Ode to the Mechanical Pencil

I like mechanical pencils. There, I’ve said it. I know many readers may stop by here looking for reviews of fountain pens and other “fancy” writing implements but I’m finding myself coming back to mechanical pencils more and more. It may be some sort of midlife crisis. I took a lot of science and math classes back in the day and there was nothing I enjoyed more than going into an organic chemistry or calculus test armed with little more than my wits, a solid mechanical pencil and a stick eraser. In related news, I’m trying to streamline and simplify bits of my life. Among other things…

…I finally set up a password storing software for my online life (major headache reliever and time saver)
…I swapped out a bulky, leather briefcase for a much simpler and lighter Topo Designs Mountain Briefcase (Holy crap is this thing awesome!)
…I retired my desktop at school and now just rely on my MacBook Air and a docking station (Windows…you may be dead to me now).
…I ditched my subscription to SiriusXM and now rely on music and podcasts to keep my mind occupied while driving (SiriusXM – maybe if you worked with me more on the subscription fee things could have turned out differently)

Anyway, back to writing implements. All writing tools come with compromises. Fountain pens have wonderful historical appeal and deliver an effortless, expressive and personalizes writing experience when everything goes well. But, things don’t always go well and you need to be a bit fussy about the paper you use. Gel pens, with their great ink colors and variety of point sizes, may be the best thing to happen to pens in the last 20 years but ink quality varies and refill life is typically low. Among ink pens, ball points write on the widest array of paper types, have a 20th century history all their own and have undergone a recent revival thanks to advances in ink formulations. Then again, many folks find ball points utilitarian, soulless, unremarkable and indistinguishable.

Which brings me to mechanical pencils. Could it be that mechanical pencils offer a number of positives we seek in our writing toys and fewer of the drawbacks? By choosing your preferred graphite hardness (4B, 3B, 2B… 2H, etc.) in a particular diameter you get a pencil that is your own. While mechanical pencils have the occasional mechanical problem, most issued are easily solved without the services of a “meister” of any sort. Sure, graphite might break but it doesn’t leak or stain and I have yet to find a piece of paper that pencil won’t mark.

What about wood-case pencils you ask? They’re great. Is there anything more iconic than the yellow pencil? If you came to my house and stole my Tombo Mono (F) pencils, I would hunt you down like the dog you are. But, wood-cased pencils are not terribly portable and you always need something else in hand, namely a sharpener, to get them to work. I’m not here to bang on wood-case pencils, but think about it. Unlike a brand new pen, a brand new wood-case pencil is useless unless you have the other thing. Obviously it’s not a big deal but it’s still a thing.

So, as part of my simplified life I’m going back to mechanical pencils. (I also find myself gravitating towards simple and efficient pen designs like the Caran d’Ache 849. More on that later.) I hope, dear reader, that you will indulge me a bit in this effort. Although not exclusively, the next several reviews will likely focus heavily on mechanical pencils. If that’s not your bag, I hope you will stick around nonetheless. If it is your bag, I hope you will tell me what mechcils (see that – I’m inventing words now!) you enjoy and give me some ideas to explore.

