My 17-year-old son has taken an interest in my growing collection of Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602s and he and I share a mild (in our minds, anyway) obsession with finding the ultimate writing wood pencil. After collecting an assortment of recommended pencils for comparison, we sat down and conducted our unscientific test.

Although I had already sacrificed a comfortable retirement in favor of purchasing a large quantity of Palomino Blackwing 602s, I went into this competition in the hopes that I would find a top-notch still-made-in-America pencil. Based upon recommendations found online, I obtained boxes of General’s Semi-Hex #2 and General’s Cedar Pointe #2 for inclusion in the comparison. In numerous comments on various forums I found posters stating all anyone ever needed was the Dixon Ticonderoga, which had never impressed me, although it was certainly better than big-box store brands and was my son’s daily writer, so it, too, was thrown in. Other reviews led me to try out the Staedtler Norica HB 2 and the Mitsubishi 9850 HB. These last two are somewhat hard to find in the U.S. The Staedtler is available on Amazon.com and through Staples. The version I used is black; in Canada they sell the same model but in light blue. I don’t know if paint is the only difference between the version sold in the U.S. and Canada. The Mitsubishis were purchased through JetPens.com.

Here are the joint rankings by a father and son amateur pencil connoisseur team, listed in increasing order of quality:

7. Dixon Ticonderoga HB 2 – What is there to say? Sturdy, dependable, centered core. The feel on the paper, though, is nothing to write home about. Dixon is absurdly and stubbornly still proclaiming these to be “The World’s Best Pencil.” They make both black and yellow versions; we tried both and determined the only difference in our samples was the colors of the barrels and erasers. The black ones looked nicer than the yellows but fancy clothes didn’t compensate for a comparatively poorer quality writing experience.
6. General’s Cedar Pointe #333 2 HB – If you pick this up and use it without comparing to anything else, you’d be perfectly happy with the Cedar Pointe. I really wanted to love this pencil; it’s made in America, it has a cool unpainted barrel that feels nice in your hand and it picks up a patina from the oils in your fingers. That’s either gross or a nice talking point, you decide. It’s nicely constructed, though its scratchiness as it moved across the paper is what placed it at #6.
5. General’s Semi-Hex 498-2 HB – Comes in a cool retro box. Unfortunately, the pencils are also retro, finished in an inconsistent quality ugly yellow. I tried it because others recommended it and it was American and I wanted to like an American-made pencil. It’s OK. Just.
4. Mitsubishi 9850 HB – Here’s where the price jumps in the list. So far, we find that you get what you pay for. Who knew the same company that made Japanese Zeros in World War II and automobiles today also makes pencils? Well, we do, now. Rich dark red in color, white eraser, this puppy exudes class. It noticeably glides across the paper though it doesn’t leave as dark a line as some of the others. If you try the ones below this, then try the Mitsubishi, you will think you just entered the gates of Heaven. Don’t try this without someone else in the room, because you’ll end up searching out someone so you can say “Wow!” without talking to yourself. Trust me, you will like this pencil, and you better, because you will pay $1 for each one.
3. Palomino Blackwing 602 – I was hoping these would be near the top because 1) they look really nice, 2) they are tremendous fun to write with, 3) I purchased a boatload of them at by far the highest cost of any currently available pencil in this list. If you buy a box of 12, you’ll be paying $1.67 each . . . . There is some controversy regarding how these were initially marketed. I won’t get into that, but I will say the folks at California Cedar who were involved with the decisions that led up to this recreation of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 did about as good a job as possible at helping us remember the American legend. We found the smoothness and quality of the line to be remarkably close to the original Blackwing 602. This pencil writes very, very well. It slightly, and arguably, compromises ease of movement across the page in comparison with the Mitsubishi in return for a nice rich line with, as the motto goes, “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.” In addition to the quality of the writing experience, it looks cool. Hell, it is cool. This pencil will make you want to find a reason to write something down. Anything. Even “Palomino Blackwing 602” over and over and over and over.
2. The Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 – yes, the original. I wanted this to be at the top. I was afraid it wouldn’t be. In our comparison, it was very close in writing quality to the top-ranked Staedtler, almost indistinguishably so, and with the wide ferrule and replaceable eraser, it even exceeds (slightly) the coolness quotient of the black, silver and white Staedtler. Unless you are either insane or insanely rich, though, you can remove this one from your purchase list as production ceased in 1998 and you’ll pay a pretty penny for the privilege of jotting down grocery lists with it.
1. Staedtler Norica HB 2 – This pencil wins by a hair. I went back and forth between it and the original Blackwing, and through some lack of intestinal fortitude was unable to declare a winner. My son gave a slight edge to the Staedtler, so it will take the center spot on the podium. It’s bathed in a rich-looking flat black paint with silver lettering that matches the ferrule and is capped with a white eraser. The pencil looks first class. It writes first class. You may feel like you need to get dressed up before you use them. The experience is head and shoulders above everything below the original and Palomino Blackwings. Without question, we agreed this baby was the best currently available wood cased pencil in our list. Curiously, this pencil is not widely renowned. It’s not even considered one of Staedtler’s top pencils. Shhhh. Let’s keep it that way, because we don’t want the price to jump up to Palomino Blackwing 602 levels. Here’s where the “you get what you pay for” paradigm falls flat on its face. These pencils aren’t $1.00 apiece like the Mitsubishi. They aren’t $1.67 each like the Palomino Blackwing 602. They cost 14 cents. What kind of world do we live in? This, my friends, is madness; it is jaw-droppingly incomprehensible. At $5.00 for 36 at Staples, you may want to begin hoarding these things. Because one day these will be selling alongside original Blackwing 602s on eBay for $50 apiece. Well, probably not, but they should. They are that good.

