The Mirado Black Warrior : A Step in Some Direction – Part I

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2008 by pencilgrinder

It’s time to move on to another pencil. Let me introduce the Newell Rubbermaid Sanford Papermate Mirado Black Warrior. Goodness, that is a long name for a pencil isn’t it? This pencil, like the Dixon Ticonderoga, certainly carries a reputation behind it and not all of it seems positive. A lot of people say that once the brand and product was acquired and integrated into the Newell Rubbermaid conglomerate that the quality went down hard and fast. I’m still new to pencil collecting so I can’t say which way the quality went. I don’t know what the Mirado Black Warrior was like before but I sure am going to find out what it is now.

I got a pack of 10 Black Warriors during my business trip to Phoenix AZ back in February. The pencils have been lying around in their packaging while I have been test driving the Ticonderoga.

A 10-Pack of Mirado Black Warriors

Like the Ticonderogas, they were purchased at the nearby Walmart. At $1.77 (excluding local taxes), they come out to a whopping $0.18 per pencil when rounded up to the nearest cent. That’s almost a nickel more per pencil than the Ticonderoga. So what do I get for a nickel more? At first glance I seem to get American manufacturing and pre-sharpened tips. Couple that with a cool sounding name like Black Warrior, and you would think that you have the equivalent of a ninja samurai for a pencil. You’re ready for any task as long as you have your Black Warrior handy.

Actually, for those who don’t know (and this was news to me), the Black Warrior was actually a Confederate schooner. I’m not exactly a boat enthusiast. Honestly, I prefer to keep my feet planted on something solid. Civil war buffs may get a kick out of owning something that relates to American history but civil rights activists may object to something that could in some manner (however thinly) be related to the oppression of people. Unfortunately, I don’t know more about how the pencil got it’s name but it would be interesting to know.

While the Ticonderoga is claimed to be the world’s best pencil, the Black Warrior say it is the world’s smoothest – and Newell Rubbermaid guarantees it.


If you think this is just a marketing slogan then read this text that is located on the back of packaging.

The Guarentee

It’s a broad and bold claim to make and I wonder how many people actually disagree with them on the statement who then go ahead and file a claim to get their money back. You’d probably pay more in return postage than the cost of the pencils themselves.

Take out the ten pencils and line them up. Each has a very nice and smooth coat of lacquer in a matte finish. The casing is round so the pencils roll very easily. In fact, you wouldn’t believe how hard it was to line them up for the shot below.

All Lined Up Like an Army of Little Warriors

I have to confess that I cheated a bit and put a pencil sharpener (not shown) in the bottom left hand corner to keep the pencils together. Only one pencil ended up being warped and only by a little bit.

A Slightly Warped Warrior

Statistically speaking, this equates to a one in ten chance of having a warped pencil. In other words, 10% of Black Warriors around the world could be warped. Compare this to the one in twenty four chance of getting a warped Ticonderoga which would equate to an approximate 4.2% of all Ticonderogas being warped. That’s quite a jump. Obviously, for this statistic to have more meaning (and a better one) the sample size should be greater – like 100 or even more.

As mentioned earlier, each pencil is pre -sharpened so you should never see overflowing lacquer at the end like the Ticonderoga. You also won’t see if the leads are centered in the wood casing either. It is interesting to wonder what is cheaper: making a clean unsharpened pencil end or a sloppy unsharpened end and then sharpening it. Honestly, I can’t think that having the ends pre-sharpened is a deal maker or breaker for the consumer. I would think that many people who buy wooden pencils actually enjoy sharpening them. It enhances the ownership and builds a little attachment. Take a look at this detailed shot.

Pre-Sharpened Black Warrior Ends

The ends are not sharpened by any sort of rotating blades. It looks like the pencils are fed through a hole with ever decreasing diameter. This process shaves away the wood to a decreasing point, exposing the lead, and shaving the lead to a decreasing point as well. All of the points end in a somewhat dull looking tip but this rather smart of Newell Rubbermaid. It helps keep the point in tact during shipment. Additionally, you can assured that none of the pencil material was wasted. Only the bare minimum amount of material was removed. Just look at those grooves!

The Black Warrior is only slightly shorter in overall length than the Ticonderoga. Specifically, it is 0.093″ shorter. Here is a shot of the end of both pencils when they are stood up side by side. I couldn’t effectively capture the whole length of pencil in the picture. That would be one long JPG!

Black Warrior and Ticonderoga Side by Side

The lacquer finish is even duller than what is found on the Ticonderoga and it feels a bit rougher. That is not to say it feels course as sand. On some pencils it is possible to see the seam running up the length of the casing. This seems to indicate that the finish is very thin. Other pencils had rough surfaces and the thin lacquer did not cover it at all. Perhaps the roughness came from the wood being cut poorly or perhaps it came from some impact after the lacquer dried. Either way, it was present and easy to see.

Rough Surfaces

Continuing upward, we run into our first stamping and it boldly proclaims where the pencil was made.

Made in the USA

One word: crunch! That looks like a painfully strong stamping. Unlike the Ticonderoga, this pencil is round so it cannot accommodate a head-on stamping unless the stamping is contoured. It should be a rolled stamping. Then again, maybe this a rolled stamping just done very poorly. Either way, it’s not very impressive and it looks ugly. Unfortunately, the other stampings aren’t any better.

We finally end our progression upward at the ferrule where more disappointment awaits us. If Dixon crimped their ferrules on a wet, freshly lacquered pencil then Newell Rubbermaid did the exact opposite. The ferrule must have been pressed onto the pencil after the lacquer had cured. Look at how the ferrule digs into the lacquer and gets underneath it. I wouldn’t think that a ferrule needs to double up as a burrowing squirrel.

