Archive for March, 2008

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!