In 1971 my parents bought a house whose previous owners had left a hand-crank pencil sharpener attached to a stud near the head of the stairs to the basement. The sharpener had a red plastic shaving container, and it was old. I think it was a Berol. Unlike the sharpeners at school, it didn’t chew up the pencil or wobble or break points. Although it had a single hole, it could even sharpen thicker pencils and color pencils. It was fabulous. My father took it with him when we moved, but alas, forgot to move it when they sold that house. I am still in mourning that sharpener which reliably sharpened pencils despite heavy use.
In graduate school, I was translating so much and using color pencils to annotate and mark up drafts that I asked for an electric pencil sharpener one Christmas. I got a Boston sharpener, and it was perfectly adequate but it wants to consume pencils rather than sharpen them. While I’m not an artisanal pencil sharpener, and have no intention of writing a book about the sharpening of pencils, I like the smell of cedar, and I find the necessary pause I take to sharpen a pencil a helpful reminder to get up and move and breathe a little before writing some more. Consequently I have opinions about pencil sharpeners.
I received my first Apsara Long Point sharpener in a box
of Apsara Platinum pencils, and soon bought a box of 20 Apsara Long Point Sharpeners for $5.00. The Apsara Long Points are astonishingly good when used with a little care. The Apsara quickly became my go-to pencil sharpener.
Less’s Apsara hack makes the Apsara Long Point sharpeners even better for my purposes, because Harper hacked Apsara Long Points create pencil points that are long without being so pointed that the rpoints are brittle. Less has started making small jars with hacked Apsara Long point sharpeners screwed to the lid. This little bottle is perfect for sharpening on the couch or anywhere that it’s not convenient to dump shavings.
I have a Blackwing/Kum Two-Step Long Point Sharpener and it’s OK; mostly I prefer the Apsara Long Point Sharpener. The idea behind the Kum/Blackwing Two-Step sharpener is that you remove the wood with the first hole and blade, then you use the second hole to sharpen the graphite core. It’s a decent portable sharpener in that it collects its own shavings, but that’s also why you don’t want to put the two-step sharpener as is in your pocket; graphite mess. That said I do like to use the Blackwing Two Step’s second hole as a lead pointer to touch up a pencil that just needs a little pointing. Two things about this sharpener are particularly useful; it is its own container for shavings, and they are easily dumped, and tucked inside the sharpener is a stash of extra blades.
My most recent sharpener acquisition is a Möbius & Ruppert Brass Bullet sharpener. I wanted it because it’s so small that I
can still sharpen quite short pencils, and use them in a bullet pencil or pencil extender, and it fits in its ziplock bag in a mini Altoids box in my pocket, along with a USB adapter in its case, and a tiny 64 gig capped thumb drive. This is going to be particularly nice this summer when I can write on the patio in the early morning.
It may seem excessive to have multiple pencil sharpeners, but I use them in different places, and in different ways. Someday, when I have good place to use it, I plan on following Tina Koyama’s excellent example, and buying a Carl Angel 5 Royal Sharpener.
Buy me a Coffee! If you find this post or this site interesting, and would like to see more, buy me a coffee. While I may actually buy coffee, I’ll probably buy books to review.
Bicolor pencils with a red core on one end and a blue core on the opposite end are often called “checking pencils,” or “editing pencils” because they are often used for copyediting and proofing on hard copy. Sometimes one color would be used by the copy editor and another by the proofer or typesetter. Sometimes red was used for corrections to the type and blue for notations like STET. Sometimes the copy editor used one color, and the typesetter another. More recently bicolor red and blue pencils have become very popular with people annotating books and printed articles, and for adding color to bullet journals, as well as for use in editing and grading.
I’ve been using bicolor and color pencils since I started grad school, for annotating and editing, and for the last few years, I’ve also been using them for highlighting and annotating my bullet journal. I discovered the Caran d’Ache BiColor 999 fairly early, and stopped looking. For the last few years I’ve been buying single pencils from C. W. Pencils, one or two at a time. But as the Caran d’Ache are both pricey (the last ones I bought were $3.00/ea and concerned that C.W. Pencils may stop carrying them (I don’t know that they will or they won’t, but they’re not available at C. W. Pencils currently) I decided to try some alternatives.
I can’t get the image to show the colors quite the way they look; I do apologize.
Caran d’Ache BiColor 999 C.W. Pencils $3.00
The Caran d’Ache BiColor 999 pencil is still my favorite bicolor editing pencil. It’s a little a hex pencil, perhaps a little thinner than some hex pencils. The core is very smooth, and glides fairly easily for a color pencil. The red is red, not orange, and the blue is definitely blue. The Caran d’Ache BiColor 999 is truly smooth to write with and it sharpens very easily, and shades with very little pressure. If you want a needle-sharp point, you can achieve it with careful sharpening. The Caran d’Ache BiColor 999 is also the most expensive of the bicolor pencils I’ve tried. While it isn’t currently available from C. W. Pencils, the Caran d’Ache BiColor 999 is listed as $3.00 a pencil from Dick Blick, or $2.99 per pencil and $34.00 for a box of 12 from Two Hands Paperie.
Kitaboshi Vermillion/Prussian Blue 9667 C. W. Pencils $1.20
I really wanted to like this pencil; I’ve liked other Kitaboshi pencils, especially the Kitaboshi 9606 Academic Writing. The Kitaboshi 9667 Bicolor is a round pencil. The large gold script imprint doesn’t say Kitaboshi, but the Kitaboshi north star logo is quite clear. The blue is a perfectly acceptable blue. Both cores are fairly smooth though the feel against paper is a little waxy. But the red isn’t red. It’s orange. Despite what the imprint says, this red isn’t vermillion it’s a definite orange.
