(N.B. For the latest information about each version, see the main essay)
Just about everything I’ve come to find out about the Blackwing 602 pencil has come as a surprise. For example, that there are many people who unapologetically declare that it is “the best pencil ever made”, that the pencil was discontinued for lack of sales yet there seems to be no shortage of devotees, the astronomical prices they can command, and that after having written with one, discovering that there really is something special and singular about this particular pencil.
Searching online for information about the Blackwing brings up some brief historical sketches as well as a list of well-known artists, writers, and musicians who favored them. And when a name like ‘John Steinbeck’ comes up, you begin to appreciate that this pencil has been around for quite some time. Then the questions start: if it was so good, and used by so many well-known people, why was it discontinued? That story is told elsewhere. But what about the beginning of the story?
Once I came across a few Blackwings, I began to notice there were some slight differences between the pencils; mainly things having to do with their appearance: ferrules with and without a black stripe, changing typefaces, company logos, etc. But apart from the 1933 trademark application and the acknowledgment that the last year of production was 1998, there is little else describing the 65-year lifespan of the Blackwing 602. Perhaps it’s because this sort of information is proprietary, or that the catalogs and samples are still packed away in attics and basements. But I think it’s worthwhile to try and document the history of the Blackwing, so I began this blog as a means to share what I’ve found as well encourage others to contribute.
I can’t say for sure how many different versions of the Blackwing there have been. In evaluating which-came-when I have relied on design features found in the labeling that are consistent with other pencils offered contemporaneously by Eberhard Faber, as well as the type of box in which they were packaged. The following is my unofficial and unscientific survey, which gets updated from time to time.
N.B. For an update regarding the possible ordering of the earlier models, see this post.
Version 1 is notable for the bright-yellow painted band on the ferrule. The typography on the barrel and the display of the catalog number “602” can be compared to that of the Van Dyke circa the 1930s.
Taking a look at the original 1933 trademark application, the word “Blackwing” has a similar typeface:
Version 2 has the same imprint as version 1, but the ferrule is smoke-grey (which seems painted) with an un-painted brass-colored ring. I don’t know if the ferrule is made of brass, but the metal used for these early Blackwings is considerably thicker and less malleable than later versions.
This picture was provided by Bob Truby:
Version 3 is similar to version 1 except that the colors of the ferrule are reversed. It is now predominantly brass with a black band of matte paint:
Version 2 compared to version 3:
Version 4 now has the stylized Blackwing logo, with both the obverse and reverse in an oblique typeface. The label is printed with a light color and can easily be rubbed off with use. The eraser is a much darker red than the others, and the barrel is painted in a rich, dark blue. Holding it, it seems to have more lacquer than the others (perhaps I should send them off to PencilTalk Labs™ and have them weighed and measured properly).
The slogan is now bookended by two arrows:
Versions 1, 2, and 3 are the shortest of the lot, which comports to the size of the box in which they were packaged. I have seen examples of this version both unsharpened and factory-sharpened.
Versions 5 and 6
After this point I’m uncertain as to the order, so I’ll try to apply some logic based on design features. Version 5 retains the black band on a similarly-tinted ferrule, but the metal feels a bit thinner. “Woodclinched” has been added and “Eberhard Faber” is much smaller, with the two names placed atop one another. This version is considerably larger than version 4, and the paint is closer to blue-black; it doesn’t sparkle but there seems to be a slightly iridescent quality to it. The logo now has a shiny metallic look to it, most likely stamped from foil.
In terms of content, the obverse is the same in both cases. But you can see that the spacing on version 6 (bottom) is slightly wider. It gives me the impression that the stamp was re-made from scratch, but was meant to exactly duplicate the previous version.
The main difference can be seen on the reverse:
Version 6 (bottom) no longer has the arrows on either side of the motto and the text is shifted to the left, presumably to compensate for the space created by removing those graphic devices.
The differences between versions 6 and 7 are slight: the ferrule no longer has the stripe and is made from what seems like gold-colored aluminum; it’s much more malleable.
I can imagine that changes to the ferrule could have been cost-related, but why the change in printing on the back? I’m curious as to how many facilities were manufacturing Blackwings at one time, and by extension, when the pencil was at its height in popularity.
This version is identical to version 7 in every way except that “U.S.A.” is missing on the logo. The raises the question whether the Blackwing was ever manufactured in Europe (or perhaps that it was simply an oversight or an error).
Blog reader Henrik mentioned seeing a box of Blackwings that had printed on it “assembled in Mexico.” This might be the best explanation for the missing “U.S.A.”
Acknowledging the sale of Eberhard Faber to Faber Castell, version 9 is the pencil with “Faber Castell” on the logo. The printing on the logo is less metallic and a bit more bold. The only other text that remains is “Woodclinched”, and of course “Blackwing • 602”.
Versions 10 & 11
This example is quite a departure from version 9. Assuming version 10 comes from the Sanford era, the logo is unique among those labeled with “Eberhard Faber”. Both “U.S.A.” and “Woodclinched” have returned, joined by “EF” and “Eberhard Faber” (though written from left to right as with version 4). The printing is similar in color to that of version 9.
Version 11 is a slight variation 0f version 12. The imprint has returned to a metallic gold from the matte texture found both on the Faber Castell Blackwing (version 9) and version 10. Additionally, “USA” is only embossed and did not receive the application of foil. It may be just the materials used, but 11 is a bit bolder as well. Version 10 has an embossed “DB” toward the ferrule.
The decision to label this as a separate example rather than as a sub-version of the late-model Blackwings, was based on two factors: the imprint and the date of manufacture. This Blackwing 602 is unlike any other in that the imprint reads nothing of Eberhard Faber, instead it is custom designed for the Boston Athanæum. On three separate faces it reads:
THE BOSTON ATHANAEUM
10 1/2 BEACON ST.
BOSTON, MA. 02108
It is stamped in the familiar gold foil, though the typeface differs from those found on ‘standard’ Blackwing pencils.
It is not unusual for pencil manufacturers to offer custom imprinting. What seems unusual to me is that it was available for the Blackwing, but as we have come to learn this was for a special occasion, which leads us into factor #2: the Blackwing was about to go extinct.
A benefactor of the library who worked in the office products industry made arrangements to purchase the last run of Blackwing pencils from Eberhard Faber(purported to be 1,100 dozen). If this is so, then the Boston Athanæum Blackwings represent the last original Blackwings ever produced, made more special due to their custom imprint.