Sunday, September 26, 2010

Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed

In every profession, at least when dealing with people who have a love for what they do, it seems there are those who are extremely passionate about a certain physical representation of their obsession.  A voice over artist or musician may have a certain type of mic they refuse to record without, a chef a certain type of skillet, a doctor a special stethoscope.  These items often take on mythical qualities and become akin to a secret password to identify our true brethren from within the crowded auditorium of our respective fields.  For animators and writers, one such item is the Blackwing Pencil.  While it has scores of blog pages devoted to it, my personal favorites are those of the Blackwing Diaries and Andy Wefle (who is also the first person who introduced me to the term scribomechanica so I thank him for that).  

Now, for those that may be reading this blog for its art content you are probably familiar with the Blackwing pencil.  Please be quiet, don't ruin it for the rest of the class and skip ahead a few paragraphs.  However, for those who are not familiar I will expound (plus I like to hear the sound of my own keys clacking).

The Blackwing is an odd looking pencil.  Sporting a slate grey paint job that resisted the normal dulling a pencil gets inside of a pencil bag, it has a squared off shape to keep it from rolling off your desk.  Its most noticeable feature was the eraser which was designed to be removed and flipped around when one end was used up in order to extend the life of the pencil.  From what I have read it became common practice to push the frugality of the instrument even further by putting cut off portions of drawing erasers in as replacement when both ends had been wore down.  Its lead was a graphite wax combination that kept the quality of the line consistent, did not smudge and did not crumble, meaning as you wrote/drew you had a smooth, even line without little flakes of sooty debris messing up your pretty white space.  The waxy consistency of the graphite was what gave the pencil its slogan, 'Half the pressure, twice the speed' stamped with gold foil along its length.

The Blackwing was originally manufactured by Eberhard Faber.  I couldn't find any reference as to when the Blackwing pencil began production, which strikes me as odd considering the ridiculous amount of  devotion pages I was able to find.  Judging by the earliest packaging I would guess sometime in the twenties.  If they were new near that time period, this would make some degree of sense as to why they were so popular with the original Disney animators.  Glen Keene, Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and many other animators of the time were said to always have a couple on hand.  Cecil B. Demille, Raymond Chandeler, and Ernie Kovacs all were known to prefer them.  John Steinbeck, who claimed to go through 20 pencils in a given day, claimed they were the best pencil in existence.  He said they "floated over the paper just wonderfully."        

The Blackwing Pages has an in-depth review of the various iterations of the pencil here.

As they were primarily popular with writers and artist, the Blackwing was never a big seller.  Honestly, what percentage of the population has been made up of scribblers over the past century?  In the 1990s, the company that produced the pencils was bought by Sanford Corp (owner of the Paper*Mate brand as well as many others).  Then in late 1997, the machine that manufactured the pencils broke.  Specifically, the portion of the machine that failed was the bit that created the unusual ferrule that held the eraser into the end.

Considering their average annual production during its later years was 1100 pencils it didn't strike them as a profitable line to keep manufacturing.  So 1998 was the final year you could go out and buy a Blackwing off the store shelf for $.50.

When word of the cancellation traveled around, artists and writers started buying up the pencil as fast as they could.  I have read accounts of some people who would ONLY create with a Blackwing buying up arm-loads of them and storing them in a hall closet.  This created a Tickle-Me-Elmo effect, and what you could buy two for a buck suddenly shot up to $10 bucks a pencil.

Cut to now.  Currently, a single unused Blackwing is going for $40 on ebay (don't go look right now, I don't want you outbidding me on the one I am trying to get).  This means that unless you are Stephen King and your pencil shavings make you money, you have to be a ridiculous scribomechanica enthusiast for this purchase to begin to make sense.  Of course, that said there are plenty of us out there.

Thankfully for my pocketbook, the Blackwing brand has recently been purchased by California Cedar and there is a revival in the works.   I first heard about it on the Blackwing Diaries, and then subsequently BoingBoing.  According to the blog of the owner of the company (or at the very least the blogosphere spokesperson) they will have the new Blackwing available this coming week.  There have been a few changes, most notably the lack of the old slogan stamped into the pencil and the color of the eraser.  Reports from beta testers of the new product swear while a great pencil, the new just doesn't quite match up to the quality of the old.  However, there is a lot to be said about the effects nostalgia can have upon the quality of a product.  I mean, I don't even care for Pepsi but when Throwback Pepsi came out I bought up cases of the stuff, only drinking  it when watching Goonies or Gremlins and swear nothing is as tasty these days.  

Whether as good as the original or the next best thing, I intend to buy a box or two of the new Blackwings just to say I have them.  It will make me feel like part of a special club and foster the delusion that using them will help me be a better scribbler.  It wont be out of the ordinary for me considering I just purchased a reporter style Moleskin and new bottle of ink for my fountain pen just so I could feel more like a 'real' writer*.  Now I just need to sit down and actually use them.  

*Note: scale of delusion may not equal scale of actual talent.

For the curious out there (I had no idea) here is a video detailing how a standard pencil is produced.  

Go out there and scribble like the wind, True Believers.


  1. Your post got me thinking about what my physical representation of obsession is. I think mine is my iPhone. Although I'm a filmmaker I'm also a advertising/PR major. My phone gives me the ability satisfy both. I can store and watch TV and movies while keeping in constant communication with the world in tons of different forms. Without it I wouldn't be able to accomplish what I do in person or online. I have a feeling though I'm not the only one glued to their phone :)

  2. No, I would say you are in the company of a large majority of artists these days. The Iphone/Ipad phenomena seems to represent a section of the professional world where style and functionality are on level ground. Creatives who want their gear to look as sleek as their product does, while also being able to keep them organized, on task and on the bleeding edge. Blackberry users, while they are making money, are more concerned about spreadsheets than a storyboard app.

  3. Darrell,

    Thanks for the mention! I'm glad you like my made-up word — I have it in the Urban Dictionary and the Pseudodictionary, so it must be real now, right? (-:

    I tried to start a blog at a few years ago, but failed, in some part because people couldn't remember the term. Since then, (begin shameless self-promotion) I have a pencil blog at (Woodclinched is, of course, the process of forming the wood around a graphite core.) Although I'm coming at it from a writer's perspective rather than an artist, I do hope you'll check it out.

    Thanks again for the comment, and I'M SO EXCITED ABOUT GETTING THE NEW BLACKWINGS! (-:

  4. Andy, I have woodclinched in my inspiration well now so I make sure to check it out on regular basis. Keep us updated on the roll your own pencil gadget, I want one!