Musgrave Harvest Thick 725 C. W. Pencils $0.50
This is a very round pencil and the cores are noticeably thicker than usual, even for color pencils (though I was able to sharpen it with a standard sharpener). The seems a hint darker in hue, a little more black than most, but it’s still Prussian blue and the red is red, though paler than I’d like.
Tombow 8900 VP Vermillion Prussian Blue C.W. Pencils $1.50
The Tombow 8900 V.P. Bicolor is another round pencil. The imprint is gold, and the dragonfly logo looks lovely. The blue is ok, though a little light; the red is a slightly more red version of orange than the Kitaboshi, but it’s still a bit too orange for my taste, and it is quite pale.
I’m not the only person to review a selection of bicolor editing pencils. Ana of the Well Appointed Desk reviews a similar selection here and Ana has another set of reviews a year later. Less Harper of Comfortable Shoes Studio reviews red-blue bicolor pencils here. For my part, I’m not really finding anything I like nearly as much as the Caran d’Ache 999. If I have to use another bicolor red and blue checking pencil, I’ll probably go with the Musgrave Harvest 725 Thick. The Musgrave Harvest 725 not as satisfying or easy to use as the Caran d’Ache 999, but it’s about 1/6 of the price of the Caran d’Ache and it’s not awful.
ETA: I just received a Mitsubishi 2637 Vermilion and Prussian Blue bicolor pencil, and honestly, it’s almost as nice as the Caran d’Ache. It’s not a cedar body or FSC, it is a hex pencil, it is fairly easy to sharpen, it’s smooth, the vermillion is very dark the blue is a true Prussian blue. Single Mitsubishi 2637 pencils are $1.20 at JetPens.com, and a box of 12 is $14.00. This will be be my option if I can’t obtain the Caran d’Ache 999.
I am in the final stages of a general re-organization and purge that I started in the fall. That re-organization meant not only swapping around furniture to make a work area, given the continuing necessity of self-isolating because of COVID-19, but going through every item that I have in my current living area and trying to make better use of limited space. In listing and counting and purging pencils, I realized that while I had a very clear list of 5 favorite wood case pencils August of 2019, I now have a longer list of pencils that I consider “keepers.” In trying to reduce what I keep to those I’ll use, it’s gotten really difficult to isolate a short list. I managed to restrict the list to 8 pencils; these are all pencils I’ll happily write long form drafts with, or buy by the box. This is still not at all a complete list; there are a lot of reliably good affordable pencils out there, far more than I every imagined.
- General’s Cedar Pointe #1
- This is a natural pencil, and I’m partial to them. It’s also a strikingly affordable pencil with reliably B/#1 dark smooth graphite. This is one I buy to use and to give away. A box of a dozen General’s Cedar Pointe #1 pencils is currently $8.25 at Pencils.com and $10.68 at Amazon.
- Kitaboshi 9606 Academic Writing
- This was the first new-to-me pencil I tried in 2017. The other side of the pencil says General Writing. I love the color, a dark burgundy, and the gold foil imprint and I really love the smooth dark graphite and the California cedar. The eraser is tolerable. I have some difficulty distinguishing between this pencil and its core and that of the very similar looking and writing Mitsubishi, but the color is a little different and the Mitsubishi doesn’t use California cedar. I bought these from CWPencils.com, but they may not carry in the future. Try Etsy and eBay.
- Mitsubishi 9852EW Master Writing
- I think (but reserve the right to change my mind), that the Mitsubishi Master Writing is the single pencil I’d pick if I could only have one. It’s another natural pencil, with attractive green foil imprint. It is smooth, quite dark, and doesn’t require sharpening as often as I’d expect, based on the way it writes. It’s also quite affordable; a dozen pencils on Amazon are less than $10.00.
- Musgrave Tennessee Cedar Red
- This is such a lovely pencil to look at, and the graphite is smooth and dark. I sharpen these pencils by hand (I sharpen all my pencils by hand, since my electric sharpener and my crank sharpener are on the other side of the country), which may be why I haven’t had the issues with them some others have. I don’t really care about centered cores; frankly, without a visual aid, I usually can’t see the core any way. I’ve noticed small differences between individual pencils, but they’re so small that I’m increasingly convinced that the graphite is pretty much the same between the Musgrave Tennessee Red and the Harvest Pro. At $9.00 a box from Musgrave Pencils, I have remind myself not to be a hoarder.
- Musgrave Harvest Pro #2
- These are a bright cheerful yellow-gold incense cedar body. I can’t see any differernce between the graphite in these and the core in the Musgrave Tennessee Red pencils. I like both very much; these aren’t as pretty, but they are lovely to write with and the yellow is cheerful on a gray day. They are also $9.00 a box of 12 from Musgrave Pencils.
- Palomino Forest Choice
- I love the unfinished natural wood. The graphite is reliably smooth. The price is fantastic; $5.00 for a dozen pencils at pencils.com. These are affordable enough that I give them away with impunity, as well as write with them. Honestly, these is a shockingly good Cedar pencil at the price.
- Palomino HB
- These come in blue and orange; I’m thinking very hard about buying a box of the orange as a way to cheer myself up this winter, around February if I hit my word counts. The graphite is a reliable dark and smooth #2; I suspect but do not know that it’s identical or very similar to the Balanced core in the Palomino Blackwing. They’re not cheap at $14.95 a box from pencils.com, but the blue is cheerful and the graphite pleasant.
- Viking Element 1
- This is a B or #1 graphite core. The Element is, I think, the “premier” or high-end pencil in the Viking line. I like the slim size. I like the white Viking ship against the black paint, and I really like the reliably smooth dark graphite. This one is on the soft side; I find myself sharpening it a bit more often. The absence of an eraser really doesn’t bother me. I bought them from C. W. Pencils, but haven’t spotted a source for them outside of haranguing friends traveling to Denmark.
