Few stationery items have drawn more attention - and fueled more late-night internet bickering - than the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. In recent years, the Blackwing “legend” has taken on a life of its own in popular culture, due to a combination of (1) the scarcity of the original vintage pencil; (2) the mythology surrounding the pencil and those who used it, fueled by internet stationery obsessives - seriously, who are these people!?; and (3) the 2010 release, to much success and acclaim, of a highly regarded series of pencils in the style of the original Blackwing by CalCedar, a California-based pencil manufacturer that purchased the Blackwing trademark once it expired.
The original Eberhard Faber Blackwing dates to the 1930s, and became a favorite pencil of various writers and artists such as Stephen Sondheim, Chuck Jones, John Steinbeck, and others. From the time of its discontinuation in the late 1990s to the re-release, enthusiasts were known to hoard boxes/grosses of the original pencil, paying hundreds of dollars for a dozen. Vintage Blackwings continue to sell for ridiculous premiums. Personally, I’ve never owned a vintage Blackwing 602, and regardless of how cool it would be to have one, even I can’t bring myself to shell out $50 for a single pencil. I’m primarily a user, not a collector, and that $50 will buy more than two dozen “modern Blackwings” that perform (for my purposes) just as well. You can read further on the history of the Blackwing pencil here. The 2010 relaunch was covered by media outlets such as the New Yorker and BoingBoing, and wasn’t without controversy.
Three Blackwings, Three Different Pencils
This review takes a look at one of the three “new” Blackwings, namely the original pencil that was released in 2010. Blackwing currently makes three versions as part of its standard lineup, each featuring a different graphite core. The original features extremely dark “soft” graphite, and is marketed towards artists. The Blackwing 602 - designed to more closely resemble the original vintage pencil, including the "Half The Pressure, Twice the Speed" slogan - features a firmer core supposedly geared towards writers, and the Blackwing Pearl is a white pencil with “balanced” graphite that sits between the other two on the hardness scale. (Note: Blackwing does not assign a “grade” to its pencils, such as “No. 2,” “No. 1”, “HB”, etc. I have found all Blackwing pencils, with the exception of the “extra firm” core released in certain special editions, to be softer than a standard HB/No.2.)
As someone who’s primarily a writer - not an artist - why is the original my favorite of the three standard Blackwing cores? Because for whatever reason, despite the soft graphite, this pencil writes well and maintains a writeable point longer than the “harder” Blackwing 602 or the Pearl, which get pushed as the pencils “for writers.” Here’s what I mean by maintaining a “writeable point”: while the Blackwing won’t keep a super-sharp, KUM-Masterpiece-style point forever, you’re able to write with it longer both because of the darkness of the core and because with such soft graphite, you can fairly easily “sharpen” the point yourself by rotating the pencil as you write. Your personal mileage may vary, but I also experience very little smearing with this pencil - rare for graphite this dark.
My Blackwing pencils shipped as part of the original manufacturing run, and are seven years old! Therefore, they look a lot different than the pencils Blackwing sells today. For one thing, as Blackwing has consolidated as it’s own brand under the CalCedar umbrella, the "Palomino" branding has changed, the pencil no longer has a gold stripe below the ferrule, and now sports a black eraser. The finish on the modern pencils has also improved. The standard Blackwing still features the matte black coating with gold imprint, but the original run had an issue with gold flecks spilling outside the lines a bit. While the core hasn’t changed, once I kill this box (less one pencil for posterity) it will be exciting to pick up a new batch and compare.
A note on manufacturing and sourcing: While the modern Blackwing pencils are manufactured by CalCedar, an American Company, they aren’t entirely a “made-in-the-USA” pencil. CalCedar (sustainably) sources its pencil slats from California and Oregon, and the graphite in the Blackwing pencils comes from Japan. This isn’t a knock against Blackwing - the graphite cores used in Japanese pencils are among the best in the world. CalCedar is one of the largest suppliers of pencil slats to the global pencil industry, so what you have is a quality pencil, made using the best available components, by people who know what they are doing. If you’re interested in learning more about the background of CalCedar and the development of the modern Blackwing pencils, I highly recommend that you listen to Episode 79 of the Erasable Podcast, The Pencil Man Cometh, featuring Charles Berolzheimer of CalCedar.
Takeaways and Where to Buy
The original Blackwing is currently is my “go-to” woodcase pencil. I keep three or four of them sharpened at all times on my desk at work. They aren’t inexpensive (roughly $20 per dozen, and they hardly ever go on sale), but unless you’re one of those people who churn through a dozen pencils in a week, you should get a lot of mileage out of that $20.
One of the easiest ways to pick up a dozen Blackwings quickly is via Amazon, and the pencils are currently Prime eligible. If the matte-black finish or gold trim doesn’t do it for you, Blackwing periodically features the “soft” core in its limited-edition “Blackwing Volumes” pencils. The recent Volume 73, with a blue “Lake Tahoe” theme, is still available as of the time of publication from both Blackwing and retailers who still have the pencil in stock.
In the coming weeks I’ll be offering my thoughts on the other Blackwing pencils. In the meantime, you can check out my previous review of the Blackwing line of notebooks.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. I purchased the pencils featured in this review with my own funds, for my own use.