The Blackwing Pencil

“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.” So said John Steinbeck, according to a Paris Review article (PDF) that pulled together quotations from the author over the course of his career. Steinbeck’s high praise for the Blackwing is just one notable voice in a choir of legendary figures.

In his autobiography, Q, Quincy Jones explained how he composed “Suite to the Four Winds” by running all over Seattle, “working it out bit by bit on every piano I could find. That piece was the most valuable thing I owned. I carried it around with me every day, like money, scrawling on it, fixing it, changing it, carrying it under my sweater with a Blackwing No. 2 pencil in my pocket to make continual fixes.”

Discussing a stay in Los Angeles, converting Lolita from a novel to a screenplay, Vladimir Nabokov wrote of his days: “After a leisurely lunch, prepared by the German cook who came with the house, I would spend another four-hour span in a lawn chair, among the roses and mockingbirds, using lined index cards and a Blackwing pencil, for copying and recopying, rubbing out and writing anew, the scenes I had imagined in the morning.”

Igor Stravinsky at work, via Blackwing Pages

Add to this list of luminaries dedicated to a specific pencil the likes of composers Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Igor Stravinsky, Nelson Riddle, Stephen Sondheim, and Leonard Bernstein, writers Truman Capote, E.B. White, and Eugene O’Neill, and perhaps the most renowned Blackwing user of all, Chuck Jones of Looney Tunes fame.

via Chuck Redux

So what’s the story behind this fabled writing utensil? According to Charles Berolzheimer, the CEO of CalCedar and the primary instigator behind the pencil being re-launched, “It had two distinctive features compared to most other graphite pencils used for art and writing purposes in its era.  It had a special formulation for its graphite core, which provided for a very smooth writing performance that was marketed with the slogan ‘Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.’  The graphite performance was similar to Eberhard Faber’s premium Microtomic range of graded leads for artists and technical drawing purposes, but available only in one grade, which was never imprinted on the pencil or commonly disclosed.  Additionally the Blackwing features a distinctive ferrule and eraser design with a removable and extendable block eraser that offered some improved utility vs. standard cylindrical erasers permanently fixed to the pencil.”

The new Blackwing, via Palamino

Eberhard Faber’s product left its mark, literally, on some of America’s most iconic twentieth-century creative output, scrawled and smudged across scores, sketches and manuscripts. The company was bought and sold a couple of times starting in 1988 and while the Blackwing survived these transactions it eventually went off the market in 1998. On eBay, however, the pencils started selling for as much as $40. Fast-forward a few years: Enter Berolzheimer and Palomino, a division of CaliforniaCedar Products Company, “the world’s largest producer of wooden pencil slats,” according to the Palomino website.

Daniel Joseph, via Palomino

To celebrate the pencil’s legacy, and its future, the Art Directors Club is hosting The Blackwing Experience, running April 16-20. For anyone curious about why a type of pencil was used with such regularity, this show is for you. There will be plenty of historical perspective but also examples of contemporary creatives wielding the pencil to show off why the new product is as good as the original, if not better.

Do you have a favorite pencil?

 


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4 thoughts on “The Blackwing Pencil

  1. Michael Leddy

    There is no evidence that Ellington was “dedicated to a specific pencil.” That’s a matter of fact. For all we know, the pencil in the photograph was borrowed.
    Steinbeck also used the Blaisdell Calculator and the Mongol. He is on record about his pencil preferences, having written favorably about those pencils, as well as Blackwings. 

  2. Richard Erickson

    It seems that Duke Ellington may not have been “dedicated to a specific pencil” but that a picture of him holding one shows that it’s likely that he used one. I’m uncertain that Steinbeck used only blackwing pencils, but that he used them as well.
    All the hype aside … I think I’ll give them a look.

  3. Richard Erickson

    It seems that Duke Ellington may not have been “dedicated to a specific pencil” but that a picture of him holding one shows that it’s likely that he used one. I’m uncertain that Steinbeck used only blackwing pencils, but that he used them as well. 

  4. Michael Leddy

    There is no evidence that Duke Ellington had any particular attachment to the Blackwing pencil. The evidence of his use is a single photograph that I posted on my blog. More here:
    http://mleddy.blogspot.com/2012/03/duke-ellington-blackwing-pencils-and.html
    To its credit, Cal Cedar has removed Ellington’s name from its webpage. It should also remove John Lennon’s name: there is no basis for claiming that he is rumored to have been a Blackwing user.

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