I’ve listed these pencils in alphabetical order because honestly, I have a hard time narrowing these down in further or ranking them. They are all very similar in terms of how they write, because my taste is predictable.
I haven’t listed any Palomino Blackwings; I like them just fine, but they are expensive, and in terms of buying pencils to use by the box, as a tool, I don’t think the quality differential is worth the price, which is upwards of 24.95 a box. In terms of the “regular editions”, with the four standard cores, I like all four cores, but lean towards the Extra Firm or Natural finish for long form writing, and the Balanced core, the Pearl finish, as a close second, though that may change. Both pencils are dark, and slightly smoother, maybe, than my other favorites, but not so much that I’ll be buying more of them at $25.00/ box for the standard, and more for the “editions.” I like the softest core the MMX or “Matte” as well, but it’s so soft it’s not suitable for all paper. Blackwing Pencils are typically high quality in terms of the Japanese graphite they use; increasingly there are quality control issues with the “Limited” and “Special” editions, usually with the ferrule and the finish or paint. The problems include chipping, damaged ferrules, poorly fitting ferrules, bent metal clips on some of the ferrules scratching the other pencils and poor finish. While I’m not picky about minor cosmetic issues on pencils that write well (i.e. the Musgrave Tennessee Red), if I’m paying a premium price, I think I should absolutely get premium quality control, and that’s just not the case these days with Blackwing’s limited and special editions.
I mentioned the difficulty of restricting this list. I want remind myself and readers who might not know, about the high quality Apsara and Nataraj pencils from the Hindustani Pencil company. There are basically three levels of graphite for each of the two brands, and they’re all worth trying in an effort to find the one you prefer. You can sometimes find Hindustani pencils on Amazon, but you might be better off just going to eBay, and being patient about international shipping. Finally, I want to mention Camlinn Kokoyu pencils, particularly the HD Supreme and the Flora Classic. They’re both really attractive, pleasantly dark and smooth. Try eBay and Etsy, and don’t overpay on the pencils (which is less then $5.00 a box in India) or shipping.
When 2020 began I was using an A5 hardcover notebook as a bullet jourrnal, tracking appointments, tasks, reading, birthdays, due dates for publishers—a lot.
In late summer, I realized it was just going to depress me to track cancelled plans, cancelled publication dates, and furloughed projects as publishers and corporations scrambled to stay afloat. I stopped using the A5 notebook, and moved to a pocket sized BaronFig dateless planner.
A pack of four BaronFig pocket sized dateless planners, each with a seasonal cover, costs $14.50 at BaronFig. You don’t have to allocate the seasonal covers to the seasons they depict, but it does make identifying each planner fairly easy.
I’m about to set up one of the BaronFig dateless pocket planners for the first quarter of 2021, so I thought I’d describe how I set it up and use it. This is the Winter cover:
The cover is thicker card stock; sturdy enough to protect the rounded corner pages, but not too thick to fold back.
The back of the cover has a blank white field; I use it to write the year and season.
Inside the front cover is a book-plate area, and a title page where you could add your name and email address, or a date started and date finished or whatever suits you.
Each of the BaronFig pocket dateless planners has 16 two-page weekly spreads:
The weekly spread is designed so that each week has seven days, with a blank area at the end of the right-hand page for notes or tracking habits or what ever.
Because you add the dates, you can decide what day your week begins. Each left-hand page has a line at the top—I use it for the month, and a shorter line on top of the right-hand page; I use it for the week number.
Each of the day areas has a line for the day and date. As you can see, this is a center-stitched pocket notebook; there are no staples.
After the 16 two-page weekly spreads there are two two-page spreads of blank pages, without the divisions for days, and with the lines at the top of the right and left pages.
After those four pages, there are 13 pages of plain dot-grid, without lines at the top, just pure dot-grid.
The paper, as I would expect from BaronFig, works well with pencil, gel, rollerball, and most fountain pens. I typically use pencils, graphite and a Caran D’ache bicolor red-blue pencil, for daily entries.
Here’s how I set up a weekly spread using fountain pens:
I’m still using a rapid-logging bullet journal entry style, I’m just entering a lot less, and fewer deadlines. I often use the blank space at the end of the week to track birds and books.
I keep the current BaronFig dateless pocket planner and an additional pocket notebook for random notes and shopping lists in an expensive (but surprisingly nice) leather notebook cover, with an elastic to keep it closed, and two elastics running down the middle to hold notebooks in place. I bought it on Amazon for $13.95, and couldn’t be more pleased with it.
This is an affiliate link to BaronFig’s referral program. If you use the link and buy $25.00 worth of goods, (the notebooks are great, as are the pocket planners, but also check out the Squire pen), you get a $10.00 discount, and so do I.
I’ve had the Pilot S20 Drafting Pencil on my Wish list at JetPens.com for a few year;s I like mechanical pencils, and I love a wooden body. This pencil comes in two shades of wood for the body, dark red, and dark brown, and in a .3mm and a .5mm size. I chose the dark red wood and the 5mm, though I was tempted by the .3; I don’t think I’ve ever used or owned a .3mm pencil. The pencil has a short aluminum pocket clip engraved with Pilot, and an aluminum band around the center that says S20 and Japan in small black letters around the center. You can slide the clip off the pencil if you’d prefer to not use it.
The Pilot S20 is a drafting pencil, with a fixed pipe for the graphite. The knock mechanism works by pressing the end of the S20 to push out a fresh section of graphite. The top of the knock is a plastic disk that closely matches the wood and proclaims .5 or .3, depending on which size you purchased. The center band of the knock rotates to change a label that names the graphite in use (F, H, HB, B); mine came with B already inside the pencil. Pull the knock off gently to reveal the tiny eraser (you can buy extras from Pilot), which itself pulls out so you can refill the lead chamber.
