Writing with a Blackwing is like swabbing a pad of butter across warm toast. It glides. The Palomino Blackwing 602 is my favourite pencil. This isn’t a controversial stance, and anyone with so much as a cursory awareness of the pencil community is familiar with the name.
These pencils have experienced a revival — they were popular among some artists in the ’60s, most notably cartoon savant Chuck Jones and Disney’s Ollie Johnston. Tragically, the line of pencils was discontinued in 1998 and vintage Blackwings can go for $70 per pencil on eBay. But I don’t specifically care whether or not the original pencil was better. The pencils were revived in 2010 by California Cedar Products Company, making Blackwings cheap and accessible to even casual pencil users, and one pencil costs around $4.46. Is it worth that much more than a common pencil you might buy at an office supply store? Probably not. I don’t know your heart. But for me it is worth it.
The lead is soft, but not too soft. The silly tagline, embossed on the side of the pencil, is quite true: “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” That approximates the experience of writing with the Blackwing. Your pencil experience has likely been dominated by the common #2; the graphite of the Blackwing is softer than that, meaning it leaves a mark on paper with less pressure. And yet, pleasingly, it doesn’t feel too soft. It doesn’t smear very much like a charcoal pencil. It is, much like myself, the correct amount of softness.
And because the lead is softer, the point dulls more quickly than a normal #2, so you do need to have a pencil sharpener on hand. Sharpening the pencil with a knife is crude, but also works.
If you are the sort of person who has decided to use a pencil, you must face a choice: Wooden or mechanical? Throughout my education I always preferred mechanical pencils for science and maths because of their minute accuracy when writing equations. If consistency and minuscule accuracy is a top priority, you should absolutely opt for a mechanical pencil. The Blackwing is not for tiny marks. It is for the broad strokes with which we annotate daily life.
The light gunmetal paint on the Blackwing is pleasant, a satisfying gloss coat conducive to absentmindedly twirling the pencil when I’m not writing. It feels good between my fingers as I fiddle with it. It feels, as far as pencils go, luxurious.
The eraser is fine. After years dominated by writing with pens I find that I rarely erase anything any more. A hack in itself, perhaps: Don’t erase your mistakes. (Fascinating aside: It is predominantly an American convention to top pencils with erasers at all.) The eraser is interesting looking, flat rather than round. One imagines the flat shape was designed to prevent the pencil from rolling, which would be particularly useful on tilted drafting tables. The hexagonal shape of the pencil shaft itself also aides in roll prevention.
But the obvious question at hand isn’t really “what is the best pencil?” It’s “why use a pencil at all?”
There is a satisfying tactile relationship with the paper that you don’t get with most pens. A ballpoint gel pen, for example, provides a much more frictionless writing experience; you barely need to touch the paper. Writing with a gel pen is practically like swiping the glass screen of a tablet. With a pencil, and particularly the Blackwing, I can feel the subtle grit of the paper and the particles of graphite treading away like the stone steps of an old church slowly eroding to a century’s foot traffic. (There is, perhaps, an amount of nostalgia at play.) It feels like it matters. And though I may be writing a mundane grocery list, the minute pleasure of using the right tool provides unconscious delight, when delight, for some, is so difficult to come by.
I prefer to write with the Palomino Blackwing 602. It’s my favourite pencil.