A Burrowing Ferrule

It is interesting to note that the ferrule is in some ways very similar and very different to the Ticonderogas. A colored band appears in the center and there appears to be an all-around crimping if you could imagine the circumscribing grooves to come from a machine. However, the biggest different lies in the circular metal punchings above and below the band that also go around the pencil. There are six punches on each side of the red band to make a total of 12. None of the punches are equally spaced apart although they are consistently spaced between the top and bottom sets. If a set of two punches are too close together up above then you see the same down below.

The erasers seem shorter than what is found on the Ticonderogas and they are covered with some sort of white power. Perhaps this is talc. I don’t know. It does rub off easily onto your fingers.

Papermate’s website offers some detailed information on the Black Warrior but a lot of it seems like fluff. I can understand what it means for the casing to be made of incensed cedar, have a round shape, and contain ceramic waxed lead but what does “executive upscale styling” mean? So far I have seen nothing that would make me think this pencil graces the desks of CEOs and high level politicians. “Premium rubber eraser” can mean a lot of things too. I thought it was interesting that the Black Warrior shown on Papermate’s website does not match the appearance of the examples I bought at Walmart.

Black Warrior from Papermate’s Website

The sharpened end is nothing like the pre-sharpened end found on my Black Warriors. None of the stamping matches either. Where are the little hearts at the top of the pencil?

So how does it write? Well, I can’t exactly say that I am impressed. It does feel harder than the Ticonderoga and it also feels rougher. The perceived additional hardness is verified by the crumbling lead. Increased hardness almost always leads to something being more brittle.

Brittle Lead

The roughness likens itself to the experience of running the tip of a screwdriver across a piece of wood. There is a lot of friction here that was not felt when using the Ticonderoga. Perhaps you could say that the lead feels like it has sand in it or larger clumps of clay. The impressions on the paper are ever so slightly darker than the Ticonderoga but not by much. You have to stare at it for a while. Compare the Black Warrior impressions on the left to the Ticonderoga impressions on the right.

Black Warrior vs. Ticonderoga Impressions

The Black Warrior sharpens well with the right sharpener. My Berol gives the pencil a good sharp tip and the wood has good adhesion to the lead. However, the Faber Castell results in a disaster. The tip crumbles and breaks. This is another sign of brittle lead. You can compare the sharpening of the Berol (right) to the Faber Castell (left).

The Brittle Tip of the Black Warrior

The eraser is a disaster. Compared to the soft latex free eraser on the Ticonderoga, the rubber eraser on the Black Warrior feels like it was carved out of stone. It is very abrasive, sensitive to lead staining, and leaves a lot of residue behind. Even worse, the erasure is incomplete and sometime it can be smudged. I drew a line with the Black Warrior and Ticonderoga and then used each of the pencil’s erasers to remove the impression. Compare the performance of the Black Warrior eraser (left) to the Ticonderoga (right).

Black Warrior Eraser vs. Ticonderoga Eraser

I darkened three areas and the areas were to receive a single pass, a double pass, and a multiple pass of the eraser respectively. The Black Warrior eraser simply could not work through that quantity of lead on the paper. It got saturated and the eraser turned black after one single pass.

A Blackened Black Warrior Eraser

After that, the eraser slid on all subsequent passes. The lead simply lubricated the eraser and I’m running oil on oil here. No erasing is possible until the eraser is cleaned. Here are the three darkened areas in my notebook.

Black Warrior Eraser Test

Now I had to go back to the Ticonderoga and repeat the experiment. What a delight to see the Ticonderoga tackle the task with ease.

Dixon Ticonderoga Eraser Test

Again, I don’t know how any of these features and performance examples can lead anyone to think that this pencil has “upscale executive styling”. My initial impressions leads me to believe that this is poorly crafted pencil. Someone at the factory either doesn’t know or doesn’t care to make a good pencil. It’s as if someone tried to make something like this!

In my next post, I will try to dissect the Black Warrior and see what’s “inside”. Stay tuned!

Final Thoughts on the Dixon Ticonderoga – Part IV

Posted in Reviews on March 26, 2008 by pencilgrinder

OK, so I will admit that I may have been a bit too intense in my examination and review of the Dixon Ticonderoga. After all, this is just a simple pencil, right? Well, yes and no. It’s not anything like analyzing plane wreckage and decoding the black box recording device but we can certainly learn a lot about materials and manufacturing in general from this. Just how far will a manufacturer compromise on process, consistency, and quality in order to produce an acceptable product for the intended market? The Ticonderoga gave a pretty good answer to that. Could the Ticonderoga been made better? Certainly, but it also could have been made worse.

The Ticonderoga is a decent pencil despite all the physical shortcomings that I found. Sharpen it and it will write. Turn it around and rub the other end on paper with markings on it and the markings will disappear. It holds its point for a reasonable amount of time and the eraser is superb. Who can complain about that? How many times have we drawn a line and felt something like sand rub against the paper? Think of the erasers that shred paper and smear the markings instead of gliding on the paper and remove the markings. The Ticonderoga works as advertised and would serve well as an office work horse, an artist’s sketching instrument, or a student’s tool in learning.

Yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I can’t help but wonder if it could have been better. When I look at the crimped ferrule and the contrasting green and yellow color scheme I realize that it’s all for show. The vertical crimp markings are nothing more than decorations. Gone is the idea that the shape and structure of the ferrule gives strength. Now all I can think about is the uneven crimping pressures, ooey-gooey lacquer oozing out, and off-axis leads (if not warped pencils). We buy so many things in life that come short of expectations only to let it all go because it’s disposable: the $500 commuter car for school, the $0.99 hammer at the discount store, and the $9 shoes from Walmart. Society has learned to accept mediocrity. It certainly doesn’t bring life to halt and our wealth and access to more consumables distracts us from thinking about it.