I’ve used the Pilot S20 constantly for the last ten days or so, writing thousands of words. It’s been fabulous. It’s just the right weight and nicely balanced so even long writing sessions have been comfortable. I’m still using the three pieces of Pilot Neox Graphite Lead in B that the pencils was loaded with, and I like it well enough to order more. The Pilot Neox Grapite in B is dark without being too soft, and very smooth.
I bought my Pilot S20 pencil largely for esthetic reasons; it is lovely looking. I used it as a self-bribe to complete some onerous tasks, all of which I managed to force myself to do in the course of a two-week slog. I’m so glad I did, too. This pencil is lovely to look at, the slightly tapered curvature at the grip makes it easy to use for a long session of writing, and the wood feels as good as it looks. I confess that my Pilot S20 pencil has supplanted the Uni Kuru Toga for regular use, and the Kuru Toga has been relocated to my book bag. You can find the Pilot S20 at Amazon in .5mm in deep red, dark brown, and mahogany. The Pilot S20 pencil is also available in .3mm in dark brown, and deep red. Amazon says that the deep red and dark brown bodies are made of birch.
This post contains Amazon affiliate links.
As a child, I was horrified by people who wrote in books. In high school, I’d go through my textbooks at the start of the new school year and carefully the penciled scribbles and doodles left by previous students. Once I started college I was expected to write in books, to annotate books, to know how and what to annotate. At the time, I rejected the very thought of annotating books; it just felt wrong. I wasn’t going to to do it.
I successfully avoided annotating books until my senior year as an undergraduate English major, when I first took my first Chaucer class in Middle English. The Robinson Chaucer, while an admirable scholarly text, was not student friendly. There were no notes on the page; they were all appendices at the back of the book. I resorted to making careful glosses using a fine point orange-body Bic Pen (my favorite tool for annotating books for decades).
As I read more texts in Middle and Old English and Celtic languages in graduate school, I used marginal notes to help me find particular passages, and glossed difficult words and concepts that weren’t otherwise explained by the text. Once I started teaching, I glossed with colored pencils in order to make finding a particular passage or note easier while lecturing and leading discussions. I still regularly annotate books, and thought I might save others some time by explaining how and why I annotate.
What Does it Mean to Annotate
Here’s a formal dictionary definition of annotate from the American Heritage Dictionary:
v.tr.To furnish (a literary work) with critical commentary or explanatory notes; gloss.
v.intr.To gloss a text (s. v. American Heritage Dictionary annotate).And here’s the entry for annotation:
- The act or process of furnishing critical commentary or explanatory notes.
- A critical or explanatory note; a commentary (American Heritage Dictionary, s.v. annotation).
In other words, when we annotate a book or text, we mark it up, via marginal notes or glosses, marks in the text itself, or highlighting and underlining passages in order to create additional meaning and understanding for ourselves. By careful annotation, we make a text our own. Careful, thoughtful annotation helps us engage with the text and remember it.
Annotating books (or other reading matter) helps us read as an active, engaged reader more likely to remember what you read. When we annotate or mark texts to emphasize the important information, the goal is to emphasize the key points or concepts. Don’t simply highlight or underline everything. Prioritize the material that you know you will use later in your own work, or that you want to be able to find quickly and easily later.
Glossing and Marginal Notes
Glossing, or making notes in the margins and within the text itself can help enormously when you locate something you read and need to remember. Glossing can be either a note that summarizes or comments on a passage or it can be a label, for instance, adding the word distinction in the margin, to note when an author draws a distinction between two items, or analogy, when an author compares an unfamiliar concept to a familiar one. Or you might gloss something with short note to provide a definition of an unfamiliar term. This last method was the most common kind of gloss in earlier eras when scribes would annotate a foreign term with a marginal note, as in the image to the right from the 8th century Gospels of Lindisfarne. A monk named Aldred added Old English glosses between the lines of the Latin text of the Gosples as a translation aide. Medieval and earlier glosses like this eventually resulted in the modern glossary, a collection of terms appended to a book). Etymologically Modern English gloss derives from Middle English glose, from Old French, from Medieval Latin glōsa, from Latin glōssa, foreign word requiring explanation, from Greek, “tongue, language” (American Heritage Dictionary s.v. gloss 2).
Highlighting and Underlining
Highlighting, that is using a colored marker or pencil that colors text so that the text is still readable through the color, is a useful technique for annotating books. It is different from underlining in that the entire line(s) of text are colored in highlighting, whereas underlining usually means to draw a thin line under the line of text.
Don’t get carried away with underlining or highlighting. If you highlight or underline more than about 15% of a given page, you’re probably not prioritizing the information. Only highlight those concepts or points that are most important.
As an alternative to underlining or highlighting, consider annotating by drawing a vertical line in the margin to mark the passage in question, possibly with a note in the margin about why it’s important.
Annotation Styles and Codes
It’s a good idea to create your own personal style of annotating books. You might circle important concepts, and underline terms and definitions. Consider using the margin to summarize key points with a brief note. It can also be useful to use the margin to ask questions that are answered in that section of the text. Many readers use a question mark in the margin to make it easy to find a section or concept that they do not understand. It’s helpful to create your own personal style of annotating. You might circle important concepts, underline terms and definitions, or summarize key points with a brief note in the margin. You can see an example of one way of annotating a text here.
In some cases, you might want to have a short note on the flyleaf of a book, if you’ve used special annotation symbols just for that book.
