National Handwriting Day - A Day Late

If you are a regular reader of my blog, what follows is going to seem completely out of character for me. However, if you follow me on Instagram, you probably already know that I geek out pretty hardcore over writing instruments, so this might not be much of a surprise for you.

Yesterday was National Handwriting Day, and I am a pretty big fan of handwriting. Accordingly, I decided that this would be a good occasion to take a break from my scholarly writing, which focuses on poverty, colonialism, and the study of teaching and learning, and my creative nonfiction work, which focuses on Appalachia, social justice, and the democratization of the humanities. What follows is simply some fun, and, for me, a much-needed break from politics, poverty, and the injustices I write about both personally and professionally.

While the world around me continues to devolve into a technology-driven black hole, I continue to cherish handwriting. It's rare to find me, in fact, without a pocket-sized Field Notes notebook in my back pocket and either a pencil behind my right ear or a pen clipped into the placket of my shirt. If it's a teaching day, there's usually a Dixon dry erase marker or two stuffed into my pocket, too.

I do not trust my calendar to technology, even though people increasingly prod me with their damned Outlook calendar invites. While I shout from the kitchen to ask Alexa to add items to our shopping list, I hand-write that list before heading to the grocery store. I don't do memos on my phone, nor do I rely on my laptop for taking notes when I'm doing archival research. Most every essay I write begins with scribbles in a legal pad, and if I have a choice, I still prefer to have a paper copy of an academic journal in my hand when I'm reading for work. I'm just a hard-copy guy living in a digital world, and I like it this way. I'm a technological anachronism, and I'm okay with that.

Given my love of handwriting and writing instruments and the number of "likes" my pencil posts sometimes get on social media, I thought it might be fun to write about, well, what I write with. What follows is a summary of some of my favorite writing instruments.

Let's start with pens. I don't use them very often. Most of my everyday carry pens are made in my woodturning shop. It's a hobby that I love, though I have not had nearly enough time to devote to it in recent months. Apart from the handmade wooden pens I turn in my workshop, I have a few mass-manufactured favorites. There are certainly many fine high-end pens available, many of which are a dream to write with. However, the pens on my list are readily available to those on a moderate budget.

The Kaweko Sport fountain pen has quickly become one of my favorites. I have long loved fountain pens, and I discovered this one thanks to a Bespoke Post subscription box. It writes smoothly, and the ink flows effortlessly. It can even keep up with my rather rapid cursive without gaps in the ink flow. It also has an interesting design, because it is a good bit shorter than the average fountain pen when the cap is on. While the one I have came with a pocket clip, I believe they are ordinarily purchased separately. It would be a great pen to carry in your pocket if you aren't the sort who wears shirts with pockets.

The second pen on my list is the Sakura Pigma Micron 0.5. This pen comes in many different colors, and it is perfect for those who love extremely fine points. If you like the fine-point Sharpie pens, this pen is for you. It is similar to the Sharpie in many ways, but substantially nicer. The thing I love best about this pen is that the ink is pigmented, making it less likely to feather or bleed through the paper.

The final pen on the list is the ever-popular PaperMate Flair. This felt-tipped pen comes in most any color you can imagine. If you haven't ever tried these pens, or haven't in a while, give them a shot. The downside is that the tip usually loses its firmness long before the pen runs out of ink, but for those who enjoy a fine felt tip and love a wide variety of ink colors, the Flair is a great choice. My only complaint about these pens is that PaperMade is making them out of cheaper materials every year. Sometimes, I will get one with a cap that doesn't click closed, and they just don't feel as good in the hand as they once did. While we have gotten dozens of new colors in recent years (they used to come only in red, blue, green, and black, best I remember), the trade-off has been in quality.

Now, for the pencils. This is my favorite part. While I could write for days about all the pencils I love, I will limit the list to five. While there are a few mechanical pencils that I love (the Uni Kuru Toga is my favorite), this list is all about real pencils. Wooden pencils. Pencils as they should be. I'll try to avoid the pencil-geek jargon in my descriptions, though I hope you'll forgive me if I lapse into technical descriptions of the pencils.

The Palomino Blackwing Pearl is one of the finest pencils being made today. That's a bold proclamation, I know. However, it's a wonderful pencil, and, of course, the price reflects that. They are almost two bucks each, which is a whole lot more expensive than your average yellow #2. I discovered these last summer when I was looking for a suitable high-end pencil to get me through a book proposal. The story of these pencils goes something like this: The original Blackwing 602, manufactured by Eberhard Faber between 1934 and 1988, was wildly popular with those who made their living with pencils in their hands. Bugs Bunny was created with a Blackwing 602. The pencil fell victim to corporate cost-cutting in the late 1980s, but Palomino resurrected the brand in recent years after original Blackwings began topping forty bucks each on eBay. These days, Blackwings come in three grades: the 602, the Pearl, and the regular Blackwings. The hardness of the lead goes in that order, with the 602 being the firmest. I prefer the Pearl, because it is a perfect balance of darkness and erasability. Speaking of erasers, the pencils come with an awesome flat eraser, and when you run low on eraser, it's adjustable. There's more inside the ferrule, and the little metal collar allows you to take full advantage of it. Even vigorous erasers will likely not run out of eraser before running out of pencil. The entire Blackwing line is still made of aromatic Western Cedar, just as decent pencils should be. They have that wonderful cedary pencil smell when you sharpen them. My only complaint about the Blackwing pencils, even the firm-leaded 602, is that they require frequent sharpening, though this isn't so much a complaint about the quality of the product as it is an acknowledgment of a reality. When I'm writing pages and pages, I go for something firmer.

