Through casual use I have noticed from time to time differences between what I would call “vintage” Blackwings and those manufactured more recently (i.e. the 90s). The older pencils seemed a bit softer, a little darker, and more quickly lost their point. But I thought there must be some mitigating factors as well, such as the type of paper I was using and perhaps any affect aging might have on the leads.
Though the older versions were still great pencils, for some applications they were a little too soft, whereas I didn’t have any problems with the newer pencils. So, I decided to compare them side-by-side:
On the left is one of the oldest Blackwings, corresponding to version 2; to the right, version 3; and last, version 6. All of the pencils were sharpened several times with a Carl Decade sharpener to be sure the resultant shapes were consistent. The longest section of the lead is facing the camera.
Compared to the far right you can see the leads are slightly larger, suggesting that they are also slightly softer. The size of the lead on the far right is comparable to what you would see with a standard No. 2 pencil.
I am convinced that the lead formula has changed over the years. I have read where others have compared the Blackwing to a 4B pencil, but I always thought that was absurd—they were never as soft or as dark as any 4B pencil I had ever tried. But using the older Blackwings helps me to better understand the comparison.
There is one thing in common with all of the versions: the smoothness. This is the one quality that is almost impossible for other pencils to match; it’s the sui generis of the Blackwing. Sure, the Palomino and the Black Polymer come very close, but there’s just something about the Blackwing that makes it so special, so singular, so irreplaceable. If it were feasible, it would be interesting to chemically analyze samples from each of the pencils and compare the results. I’m not sure what that would tell me, but the results of my informal and unscientific comparison lead to only one conclusion: I desparately need to prioritize my free time.