9 thoughts on “Ode to the Mechanical Pencil

  1. This was a very good article. Like you, I have found myself using mechanical pencils more and more, particularly when I am out and about, but I also use them for composition of longer documents as I find some of them are very comfortable to write with for long stretches owing to their ergonomic barrel design. I also like the fact that you can change the lead grade at will. I am even becoming slightly obsessed with who makes the best writing lead in each grade. I think that it is a toss-up between Pentel and Tombow, but my mind is always changing. My favourite mechanical pencils are the Lamy 2000 in 0.5mm, the Pliot Fure Fure Corone in 0.3mm. and Pilot S3 series in 0.4mm. I tend to use B grade lead for writing rather than HB, but that is a personal preference. I also write with a Rotring 300 2 mm with B grade lead. I will look forward to reading more from you. Thanks once again.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Chandon. When it comes to graphites, I’m partial to (F) grade. As a lefty I need something a bit harder to handle the fact that I push into the page while also avoiding too much graphite on my southpaw. I have not checked out Tombow graphite but I love the wood-cased Tombow Mono so much that I should definitely give their graphite a spin. Thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Hi Todd,
    Thanks for your article on mechanical pencils. I’ve been using them as well as fountain pens for quite a while now and I have built up a small collection (Parker, Waterman, Lamy, Pilot etc.) which I rotate with my fountain pens. I’ve even converted four of my Cross ballpoint pens to pencils with the ‘Cross Switch-It’ which seems work very well but I’ve never seen a review of it. Looking forward to your mechanical pencil reviews.
    Kind regards, Keith Bartlett.

    1. Hi Keith. Thanks for stopping by. I have to investigate the switch-it. I have a couple of Cross ballpoints that don’t get much use, but perhaps I could reanimate their zombie-like bodies with that pencil swap. Thanks for the idea!

  3. Great post! I love all implements that make marks on paper. Have you heard of the automatic mechanical pencil? It’s awesome!
    Automatic mechanical pencil
    Lead automatically advances: upon contact with the paper, the lead moves down the mechanism. No more clicking! Fewer broken leads

    1. Thanks for reading Natasha. I have an auto advance pencil. Honestly, I couldn’t get into it. It xposes very little graphite and makes me feel like I’m writing with the plastic tip and not with the graphite. It definitely worked as advertised but it just kind of weirded me out because I could see enough of the graphite. Set in my ways I suppose.

  4. As a civil engineering major I go through a lot of graphite. I tend to use wood-cased pencils in the dorm and at home where a sharpener is always at hand, and mechanical pencils in class and out in the field for survey notes and the like. Because I tend to write hard and like a dark line, I’ve found that I am most comfortable with .09mm, 1.1mm or 1.3mm thicknesses in graphite grade B. I have way too many mechanical pencils, so many in fact that my college roommate once said that my acquisitiveness in this area borders on the perverse. But I’ve always thought that there is no such thing as too much of a good thing! If one mechanical pencil is good, twenty of them just HAS to be better, right?

    I won’t even go into how many different wood-cased pencils of various manufacturers I use. Yet another perversion I suppose.

    For fountain pens I use the disposable ones, and carry a few spares in the backpack. Black, blue, green and red ones get the jobs done for me. In the dorm I use a Hero 616 or my huge Jin Hao 159 signing-of-international-treaties-weight fountain pen. Inexpensive pens, yes, but I’ve found they write as well or better than a Parker 51 or a Mont Blanc. Seriously. I’ve tried more expensive pens at pen shows and decided they just were not worth the money.

    I know many fountain pen users also collect inks of differing manufacturers and colors. I stick with Diamine “Prussian Blue” for the non-disposable pens.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Rick. I agree, 20 mechanical pencils would have to be better than 1! 🙂

      When it comes to the more expensive fountain pens, it’s all about the nib. If you like the experience of writing with a softer gold nib, then the added money will be worth it for you. Given that you tend to write with a bit of a heavy hand (as do I), the joys of using a softer, potentially more expressive gold nibs, is probably largely lost on you (and me). I may flirt with fancier fountain pens from time to time, but I always end upcoming back to things like a TWSBI Mini and its fine steel nib.

  5. I like mechanical pencils for the same reasons (a chemist + all the math courses I had to take to get here). I, like you, always go back to mechanical pencils. I have developed a habit of collecting older pencils. Firstly, I like that someone in a different time and place owned and used the same pencil. It makes me wonder who they were and what they were writing. My favourite pencil acquisition is a Caran d’Ache Ivanhoe. I love the chain mail look. It is kind of Medieval looking and industrial, at the same time (my dad was a steelworker and dive bar owner, so industrial has a beauty for me). Thank you for the cool post.

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