Drawing on a Classic

How a sixth-generation pencil pusher brought back the Blackwing.

January/February 2013

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Drawing on a Classic

Illustration: Mike Theurer

For those who happily weaned off pencils sometime after their last Scantron test, the scene at the Art Director's Club in midtown Manhattan last April may have been hard to fathom. More than 600 people, some wearing pencils in their hair, gathered to celebrate the simplest of writing instruments—one that was old news when the 20th century began, let alone a decade into the 21st. But for some, a good pencil has never gone out of style; it's just become a frustration to find. And for them there was reason to celebrate: the rebirth of the fabled Blackwing, a pencil whose smooth, dark writings once delighted the likes of Stephen Sondheim and John Steinbeck.

"I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had," Steinbeck, '23, wrote. "Of course it costs three times as much too, but it is black and soft but doesn't break off. . . . They are called Blackwings."

300: The number of pencils John Steinbeck used up while writing East of Eden.Steinbeck had no idea just how pricey the Blackwing, first manufactured by Eberhard Faber, could be. Production ceased in 1998, the consequence of shifting ownership, market changes, and the demise of the machine that made the brand's signature eraser holder. Aficionados began hoarding supplies. In short order, a single unsharpened Blackwing could fetch as much as $40 on eBay, 80 times the retail price.

And so things stood when Charles Berolzheimer II, MS '94, got involved. A sixth-generation member of the pencil trade, Berolzheimer is president of California Cedar Products Co. in Stockton, Calif. The firm produces slats for pencil makers around the world. It's a behind-the-scenes business, though one that has fueled famous innovation. In 1968, the company discovered an ingenious way to dispose of its ample sawdust—mixing the waste with petroleum wax to create the Duraflame artificial log, now a separate business.

A Blackwing Pencil. It is long and black with golden writing, binding, and a white eraser.Photo: Courtesy Palomino

Berolzheimer remains committed to pencils. Even in the digital age, demand keeps rising with population, he says. But he laments the state of the industry. For decades the price of the average pencil, mostly made in Asia, has hovered around 10 cents, a stasis born of consolidation, competition and relentless cost squeezing. The consequences, he says, are felt in flinty, brittle pencils everywhere.

About a decade ago, Cal Cedar began making pencils for customers who expected more. In 2005, the company released the Palomino, which immediately stirred passions among the pencil set. A few even hailed its smooth, dark, smudge-resistant lead as a worthy successor to the gold standard: "The Blackwing may be gone, but long live the Palomino!" one early champion proclaimed.

Others urged Berolzheimer to revive not only the Blackwing's performance, but also its style. Resplendent in charcoal lacquer and topped with a wide metal ferrule holding a long, replaceable eraser, Blackwings looked like pencils designed by Cadillac. The gold-flecked motto "Half the pressure, twice the speed" only added to the glitz.

His interest piqued, Berolzheimer discovered that the Blackwing trademark had lapsed. He snapped it up, then put out feelers to the enthusiast community regarding how best to proceed. The response was overwhelming: "At times I thought to myself, 'No wonder Apple keeps such secrecy before they introduce new products like the iPhone.' I must be insane!" he blogged on his company's website, where he goes by the moniker WoodChuck.

Such passions, though, can cut both ways. When the new Blackwings hit the market in fall of 2010 ($19.95 for a box of 12), the response was mixed. Some like Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam saw a winner: "Blackwing addicts everywhere are ecstatic that this great pencil is back on the market," he wrote. But purists took a dim view of everything from the softer lead to the decision to drop "Half the pressure, twice the speed," an omission they found as alarming as rumors it might be replaced with a new motto altogether.

Berolzheimer responded with a second Blackwing in 2011—the Palomino Blackwing 602 released with firmer lead, more traditional paint and bearing the classic slogan. Some still derided Palomino as a false pretender, but the general response was resounding, Berolzheimer says. John Celestri, an animator who works all day with pencil in hand, says a poor pencil leaves him like a writer with a sticking keyboard. He hasn't had a better option since the original Blackwing.

Number 32: The patent awarded to Nicolas-Jacques Conte in 1795 for the pencil-making method still used today."A pencil is your tool," he says. "If it doesn't respond to your touch you are at a disadvantage and you're going to complain about it bitterly. I now have a tool I know I can use."

The new Blackwing even got the notice of the New Yorker's pencil-toting copy editors, one of whom covered the party Berolzheimer threw in New York last April.

"Thank you, Mr. Berolzheimer," the editor wrote on the magazine's website. "We'll take a gross."

Sam Scottformerly a senior writer at Stanford, is now based in Toronto.

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