On Pencils

As both an educator and a gamer, I have a bit of a love affair with pencils (sorry wife).  In this post, I will detail my personal preferences of this writing utensil.

Stop calling it “Lead”

Yes, the element Lead is toxic.  Yes, lead was used in the core of pencils for centuries and yes, the outer coatings used lead paint until the mid 20th.  Yes, we have a cultural habit of calling pencil cores “the lead”.  No, it isn’t used in pencils anymore.

Here is where I am going to go all science teacher on this blog.  Modern pencil cores are made of a mixture of graphite, an elemental lattice structure form of Carbon, and clay to get it to stick together.  Some companies use a cheap process that doesn’t make for a strong core but results in cheaper pencils.  Some use a quality process.  See below for personal rage/opinions.


Wood Pencils

There are bad pencils.  Lots of bad pencils.  You know what I’m talking about.  You attempt to sharpen a pencil and only one half or less of the graphite is exposed.  And if you do get a good sharpen, the weak core snaps.

Hey Michael, which pencil should I buy for everyday (non art) use?

Dixon Ticonderoga

 End of freakin’ story.  Why are we even discussing this?

I’m a little militant in my love of Ticonderogas because they are much higher quality and break much less easily.  I purchase Ticonderogas for my classroom and hand kids one when they don’t have a writing utensil.  It is total charity and I am happy to share.

/Side bar/

There is a war that has been happening in education over responsibility education.  Many teachers take the “too bad, so sad” mentality when a student doesn’t have a writing utensil, they let them sit there or humiliate them by forcing them to check one out, and then think that they are “teaching responsibility”.  Amateurs.  You can’t let responsibility education override content and skill learning.  It is ethically undefensible, in my opinion.  Get over yourself and hand the kid a pencil.  You can lash ’em to the desk if you want.  Be nice in asking for collateral.  Stop making it a power trip and acknowledge what matters:  a student’s uninterrupted engagement.  Every second you spend doing the “pencil knife fight” with a kid is time they could be concentrating on the objective.  Sheesh.

/End Side Bar/

The following test is anecdotal and not in any way scientific, but I’m not surprised by the result:


Do Ticonderogas cost more?  You bet.  This may be one of the few things in our current modern economic tragedy in which paying more actually gets you higher quality for an “everyday” product.

I am not a “pencil huffer” but I love the scent of a good sharpened cedar pencil.  I swear they should make a candle with a sharpened pencil scent.  And….they do:


I don’t buy souvenir pencils because when you do so you take a big risk that it will be poor quality and won’t sharpen properly.  I hate pencils that don’t sharpen properly.  If you use a quality hand or electric sharpener, the quality of the pencil usually determines how well it sharpens.

I’m sure there are lots of great art pencils that cost a lot more.  If you have favorites for everyday use, let me know in the comments so I can learn more.

Mechanical pencils

Mechanical pencils have actually been around for over a century.  I remember my first.  It was awesome because I had never seen the mechanism on the side by the index finger as opposed to the “plunger” type that is ubiquitous.  Yes, I was the nerdy kid who spent pocket money on a mechanical pencil.  I used it for many years before it finally broke.  I continued to use them throughout college and grad school, but once I became an educator, I decided to switch to cheaper disposable versions because they can be so easily lost.

Personal favorites include the Bic Basic model and Bic Grip.  I absolutely despise the Papermate Sharpwriter because I don’t think the twisty mechanism does what it is supposed to do.

A few years ago I bought mechanical souvenir pencils at the Library of Congress patterned after the Jefferson Library exhibit that was there at the time.  I only write with them when I’m in a good mood because I want to try to get them to last as long as possible.  I keep my best writing utensils with two tablet portfolios that I use for gaming writing and planning so I won’t lose them.

In my youth, I preferred the sharp lines of 0.5 mm core, but my tastes on this matter have changed.  I now prefer the 0.7 mm core because I feel like it is less likely to scratch through a page and the thicker line makes my poor handwriting easier to see.

Why not pen?

Oh, I use pens too.  I have two Space Pens with the Smithsonian Logo that I use when I feel like it and when I need to be guaranteed to be able to write, because Space Pens write on anything in any direction.