Consider the price of the Ticonderoga. Pricing helps position a product. Rolex watches can cost several thousands of dollars. Besides being a timepiece, it is a piece of decorative jewelry. Does it really cost several thousands to make a Rolex? No, of course not, but those several thousands of dollars spent puts the watch into a league of it’s own. You pay for the exclusivity, the experience of ownership, and the service you should receive from the jeweler and Rolex. In all reality, you are buying a watch that will never keep time very well and is rather fragile. So how does this relate to the Ticonderoga? Compare it to the Rolex. Does the Ticonderoga offer something more than the generic Asian pencils flooding the office supply stores? Is there some jump in quality or appreciation in ownership experience? Do I feel any more exclusive or inspired by using the Ticonderoga? Unfortunately, my answer is no. Granted, $3.44 is not the same as $3,440.00 but the idea should translate. That is what Dixon is counting on.

I wanted this.


But I got this.


I wish the Ticonderoga could have been better. I wish I could hold the Ticonderoga as a token of American heritage and say, “Look, here is an American pencil. Like all things American, it is better than anything in the world.” But I can’t say that. All I can say is, “Look, here is an American pencil! Like many things American, it has been outsourced and denigrated into a cheap commodity.” It may sound like American arrogance but which nation isn’t proud of its identity and presence? Who wants to see their national icons fall to the wayside? I hear rumblings that Ticonderoga still produces an American made pencil for export only. If it is true then it is a great irony that there are “Made in USA” pencils being sold all around the world except here where they are made. Does the world really have more faith in American products than Americans do?

I have been using the Ticonderoga since I purchased back in mid February during a business trip to Phoenix, AZ. Since that time, I have yet to finish going through one pencil. I haven’t broken the lead yet and there’s plenty of eraser left. The pencil has been with me through meetings, brain storming sessions, and many drafts of power plant equipment. After all this usage and after this review, I would summarize the Ticonderoga with one word: wanting.

One very good thing that came out of this review was the setting up of a standard. Now I have something to compare my other pencils to. Hopefully I can develop a fuller scale and understanding in grading pencils. I think my future reviews will be shorter too since I laid down a lot of my foundations while examining the Ticonderoga.

So now what do I do with all these left over pencils? Do I clump them together and hide them in a little box like new found porn? I don’t go through pencils fast enough to warrant keeping so many on hand. Probably the best thing I can do is stash them away along with any other excess pencils I get and simply donate them to the local school at the start of year.

Disecting the Dixon Ticonderoga – Part III

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on March 20, 2008 by pencilgrinder

Our journey into the Dixon Ticonderoga continues. Now I plan to take it apart.


That’s right. It’s not something that anyone normally does. I mean, even automotive magazines that review new cars don’t take the engines apart to see what’s inside. That’s a shame in my mind though. Imagine how different the review would be and what their recommendation would be! So, let’s rip these pencils apart and see all things that Dixon never wanted us to see.

We start first by cutting off the ferrule and eraser from the pencil. The goal here will be to isolate the eraser from the ferrule from the pencil. That means we need to cut at least three pencils. Here goes.

Cutting the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

Cutting three at a time is difficult due to the required grip on the pencils and cutting one at a time is inefficient. So lets cut two to begin with. Now we have four little pieces.

Four little pieces

First, let’s examine what’s under the crimp in the ferrule. We’ll carve out the eraser and peel the ferrule off by making a small slit and pulling on it.

Underneath the ferrule crimp

Now that’s a bit of a surprise! If you look closely at the picture above, I have photographed all six sides of the wood casing that was under the crimp. Some of the lacquer chipped off during the isolation process but the crimping indentation is still obvious. Sides 1 and 2 show the vertical crimping indents seen on the outside of the green and yellow ferrule. There is also a wide section of seemingly polished/shiny lacquer and a bit of a step up to the vertical bands. This looks good so far. You can also trace the rotation between sides 1 and 2 by following the bit of exposed wood that looks like somewhat like a backward letter L. The casing fragment was rotated right to left.

The vertical bands now disappear from side 3 and the step that lead to the vertical bands is missing as well. This continues on all the way to side 6. Also notice that the wide band below where the vertical bands were changes. It is no longer smooth and shiny. I would guess the smoothness and shininess comes from the compression of the lacquer and the rolling pressure from the machinery during the crimping process. This to me implies that there is uneven pressure during this process. I repeated this with the other cut pencil and found the same features to a lesser degree. Frankly, I am extremely disappointed at this. I am convinced that Dixon is consistently inconsistent in their crimping process.

Now let’s isolate the ferrule from the eraser and from the wood. I did this by drilling through the wood and the eraser and by using the drill as a milling machine. Just stroke the ferrule back and forth across the drill bit as the drill bit spins. After that, I simply picked away at the thin bits of wood and eraser before slicing the ferrule open and spreading it out. Another surprise showed itself here!

Exposed ferrule of the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

The little bits of wood, lacquer, and eraser are strongly bonded to the ferrule! I can only guess that the lacquer was not completely dry when the eraser and ferrule were crimped on. The lacquer squeezed out where it could before it finally dried and acted like a glue between all three pieces. This would allow Dixon to get away with the poor crimping to the wood casing. I suppose from a manufacturing engineers point of view this is OK because almost nobody would notice it, it gives a strong bond between the pencil, ferrule, and eraser, and it takes the pressure off of having a uniform crimp. Who knows if one bright engineer, caught in a bind, was making up for another?

