The rest of the editors around here know about the pencils I use. They are black, with oddly shaped metal fittings holding their white erasers in place, and I carry three or four of them into meetings to take notes, switching off as I write. They’re called Palomino Blackwings, and they are the best writing pencils on earth. This is not an opinion I alone hold. John Steinbeck and Chuck Jones were fans; Stephen Sondheim writes everything he writes with Blackwings. The difference between these and those off-brand yellow … things in your office’s supply closet is the difference between drugstore house-label instant coffee and single-estate Venezuelan Maracaibo.
We almost lost them. Eberhard Faber, the company that introduced the Blackwing in the 1930s, discontinued it in 1998, and people started hoarding boxes of Blackwings. (Sondheim said he bought enough to last for the rest of his life.) After a decade in which people were getting $30 per pencil on eBay, a small company called Palomino figured out how to reproduce the texture of the Blackwing graphite pretty closely, and brought it back in 2010 (though there was carping from the cult about small differences from the original).
What makes the Blackwing a life-changer is a little hard to explain, at least until you try one. The lead is extremely soft — that’s why I switch among four of them, because they get dull after half a page. That softness comes with an upside: smoothness. You get nice black marks while barely touching the paper, which means you can write faster. (The old Faber Blackwings came in a box that displayed the slogan Half the pressure, twice the speed.) The Palomino version improves on the original in one particular respect, because the pink rubber eraser has been upgraded to the newer plastic type, in white or black, that is much kinder to paper and better at removing marks. (The eraser can be pulled out and replaced, too, if it wears out before the pencil does.) You can even write thick-and-thin with them, making calligraphic strokes, if you are so inclined. They are “expensive,” which is to say a little more than two bucks apiece, or $25 for a box of 12. Two boxes will probably last you a solid year, unless you are a demon scribbler.
Most of all, they are a source of tiny pleasure every single time you put one to a sheet of paper. In a high-tension work environment, the pleasure of writing with them can, if only occasionally, take the edge off a headlong day. Half the pressure, twice the speed. Words to live by.
How I keep my Blackwings fresh and pointy:
To sharpen these, I just bought this tiny and basic all-metal pencil sharpener made in Germany. Cheap, sleek, and effective.
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