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Tucson, Arizona, United States
I work as Panther Peak Bindery and am a bookbinder, conservator and instructor working outside Tucson, Arizona for individual and institutional clients across the country. I am a two term President of the Guild of Book Workers, was a Fulbright Scholar, taught at North Bennet Street School for over nine years and was the fastest in my middle school class at running up and down a flight of stairs (really!).



Monday, June 13, 2016

Pencils, a quest

Is there anything we use more than a pencil?  I can't remember that last project I did where I didn't need one at some point in the process.

For years I wanted a good, reliable mechanical pencil. Seems so simple, but it never really was.  I'd buy ones I thought would be good but they'd break after several months and it always bummed me out a bit.  Ask my students, they'll tell you.  Clearly I wasn't buying the right pencils because they always let me down.  Sort of like network television.

Part of the problem is that I never really knew where to look, I guess. I'd go to the University Bookstore (at Washington) and they just had run of the mill ones.  I would see fancier ones but they were more about the bling than reliability and functionality.  I didn't need a Mountblanc pencil to mark my squares.

A bit over a year ago I was teaching a class in San Francisco and was taken to a store called Flax.  They had some really nice pens and pencils.  I decided to make the plunge and buy a Rotring.  Rotring was a German brand, now they are part of the Sanford company.  I think they're made in Japan.  

It felt substantial. It had weight.  It seemed like it would last.  It felt like it would be fun to use!  Clearly it was made from metal and not plastic, which I felt had to be a good sign.  

The model was the 600 and it was a .5mm pencil. 

I loved using it.

There was a problem with it, however.  If the pencil was put down, or dropped on the tip it would bend. And when I'm working I tend to focus on what I need to do rather than putting the pencil down carefully.  

It's like baseball, of course. When you hit the ball you think more about getting to first base than you down about putting the bat down.  Unless you're Ichiro then you do both at the same time but that's another issue all together.  Sad to say there's no real equivilent for Ichiro hitting and measuring a shoulder on a book.  Sorry. Life would be so much better if it were so.

I guess I just never had the discipline to think before casting the pencil aside. 

I think you can see in the above picture that the tip is a bit bent. It still works but this is after it was straightened out a few times.  It can be easily straightened by rolling the tip on the edge of a table, but  that takes time and it's also a distraction.   

The other problem was that it would poke when it was put in a shirt pocket.  I'm still teaching a couple of months a year so I need to carry a pencil around the classroom.  This meant that I was getting stabbed by my pencil enough times to set some kind of record.  And there are enough cacti around these parts --they can take care of the agony of being stabbed by foreign objects.  That's their job, this pencil is just intruding on the cactus' domain.  Unfair! 

It was a great pencil but wasn't the answer.

Next up was the Rotring 800, which has a retractable tip.

I really liked this pencil a lot.  It was even weightier than the 600, beefier.  

The pencil was so heavy, so substantial that it felt like you wouldn't be creating the letters and lines on the paper, rather every letter and shape you ever would need was pre-loaded into the pencil and all you would be doing is letting them escape.  

Unfortunately the letters they pre-loaded still had my handwriting.

The mechanics of the pencil are so smooth, it's just fun to open and retract the tip.  The tip extends by twisting the top of the shaft.  And that was a bit of a problem.  I think normally you'd use two hands.  But if you're holding a ruler and want to get the lead out you can pick up the pencil, flip it in your hand, extend the tip and then flip it back to writing position.

That would be a really fun thing to do in front of other people while acting like it wasn't anything at all, but isn't that what jazz hands are for?

A student came for a class and had the Pentel GraphGear 1000.  It came up because he also suffered through broken and bent ends of pencils and found this.  It's probably 1/5 the price of the Rotring.

With this pencil the tip extends by pressing on the end, and it retracts by moving the top of the clip. I think the clip would be great if I had a pocket protector, just the accessory to go with that fashion statement.  Unfortunately there's no way to remove it and still have the pencil work.  It works just like a pen.

What's great is that both movements can be easily done with one thumb.

I've been using this pencil for about six months now and it seems pretty mechanically sound.  I have them in several sizes (.3, .5, .7, .9) and they all are pretty great.  I expect them to last many years.

I should add that much of this quest was happening before the days of the inter web and pencil reviews on Amazon.  But now we have those things and the consensus seems to be that the GraphGears last years before breaking.

They are lighter than the Rotrings, and have more plastic inside.  I can deal with that.   I have hope.

In the meantime I use the 600s at my desks.  I keep the 800s in the toolbox.  They still fun to use.  Next time I see a rattlesnake outside the bindery I'm going to bring one out and taunt it. If it doesn't have hands how could it work the pencil?  Then it'll feel bad and move over to our neighbor's property. Amazing animals, dignified and adroit, but can't work a Rotring 800.

In the meantime, it's all about the retractable tip.  Buy the GraphGear. I think you'll be happy with it. I've been.  So far.

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