Next, let’s isolate the eraser from the ferrule and the wood.

Two erasers from the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

The crimping indents are clearly visible on both erasers shown above. It is not easy to see on the left hand sample but some eraser is missing because it is stuck on the ferrule. I apologize for the blurry pictures. The camera seems to have focused better on the right hand side. I am actually quite impressed with the performance of the erasers. As I mentioned in my last post, the eraser leave little residue, work gently, and remove the markings very well. So what is the inside of the eraser like?

The Inside of the Dixon Ticonderoga Eraser

Cut in half twice, the erasers showed a uniform texture with no clumps, harsh bits, or air pockets. It was very soft and cut very smoothly. Imagine cutting soft butter with a warm sharp knife.

In the end, I cut more than three pencils. I went through five in all. Dissecting a pencil is not as easy as you may think. After grinding through my first one, I saw how I could do it better.

My next move is to crack the pencil case open. This is actually easier than you’d think. Maybe I just got lucky. Simply put one end of the end into a vise with the wood case seam being pressed against the vise jaws. Slowly and carefully close the vise and crush it. The two halves will begin to separate because they begin to bulge outward. Once the separation has begun, take the pencil out and carefully peel the two halves apart. You can slip your finger nail between the two halves on one side and just slowly crack it open. Repeat for the other side. You should get something like this.

The Insides of the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB Casing

Even from the small picture above, you can begin to see one major issue with the casing. It isn’t centered! In the bottom half of the picture, you can see the groove where the lead would sit. There is more wood below the groove than above it. Take a closer look.

Misaligned Lead Groove in the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

At least the alignment is consistent along the length of the casing. A crooked groove would have been even worse. It is also interesting to see how much (or how little) glue is used to hold the wood and lead together. Follow the black line in the groove. This is where the outer layer of the lead seems to have stuck to the wood when the casing was being split in half.

Glue in the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB Casing

Now let’s try to remove the lacquer from the wood. There are two ways to do this. First, you can sand it. Sanding the lacquer off gives an exceptional smooth pencil and it feels wonderful to hold. There’s nothing like a holding a smooth piece of wood! The wood has a gentle grain and does not show any defects like knots or splits.

Grain of the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

The problem with sanding is that is can potentially remove any minor defect in the wood that was covered up by the lacquer. This brings up the second way to remove the lacquer and that is by a chemical process. It sounds easy but it’s actually quite hard to do. This is a wonderful testament to the durability of the lacquer. I spent a lot of time with a paper towel and nail polish remover trying to get the lacquer off. Most of it did come off but some residue remained, especially in the grain of the wood. I was actually impressed with how hard it was to remove.

The Naked Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

Take a look at the extreme close-up shot below. There are two main features to observe. First, you can see the seam from the two halves of the wood. Look for a faint horizontal line across the middle of the frame. Second, you can also see the wood grain and lacquer residue. The residue allows us to see the roughness of the wood. Could this roughness be an indication of how well the casing is cut and shaped? You can be fast or smooth – but rarely both.

Rough grain on a Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

If Dixon knows that most defects will be hidden under the thick lacquer then just how smooth should the cut be? This makes me wonder about all the other “defects” I found. Granted, I was really picky – more picky than the average consumer of Dixon pencils. As always, I like to make my analogies to automobiles. If a weld is to be made in an area that a consumer will not see then how likely is it that the manufacturer will try to smooth that area? Probably none. Why bother? A rough looking weld is not always a poor weld. In fact, it could be even strong due to the excess material. I’m sure Dixon’s line of thinking was not too far from this. Who, in their right mind, would rip apart a ferrule or crack a pencil in two? Probably me and one other person somewhere else on the planet…

Now we can finally wrap up the review of the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB! Stay tuned for the conclusion in Part IV!

Measuring the Dixon Ticonderoga – Part II

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2008 by pencilgrinder

Now I am ready to really start getting into the Dixon Ticonderoga. I want to know not only how well the Dixon looks and works but how well it is built and also how well is Dixon’s manufacturing process under control. Can I expect the same quality over and over again? Or did I have a fluke with my purchase? Could it have been better? Or could it have been worse? One way to see if a manufacturing process is under control is to measure the final product and see the ranges of measurements. Being small, physical, and simple, a pencil is an ideal object to measure. I will be using a set of generic digital calipers and a small digital scale.

I pulled ten pencils from the box of 24. These ten are actually pictured in the last post. No consideration was given to any one pencil. I just counted them off and set them aside.

First, let’s look at the weight. That’s easy.

Weighing the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

Each of the Ticonderogas weighed in at 5 grams. In theory, all 10 should weight 50 grams. My scale gave a reading of 49 grams when I weighed all of them. Being only one gram off is excellent. This could be due to rounding when each individual pencil was weighed. Perhaps each pencil actually weighed 4.9 grams instead. Eventually that 0.1 gram from each pencil added up to the one missing gram. Excellent! So far, so good!

Now it is time to measure the pencils.

Measuring the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

This actually takes some time but it goes quickly. First, we need some definitions of the measurements I took.

1) Pencil height – lay the pencil down on one of its hexagonal sides and measure the height. It’s almost like measuring the diameter but diameter implies something to do with a circle. This pencil is not circular by the strictest definition.

2) Ferrule diameter around the crimp – self explanatory.

3) Ferrule length – self explanatory.

4) Eraser diameter – self explanatory.

5) Eraser length – self explanatory.

6) Length of pencil from unsharpened bottom to “D” in the stamping of “Dixon”, specifically the left vertical edge of the letter “D”

7) Length of pencil from bottom of ferrule to “D” in the stamping of “Dixon, specifically the left vertical edge of the letter “D”

Here is a picture of a Dixon with all the measurements marked.

