The twilight of the Blackwing has grown murky over the years. Even those with only a passing interest in the pencil are likely to have heard some version of the story, which usually centers around a machine breaking and that the company wouldn’t fix it. While the story does involve a broken machine, the end of the Blackwing 602 wasn’t brought about by this reason alone, it was precipitated by a confluence of mechanical, financial, and cultural circumstances.
Perhaps the most widely-read and frequently-cited article about the Blackwing’s demise was written by Doug Martin in 2004, called The Blackwing 602 – The Final Chapter. It is based on first-hand interviews conducted at the Sanford plant where the last Blackwing pencils were manufactured, and it remains the most detailed account available.
Specialized machinery was in fact required to manufacture the Blackwing’s extended ferrule and small metal crimp that held the eraser in place. But there’s more than just a ‘broken machine’ to this story, as Mr. Martin explains:
“It is true that the ferrule machine was broken, but it had been broken even before Sanford bought the company. A large stock of ferrules remained, and all Blackwing production drew parts from this stock. Those familiar with the Blackwing know of the small aluminum clip that secures the eraser in the ferrule. It was this small part that ran out of stock and prompted the discontinuation of Blackwing production.”
Of the Eberhard Faber pencils that were once fitted with this extended ferrule, the Blackwing was the last. It is understandable then if Sanford felt hesitant about repairing the machinery, but couldn’t they have simply given the Blackwing a new, standard-sized ferrule? It’s true that the extended ferrule is part of the Blackwing’s allure, but given a choice wouldn’t consumers would have preferred a new ferrule over the pencil being discontinued altogether?
This leads to another important factor, again quoting Mr. Martin:
“During the last years of production, the company made only about 1100 dozen Blackwings annually. The facility produces more pencils than that in a single hour! It was an economic decision based on low demand and the relatively high cost of repairs to the machinery that brought the end of the Blackwing.”
Were Blackwings just not selling well? I think it’s safe to assume the answer is ‘yes’, but with all the talk of this “legendary” pencil how was it that fewer than 1,100 boxes were being purchased by 1998? I’m curious if it wasn’t a combination of both supply and demand: was the Blackwing losing its audience, or was the audience losing places to buy the Blackwing? Probably a bit of both.
The waning of hand-drawn animation must have had an impact on sales. I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if animators weren’t the largest single consumers of Blackwing pencils at one point. Combine that with the cultural eschewing of writing by hand in general and its no wonder Sanford was unwilling to fix a machine specialized for a single pencil that was selling only 1,100 boxes per year, in a world that is turning its back on the writing pencil.
I wonder what impact each corporate sale (i.e. 1988 to Faber-Castell and 1994 to Sanford) had on production. When the new entity took over, did they automatically resume previous quotas, and was there ever a break in production? Did each sale prompt an audit of the product line resulting in adjusted production? What I would like to know is how invested Sanford really was in wood-case pencil production vis-à-vis their Eberhard Faber acquisitions in general, because the Blackwing wasn’t the only one to fall (but it was the only one that had the special ferrule). Was the Blackwing a victim of its own uniqueness, or was Sanford just cleaning house?