A Pencil for the JMT

bw 02I am not a pencil user; my preference is a fountain pen. It has been decades since I regularly used a pencil. Even in math, chemistry, and physics classes taken in high school and college I used a fountain pen – probably because my teachers and professors didn’t like pens. But my dislike of the lowly pencil may have changed.

A few weeks ago I started a thread over on BPL (backpackinglight.com) titled, “Which Pencil for the JMT?” There were cries from posters calling my comments parody, irony, and I was even chastised for making fun of people who post on BPL. Within this controversy, BPL member Cameron Kennedy suggested the Blackwing 602 – arguably the best pencil ever made.

BLACKWING 602

Now that seemed to be quite a bold statement; the best ever made. So I did a little research and found that many pencil aficionados think it is the best pencil ever made.

I also found out the Blackwing 602 was made for over 60 years by Eberhard Faber, but was discontinued in 1998 when sales had declined to 1,100 units per year – which is how many of the cheap yellow pencils Eberhard Faber was producing in just an hour.

Typical, classic Walmart syndrome. The 602 was a quality premium writing instrument, with a premium price. Many Americans purchase on price alone, having long forgotten the concepts of value, features and benefits. But that is how capitalism sometimes works.

But the Blackwing 602 wouldn’t die. New “old stock” Blackwings started appearing on eBay, fetching $30 or more for a single incense cedar cased pencil. Then in 2011 a company named CalCedar, purchased the expired trademark and worked with a Japanese manufacturer to faithfully reproduce the Blackwing 602. Of course a quality pencil requires a quality pencil sharpener and CalCedar started selling the Blackwing 602 long point pencil sharpener, which is produced in Germany. I have to apologize about something. Cameron posted a link to a box of Blackwing pencils in the thread, and the description said made in France. Well only the wooden box is made in France, and a couple of reviewers have discounted the quality of the wooden box. So my comments about the French still stand :)

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Many pencil fans feel CalCedar has accomplished the goal – and some Blackwing 602 purists see it as blasphemy – no one should “revive” an iconic brand. So the question is – is the new Blackwing 602 an excellent writing instrument and is it worth the $2 investment for a single pencil?

BLACKWING LONG POINT PENCIL SHARPENER

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In my research I found that properly sharpening a pencil is critical to achieve Pencil Nirvana. Having never owned a quality pencil sharpener, I purchased a couple of Blackwing 602 pencils and the Blackwing 602 long pencil sharpener.

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The Blackwing Long Point Pencil Sharpener requires to two-step process to achieve a precise sharpened pencil. First the pencil is placed into the hole marked #1, which sharpens the wood. Then hole #2 is use to fine sharpen the lead. Each hole has a brake to avoid over-sharpening the pencil. The sharpener also comes with two spare blades that are stored in the sharpener. The sharpener is made for CalCedar by Kum, a German company.

Bottom line: I was impressed and ended up buying two dozen additional pencils.

Stamped on each pencil is “HALF THE PRESSURE, TWICE THE SPEED”. I found this is true. Writing is smooth and easy. The quality of the lead is outstanding. But it takes time to get used to the pencil. Very little pressure is required and the pencil is light compared to a fountain pen. The more I use them, the more I like them.

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Blackwing 602 eraser and ferule.

A unique feature of the 602 is the replaceable eraser. Not only can it be replaced, but it is much longer that a standard pencil eraser. The whole eraser doesn’t stick out the end of the top of the pencil, but is hidden inside the clever ferule and can be adjusted as it wears down. I am sure each eraser will outlast the pencil life, especially since I don’t need to erase much and a simple strike-through is adequate for me.

Ah… you say. How much does it weigh? Pencil is 6 grams (0.212 ounces) and the long point sharpener is 23 grams (0.811 ounces).

PAPER

bw 11The search for the best pencil for the JMT, also required finding the best paper to go along with it. Fortunately I already had the best backpacking writing paper for the JMT in my stationary cabinet, only I hadn’t used it in years — 9 lb onion skin paper. Onion skin paper is light and strong. For you young whippersnappers who have never heard of it, we used to use onion skin paper behind a sheet of stationary and a sheet of carbon paper to make lightweight archival copies from our typewriters (I have about a half ream of 8″ X 11″ onion skin paper and a couple tablets of 8″ X 10″ paper).

“Back in the day,”  we also used onion skin paper when writing letters to be sent by Air Mail — something else you may not know about. A long time ago a letter could take a week or two to be delivered.

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Postage stamps from 1968.

The faster alternative was Air Mail, which was a two or three day option in the US. In 1968 a one ounce air mail letter cost ten cents, versus 6 cents for regular mail. Today that would be 68 cents versus 41 cents, adjusted for inflation.

Paper weight is the weight of a 500 sheet ream of 17″ x 22″ paper. A sheet of 17″ x 22″ paper can be cut into four 8.5″ x 11″ pieces of paper (letter size). So a 500 sheet ream of letter sized 20 lb copy paper weighs 5 lbs. The same 500 sheet ream of 9 lb onion skin paper only weighs 2 lbs, 4 ounces.

When air mail was available a tablet of 8″ x 10″ onion skin paper, with matching size envelopes was common. A single page weighs 2 grams, about 0.07 ounces.

5 pages of 8” X 11” onion skin paper folded in half makes a nice little notebook of 10 pages only weighing 10 grams (0.353 ounces).

Five pages of 8” X 11” onion skin paper provides 880 square inches of writing space (both sides) and a Write-in-the-Rain notebook (4.5” X 3”) provides 648 square inches of writing space.

Total weight of the Blackwing 602 pencil, Blackwing 602 long lead pencil sharpener, and 5 pages of onion skin paper is 39 grams (1.37 ounces) versus 25 grams (0.882 ounces) for a Write-in-the-Rain notebook and a Fisher Space pen (often used by backpackers). That is a 14 gram (.494 ounce) penalty for the easier to read and write Blackwing solution.

For packing, I placed a small piece of plastic tubing over the point of the pencil to protect it from breaking. The pencil, paper, and sharpener all fit into a quart size Ziploc bag, which I already use to store my first aid kit and other personal items.

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