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April 19, 2011

Pencil Review – Really!

In a rehearsal the other day we got to talking about how some charts are hard to look at, when Ric Fierabracci (monster bass player) announced that he had the hands-down best pencil for writing charts. I’ll admit this took me a little by surprise. First of all, we were talking about pencils. Second of all, in school I’d been told only to use mechanical pencils of at least .7mm (preferably .9mm) and I hadn’t given it much thought since. Nowadays, on the rare occasions when I have to write a chart (not a ton of charts in the  flamenco world) I write with whatever’s at hand and then copy into Sibelius, which solves my terrible handwriting/chartwriting issue, so legibility hasn’t been a huge concern.

Anyway, Ric gave me one of these pencils, a Palomino Blackwing, and said that everyone from Stravinsky to Sondheim has used these pencils and that they’re pretty much it when it comes to pencils for writing scores and charts. Being a little old-school myself, I just loved the idea that people still care about pencils. So what’s so great about this particular pencil? I’ll quote from the website (yes, there is such a thing):

“Though a mere pencil, the Palomino Blackwing has a long and strong history. Its predecessor, the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, had its virtues praised by artists and writers alike through the decades. The Paris Review quoted John Steinbeck:

“I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.”

True to his words, the Blackwings are known for its soft lead (graded at 4B) and smooth writing. Stephen Sondheim wrote in commentary to a book about his collected lyrics:

For those who like me are curious about a writer’s habits: the pencils I write with are Blackwings, a brand formerly made by Eberhard Faber but alas, no longer. Their motto, printed proudly on the shaft, is “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed,” and they live up to that promise. They utilize very soft lead, which makes them not only easy to write with (although extremely smudgy) but also encourages the user to waste time repeatedly sharpening them, since they wear out in minutes. They also have removable erasers which, when dried out, can be reversed to resume their softness and which are flat, preventing the pencil from rolling off a table.

That motto, “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” has lived on with the Blackwing through Eberhard Faber’s transition into Faber-Castell in the 1980s. Another unique feature to continue was the rectangular ferrule and eraser, which as Mr. Sondheim mentioned, makes the eraser longer and keeps it from sliding off a desk.”

Apparently they stopped making them for a while, but they’re back now, so you can go ahead and feel fancy and use a pencil with a history. I will simply say that it feels great to write with, really does glide along, and what you write looks strong and bold, though not overly bold or anything. I haven’t had enough recent frustration with ordinary pencils to truly appreciate it, but it was certainly fun pretending for a while that pencils were once again an important part of my life as a musician. Now I just have to work on my handwriting.

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