Keep It Clean
Many readers particularly students planning to resell their textbooks hate the idea of annotating books. Sometimes it’s just a personal dislike; sometimes it’s because the book in question isn’t yours, so you shouldn’t mark it permanently. In that case, consider using post-its that you can remove before selling the books or keep in books you own. There are special stickynotes designed explicitly for making notes about a page as you read. Alternatively, I often take notes by hand in a notebook or pad of paper or on my computer as I read instead of or in addition to marking up the book.
If you routinely use .pdfs or ebooks, there are digital equivalents for the forms of annotation used in printed books. There are minor differences in the methods for accessing and creating the annotations based on the app in question, but the basic methodology is similar. Typically you can make digital marginal sticky notes, dog-ear pages or book mark them with a note, highlight text, and underline. With most .pdf readers, you can also draw circles, arrows, and other shapes, on the .pdf pages.
Annotating has two primary purposes; it allows us to find particular passages or ideas in a text, and it aids our memory and understanding because as we closely read and think about the text, and engage with it by annotations, we make the text our own. We add personal meaning and interpretation.
Tools for Annotation
You don’t actually need fancy tools to annotate books or documents. But the right tool can make a difference in legibility and utility.
Smaller sticky notes, the familiar 1 3/8 inch x 1 7/8 inch notes are useful for making marginal notes without marking the page. Page flags make it easy to find the pages and passages you know will be important without writing in your books.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take extensive notes about a page without writing on the page. These removable notes have tabs that you can label, making it easy to find the specific topic you’re looking for. And you can use them to take notes while you read and then remove them, either to save in a notebook for later use or discard when you no longer need them. There are a lot of different kinds of sticky notes, with all sorts of uses. It’s often convenient to have a portable assortment to use not only for annotating, but for note-taking, and marking sections for review.
Taking notes while you read, either in the book or text itself or on paper is often particularly useful when you’re researching for use in something you write later. Cornell notes, which have a central area for the note, a margin for comments or page references, and a summary field at the bottom for questions or ideas to emphasize can be particularly helpful in annotating and taking notes about what you are reading. You easily print your own; there are many free templates to print your own online, or you can use paper you already have, and draw some lines with a straight edge. I did this for years, and eventually made my own template.
A multi-pen with red, blue, and black ink, and a .05 mm mechanical pencil is exceedingly useful as an all-purpose writing and annotating tool. You can use it to make color-coded annotations, take notes, and you have erasable pencil too.
The utility of highlighting passages with very visible color is that they’re easy to find. But sometimes it’s better or easier to use pencil to make notes and marks that you can erase later. These Apsara pencils are smooth-writing dark graphite wood-case pencils and they come with a sharpener and an eraser. You will be surprised how nice these are to write with, and by the quality of the sharpener.
This post contains affiliate links.
Musgrave Pencil is a family-owned and operated pencil maker in Shelbyville, Tennessee that’s been making pencils since 1916. The Musgraves began by selling Tennessee Red Cedar slats to European pencil makers; remember that, it’ll be important later.
Musgrave’s Heritage Collection
While Musgrave Pencil Company makes a wide variety of custom and specialty decorated and branded pencils, I’m going to focus on their Heritage Collection pencils. Most of these pencils have been made and sold by Musgrave for decades, or perhaps more accurately, generations. I don’t think you can go wrong buying any of these pencils, but whether a pencil will work for you is very much dependent a writer’s personal preferences, and the writing task at hand. I like the fact that Musgrave has its own Pencil Variety pack, which is a great way to try out a number of individual pencils rather than buying them by the dozen. You can also buy singles of most Musgrave pencils via CW Pencils.
Musgrave 600 News
I’ve written about the Musgrave 600 News before, so I’m going to cheat and repeat myself, with some minor changes. The Musgrave 600 News is a round, glossy black eraserless pencil with prominent san-serif white print. I purchased it from CW Pencils for $0.50, and it was a bargain. As the CW Pencils description of the Musgrave 600 News suggests, this thick-cored dark pencil feels about like “3B/4B and looks a bit darker.” Musgrave 600 News isn’t terribly durable in terms of general hardiness (all that graphite is fragile) or point retention, but it produces a thick dark and very smooth line. Musgrave 600 News is a great pencil for writing, despite its tendency to smudge. I especially like it for note-taking, and on-the-fly writing. I’ll probably buy a couple more so I can always have one on hand because Musgrave 600 News smooth writers, produce a thick line, and are very dark. I’m thinking that they might work particularly well for handwriting practice. If you go to Musgravepencil.com, you can buy a dozen Musgrave 600 News for $6.25.
Musgrave Bugle 1816
The Musgrave Bugle 1816 is a round, eraserless, light toned (Bass wood?), natural finish pencil with an HB/#2 graphite core. The body of the pencil is coated with a clear glossy lacquer and has a white text imprint reading “Musgrave Pencil Inc. Shelbyville Tenn.” and “Bugle 1816,” flanked by an image of a bugle on either side. This pencil feels light weight in my hand, and the graphite seems a mite softer and darker to me than a standard #2. You can see some indications of grain and natural striations in the wood, and while the base color of the wood is lighter, the Musgrave Bugle 1816 is otherwise very similar to the basic pencils made by Henry David Thoreau and his family, as CW Pencils notes.
Musgrave 909 Ceres
The Musgrave Ceres pencil looks like a yellow-painted classic hex American school pencil, and that does seem to be the market it’s meant for. The graphite is standard #2/HB. It has a black imprint and the classic pink eraser, with a gold ferrule. It writes smoothly, and is perhaps a shade darker than the Bugle, but that might just be me. Based on pencils I’ve seen in collections, they used to make the Ceres in #1 graphite too.
Musgrave Harvest 320
The Musgrave Harvest 320 is another yellow hex body with a brown stripe in the ferrule, and a pink eraser. The imprint is in gold foil script (sorry it’s such a poor photo). The Harvest 320 is a reasonably smooth, perfectly pleasant pencil, a reliable #2/HB. The Harvest 320 also comes in a #1 graphite, and has a new sibling, the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro. I haven’t yet tried the Harvest 320 #1, but I plan to.
