Alex Beam, journalist and fan of the Blackwing pencil, wrote one of the very few mainstream articles about the 602. Tomorrow, Mr. Beam will have a new article posted about the Blackwing at the Boston Globe site, so be sure to give it a read!
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.
When a pencil—such as the Blackwing—enjoys a decades-old lifespan, I wonder about the consistency of its manufacture. Are the formulas for the leads written on the back of envelopes and napkins, then spirited away to the company vaults never to be updated? In other words, once the approved and definitive formula goes into production, is the book closed on that particular model? Perhaps when a change is made, by default it becomes part of the formula for the “next” pencil.
Given the Teutonic heritage of A.W. Faber, I’d wager that order and consistency were the touchstones of production. This would preclude “adding a pinch of wax” to the batch every now and then just to see how that run would turn out. But, if we could take for granted that lead formulations—and their extrapolation into large production runs—were exacting, wouldn’t it be reasonable to presume that pencils made at different factories might have palpable differences due to slight variations in measurement?
With today’s high technology it hardly seems plausible, for the same reason why every Pizza Hut pizza tastes the same no matter where you eat one.
But what about age? No matter how fine the wine, it will one day eventually become vinegar, so-to-speak. Do pencils suffer an analogous fate? If so it’s probably only noticed among the softer leads; I can’t imagine a 6H lead becoming much darker with age. But I can’t help noticing the difference between the older Blackwing pencils and the newer ones: they are consistently darker the older they are. Presuming the pencils remain dry, does the pressure over time contribute to this darkening, or is it that the formulas were just different? I’ve noticed an even more dramatic difference between a current Staedtler 2B and one made in the 1950s.
If it’s true that their chemical makeup changes over time then I guess that’s good news: only a few more million years under several metric tons of pressure and I’ll be the proud owner of Blackwing diamonds.
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.
It’s not too difficult to find a quotation here or there about someone’s penchant for the Blackwing. Better, though, to catch them in the act.
Composer Stephen Sondheim:
Character Animator Chuck Jones:
Character Animator Bill Melendez:
Composer Hall Overton:
Composer/Arranger Nelson Riddle: