Why the Mechanical Pencil

Sunday 2013-03-31 17:00 -07:00

from the say-hello-to-my-little-friend dept.

The mechanical pencil – or I should say, a good mechanical pencil – is a perfection of craft. It is light; it is fine; it ideally has a little high-density eraser under the cap. The mechanism used by most mechanical pencils is far more beautiful and explicable than a pen’s glorified plumbing. The mechanical pencil’s gaskets and grabbers and brass clutch are just cool, and the traditional hexagonal barrel is a usability triumph.

Mechanical pencil ‘ink’ is utterly standardized, and can be purchased for almost nothing. (It’s carbon. Elementally, you’re writing in your own blood.) You can write on a plane, you can write upside down, and, it is said, under water. But despite all this, the pencil is humble, allowing its words to be parted from its page, should it err.

There are warts too of course. The most pressing for me is the delicacy of the nib: a surprising number of inferior mechanical pencils have a fixed-tube nib that gets damaged easily, forcing you to re-buy. Do not fall for these harlots. If you’re spending less than $30 on a mechanical pencil, get one with a conical nib that can be ‘retracted’ by pushing on it with your finger, or even one of the fancier models that has a full spring-loaded retraction system (although I question the usefulness of these over just pushing the nib into the casing with a fingertip.)

If you have money to spend and you do (even occasional) drafting, diagramming or figuring, you should get a pencil with a proper drafter’s nib. This looks identical to the cheap fixed barrel I made fun of not two paragraphs ago, except (a) it’s made out of a real metal, thus ensuring its continued function past the 2-week mark, and (b) it’s handy for drafting, and, unlike a conical nib, which tends to jam in tight corners, a fixed barrel of reasonable quality is suitable for all but the most delicate work. A cheap one, however, will break your heart, and possibly your skin.

While sturdier, these pencils still must be treated like royalty, as damage to the nib is a showstopper. You should wince when you drop one. Thus I recommend a Pelican case. They have a thick rubber liner that I trust.

Before I get to the rest of my recommendations, I want to give props to Dave’s Mechanical Pencils, which is run by one of the few people I trust to understand my obsession. He’s the guy who put me on to Rotring, and how to still get the metal-bodied classic, via Japanese eBay.

Enough about Dave, let’s get back to what I recommend. Guess what my first recommendation is? :) Yep, a Rotring. Not the mass-produced Buffalo-owned Rotrings that you get these days, but the Rotring 600, an early-00’s metal-bodied classic with a matte-powder black finish. They’re only still sold in Japan. Don’t ask me why I have to order a German design from Japan, but I did, and it was worth it. It was $40 by the time I got it in my hot little Canadian paws. (Thanks, eBay user motohashi001company!)

Second, my daily driver. It lives in my pocket, hooked to a Leuchtturm notebook. It’s a sturdy, heavily-scuffed, bright-red Caran d’Ache Ecridor and looks and feels like a long, smooth, hexagonal lego brick. The nib is conical and can be pushed up inside for transport. My Ecridor was purchased at Vancouver Pen Shop, back before I knew anything. (A big thanks to their knowledgable reps!) I later discovered that Dave’s Mechanical Pencils has a review of the Ecridor; he seems to appreciate it about as much as I do.

Finally, the One that Got Away. I used to have a Pentel Kerry, also from Vancouver Pen Shop. It’s a great pencil, and the lid is perfection itself, glossily sliding into place with a reassuring click. It even has what I can only call a ‘passthrough button’, allowing the lead to be advanced even when the cap is stowed away on the back end. Sadly, this wondrous lid made this pencil a little too portable for me, and I lost my Kerry somewhere. I haven’t rebought because (a) been there and (b) the pen’s heavy design, while elegant, looks a bit too masculine for my taste; I want to write with it, not fell deer. It’s the Model M of mechanical pencils, and as much as I love my Das Keyboard, it’s not the sort of thing I’d want to flash around. Or move around. Or stand under.

A last word on left-handedness and pencils. You will smudge. Period. But you can smudge less if you avoid the ‘southpaw hook’ and retrain your muscles to write from the bottom of the line. The smudges themselves are far less showstop-y than ink smudges, and the pale silver sheen on the heel of my left hand tells the world that I’ve been working.

When was the last time your keyboard ever told the world you were working? Twitter doesn’t count. :P

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