Looking sharp: Rediscovering the wooden pencil

In the last year, I discovered fountain pens and mechanical pencils. But recently, I discovered another “new” writing instrument: wooden pencils.

I haven’t used a wooden pencil for writing since probably middle school. Sure, I’ve used pencils for sketching, but for writing, I’ve used pens and mechanical pencils exclusively.

My wood pencil experience was pretty much limited to the #2 pencils we used in school. The ones we had to use to fill out those Scantron standardized tests. And while those pencils are iconic, they aren’t exactly an amazing writing experience.

I started to research pencil options on Jet Pens. The selection is not as massive as the pen selections. One particular brand stood out — Palomino Blackwing. The Blackwing is the most popular pencil on Jet Pens and after reading several reviews, I was sold.

I was intrigued by the Blackwings. The design looked amazing and the reviews were stellar. Blackwings come in three standard designs — Blackwing, Blackwing 602 and Blackwing Pearl. These pencils differ in firmness of lead and exterior appearance. (Blackwing also has some limited edition versions… more on that in a bit.)

From top to bottom: Blackwing, Blackwing 602 with a green eraser And Blackwing Pearl

From top to bottom: Blackwing, Blackwing 602 with a green eraser And Blackwing Pearl

Starting with Blackwings

The Blackwing 602 was the firmest of the three standard designs and I thought that it would be the best fit for me. (For reference, the 602 is firm, but still softer than the #2 pencils of my childhood.) I bought a box of 12.

The experience of using a Blackwing pencil is amazing. It’s an experience unlike pencils I'd used previously. The graphite glides across the page smoothly. The pencil is nicely balanced in my hand. Blackwings are made from incense cedar so even the smell of a Blackwing is nice.

I was buying pencils so I also needed a pencil sharpener. I seriously had no idea there were so many kinds of pencil sharpeners. Sharpeners with different angles, different styles and different colors. I settled on a Blackwing Sharpener manufactured by Kum. It’s a two-step sharpener — the first step sharpens the wood and the second step sharpens the lead. It also has a automatic brake to prevent you from over sharpening your pencil. 

This sharpener is a step above any that I’ve used previously. The two-step process seems silly until you use it. The resulting point is ridiculously sharp and perfect.

One of the nice things about the Blackwing design is that the eraser is replaceable. Jet Pens sold sets of colored erasers to replace the stock erasers, so of course I picked up some green erasers. Like all pencil top erasers, the quality isn’t great. But it is nice not to have to worry about breaking an eraser off of an otherwise usable pencil. And it’s fun to change the colors up.

After not using wooden pencils for the past couple decades, I had forgotten how “dirty” wooden pencils can be. The graphite gets on my hands and everything in my pencil bag. It’s not a problem, but good to know if you haven’t used wooden pencils in a while. (I actually don’t mind it. It’s pretty nice to “get my hands dirty.”)

Trying the whole range of Blackwing pencils

After about a month of using my Blackwing 602s, I stopped in to Origami Ink on a family trip to Asheville to get some ink. At the checkout, they were selling individual Blackwing pencils so I picked up a regular Blackwing and a Blackwing Pearl to try out. The writing experience is subtly different between the three pencils. And while I like all three, I think I actually prefer the Pearl. It’s a touch softer than the 602. But you really can’t go wrong with any of them.

Special edition Blackwing subscription

I mentioned earlier that Palomino offers special edition Blackwings. As part of a $99/year Blackwing Volumes subscription, you get a box of 12 pencils quarterly. I don’t think I can use that many pencils a year so I’m not going to subscribe, but you can also purchase boxes of the pencils separately until they run out. I hate that I missed the natural wood Volume 211. I’m temped to buy a box of the current edition — the all-black, Steinbeck-inspired Blackwing 24. That is one sharp looking pencil.

Give it a try

If the last pencil you used was a cheap yellow #2 pencil in elementary school, it may be time to try out one of the newer wooden pencils. You may discover a new favorite writing instrument.

Bob Wertz

Husband, Dad (x3), Creative Director at @UofSC, Type Designer, Teacher and Volunteer. Blogs at Sketchbook B and Wanted in Columbia.