Musgrave My-Pal 2020
Musgrave’s My-Pal 2020 is a black round-bodied eraserless pencil. Descriptions, including Musgrave’s call this a “mini Jumbo.” It’s not all that mini; it’s 7” long, and 5/16″ in diameter, so it’s a little shorter than a standard pencil, and a little thicker, but not as jumbo as the standard thick red pencils I learned to write with in Kindergarten. If you look at the flat end, you’ll notice that the core is substantially thicker than a standard pencil. This pencil’s black body appears almost navy in some lights. The imprint “MY-PAL” and the Musgrave pencil name and “Shelbyville Tenn. – 2020” is in white paint. Musgrave’s My-Pal 2020 pencil was intended for young children, but I can see it being used for handwriting practice or drawing, and it might be an easier-to-use pencil for arthritic hands as well.
Musgrave Test Scoring 100
The Musgrave Test Scoring 100 is a silver-bodied pencil with a silver ferrule and pink eraser has an electro-bonded artificial graphite, designed to perform well on machine-scored scantrons. It isn’t rated, but it does feel a little more like a B than an HB, a 1 than a 2. The Musgrave Pencils Co Shelbyville Tenn is in tiny black print, and it’s a little crowded looking. In larger text, also in black, the pencil also shows two test boxes, one empty, and one filled in, Test Scoring 100″ with two empty test boxes before the 100. I would absolutely use this pencil for a scantron form or ballot that accepted graphite, but this strikes me as a decent writing pencil for long form writing, too, even if you do need to keep a sharpener close by.
Musgrave Heritage Collection 2019 Releases
In late 2019 Musgrave announced some new releases, including three new pencils. This was an unexpected treat, and all three of the new pencils have been roundly welcomed.
Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro
Musgrave says of the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro that “It features the same classic Harvest design, but it’s now made from California incense cedar with an upgraded core.” I say this is a really nice pencil. It looks very much like the Harvest 320, including an identical gold imprint and pink eraser, but the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro lacks the brown ferrule stripe that the standard 320 has. Like the standard Harvest 320, Musgrave’s Harvest 320 Pro is a perfectly good, reliable, smooth-writing pencil, with a slightly softer, darker graphite core. Honestly, if you handed me one to use and didn’t tell me it was HB/2, I’d think it was 1/B. I really like this pencil, and plan to buy another box.
Musgrave Tennessee Red Cedar
Musgrave began as a business by selling Tennessee red cedar slats to pencil-makers, before creating their own pencils. They found a new (albeit limited) source for red cedar slats, and thus, produced this Musgrave Tennessee Red Cedar pencil. This Musgrave post explains some of the issues about making Musgrave Tennessee Red Cedar pencils with slats that weren’t prepared with pencil production in mind. The cores aren’t perfectly centered. Some of the seams on these pencils are iffy, and some seams aren’t joined. That said, these pencils are truly beautiful; the natural red cedar colors and grain are lovely, and there’s a lot of variation from pencil to pencil. The wood bodies of these pencils is not stained, just sealed with a transparent lacquer. They have a gold ferrule, and a white eraser, with a red ink imprint that says Musgrave Pencil company, an M in a diamond, and Genuine Tennessee Red Cedar. The Tennessee Red Cedar is in a script face, followed by a tiny red circle with three stars, a nod to the Tennessee flag. The poor point on this is my fault; I forgot to finish sharpening it. I’ve had good luck using an Apsara hand-held sharpener on these. This pencil I sharpened with the Kum/Blackwing two-step, and it’s not as satisfactory, in my opinion, as the point from the Apsara.
Musgrave’s Tennessee Red Cedars smell like red cedar when you sharpen them (think about the way your grandmother’s cedar chest smells). Each pencil is different in appearance. Some are darker red than others, some are striped with a combination of Red Cedar’s natural light and darker striations. But all of them are lovely, and they write very nicely. The graphite in these Tennessee Red Cedars reminds me of the graphite in the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pros; smooth, a little darker and softer than a standard 2 maybe, but wonderful to write with. Sharpening these has been a challenge for some; I’ve had great success using an inexpensive Apsara Longpoint Sharpener, free with boxes of Apsara Pencils, or 20 Apsara Long Point Sharpeners for about $5.00 on Amazon.
I really love these pencils. They’re a treat, and were particularly welcome companions on dark days this winter. I’m going to buy more when I can, so that I can share the joy.
Musgrave Single Barrel 106
The Musgrave Pencil Co. catalog page says this about these pencils:
At the end of the 1930s, Colonel Musgrave sent his final export of Tennessee Red Cedar slats off to Europe’s pencil factories. Somehow, a small number of burlap sacks filled with slats missed the boat. Years later, the sacks would be discovered in the wreckage of an ill-fated storage building that had collapsed.
These Musgrave Single Barrel 106 pencils are a genuine limited release, one that’s limited by the availability of materials. These hex pencils have a natural finish over the lovely grain of the antique Red Cedar, a black end-cap, and a smooth #2/HB core. These are very limited, and priced accordingly; two for $18, or $10.00 each, but they are truly lovely to hold and great for writing. It is a dark graphite, but to me it feels a little harder than it looks. The graphite is not as nice as say a Blackwing Natural, but the pencil is lovely to use and feels good in the hand, with a perfectly good core. The 106 is a reference to Episode 106 of the Erasable Podcast, which you should absolutely listen to because it features Henry Hulan III, of Musgrave Pencils.
