The Blackwing 602 is perhaps the most famous — and if not that, the most notable — wooden pencil in history. Here is its story.
What Is A Blackwing?
The “original” Blackwing 602, which was manufactured until 1998, is both a historical artifact and a timeless object that is equally at home in the 1960s and the 1990s, giving it an incredible 65 year lifespan.
The full name of the original pencil was “The Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602” but this changed a number of times over the pencil’s history and, in doing so, revealed an interesting story of this fabled writing instrument.
In later years we’ve seen pencils like the Palomino Blackwing 602 and the Blackwing Pearl, which are very different products but have a shared history with the original Blackwing 602.
The Blackwing 602 is a product of a time when people were using pencils frequently and there was both demand for innovation and space for differentiation. Manufacturers had space to experiment and develop features like custom ferrules and professional users had their pick of the pencils that were ideal for them — soft graphite for artists, long-lasting double-sides pencils for stenographers who needed to write long stretches at a time, and so on.
Blackwing 602 History
The story of the Blackwing 602 started in the 1930s. The pencil was made by Eberhard Faber and appeared in the company’s catalog in the 1933-1934 edition.
The Blackwing 602 was the follow-up to the popular Van Dyke 601 (and the successor to the Microtomic 603). It is characterized by a few shared features as well as some distinctive ones. The shared ones with this family of wooden pencils are:
- A long, flattened metal ferrule
- An extendable eraser in a metal clip
- A dark grey painted barrel
The Blackwing has always had distinctive features, most notably the lack of a pencil hardness grading. The Blackwing is the Blackwing, with no “2B” or “8H” modifiers to its name. Today the Palomino Blackwing is sold as the “Natural” or “Pearl” but those are new inventions, not historic ones.
The Blackwing 602 wasn’t sold a drawing pencil so the hardness grading wasn’t necessary. Rather it was sold as a premium pencil alongside its famous slogan:
“Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.” The Blackwing never had, or needed, the high-tech sales pitch that was given to the Microtomic’s advanced lead or Eberhard Faber’s “complastic” graphite marketed for the Mongol line of pencils.
Attributing the pencil’s invention to a single person is difficult but it’s typically associated with Eberhard Faber III, who was running the company at the time of its release and had a background in chemistry which could have helped with the development of the graphite formulation.
The Blackwing pencil isn’t easy to track back to a single patent but its design was foreshadowed in the 1921 patent entitled, “Eraser-holder” by Lothar W. Faber on behalf of the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company. This patent, US1373062A, describes the Blackwing’s unique ferrule and extendable eraser with its metal retention clip. This patent was technically for a pencil extender, not a full pencil, but the leap from one to the next is a logical one.
There is also a 1932 patent, US1970603A, outlining a process for making improved pencil lead which might be related, but aside from the dates lining up, it’s a leap to associate this with the Blackwing specifically.
The Faber Castell Years
In 1988 the Blackwing brand was sold to Faber Castell USA who owned it until 1994. Faber Castell (often spelled as “Faber-Castell”) changed the style of the Blackwing 602 in some minor ways (more on this below) and marketed the Blackwing in the US alongside some of the most prominent pencils of the day, like the Mongol, Velvet, Black Velvet, and Contak. The quality of the pencil seemed to remain consistent, though it’s not clear if any changed were made to the manufacturing process, graphite formula, etc.
Sanford And The End
In 1994 Blackwing was sold to Sanford, owners of Rotring and other major stationery brands. This happened in a roundabout way because Faber Castell was bought by Sanford Corp., which is a division of Newell-Rubbermaid.
Sanford at that point owned Eberhard Faber and produced the Blackwing from 1994 until its cancellation in 1998 as the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602.
It is said that, around this time, the machine that manufactured the clip (also known as the “clamp” that holds the eraser inside the ferrule) broke. The pencils were made until the existing supply of clips was used up and then the original Blackwing 602 was discontinued. Sales at this time were said to be only around 150,000 pencils annually so this was not a big seller or a major loss of income for its owners.
Production of the Blackwing 602 was halted in 1998. From 1998 to 2012 Blackwing 602 prices spiked on place like Ebay and it was clear that demand remained for a pencil that was super smooth and quite long-lasting.
Then, in 2012, the Palomino Blackwing started to be sold by California Cedar Products, who purchased the name from Eberhard Faber in 2008. A large variety of Blackwing models and “Volumes” were sold in the preceding years and as still sold. Only a subset of these were called Blackwing 602 pencils, with others being new types of Blackwings, like the “Blackwing Pearl” and “Blackwing Natural.”
While the Palomino pencils are still highly acclaimed, most purists prefer the original Blackwing models to post-2012 ones, believing that the pencils have never quite matched the quality of the originals.
Some people even took offense at Palomino’s handling of the pencil’s “revival” believing it to be disingenuous as the new pencils don’t use the original graphite formula and are made in Japan using different equipment than in the past. In fact the connection between pre-1998 pencils and those sold today is really limited to the name. The current models which are attempts to reproduce the original. Some would say they are excellent attempts at doing just that and are worthy of the name “Blackwing” while others would say they are little more than clever marketing attached to a good, but not legendary, pencil.
In the last few years, around 2021, the Palomino branding has been removed with the on-pencil printing moving to a simple, otherwise unadorned “Blackwing 602”. There was no change in ownership this time, just a removed of the “Palomino” branding on the pencil, packaging, and associated website.