Schematic of measurements of the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

It’s probably pretty obvious that I am not a mechanical engineer by education or trade so you have to forgive me a bit for my crude markings. Now, here is a summary of the ranges of each measurement above.

1) 0.264″ to 0.269″ giving a range of 0.005″ and an average of 0.267″

2) 0.294″ to 0.299″ giving a range of 0.005″ and an average of 0.296″

3) 0.559″ to 0.568″ giving a range of 0.009″ and an average of 0.563″

4) 0.255″ to 0.262″ giving a range of 0.007″ and an average of 0.260″

5) 0.223″ to 0.265″ giving a range of 0.042″ and an average of 0.246″

6) 3.445″ to 3.526″ giving a range of 0.081″ and an average of 3.503″

7) 3.172″ to 3.222″ giving a range of 0.050″ and an average of 3.187″

Here is a PDF with all of my raw data.

Measurements of the Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB Pencil

I would like to stop here and dwell a little on what these measurements represent because I believe that they are really incredible. Frankly, I was very surprised at the consistency of the measurements. Look at the pencil height. There is a range of 0.005″ between the smallest and largest numbers. That is an extremely tight range and this includes the cutting and lacquering processes! Consider this: a sheet of paper is about 0.003″ to 0.005″ thick!

Measuring a sheet of paper

A human hair is somewhere around 0.005″ thick as well. I’m a guy so mine is pretty thin. Ask a supermodel who treats their hair like original Biblical manuscripts and you’ll get a thicker value.

Hair thickness

This tight range is something that is typically found in circuit boards and engines. I would never expect to see something like this in a pencil. Even the ferrule length and diameter only varied by 0.005″ and 0.009″. Consider that these ferrules are crimped at high speeds with everything in motion. The eraser diameter range of 0.007″ reflects a good molding process. The measurements and ranges of the stamping are also good considering that this is a high impact and high speed process.

Of course, these measurements are not definitive, are they? First, none of my instruments were calibrated and certified by any third party. I picked them up for cheap at outlets. At the very least, to be scientifically correct, I should have used three of each instrument to measure some constant and known value. But this brings up the second point. I only measured everything once! Ideally, I should have measured everything at least three times. This would have given me more confidence. But wait, there is more! I’m the only one doing the measurements. There should be a second person running everything in parallel to eliminate operator error in using the tools and making the measurements.

So it is possible to shoot some holes in my numbers.

That asides, I think these measurements, even at this amateur level, give a good indication that Dixon’s manufacturing process is stable and under control. Granted, there were some defects that slipped through as I saw in my first post but none of them were really show stoppers. Perhaps the warped pencil could be called into question but it would still be considered fully functional.

I thought it was important to lay down these thoughts as a basis moving forward. These same ideas can also be applied to other things besides pencils. It can be applied anything that is manufactured. I love to pick on cars so I have to mention them in relation to the above. Have you ever checked the gap on each side of the hood or trunk? That’s an easy one to check. Just use your pinky finger. That is a great test on a used car to see if it was wrecked some time in the past and went through a body shop. Same can be done with door frames and windows – in a car or in a house!

The Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB – Part 1

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on March 1, 2008 by pencilgrinder

A collection of brand new black Dixon Ticonderogas #2HB

The Dixon Ticonderoga is a well known pencil. Who doesn’t remember picking up one of these pencils during their school years and scribbling down an answer to a math problem or circling the correct word to complete a sentence? Their yellow and green contrasting colors made them stand out against other brands. I remember thinking just how cool that contrast was. Only a mechanical pencil could top a Ticonderoga.

A lot has changed since those days and the Ticonderoga is no exception. Now the famous pencil is made outside the US, comes in a new triangular shape for those who prefer it, and in some cases is painted black. Fear not though! According to Dixon’s website, the famously recognizable yellow pencil is still available. Even when painted black, the Ticonderoga still stands out from its competitors. Dixon smartly kept the green color scheme on their plastic packaging. What ever happened to the paper cartons? I remember a picture of an American Minute Man marching on the packaging and I thought that was so cool too! As an immigrant, it helped me identify with being an American kid.

I picked up a pack of 24 black Ticonderogas from Walmart. At $3.44 (excluding local taxes), the unit price comes out to slightly more then $0.14 per pencil. The pencils are also available in more and less counts that decreases and increases the unit price. I couldn’t imagine buying a pack of 48 and 6 didn’t seem like enough for my trials. The pencils are also widely available at Office Depot and Staples although I don’t remember the prices that I saw there. Of course, I’m sure someone sells these online as well.

First impressions. The history and background of the Dixon Ticonderoga is of no secret to anyone and it is well documented on Dixon’s own website and on Wikipedia. I will not go into it here as I would simply be repeating what has already been stated over and over again. Suffice it to say that an Italian company called Fila owns the American brand and company Dixon and manufactures it’s signature Ticonderoga model in Mexico among other places. Who says NAFTA doesn’t work? Just ask Mexico.

Dixon tries to show that their pencil is a premium product. They made a point to state, before all other features, that the pencil is made of cedar (vs. who knows what other kind of wood). Small symbols on the packaging state that the wood is made from sustained forests and that the pencil is non-toxic. People who suffer from latex allergies will be pleased to know that the erase is (according the same packaging) latex-free. So not only are they appealing to those who have used their product in the past through their smart color scheme but they appeal to environmentalists in stating the wood is from sustained growth forests which are responsibly managed and to latex allergy sufferers who would otherwise avoid the product. Dixon wants to make sure that everyone can own a Ticonderoga. No excuses!

