Tools

The Write Stuff

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS HARDY
Artists, writers and editors agree: The Blackwing is the pencil of the pros. In our digital world, Tim Wendel explains why one brand of pencils is changing the graphite game.

The Blackwing pencils arrive in a slender box, with the scent of California cedar when the lid is removed. When you hold one of these 8-inch writing tools, take care to sharpen the Japanese graphite to a fine point. Then make the first notation on a blank page, remembering the company motto: “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed.”

It’s never easy to replace a legend. Especially if the instrument has inspired such writers as John Steinbeck and Vladimir Nabokov, Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, actress Faye Dunaway, and Chuck Jones, the father of Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes. But that’s what California Cedar Products Co. in Stockton is doing with its new line of Blackwing pencils.

“We’re targeting people who haven’t picked up a pencil in years,” says brand manager Alex Poirier. “Maybe the last one they used was a yellow No. 2 back in school.”

First manufactured by Brooklyn-based Eberhard Faber in the early 1930s, the original model gained a cult following for its easy feel and distinctive eraser, held in place by a squared-off metal clasp, or ferrule. According to Sean Malone, who runs the Blackwing Pages blog, the pencil made cameos in such films as “All the President’s Men” and “Jaws,” and television shows such as “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Mad Men.”

The beloved Blackwing 602 was discontinued in 1998 after a series of corporate takeovers. That led Cal Cedar’s Charles Berolzheimer to acquire the rights and begin to market the new line in 2010. New Yorker writer and copy editor Mary Norris attended a launch party in 2012 at which a timeline of pencil devotees — including da Vinci, Thoreau, Steinbeck and Sondheim — took up an entire wall. Norris tried the Blackwing and was immediately sold.

“Thank you, Mr. Berolzheimer,” Norris wrote in an essay entitled “My Life in Pencils.” “We’ll take a gross.”

The Blackwing team within Cal Cedar has grown from three employees to more than a dozen. Sales were $2.5 million in 2016, almost a 30 percent gain from the year before. Today, the company makes the Palomino Blackwing, for visual artists, and the Palomino 602, which has longer-lasting graphite better suited for wordsmiths.

Still, some Blackwing fans insist there can be no substitute for the original versions, with a single Blackwing 602 going for $40 and more on eBay. That said, neither model of the new Blackwing is cheap, costing $21.95 for a box of one dozen on the firm’s website.

Increasing sales have allowed Cal Cedar to branch out into other pursuits, including a writing program for local students and another that benefits student musicians. The new Blackwing has gained such a following with musicians and songwriters, especially in Nashville, that the company produced an album by Willy Tea Taylor.

While the folks at Cal Cedar acknowledge that they are in it to make a profit, they emphasize what can be done when people slow down and reach for a Blackwing.

“We’re so saturated with digital,” Poirier says. “That’s why it’s valuable sometimes to feel the connection with an analog tool. Activate a different part of the brain with a great pencil.”

Tim Wendel is the author of 13 books, including “Castro’s Curveball,” “Summer of ‘68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever” and “Cancer Crossings: A Brother, His Doctors, and the Quest for a Cure to Childhood Leukemia.”

RECOMMENDATIONS

Three More Essential Writing Tools

Staedtler Handheld Pencil Sharpener: Sure, you could use an electromechanical rig, but a manual one only costs a few bucks. It’s the perfect way to gain a whiff of cedar as the Blackwing is brought to a fine point. $8.19 for four; staedtler.us

• “The Doubleday Roget’s Thesaurus in Dictionary Form Edited by Sidney I. Landau and Ronald J. Bogus (1987): Looking for the right word? Try this desk companion. It lists words alphabetically by letter, with synonyms beginning with the most common usage followed by more specialized words.

• A Personal Talisman: Author Jim Harrison hung a Buffalo blanket from the ceiling in his study. Short-story writer Alice Munro enjoys a bird feeder outside her window. Author Steven Pressfield brings home lucky pennies, while journalist Sebastian Junger hangs onto pebbles from his world travels. Whatever spurs the muse.

PALOMINO BLACKWING PENCIL

• California Cedar Products

Blackwing602.com

• $21.95 a dozen