Blackwing 602 Generations
Throughout the 65-year history of the Blackwing pencil, there were some notable generations. These weren’t specified as generations or versions, but with our historical perspective we can see the changes that took place over time.
The Original (1933)
The earliest Blackwing can be identified with a yellow band painted on black ferrule, a star logo all the way to the left of the pencil’s printing, and an unusually bright pink eraser.
In the next version of the pencil, the ferrule was changed from black to a gunmetal (a dark metallic grey). The yellow band was shifted to a dark gold color, which was actually the uncoated brass of the ferrule. The writing on the pencil was unchanged.
In its third version the Blackwing 602 moved to a raw metal ferrule with a black painted band on it. The gunmetal was dropped in favor of the golden brass ferrule. The imprint was basically the same, with the Eberhard Faber star logo remaining.
With this version of the ferrule the Blackwing moved to something closely resembling its most iconic design.
Now the Blackwing’s text was getting more distinctive and stylized. The writing on the barrel was lighter, but the word “Blackwing” was now italicized. The star logo was changed and preceded with “USA” text.
The ferrule was unchanged from the previous generation. The eraser was moved to a darker, redder color than before. The “Half The Pressure, Twice The Speed” slogan was surround by left-facing arrows for the first time.
In the next version the word “Woodclinched” was added to the front of the printing and company name, “Eberhard Faber,” was compressed with the two words vertically stacked. The “USA” text remained as did the star logo, with the logo being more clear than previously.
The ferrule looks the same from this generation forward, but some people have noted that the metal begin to get thinner at this point.
The sixth version of the pencil is basically the same as the previous generation, but the arrows around the slogan were removed and the main text was the same. The main text is the same as it was in the 5th version, but the overall width is greater than it previously was.
The text is very similar between the 5th and 6th gen models, so the arrows are the best differentiator.
Now the Blackwing 602 has reached a late stage model, nearing its final form. At this point the black painted band was removed from the ferrule and the ferrule seems even lighter than brief, as if a cheaper metal was used.
This is the same as version 7, and basically the same as 6, but the “USA” text was removed. At this point the Blackwings were said to have been assembled in Mexico so perhaps the “USA” text was no long applicable.
Revision 9 – Faber Castell
In 1988 the Blackwing brand was sold to Faber Castell so the logo was changed to reflect that. The printing on the pencil was made darker and more copper-toned with the star logo removed. Between “WOODCLINCHED” and “BLACKWING • 602” the text was changed to “FaberCastell”.
At this point the ferrule is still lightweight and completely gold, with no painted band. The printing is noticeable more matte and less shiny than it was in the past.
Version 10 – Sanford
In 1994 the Blackwing was sold to Sanford, makers of the Sharpie, who was in turn owned by Newell Rubbermaid. At this point the the “USA” text and changed the company name to “Eberhard Faber” which was preceded by an arrow plus EF logo. The name is no longer stacked as it was in the past. The word “BLACKWING” has changed to its final font which is wider and rounder than it was in the past.
Some people note that there was a Version 11 with slightly more shiny lettering than the original Sanford model as well as the “USA” text being pressed into the wood, but not gold printed, but this is a very minor difference from the 1994 production models.
The final chapter of the original Blackwing 602 was a run of a few thousand pencils that were sold directly to the Boston Athenaeum library with custom printing on them. They did not feature any of the standard Faber branding, slogans, or logos.
Why Do People Love The Blackwing?
A logical question at this point (or well before it) would be, why are people so passionate about the Blackwing 602? Is it simply because it was cancelled and is now rare?
That’s unlikely, as the pencil was acclaimed by discriminating users, like Chuck Jones, well before its cancellation. So what was it?
You have to remember that the pencil was very important tool in the days before computers. A pencil was not just a students tool or a pen alternative, but it was a instrument with a wide variety of hardness grades, erasability levels, color tones, where professionals would pick and choose based on the job at hand. A draftsman using pencils for 8 hours a day would certainly be as picky about their tools as any other artisan.
And, don’t forget, in the early years of the Blackwing — the 1930s and 1940s — the ballpoint pen had not yet been invented so if you wanted convenient writing, a pencil was the primary tool available. Fountain pens were available but ballpoint pens weren’t popular and affordable until nearly the 1960s, so the pencil was king.
Under circumstances like this people grew particularly attached to certain pencils and the unique, opinionated design of the 602 certainly won over its fair share of writers.
Was the Blackwing 602 A Top Seller?
While the Blackwing 602 was a clear favorite of some notable people and it had a great run, it was cancelled in 1998. So the question remains, was the Blackwing 602 ever a very popular pencil?
The premium price of the Blackwing — usually about 3x the price of a brand name pencil — certainly precluded it from being a mass-market pencil. Still, anomalies do exist and many people will pay for quality, especially when the relative price might be high, but the absolute price wasn’t prohibitive.
The Blackwing was marketed for people with a demanding taste. It lived in a luxury niche were refinement was paramount, but the specific demands of a professional — an artist, draftsman, or architect for instance — were not of paramount importance. Those professionals’ demands were better met with other lines of pencils, sold both through Eberhard Faber and competing brands.
It seems more likely that the Blackwing 602 was a niche product that sold enough to remain in the line-up but was never a top-seller, like the Mongol or a Dixon Ticonderoga. When pencils were the tool of the day, it should be no surprise that there was room in the market for a boutique product.