I was surprised by the fruity smell coming out of the packaging once I opened it. It seems like it was emanating from the latex free erasers. I always remembered pencils smelling woody and dirty. The scent fades pretty quick in the open air though. Pity. The black lacquer has a smooth matte finish which feels comfortable to the touch. Almost none of the grain is visible which implies that the finish is very thick and the wood case is sanded (or really smoothly cut) before application. There are no major splotches or runs in the coating and it looks uniform. I noticed that some of the lacquer flakes off after handling the pencils. My desk has a black surface so I lined it some sheets of white paper for better contrast. After a while, the paper was covered in little black flakes. My hands also had some black flakes stuck to them. I checked the pencils to see where the flakes came from but it wasn’t very obvious. The finish still seemed smooth and consistent. Perhaps the flakes are coming from the ends of the pencils? Wait… what?

Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB ends

One disappointment comes from quickly glancing at the unsharpened ends. There is plenty of lacquer spilling over. I want to say that it looks sloppy. However, for the great majority of users this probably leaves no negative impression. After all, it will disappear after the first sharpening. I also understand how difficult it can be to create a clean cut (stay tuned for my next post on this). Some manufacturers can do this so I can’t say it’s impossible with modern machinery. Dixon is trying to keep costs down by removing a step in the manufacturing process that would otherwise give a clean appearance at the end of the pencil. Cosmetic ding #1.

Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB end close-up

Taking a closer look at the ends of the pencils, I see that the lead is not always centered in the wood casing. I’m not sure if this is just a warped lead or an uneven cut in the case. Either way, something is not right. Would this have an impact on the structural integrity of the lead? Is the lead more likely to break now? I will set this pencil aside for now. Quality ding #1.

Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB stamping close-up

The silver stamping is, for the most part, clear and centered on a flat side of the hexagonal shape. In some cases, the stamping looks smudged or slightly cropped at the top or bottom of the text. Rub hard enough and it will come off. Again, for most, this is a “don’t care” but for the careful eye it is another cosmetic deficiency. Cosmetic ding #2

Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB ferrule close-up

The ferrules are nicely and evenly crimped. There is no noticeable gap between the ferrule and pencil and between the ferrule and eraser. None of the ferrules or erasers wobble. I appreciate the 360 degree crimping because it seems to give the ferrule it’s strong grip to both the pencil and the eraser. One of the pencils showed some air bubbles and debris that were trapped under the yellow paint on the otherwise green (seemingly) anodized ferrule. Perhaps this is an indication of poor process control. Again, we are drawn to the same question, would the masses even notice or care about this? Cosmetic ding #3.

Blemished ferrule on a Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

I set four of the pencils aside to take to work. To my surprise, one of them was warped! I would not have noticed this except for when I tried to playfully roll it down my paper pad. This is very unexpected, especially from a Dixon. This is another pencil to set aside for further examination. Fortunately, the other 23 pencils seem straight. Quality ding #2.

A warped Dixon Triconderoga #2HB

I decided to sharpen two of these pencils. One was sharpened in an old Berol Chicago APSCO Sharpener and the other was sharpened with a brand new German made Faber Castell multi dimensional sharpener. I have seen the Faber Castell model re-branded to other names so I’m not sure who the original manufacturer is. It is made in Germany according to text found on the packaging, on the casing, and on the blades. I found that the wood chipped off in both pencils and lost contact to the lead in one spot. It seems to be the same spot on both pencils so I can’t say that it is caused by a specific sharpener. Otherwise, one would have it and one wouldn’t. Upon closer inspection, the lead still appears solid and secure. It’s an issue more of cosmetics than structural integrity but it can be noticed by those who look for it – and you don’t need to look hard. Cosmetic ding #4.

Two sharpened Dixon Ticonderogas #2HB

I bought a nice big hardbound notebook made by Strathmore. They claim it is a sketchbook but I really can’t tell you what that means. Does that mean that the paper fibers are finer? The paper is very white, acid free, and comes in a 60 lbs. weight. I figure it would be nice to have something like this to document all of my writing experiments. An artist I am not so don’t expect anything more than scribbles and stick figures here!

Writing sample from a Dixon Ticonderoga #2HB

Writing with the pencil is fun. It feel slender and well balanced. The lines are decently dark for a #2HB and the feedback is soft and smooth. In my short writing time with this pencil so far I did not ever feel any sort of sand or grit in the lead as I do with the cheap Chinese pencils here at work. The point seems to hold for quite some time before you would think of resharpening it.

I was surprised at how difficult it is to photograph a close up of the markings. My camera, even in macro mode, does not allow very close ranges. I used a very small aperture for a pinhole camera effect. This would decrease my focus distance but only for a small spot. Macro photography requires a lot of light so that is why the pictures are a little dark.

The latex free eraser works nicely.

The black latex free eraser works well and leaves little residue. All of the markings were neatly picked up off the paper leaving only a dim indent on the paper from the pencil. Coloring the eraser black was a good move by Dixon. Not only does it match the general color scheme but it hides any graphite smudges that would otherwise be picked up by a traditionally red eraser. The soft eraser does not feel abrasive during use and a close examination of the paper after use verifies this.

I have only briefly touched upon the three characteristics of materials, manufacturing, and process. There is still so much more. If this were a car, we have only begun our test drive by sitting in the seat and driving around the neighborhood. Now it is time to look under the hood and under the car itself to see what we can see! Stay tuned!

I got me some pencils!