The Ticonderoga Noir is one of the best Ticonderogas I have ever encountered. It has a shimmery and slightly iridescent finish that I do not love - it is a bit flashy for my taste - but the quality of the lead more than makes up for it. It is called the "Noir" because the wood is black. When I first saw these advertised, I expected that they would be made of that stupid plastic-type stuff that the crappy K-Mart pencils I had growing up were made of. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I got the first pack. They are made of high-quality wood that has been dyed black. That's what I assume, anyway, and if it isn't actually real wood and they've fooled me, a woodworker, they've done a good job of it. Ticonderoga bills itself as "the world's best pencil," and while this is obviously hyperbole cooked up by marketing folks, the Noir really is a fine pencil. I came to discover the Noir, actually, because of the Blackwings I mentioned earlier. The thing that lead me to order my first box of Blackwings was a bad experience with plain ol' yellow #2 Ticonderogas. I got a huge case of yellow Ticonderogas from Amazon, and they were of inferior quality. I complained, because I felt somewhat betrayed. As I have written previously, I couldn't afford Ticonderoga pencils growing up, so I began buying them as soon as I could afford to as an adult. I took to social media to complain about my disappointment, and their amazing PR team reached out and asked if they could send me some pencils to make up for my bad experience. Since then, I have had a chance to try out much of the Ticonderoga product line, and they make a lot of fantastic pencils. The Noir continues to be my favorite. It features graphite that is a great combination of firm and bold, and the eraser does its job well.

The third pencil on the list is a bit more low-key in reputation. The Try-Rex, by Moon Products, is a pencil that would probably be a whole lot more popular if the manufacturer had ever bothered to market it. It has a unique rounded triangle shape which makes it easy to hold and keeps it from rolling away. This is my go-to pencil when I'm working through statistics or math. It's probably closer to a #1 pencil than a #2, which means the lead is a bit firmer, and it lasts a bit longer before needing to be sharpened. I first discovered the Try-Rex when I ordered an assortment of pencils from CW Pencils, a boutique pencil shop in New York. That's the only place I had ever seen them available, but I was happy to learn recently that they were available on Amazon as a cheap add-on item. I love the retro-style look, the comfortable non-traditional shape, and the very functional eraser. This is going to be my go-to pencil for grading essays this semester.

Another Ticonderoga pencil that deserves praise is the Renew Recycled Pencil. While I'm very environmentally-conscious, I have been frustrated in the past by crappy office supplies whose only virtues are that they are more earth-friendly. Some other brands of recycled pencils are made from processed or pulped wood product. Essentially, some manufacturers glue sawdust together, put lead in the middle, and market it as a pencil. They are rubbish. The Ticonderoga Renew pencils are made of real, recylced, whole wood, and they have a wonderful grade of graphite. They come with a natural wood finish, which I think is pretty neat, and their green erasers work really well. I'm not certain what kind of wood these are made from, and I would imagine that it varies based on what types of recycled wood are available at any given time. However, the pencils I have used so far (and I have gone through nearly two full boxes of these), are a much better grade of wood than most yellow #2 pencils manufactured today. It seems pretty clear that these pencils were thoughtfully designed by the nice people at Dixon Ticonderoga to be, well, pencils, not just a useless accessory for the greener folk among us. With these pencils, I can feel good about recycling, and there's no down-side.

The final pencil I will mention is the Apsara Absolute. This pencil comes from India, and it is unlike the others on the list in that it does not have an attached eraser. Apsara pencils are manufactured by the same company that makes Nataraj pencils, another popular Indian brand. I have tried about a half a dozen different pencils from Apsara and Nataraj, and the Absolute is my favorite. It has bold lead that is bigger in diameter than most writing pencils, and could easily be mistaken for an art pencil. While it doesn't come with an eraser, each box of ten comes with an eraser and a sharpener. If you are looking for a pencil that can make thick, bold lines, this is the one for you.

I go through a full pencil almost every day. As a result, I have some pretty definitive opinions about which pencils are good and which are crap. What is a wonderful pencil to me, however, might be rubbish to you. Ultimately, you have to find what you like and stick with it. Whether it's the timeless Ticonderoga, the fancy (but expensive) Palomino, or something almost unknown like the Try-Rex, the world is still full of high-quality pencils. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the wonderful writing instruments out there, and I'm certain I will get a good bit of feedback from folks who can't believe I left their favorite pencil off the list. Sitting beside me as I write this is a half-pint Mason jar with no less than 25 different varieties of pencils, all of which I use on a regular basis. Trust me, nobody would have wanted to read my thoughts about every single one of those pencils, so I picked some of my favorites, with the hope of exposing readers to something they might not have tried before. It's fair to say that we are long past the golden age of the pencil, but discerning writers can still find good writing instruments. Hopefully you have found something useful in my long-winded descriptions. More importantly, I hope you'll pick your writing utensil of choice and go write something yourself!

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