Lead astray: a review of five pencils

Lead astray: a review of five pencils


You’ll always find a jar of pencils on my desk at home and work. I use them every day and always invite colleagues and guests to help themselves. There’s something elemental about using a pencil. It’s the tool that we use to learn to sketch and write with as children but quickly switch to ink and pen.

Part of me failed to make that transition.

Whenever I write long form I almost always use a pencil. I’ve a series of note books in my office at home that record my career in HB and 2B pencil.


It’s a craft: selecting a pencil; sharpening it to a point; making light marks at first to commit thoughts to paper; annotating and rubbing out mistakes; and pushing down to make darker marks as you feel more confident.

It’s also a connection with my personal history. My Grandfather was an artist and engineer, and always had a jar of well-sharpened pencils on his desk, alongside an assortment of brushes.

Writing long hand in pencil improves your work: Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway always used a pencil for important work. In an October 1935 article in Esquire magazine he offered this advice to aspiring writers.

“If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to."

“First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter.”

“It also keeps it fluid longer so you can better it easier.”

I met Evolving Influence and Poetry by Numbers’ founder Karan Chadda (@kchadda) recently who asked me why I was writing in pencil. We bonded over our favourite writing instruments.

Karan sent me a box of high-end Palomino pencils after the meeting. If Carlsberg made pencils, they’d be Palomino’s.

I’ve always used Staedtler HB pencils but Karran’s kind gesture has prompted me to check out other brands in the last month. Every pencil has a story of its own. Here’s what I’ve discovered.



The Staedtler Traditional (red and black) and Noris (yellow and black) pencils bear the name of their inventor and founder J.S. Staedtler. The business was started in 1835 in Nuremberg, Germany, and now produces a variety of pens, pencils and stationery products. The Noris pencil, commonly used in British schools, has a coloured coded top to depict the grade. I use the HB (red) and 2B (orange). A packet of 10 HB Noris pencils cost £3.50.

Dixon Ticonderoga

The Dixon Ticonderoga No 2 pencil is well-known in the US but less so elsewhere. It has a distinctive green and yellow ferrule and rubber on the top. They’ve been manufactured for more than 200 years by one of the oldest companies in Florida, US. They were the favoured tool of Roald Dahl who discovered the pencil when he was living in the US and imported them when he returned to the UK. A box of 10 pencils costs around £4.

Palomino Blackwing 602

The silver-grey Palomino Blackwing 602 was the weapon of choice of John Steinbeck. It was manufactured originally by Eberhard Faber but was discontinued under the new ownership of Faber-Castell in 1998. The pencil lead is mixed with wax and so is dark and smooth. It feels luxurious. The pencil has a characteristic wedge ferrule and rectangular rubber on top to stop it sliding off the desk. In 2010 Cal Cedar Pencil Company re-launched the pencil to great acclaim by artists and writers. These premium pencils aren’t cheap. A pack of 12 costs £20.

Castrell 9000

This classic green pencil was created by Faber-Castell family-member Count Alexander von Faber-Castell. It’s favoured by artists for its range of 16 grades (8B to 6H). Like rival-firm Staedtler it was originally manufactured in Germany. They feel sturdy. The width of the lead varies with grade, and is glued within the wooden shaft, making it a tough pencil. A box of 12 pencils costs £9.50.

Derwent Graphic

Derwent is a British manufacturer founded in the Lake District in the 1830s. Like Faber-Castell its products are aimed at the artist and graphics market. It manufactures a range of graphite and water colour pencils. The Derwent Graphic is a glossy premium black pencil with a coloured stripe to identify the 20 different grades from 9B to 9H. Like the Palomino Blackwing 602 these pencils feel luxurious and well they should. A single pencil costs around £2.50.

If writing is your profession it’s worth spending a bit of money on decent tools. My other favourite writing instrument is a Mont Blanc pen. But that’s another story.

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