to build a new brand name in a rough and tumble globalized commodity business like the pencil industry is always going to want the best advantage possible. Very few pencil producers really professionally and effectively advertise and market pencils anymore. The closest promotion the average consumer is exposed to are circular ads of mass retailers and office superstores offering “loss leader” prices during back to school time to get people in the door. They’ll give away $2 of pencils at or below cost to sell that $10 to 20 calculator and other goods that makes them much higher margins. The cost pressure from the large retailers drives producers towards an obsessive focus on the economics of pencil production. Over the last 20 years, this has resulted in a reduction in the general quality of pencils and outsourcing overseas while cutting marketing support dollars and manpower devoted to thinking creatively about pencils. [link]

This is really interesting, and so true. Office Depot sells a dozen plain yellow pencils for about the cost of a single CalCedar Palomino pencil, so most consumers would go out and buy the Office Depot brand, right? Not many people, it seems, see a quality difference that would justify the cost of a Palomino, although they are worlds apart to me.

This article linked to a past Pencils.com article about the economics of pencil-making. This was interesting, too, although it was more of a list. It did reference an old, fairly famous essay by economist Leonard Read called I, Pencil, where he discusses the globalization of something even as straightforward as a simple pencil.

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year.

The article was written in 1958, so the statistic at the end of the quote may be a bit different.

Anyhow, to get back to the crux of WoodChuck’s article: if pencils are a globalized commodity, land where price- and quality-slashing is king, how do you manufacture and market a high quality, fairly expensive (I’m assuming) product?

I think he has the answer. After all, he’s been doing it with the Palomino brand all along.

Since we launched our California Republic range my vision has been to establish our premium quality Palomino brand as fresh, new and fun, with great quality and safety performance. This has been a gradual and experimental process mostly conducted over the internet and in my spare time when not attending to our core slat and firelog businesses. Nevertheless we are building a small, but growing fan base and our recent Pencils.com website redesign is helping to move this ball forward with our “Freedom of Expression” theme as well as expanded features and products. In our view the pencil is perhaps the most common and affordable tool of creative self-expression used around the world. It may not have the reach of the internet, but there is a personal sense of connection to writing, drawing, sketching or doodling with a pencil that for many cannot be matched by typing on a keyboard or drawing with a stylus on a computer screen. For us, Palomino is an important part of enhancing “freedom of expression”, but we know finding your favorite instrument of self-expression is a personal journey and so in time we’ll be featuring even more pencils from other producers who use our slats in our store.

They are accomplishing a few things here:

  1. Creating an online community of pencil enthusiasts to ooh and ahh over this product line,
  2. Highlighting quality of materials and manufacturing over inexpensiveness,
  3. Championing the pencil as a tool of self-expression and creativity, rather than a blah stick of wood you use to take notes or do boring business-y things, and
  4. Making it personal — offer choices as part of a “personal journey”.

It works for me. Admittedly, these are the conclusions I came to on my own before ever hearing of the Palomino or any of the other California Republic brands. It seems obvious to me that the writing experience of a Palomino (with the highly lacquered barrel, incensed strong wood, hearty but effective eraser, and smooth and dark lead) trumps a cheap feeling Office Depot pencil any day. But there are some people who must be convinced.

Is it wrong to buy cheap pencils when they could be paying more for an experience? Well, I don’t work for CalCedar, so I say no. Is it wrong for someone to prefer Tang when they could be drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice? I may try to convince them to pay the price for a pencil as an experience rather than a tool, but I don’t think it is intrinsically wrong if that’s not how they feel.

I look forward to hearing more about preparation for the Blackwing’s re-release. Meanwhile, head over to the Pencils.com blog or WoodChuck’s personal blog, Timberlines and stay up to date with news, editorials and features. And if you haven’t ever used a Palomino or any of its kin, buy one from the Pencils.com store. It’s an experience. (I’ll be waiting for my commission check!)