And there you have it. The historian and romantic in you will want to buy the Palomino Blackwing 602. The economist and pragmatist will want to buy the Staedtler, which costs 92% less as of this writing. In the cold, harsh light of reality, the choice seems a no-brainer. Buy both.

8 Replies to “A Great Post from Stephen Watts, Thank You.

  1. Hi Stephen and Luke,

    Great post! I just wanted to point out one thing – Mitsubishi Pencils is in no way related to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries or any other company belonging to the conglomerate of the same name. They started using the name and the three-diamond symbol before it was registered as a trademark logo by the bigger Mitsubishi. (Interestingly, there are companies that do NOT carry the Mitsubishi name but belong to the group nonetheless, such as Nikon.)
    http://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/三菱グループ

  2. Yes – thank you! Coincidentally, I ran across a post somewhere yesterday that said they were in fact different companies. And I didn’t know Nikon was part of parent company Mitsubishi.

    Incidentally, I’ve ordered about a dozen other pencil brands/models and my son and I will have a new review session within a month or so.

  3. Give a try to the Palomino HBs; they are not cheap at around a buck each (I got mine from Pencils.com) but are my favorite non-vintage pencil. They also feel expensive and the paint/stampings wear very nicely.

  4. Hello Stephen, I thoroughly enjoyed this account and look forward to future installments. I really want to try a Norica now!

    I second Trysten’s recommendation. The Palomino HB is great. I have yet to run into one myself, but my understanding is vintage U.S. made Dixon Ticonderogas leave their modern offshored namesakes in the dust aesthetically and in terms of lead quality. It is probably true that vintage pencils on a whole look better and write better than the mass of modern lead. The Japanese and Germans still make some exceptional pencils, but they are kind of boutique items with boutique prices here in the states. Our parents and grandparents were used to a generous selection of high quality domestic lead for a nominal cost at their corner drugstore.

  5. Trysten and junius, thanks for the tip on the Palomino HB. If it doesn’t make it into our next go-round we’ll keep it in mind.

    And I agree, we have a lot less to work with these days than our parents and their parents.

  6. I found a dozen of the blue barreled Noricas (Canadian market?) on eBay for under $5 shipped and love them! I will say that the Palomino HBs have some of the best fit and finish of any modern pencil I’ve encountered. The lead feels similar to the Norica but the Norica seems to have more darkness at lesser pressure. Overall writing feel is very similar.

    Additionally, the Norica is reminiscent of the lone vintage Blackwing I own, a Faber Castell branded one of less than stellar finish.

    Vintage Ticongerogas are indeed far and away better than the currently available items. I found two boxes at Staples a year or so ago and pre WWII yellow banded ferrule models come up from time to time on eBay.

    Worth the cost if you enjoy the nostalgia of simply appreciate a well made pencil.