As fond as I am of my Kuru-Toga mechanical pencil, lately I’ve also been using old-school wood-case pencils. I started using mechanical pencils in the 1990s because the readily available wood case pencils I purchased at office supply stores weren’t reliable; a brand that was fine in January, when I went back and bought them again in May would be inferior. The graphite would break frequently when I tried to write, or was broken inside the pencil, or write in such a scratchy abrasive way that it was difficult to write at speed, and writing was already physically difficult for me. I hadn’t used a wood-cased pencil since at least 2000 until late 2018.
While Christmas shopping in 2018 I stumbled upon an amazing specialty retailer of wooden pencils, CW Pencils. I discovered that there were a lot more pencils than I knew about. There’s a lot of variety, and quite a lot of pleasurable-to-use wood-case pencils. This year I bought a bunch of single pencils in an effort to find some I liked enough to buy more of.
I’m primarily interested in pencils to use for long-form writing, and fairly long writing sessions. I draft a lot in pencil, as well as take research notes, and sketch out roughs for diagrams using pencils. In addition some specialist research libraries only allow you to take notes with wood case pencils (no pens, no laptops, no mechanical pencils). I asked CW Pencils for suggestions regarding pencils to try, and read a lot of pencil reviews and listened to some podcasts by people who are knowledgeable about pencils.
Even the pre-sharpened pencils were sharpened with the Apsara Long Point pencil sharpener that came with an Apsara Writing Kit of Indian pencils I bought on Amazon. The eraser I used, even if the pencil has an eraser, was a Sakura SumoGrip eraser, though I did at least try the built-in erasers on pencils that have them. The paper I used was generic composition notebooks (made from sugar cane by-products) and Japanese notebook paper. I used each pencil for at least a week, including several 90-minute writing sessions per pencil.
The following list of wood-case pencils I’ve tried is opinionated rather than definitive. I’m buying pencils with the intent of using them, not saving them. Your mileage will very likely be different from mine. And I may well change my mind; I often do.
Perhaps in part because of good marketing and clever branding, the high-end pencils you hear the most about are the re-imagined and re-branded Palomino Blackwings made by CalCedar. These are sold by the dozen, and run between $25.00 and $28.00 a box.[ref]There are four standard Palomino Blackwings models, available always. In addition four limited editions are produced a year. The limited editions often sell out quickly and trade on the after market for more money, since they’re a collectable. People get a little religious about Blackwings. I agree that they’re fun and I really love seeing other people enjoy their pencils, but I’m looking for work tools, not collectables or investments. Blackwings strike me as the graphite equivalent of Montblanc fountain pens.[/ref]
I tried pencils from two Palomino Limited Editions, as well as other U. S-made pencils, German pencils, Danish pencils, Indian pencils, and Japanese pencils. I bought all but the Palomino and Apsara pencils from CW Pencils, who have been an absolute delight to deal with.
For those who want to cut to the chase, the pencils I’m definitely going to order more of are:
- Mitsu-Bishi 9852EW Master Writing HB $1.30 ea. @ CW Pencils
- Kitaboshi 9006 Academic Writing $1.00 ea./$12.00 a dozen @ CW Pencils
- Viking Element 1 $2.00 ea. @ CW Pencils
- Caran D’Ache Bicolor 999 $2.90 ea. @ CW Pencils
I’ve learned two particularly useful things about my personal pencil preferences:
- I prefer slightly softer and darker than standard HB (the Viarco Desenho and CW Editor graphite are really harder than I prefer).
- I’m partial to natural finish pencils.
I’ve listed the pencils in alphabetical order, not the order I used them or like them. I used each pencil for at least a full day of writing (that’s several pages of writing). I am a terrible photographer, and am taking these photos with my phone. They really don’t do the pencils justice, particularly in terms of color; my apologies.
Graphite Wood-Case Pencils
I mostly use graphite pencils for drafts and research notes, but I also do a fair amount of diagraming and crude sketches of layouts and UIs.
Apsara Wood World Extra Dark
This pencil has a pale beige-ish pencil body, with red and green images, green writing for the label and a green end, no eraser. I have no idea what the images are. This pencil sharpens beautifully, and writes very smoothly. One of the pencils in the Apsara Writing Kit.
Apsara Absolute Extra-Strong and Extra-Dark
The Apsara Absolute Extra-Strong and Extra-Dark has a silver body, no ferrule, with white writing and the end is an attractive blue. Sharpens easily, writes smoothly. Maybe a little darker than a standard HB. This was one of the pencils in the Apsara Writing Kit.
Apsara Platinum Exra-Dark “for good handwriting”
A black body with silver stripes, and the end is black. Sharpens well, writes smoothly. I honestly can’t perceive any difference between the Absolute and the Apsara Platinum. They both write really well, and erase fairly easily. One of the pencils in the Apsara Writing Kit.
General’s Big Bear 909T
My first “jumbo” wood-case pencil since elementary school, though this General’s Big Bear is black not red. It’s large, round, and this one, unlike the pencils from elementary school, has an eraser. It was a little tricky to sharpen; I ended up buying a sharpener with a larger hole. The eraser is tolerable, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it. It takes more effort to write in terms of moving this pencil across the paper than I’m comfortable with. This one is not for me.
General’s Carbo-Weld Scribe HB
General’s Carbo-Weld Scribe HB is a very green round pencil, no ferrule or eraser. It’s a bit difficult to write with for very long, both because of the shape, and because of the graphite. Don’t think I’ll keep this one.