I don’t prefer pencils because their marks can be erased, which is the canned answer given by most scientists and engineers and lectured by teachers to students.  Don’t get me wrong, erasing can be important, especially in gaming.  It is not wise to mark Mech pips in pen, because errors in marking do occur and then your Mech Sheet gets real ugly real fast.

Nope, I prefer pencils because of the FEEL of how they write on the page.  Not as smooth as a Space Pen and not too rough.  It is a “drag” that I am used to and that I like.  Good pencils connect me to the page.  To each their own I guess.  😉

I will say that there are bad pencil erasers.  The danger of buying mechanical pencils that you don’t know is that often the erasers are of poor quality and will not erase effectively.

Last week I was at the National Education Association conference in Denver.  To my extreme glee Bic was giving away Mechanical pencils.  I took a lot.  Don’t judge me.

Last night I was at Target and noticed that school supplies had been pretty picked over but I did notice HUGE packages of 24 or 50 mechanical pencils.  The 50 pack was 6 bucks and I salivated over it.  It was Target brand.  Knowing that my mechanical pencil hopes can be dashed easily, I opened the box up (one end is not sealed at the manufacturer) and held one in my hand.  It didn’t feel right.  So, I put it back in the box, closed it up, and went on my way.  I can’t be saddled with 50 mechanical pencils that I don’t like.  Not an option.

Got a favorite pencil?  Is there a pencil that you think I owe it to myself to try, even if it is more expensive?  Share in the comments!

Update:  Check this blog out for all pencils mechanical.  I respect the hell out of a Kiwi with good taste in pencils.

6 thoughts on “On Pencils

  1. donnald johnson

    I will have to try the Ticonderoga, because I feel also that cheap wooden pencils are not fun. My mechanical of choice: Then Pentel quicker clicker. the advance mechanism is about where the index finger is holding the pencil, and with a quick snap or two, advances the writing core efficiently. I like them because of the smooth operation of the advance assembly, and the overall quality of the pencil. They are not cheap, about 4 dollars per unit, but they usually come with extra lead, which is a boon. The eraser is a white plastic style eraser, which works pretty well, but I also have on hand the tube eraser, for larger mistakes. The writing core size I prefer is the .5 mm writing core. I tend to write small, so the smaller lead makes my poor hand writing easier for me to read.

    I also have a few uber pencils, with a writing core size of .3 mm. I use these for drawing more precise lines, such as those times when I am graphing, or my writing needs to be even smaller. The writing core does have a tendency to go through paper fairly easily. The brand I have is the Alvin Draft/Matic, No. DM03. Not cheap: 12 dollars per pencil with a end advance, and a writing core selection bezel, to indicate the writing core hardness.

    I have also found red and blue colored mechanical pencil writing cores at a drafting/surveying store in Albuquerque, in the .5 mm size. I have been using a metal bodied Pentel for them through school, but the writing core is very soft, and easily breaks. I have since found a cheaper pencil, with holds the writing core much better, and overcomes the softness of the writing core.

    As far as pens, I use the Write-in-the-rain pens, of the same company in my field notebook. It writes well, and even when the pages are wet, which can be often in my lines of work. I also use the Uni-ball pens, they write very smoothly, and have nice dark lines.

    I believe that is that as far as my choices of writing instruments go. I am always on the look out for nice pen/pencil sets. While I am neither collector or connoisseur, I am an interested bystander.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. klecser Post author

      I’m pretty sure my first mechanical pencil referenced in this post was a Pentel Quicker Clicker.

      A couple of observations:

      I think that it’s funny, as field scientists, that we are privy to pens that write under wet conditions, as per our training.

      I also find it intriguing how this is another aspect of things that nerds share, is highly personal in terms of preferences, yet rarely comes up in conversation. That is why I decided to write about it. I think the topic is a good potential ice breaker for nerds. 😉


      1. donnald johnson

        Do nerds need potential ice breakers: Nerd one: “Do you play Pathfinder?” Nerd two: “No, I don’t like Pathfinder.” Nerd one: “Oh, well what is your favorite pencil?” I guess it works.


  2. Pingback: Map for Next Battletech Game and Pencil Update | Tactical Thinking

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