Posted in Shopping with tags , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2008 by pencilgrinder

One of the joys of collecting pencils is that it is easy and cheap to do. It’s not like they are sold exclusively in specialty or online stores (although those are not sources that should be excluded). Just go down to the local Walmart and head straight for the school or home office supplies aisle. Walmart, being what it is, is probably one of the cheapest places to check out. This is exactly what I did during a recent business trip to Phoenix, Arizona. I had plenty of time to kill in the evenings and walking to Walmart was one way to do it.

I was actually very surprised to see the selection of pencils available at Walmart. There were extremely inexpensive Asian made pencils of a non-recognizable brand, Dixons, Mirados, and Paper Mates among others. I decided to “splurge” and for around $8 I got a pack of Dixon Ticonderogas, Mirado Black Warriors, Paper Mate American Classics, and Mega USA Golds. Now I have 70 pencils in my possession. In normal circumstances, this would be a life time supply of pencils. Not in this case. Here, quantity gives me the freedom to test for consistency! Examining the characteristics of one pencil is a somewhat limiting but when I have 24 pencils then I can increase my sample size to 10 and still have room left over.

This should be fun. Let’s see what we can ascertain from our first pack of pencils. Stay tuned!

So what is it about a pencil then??

Posted in Philosophies with tags , , , , , on February 22, 2008 by pencilgrinder

Some could argue that the pencil has been rendered obsolete. It has been superseded by the pen and the computer. At best, it is a product suited for a niche market – children, artists, and carpenters. Even then, for the most part, the wooden pencil would give way to the all mighty and superior mechanical pencil. Like records and cassettes, it’s a technology that will never disappear entirely. Collecting pencils could almost been seen as trying to collect old used metal bottle caps. What’s the point? They’re useless. It’s not worth the effort to crimp it back onto the bottle.

Pencils hold a special place in human history. It has been one of the most influential instruments of all times. Novels, sketches, and drafting were all done in pencil long before the computer, typewriter, and ball point pen came around. Pencils were once a very carefully crafted tool. Each one was made by hand, from cutting the wood to shaping the lead. Pencils were not the only writing implements available during the course of time but it is one of the few that has survived right into modern times. Think about the feather, chalk, and stick markings on a clay tablet. There has to be something very attractive about a pencil in its basic use as a tool for it to still be in use today.

I believe that there are three elements that define the attraction between a person and any object: materials, manufacturing, and perception. By mastering these three elements, the Japanese, for example, were able to take the lead in many industries that were traditionally owned by America. Automobiles are a great example because it’s something that we can all relate to. Think back to the 70s and 80s. Japanese cars used superb materials and the manufacturing processes and their capabilities were superior to that of their American counterparts. This resulted in the Japanese building a highly reliable product with a low maintenance requirement and long product life. They were also more fuel efficient, ran cleaner, and stood up to wear and tear longer. It was a perfect match for a time (like today) of high gas prices. Over the years, a perception built up that Japanese cars are better than the American built equivalents. Statements such as, “They don’t break down as much” and “They use less gas” became synonymous with makes such as Toyota, Honda, and Subaru. Japanese manufacturers made you want to have their car.

Don’t believe me? Ok, which would you rather buy if you had a choice: a 1985 Ford Escort or a 1985 Nissan Sentra? Would you rather buy a 1995 Toyota Camry or a 1995 Chrysler LeBaron?

It took the Americans a while to figure this out and get their act together. Fast forward to the present day and we see American cars have just as good (if not better in some cases) of a record as Japanese cars. Unfortunately, American cars still suffer from a slight amount of poor perception. There is still a lingering doubt about their reliability and durability. The US automakers realize this and they try hard to convince people that their product is superior. Sometimes they invoke national pride. They also invoke the joyous feeling of driving a car styled after a classic design that hearkens back to a time when the American product was perceived as superior.

The same three elements can be applied to a pencil, especially a wooden one. Wood is a fantastic material to build things with. It is easy to shape, inexpensive, and plentiful. Wood is strong, flexible, and nontoxic. I’ve never seen a pencil crumble to pieces on its own accord. Have you? With proper management, it is one of the few renewable sources of energy and material that doesn’t release any greenhouse gases on it’s own. The material is predictable. It can be reliably and consistently processed.

Whether done by hand or facilitated by a machine, the manufacturing process is simple, elegant, and well matched to the material. There’s not much that can go wrong with a wooden pencil if the process is under control. Has a pencil ever been found defective because it wasn’t built right? There are probably some but when you consider the number of pencils made world wide it’s a very small number. It’s like having only two Toyota’s in the world ever breaking down. Have you ever bought a pencil with missing lead? I have yet to see that. The best part about the process, when using modern machinery, is that it can be quick! According to one of Staedler’s promotional videos, over 1.7 million pencils leave their factories every day! Do the math and you will find that Staedler alone produces over 620 million pencils every year! The Chinese dwarf this by producing nearly 9.8 trillion pencils in 2004 according to the Timberlines blog.

Perception. Indeed, the feel of a pencil gliding along a piece of paper is like none other. It is smooth with just enough friction to offer some feedback of a mark being left. Pencils are generally very thin unlike many modern bulky pens. This allows the fingers to better wrap around the pencil. The fingers are closer together, like a fist, and this gives better control. Wooden pencils offer a distinctive feel compared to the hard plastic pen. The wood is compliant in comparison to plastic and allows the pencil to shift slightly as it is being used to write. Wood can absorb the sweat coming off of the skin. Plastic cannot do this so the sweat lingers and becomes like glue. A plastic pen simply sticks to the skin.

