Media attention was granted to the Blackwing via Alex Beam’s article in the Boston Globe. You can search online and find the text of this article, but also by paying a nominal fee to the Boston Globe for archival materials. Hopefully no one will get bent out of shape that I’m re-posting it.
Fans of Pencils Pocket No. 2, opt for their No. 1: Blackwing 602
By Alex Beam, Globe Columnist, 12/17/2002
Writers like to think that it is the man or woman sitting upstream from the pencil who may become immortal. But here is the story of a pencil that has achieved immortality all by itself.
We are talking about the legendary Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, which went out of production in 1998. Up in Writers’ Valhalla, John Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, and Archibald MacLeish are shedding a silent tear. Down here on Earth, Stephen Sondheim, Andre Gregory, and Roger Rosenblatt are scrounging to locate leftover 602s. The pencils once cost 50 cents; now they are selling for as much as $20 apiece on the Internet.
What’s the allure? Well, just look at it! It’s the DeLorean gullwing coupe of the pencil world. And not only beautiful, but adept. The 602 boasts a super-soft lead – ”They wear down quickly so I feel like I’m getting a lot done,” Sondheim once told an interviewer – that comes with its own motto: ”Half the pressure, twice the speed.” ”Yesterday, I used a [Blackwing] soft and fine, and it floated over the paper just wonderfully,” Steinbeck wrote.
The famous oblong eraser extends down into the pencil head and cantilevers out from its tapered ferrule for extra use. This is possibly the only pencil eraser that has ever served as a metaphor for death: ”People die too absolutely these days, disappear like pencil marks to an eraser – black wing,” MacLeish wrote in a letter to a friend.
So what happened? Staples happened.
In 1994, Eberhard Faber was bought out by Sanford, now a division of Newell Rubbermaid, a $7 billion conglomerate that doesn’t have much use for beautiful little products such as the Blackwing. When the metal-crimping machine that stamped out the eraser ferrule busted in 1998, Sanford didn’t bother fixing it. ”The decision was based on volume requirements,” spokesman Mike Finn explains. What gets made is the junk they push through the office-supply superstores. Thank you, Tom Stemberg.
Sanford is flogging a Blackwing wannabe called the Turquoise 4B, which it says has a ”very similar” lead, but, alas, no eraser. Cartoonist Doug Compton (”Karmatoons”) e-mails me that the Turquoise doesn’t measure up: ”The graphite comes loose often when sharpening the pencil and breaks off below the wood level, which is quite irritating. Once this happens at one [spot] it usually continues on down the pencil, rendering it useless.” Disappointed Blackwing fanatics have been exchanging sales information in the Classifieds section of the Web site pencilpages.com, and, of course, trolling for the pencils on eBay.
Dolores Carr, a Pennsylvania retiree, found a few boxes among her parents’ effects and is selling them for $20 each, citing a forthcoming New Yorker article about the pencils that might drive the cost even higher. ”Maybe they’ll start making them again,” she says, ”and the price will go down.”
Don’t bet on it. My friend, the writer Joseph Finder, didn’t.
”I use nothing but Blackwings,” he says. ”The lead is wonderful, and the eraser is like the Pink Pearl. Plus the hexagonal body means they won’t roll off your desk.” When a local stationer told him Blackwings were no longer available, Finder and his assistant called every office-supplies wholesaler they could find. ”I’ve stockpiled them,” he admits, and has no interest in selling. He has sent boxes as gifts to Rosenblatt and Gregory, whom he describes as ”Blackwing addicts.”
Speak, addict: ”This is the only interview I have ever given on a really interesting subject,” says essayist (Time, Lehrer NewsHour) Rosenblatt, who does not own a computer or word processor. ”This pencil has been a highlight of my life, which tells you a lot about my life. Nothing has been the same for me since Joe Finder told me about these pencils. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and just look at them.”
Like another friend of mine, book critic Katherine Powers (”Now I’m scared to use them, knowing how valuable they are”), Rosenblatt has never thrown away a Blackwing, so uncertain is the prospect of replacing them. ”You might want to remind Joe Finder that this is the season of giving, and it calls for generosity,” Rosenblatt concludes. ”I’ll send him my address if he doesn’t have it.”
All I can say is: Thank God I use the PaperMate Gel Roller.