I’m using pencils a lot these days, especially for drafts and taking notes. I’m starting to be a little more particular and leaning firmly towards darker graphite or the 2B graphite rating. I liked the black Staedtler Norica HB I tried last year so much I decided to try the blue Norica 2B. My black Noricas came from Office Depot last year, and were exceedingly affordable, but even the Amazon price isn’t terrible.
I like the blue Norica 2B even better than the black Norica HB (#2 pencil, in American graphite ratings). The eraser is not great, but it’s not terrible either. The Norica 2B graphite is really smooth and fairly dark, but not so soft that the pencil requires constant sharpening and the graphite smears. These made-in-Thailand Staedtler Norica 2B pencils are both nice enough to use every day and affordable enough to give away and to use away from home (at the library for instance) without feeling bad if I lose one. I even like the blue paint with silver text of the wood (though not quite as much as the black and silver of the the Norica HB). I notice Johnny Gamber of Pencil Revolution also likes both the Norica HB and the Norica 2B.
I’ll have to see if Staples carries the 2B Noricas. I bought mine at Amazon, and have already ordered more. I’m told that both the HB black Noricas and the 2B blue Noricas routinely go on sale at Staples and Office Depot for back to school; I’ll have to watch. Staples currently lists 36 black HB Noricas for $14.59. Notice that Office Depot has blue Norica HB (not 2B) pencils listed for $9.69 for 36 pencils. These are not the same pencil; if you look closely you’ll see that these pencils say Staedtler norica 132 46. Mine don’t.
In one of my earliest blog posts on February 8, 2002, I compared blogs and commonplace books. Since then a number of other bloggers have made the same comparison; it is in fact, now a commonplace to compare blogs and commonplace books. Many are echoing Dori Smith’s discussion of her blog as her “Backup Brain”; something which sounds very much like a commonplace book.
In the eighteen years since I compared blogs and commonplaces books, a number of bloggers have begun using blogs as commonplace books. As notebooks for journaling and bullet journals have become commonplace, the commonplace book is once again thriving, in both analog and digital forms.
Before examining the function and production of commonplace books, it’s helpful to understand the role of commonplaces in rhetoric and literary history. The commonplace as Richard Lanham explains is:
a general argument, observation, or description a speaker could memorize for use on any number of possible occasions. So an American statesman who knows he will be asked to speak extempore on the Fourth of July might commit to memory reflections on the bravery of the Founding Fathers, tags from the Declaration of Independence, praise of famous American victories, etc. A few scattered traditional loci: death is common to all; time flies; the contemplative vs. the active life; the soldier’s career vs. the scholar’s; praise of a place as paradisiacal; the uses of the past; a short, celebrated life vs. a long, obscure one.Richard Lanham. Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. University of California Press: Berkeley, second edition, 1994. p.
Commonplace is a literal translation of the Greek koinoi topoi, similarly literaly translated in Latin as loci communes. Commonplaces were in a sense “touchstones” to borrow the phrasing of Matthew Arnold; language that described ideas and experiences that were if not actually universal, were at least common.In some ways, commonplaces in the pre-digital eras functioned as memes do now. They were a short hand way of referencing common experiences or understanding The use of commonplaces in Classical rhetorical training was a standard part of the composition stage of invention, or prewriting in the rhetorical jargon of the current era.For an example of commonplaces in use, see Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet 3.1.58ff. Hamlet’s soliloquy is presented in the form of an academic debate, of the … Continue reading
The Commonplace Book
The commonplace book was a hand-written collection of commonplaces, copied by individuals as they read. Passages that caught the eye or attention of the reader were copied to a book for later personal use and contemplation. These brief passages, often with commentary from the collector, were (theoretically) ordered topically or thematically.
In large part because of the influence of Erasmus, who provided instructions for creating and organizing a commonplace book in his De Copia (1512), the creation of a commonplace book became part of standard educational practices during the Humanist flowering of the Renaissance. The theory was that students would glean commonplaces and sententiae (aphorisms, idioms, proverbs and other witty sayings) from their reading in Latin and Greek, copy and organize them topically in their own commonplace books, and thus commit them to memory to be recalled at will in order to construct a persuasive argument.In De Copia Erasmus urged the use of a well-organized commonplace book, and provided an elaborate schema for organizing a commonplace with an eye to being able to find just the right commonplace. The … Continue reading
Over the centuries commonplace books increasingly moved away from commonplaces collected to be trotted out at need (whether in writing or in oral argument), to collections of whatever the writer found personally interesting and worth remembering. The commonplace book became less a thematically organized rhetorical compendium for later use and more a personal reading journal and memory aid, increasingly necessary as the efficiency and economy of printing presses rather than scribes dramatically increased the availability of things to read.
For about three hundred years or so, people who read and people who wrote whether books, poetry or letters, kept a commonplace book. In the case of writers, Milton for instance, there’s often a direct connection between the contents of their commonplace books, and what they were writing.
Swift, in his “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” suggests that
A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there. For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.
Swift’s reference to the commonplace book as “a supplemental memory” is an accurate one. Away from the schoolroom, the commonplace book became a collection of whatever the writer deemed of interest, ranging from poetry and literary extracts, to jokes, financial memoranda, recipes, lists of all sorts, and frequently incorporating aspects of a day book or journal as the writer’s own thoughts were memorialized in their commonplace book. Some commonplace books were neatly ordered by topic or theme; others were more exuberant in style, with every blank page filled with text in no particular order.
In Italy a similar convention regarding taking notes derived from reading resulted in the zibaldone, Italian for ”a heap of things” or “miscellany.” Zibaldone tend to be small in format (though not always in the number of pages).
For some examples of commonplace books, see Matthew Day’s Commonplace book at the Folger. Matthew Day (1574–1661) was the mayor of Windsor, and had a fondness for poetry.