The impression created on the paper by a pencil is also like none other. Ink pens can be imitated by modern day printers, quills, and in some cases, even markers. How often do we try to smudge a signature with water or saliva to see if it is real or simply a print? A pencil’s mark is distinctive and irreproducible except by the pencil itself. In this digital age, the wooden pencil also remind us of something old fashioned. Open a box of new pencils and take in that scent! It brings back a sense of nostalgia. Who can forget the feeling of picking up a pencil in grade school and scratching out their first sentences and simple equations? We remember the joy of a freshly sharpened pencil and the frustrations of running them to little nubs. There’s almost something of a romance there. Like your first love, you never forget about it. Compare this experience with computers in the digital age. Do you get goosebumps thinking about the first web page you accessed or the first cell phone you ever used?

I have repeatedly mentioned wooden pencils here and purposefully left out mechanical pencils. A mechanical pencil to me is like a pencil trying to be a pen. It’s still a pencil because it uses lead instead of ink but the main material has changed from wood to plastic. Wood is one of the defining materials of a pencil and it is the material that holds the attraction. Although a mechanical pencil has it’s place in between a wooden pencil and a pen, it does not hold an attraction to me – at least not yet. I see it as something with an identity crisis. It needs to decide whether it wants to be a pencil or a pen because it cannot be both. This isn’t meant as a slam against mechanical pencil collectors. God bless them where ever they are. However, for myself, I will stick with wooden pencils.

Truthfully, pencils can been in an interesting light. However, it’s all a matter of taste, isn’t it? Like a sense of humor, it’s different in everyone. As long as it remains fun, painless, and interesting then it’s full steam ahead.

So let’s see where this thing goes.

The beginning of a new hobby…

Posted in Philosophies with tags , , on February 18, 2008 by pencilgrinder

I’ve recently been bitten by the pencil collecting bug and I thought I would document my journey down this new hobby. It’s an odd thing to collect, isn’t it? How many other people do you know collect pencils? Most people collect items of a limited release or limited quantity but pencils are commodities! From the outside, it’s almost like collecting paper clips. What distinguishes one paper clip from another? For the most part, nothing really. I haven’t heard of anyone auctioning off a paper clip at Christy’s and I certainly haven’t had anyone come up to me and tell me what a fine paper clip I’m holding as I clip some paper together. Maybe at one time a paper clip was kind of cool – like when it was first invented and marketed. It was a neat invention that solved a problem. Someone had to dream it up for the first time. Now there’s hardly anything interesting about them anymore except for all the weird things people come up to do with them or to them.

Despite the banality of a paper clip, there will be someone who passionately collects them. Those paper clips probably mean something to the collector. Perhaps it is a special design that stands out in their mind from other paper clips. Maybe the paper clip represents a memorable time and place. Then this question must be asked: are they a collector who appreciates and understand or an “acquirer” who is simply picking up whatever they can find? There’s a lot of people that like to have one of everything just to feel complete. These people end up with, literally, thousands of examples of whatever is being collected in their possession.

I like mechanical wrist watches. They are neat little machines that are very complicated yet perform a very simple function. It’s easy to get lost staring at all the little mechanisms and gears inside a wrist watch. There are many forums and websites dedicated to wrist watches and the people who are excited about them. Some people have two or three wrist watches and some have 10 to 20 of them. Collections usually contain something in low end range costing $50 to a couple watches that may be $1k or higher. Of course, some people have more disposable income than others so they go hard core and have five to ten examples costing over $2k each! At that point though, it’s just collecting jewelry in my mind. For men, it’s like being a woman and having a lot of diamonds to decorate herself with. It becomes a pursuit of vanity.

It’s this pursuit of vanity that has turned me off somewhat from serious watch collecting. Reading the posts on some of the watch forums, I see a lot of “Which one should I get?” topics and they are not always asking for a technical justification. Seriously, nobody cares what someone else buys! It’s not my money that’s being spent and it doesn’t hurt my feelings when one watch is purchased instead of another. OK, so the poster finally makes a decision and buys a watch. Now they have one watch. Then, some of these people decide they need a watch for every occasion. Different brands and designs are bought. From two to three to maybe four. Suddenly, they get the idea that they are missing something. “If I have a Rolex then I will only have one model of Rolex. I better get another to ’round out’ the collection.” From four to five and possibly six. Now after spending thousands of dollars on high end watches, they see something “cheap” on eBay like a Seiko or a Citizen and so that gets purchased. From six to seven if not eight or even nine. Next, they want a watch that they don’t care if it gets lost at the airport. On and on and on….

Suddenly, they have hundreds of watches of all makes, models, and prices! One time, someone posted their collection of watches and they couldn’t even fit them on one picture! What in the world do they do with those hundreds, literally hundreds, of wrist watches? It’s one thing if they cost 50 cents each but it’s a whole different ball of wax when the average price of each watch is $500 or more. These people are addicted to acquisition. It’s like legalized cocaine. They don’t care so much about horology as they do about the color of bracelet and dial. These “collections” are just boring piles of wealth.

Now don’t get wrong. There are lots of people who have large collections of watches whose value exceeds that of a sports car and these people are truly passionate about it! They understand the internal movement, the design, the history, etc of watches. Each specimen in their collection is treasured and valued for what it is and it’s impact on the industry and on horology. There are also serious vintage watch enthusiasts out there too. These are true collectors.

A true collector can take something, anything at all, and keep it interesting – not only for themselves but for others as well to some degree. Collecting is not just an act of acquisition. Think of the collector as an ambassador of the hobby. Collecting becomes an art. Quantity is no longer king but only a natural consequence of collecting over time. It doesn’t matter if you have three or 300 of something. Seeing a collection of paper clips handled by a true paper clip enthusiast is much more interesting and entertaining than seeing an extravagant collection of jewelry collecting dust.

So where does collecting pencils sit in all this?