Kitaboshi 9006 Academic Writing
The Kitaboshi 9006 Academic is my favorite of the wood-case pencils I’ve tried so far. I like everything about it — the darkness, the smoothness, the white eraser, even the gold print and the burgundy body. This pencil does seem to need more frequent sharpening than some, but it was so pleansant to write with I hardly noticed. I liked the Kitaboshi 9006 so much that I kept returning to it when another pencil became unpleasant.
Mitsubishi 9000 General Writing HB “Made by elaborate process”
I like the green body of the Mitsubishi 9000 General Writing pencil. This pencil seems softer and smoother than the Tombow 8900 HB. Maybe a touch darker? I’m not really sure. Certainly a good experience, though not a favorite pencil at this point.
Mitsubishi 9852EW Master Writing HB
This Mitsubishi 9852EW Master Writing HB is a very pretty pencil, and easy to sharpen to a good point. I like the natural finish very much. I also like the black / dark grey eraser, which is pretty good, though my Sumo is better. The green foil labeling is attractive against the natural finish. The writing is pretty standard for HB in terms of darkness, but it’s exceedingly smooth. This may be my favorite of all I’ve tried so far.
Mitsubishi 9850 HB
This pencil has an attractive dark red body (cranberry or maybe burgundy?) with a white eraser. It’s startlingly similar to the Kitaboshi 9006 Academic Writing pencil. I like it; it writes well and sharpens beautifully though I think I like the Kitaboshi 9006 better.
Moon Products Try-Rex B46-2
This is an attractive pencil, with a slightly different “rounded” hex shape, and an eraser. It’s not truly triangular, but it is noticeably different from the standard hex. I like it well enough, but I suspect I’ll pass it on to someone who will enjoy it more.
Nataraj 621 Ruby HB
This is a pretty red and black striped pencil from India with gold foil printing on the body. Fairly smooth to write with, and sharpens easily. It’s a little darker, I think, than a conventional HB. Not a favorite, but perfectly usable. I’ve already passed it on.
Palomino Blackwing 4
This is the first 21st century Palomino I’ve tried, and I got it mostly because of the Mars theme. It’s the “soft” core, and it does glide across the page. I like it fine, but it’s not necessarily the love of my life.
I’m a lover of libraries, planning on returning to school for an M.L.S. so this pencil called to me at its release; how could I not like a pencil this pretty that glows in the dark? This is the “firm” core but it’s almost as smooth as the “soft” core of the Palomino 4. It has me curious about the Blackwing Natural, which has the Extra Firm core.
Palomino Forest Choice #2
I very much like the looks of this natural finish pencil. I’m apparently partial to natural finishes. Natural finish wood pencils are apparently a thing, which is very good news. The Palomino Forest Choice is a good everyday pencil, especially for the price. Forest Choice is a great pencil to give to the curious, and I like that it’s FSC. I expect I’ll buy more to give to people who want to borrow a pencil, and I’ll definitely be using it a lot.
Tombow 2558 HB High Quality “For General Writing”
This is a traditional yellow-body hex pencil with a pink eraser and a brass colored ferule. I like it just fine for basic writing. Sharpens well, and erases easily.
Tombow Mono 100 F “For high-precision drafting”
I like the dragonfly logo. I like this one a lot. It really keeps a point well. I will probably use this one for diagrmas rather than for long form drafts. This was one of the pencils Alyx of CW Pencils recommended.
Tombow 8900 HB
Smoother feeling than the Viarco Desenho HB. A little darker, too. I like the dark green body and the gold dragonfly. Holds a point fairly well. I like it quite a bit.
Viarco Desenho HB
This wood-case pencil was a little odd feeling while I sharpened it; not bad, just different. It has really nice point retention but it required more effort while writing, like there was a little more friction. It’s a pretty thing, with dark cranberry and gold print, but not, I think, for me.
Viking Element 1 HB
I like the Viking Element 1 pencil very much. It writes easily, and it’s noticeably darker than most of the pencils I use. I like the slim width, the black body and the Viking ship logo (I confess to being inordinately fond of the logo). I can’t find anyplace to buy a box of them, so I’ll likely buy singles at CW Pencils. I think the difference between the Viking Element 1 and the slightly more expensive Element 2 is just that the Element 2 wood-case pencil has an eraser, and this one, the Element 1, does not.
Editing and Checking Pencils
I use these for edits and for annotations on hard copy and books, especially marginal glosses.
Caran d’Ache Bicolor 999
This is a double-ended pencil with blue on one end and red on the other. I like it very, very much. It’s smooth, it erases reasonably well for a color pencil, and I really like the shades of red and blue. Easy to sharpen, too, which is not a small thing for a color pencil. This is one I’ll be buying again.
Caran D’Ache & CW Pencils The Editor
This is another bi-color pencil, but this one has graphite on one end and red on the other. The red seems to be the same red as that of the Caran d’ache Bicolor 999. The graphite is a little scratchy, but I like the convenience of having both red and graphite on the same pencil, which I really like.
Mitsu-Bishi Hard 7700 “Strong Needle Point”
A very pretty red wood-cased pencil with gold printing. The red is a little pale, but it sharpens well. It’s a little difficult to write with, but the Mistsu-Bishi Hard 7700 works very well for annotating, particularly if I want to use fine lines to mark up text.