The British Library has placed a digital version of several pages of Margaret Bellasys’s c. 1630 commonplace book online. She was also fond of poetry, and her commonplace book includes poems by Shakespeare, John Donne, and Philip Sidney, among others.
The British Library also has Milton’s Commonplace book online. You can very much see Milton’s interest in divorce, and the nature of censorship and the public press being worked out in his commonplace book. You can see something similar in the commonplace books of Jefferson, at the Library of Congress; Jefferson kept two commonplace books, one for literature and one for law. The Library of Congress also has Walt Whitman’s commonplace book.
While many early examples of commonplace books were clearly made of whatever paper was handy, with various sizes and kinds bound together in signatures and even single leaves as more pages were needed. By the time of Emerson and Thoreau (who actually kept a joint commonplace book for a while) it was fairly simple to buy a blank bound book, in both utilitarian and affordable bindings or expensive and elegant bindings. Increasingly commonplace books moved away from the academic in nature to medatational reflections that might include the owner’s personal observations, lists of various sorts, financial memoranda, sketches, pressed flowers and botanical samples, family records and genealogy notes, even recipes, as well as extracts copied from other works. This description of the way one reader uses a notebook as a reading journal to record quotations that are personally compelling is essentially a commonplace book.
With the resurgence of interest in hand-written journals, bullet journaling and commonplace books, there are a number of reasonable analog options for a commonplace book or a journal. I’d suggest either a hardcover artists sketchbook, if you want to include ephemera, or a Rhodia Webnote book if you’re thinking primarily of notes derived from your reading and life. You’ll want decent paper, acid free or very low acid, and fairly weighty; 65 gsm or better. I wouldn’t use a current Leuchtturm1917 or Moleskine because of the questionable paper quality. I would look at Baron Fig or Scribbles that Matter (affiliate links), for instance, or a well-bound blank sketchbook.
If you’re inclined towards a digital commonplace book, a free Blogger or WordPress.com site will work admirably for you, as will Tumblr. There are also a number of note-taking apps; Evernote, Ulysses, Bear, OneNote, Notability—even Apple’s Notes will work, among many others. You can also opt for a blended approach; a hand-written commonplace book that you routinely photo or scan and then upload for indexing and safe-keeping.
References ↑1 Richard Lanham. Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. University of California Press: Berkeley, second edition, 1994. p. ↑2 In some ways, commonplaces in the pre-digital eras functioned as memes do now. They were a short hand way of referencing common experiences or understanding ↑3 For an example of commonplaces in use, see Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet 3.1.58ff. Hamlet’s soliloquy is presented in the form of an academic debate, of the sort a student might be assigned. It’s a string of commonplaces in opposition “for” and “against” suicide. ↑4 In De Copia Erasmus urged the use of a well-organized commonplace book, and provided an elaborate schema for organizing a commonplace with an eye to being able to find just the right commonplace.
The philosopher John Locke used a commonplace book while at Oxford in the 1650s and advocated their use. In 1706 Locke published A New Method of Making Common-Place Books, wherein Locke documented his somewhat fussy method of creating an index for his commonplace book.
When I refer to “Pencils for Writing,” I’m making a distinction between pencils suited to writing vs pencils better suited for drawing. There are far more high-quality affordable wooden pencils than I ever realized. I’ve tried four more for more pencils since my first post about wood-case pencils. I’d happily use any of these four pencils for writing, but I’m particularly pleased with the Staedtler Norica, the General’s Cedar Pointe #1, and the Musgrave News 600 as reliable, pleasant to write with, attractive, affordable pencils.
These Staedtler Norica pencils came from Office Depot; I saw them mentioned online as a back to school bargain. They were $10.00 for 36, or 0.28 each. I like the glossy black body, the silver print and the white eraser with the silver ferrule. They feel good in my hand; the finish is super smooth. The first pencil I used was great for the first page, and then I hit an unpleasant gritty section for a second. This repeated a couple more times, but by about an inch into the graphite and several pages down the road, the writing was consistently smooth and pleasantly dark. The Norica writes a little on the dark side of #2/HB. The eraser is not great, but not unusable, either. At .28 each, I’d definitely buy these again. If I were shopping for a school, I’d get this pack of 50 Staedtleter Norris pencils with 50 eraser caps for $6.00 from Amazon.
General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2HB
The General’s #333 Cedar Pointe 2HB is another natural finish pencil, made of unvarnished cedar with a dark eraser and an aged or bronzed looking ferrule. While the General’s Cedar Pointe #2 is a perfectly reasonable HB #2 pencil. It’s not a favorite. That said, I’d buy it again because it’s a great pencil, just not for me. A single General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2HB pencil is $1.00 at CW Pencils.
General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1
I really like this pencil. It’s definitely darker than the Cedar Pointe HB/2, with the same natural finish cedar body, ferrule and eraser. I like this pencil very much; enough that I’m tempted to buy a dozen. It’s a solid, attractive dark-graphite pencil for writing. A single General’s Cedar Pointe from CW Pencils is $1.00. A dozen Cedar Pointe #1s with free shipping from Amazon is a bit under $10.00.
Musgrave News 600
The Musgrave News 600 is a round, glossy black eraserless pencil with prominent san serif white print. I purchased it from CW Pencils for $0.50, and it was a bargain. As the CW Pencils description of the Musgrave News 600 suggests, this thick-cored dark pencil feels about like “3B/4B and looks a bit darker.” Musgrave News 600 isn’t terribly durable in terms of general hardiness (all that graphite is fragile) or point retention, but it produces a thick dark and very smooth line. Musgrave News is a great pencil for writing, despite its tendency to smudge. I’ll probably buy a couple more so I can always have one on hand because Musgrave News 600 are extremely smooth writers, produce a thick line, and are very dark. I’m thinking that they might work particularly well for handwriting practice.