The Blackwing Pencil - Culture, Controversy and Creativity

What do Bugs Bunny, Lennie Small, Holly Golightly, and Lolita have in common? They were all brought to life by the legendary creatives of the 1940's and 1950's who wielded the now legendary Blackwing pencil! From John Steinbeck, Quincy Jones, Sondheim & Bernstein, Nabokov, and Chuck 'what's up doc’ Jones to modern day artists, architects and musicians - frankly anyone with a penchant for quality and the need of a pencil! The Blackwing pencil is as celebrated as those who declared they couldn’t work without it - which was exactly what happened in the late 1990’s...but we will get to that. With a varied - and sometimes controversial - history, Blackwings’ story is one of multiple corporate acquisitions, a cult following and now a modern company founded on an ethos of quality and philanthropy.


The Original Blackwing 602

Going back to the roots of Blackwing, the 602 model was first introduced by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company - which you may recall from our Faber-Castell: Pens, Pencils and a Whole lot of History! article published way back in June. Having emigrated from Germany to manage the subsidiary of the Faber-Castell empire, Eberhard’s sons Eberhard II (known as John) and Lothar took over the company with sales offices in seven major cities in the US, interestingly the original New York City plant is now the site of the United Nations and the Brooklyn factory is the site of the Blackwing Loft, a creative arts and performance space.

Blackwing - Entwined with Culture

The Blackwing 602 grew a fan base of loyal devotees including Disney animator Shamus Culhane (animator of the classic heigh-ho scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves!)  who, according to animation historians requested that he be buried with his Blackwing 602! There are many high profile individuals who publicly espoused their preference for the Blackwing 602.

John Steinbeck, according to his son Thomas, would start every writing session by sharpening 24 Blackwing pencils to a needle sharp point and placing them in one of two identical pots, he would write with them for a few lines until they dulled, then place them in the second pot until all pencils had been used. After this he would resharpen them all and begin the process again. In this sense, the Blackwing  became a ritualistic element of the writing. Steinbeck is regularly quoted as saying;

"I have found a new kind of pencil - the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is Black and it is soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper"
Blackwing Pencils -  Luxury and Style

Official production of the Blackwing began in 1934, a year described by history as the turning point of the Great Depression: with unemployment decreasing in the US; the births of Frankie Valli and Sophia Loren;  a nation captivated by the escapades of Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger; and, not far from the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company’s Chicago sales office, the rise of underdogs the Chicago BlackHawks who won their first ever Stanley Cup title after a mediocre start to the season. The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company saw this time of growth and optimism (ahead of growing concerns over European politics of course!) as an opportunity to create a pencil designed to be a luxury and sought-after item, with a graphite-grey lacquered hexagonal barrel (unusual at a time when pencils were almost entirely produced in yellow), gilt hardware and a gold embossed logo, this was a tool of unique styling. The Blackwing featured a rectangular eraser which was held in place with a squared off ferrule which allowed for the eraser to be extended once worn down by simply sliding out the clasp, extending the eraser as needed, then simply fastening the clip once more. This small detail was a significant improvement on the standard mounted eraser as it extended the use of the pencil where previous erasers would wear out and the efficiency of always having that eraser to hand was removed.

Image Credit: SoFun 

Stamped on the side of the Blackwing 602, opposite the brand marking, was the slogan ‘half the pressure, twice the speed’, initially appealing to stenographers (particularly in the US with the extensive use of Pitmans shorthand which requires differentiation in line strength and width) as the Blackwing possessed qualities remnant of a 3B/4B lead being soft and smooth, but with the more desirable rate-of-wear found with an HB. Although the Blackwing pencil was initially thought of as a (somewhat elite) office tool, it was quickly adopted by artists and creatives who favoured the way the blackwing 602 wrote and drew and with the unique rectangular eraser the Blackwing was becoming synonymous with quality. Furthermore, the design of the pencil meant that it wouldn’t roll away which was often the case with the cylindrical barrel normally associated with standard pencils.

Blackwing - A Testament to Excellence

The Blackwing 602 has been written about in detail by many who describe the tool as being paramount to some of hollywood's most revered talents. The New Yorker, Salon and Boston Globe, to name but a few, have all written extensive and celebratory articles of the Blackwing and it has been namechecked in several works of pop culture including Nabokov’s final novel look at the harlequins! In the 1960s, Nabokov adapted his novel Lolita into a screenplay for Stanley Kubrick and would spend four-hour long periods sat in Los Angeles writing out thousands of index cards with a Blackwing pencil for “rubbing out and writing anew the scenes I had imagined in the morning”. Similarly, Quincy Jones, famous for producing Michael Jackson's Thriller, reportedly always had a Blackwing 602 on him for all the continual fixes to his music, and Truman Capote of Breakfast at Tiffanys and In Cold Blood fame was known to have a fully stocked nightstand filled with fresh boxes of the 602. 

Image Credit: wing602people

Walt Disney Studios’ ‘Nine Old Men’ were the celebrated key animators responsible for many of the Disney classics we know and love, they were huge fans of the Blackwing 602. Ollie Johnston, creator of Bambi and Thumper among others, revered his Blackwings having kept the first one he owned as a prized possession and always having one taped to his studio window. Chuck Jones refused to use any other pencil in his works -  which include Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote - until his death in 2002. Tim Hodge, known for his work on Tom and Jerry reportedly entered a state of panic when the stationery supplies manager informed him that stock was running low on his beloved Blackwing 602s. In a similar act, Stephen Sondheim (Company, West Side Story, Gypsy, Into the Woods)  on the advice of fellow stationery geek -  playwright Burt Shevelove - was concerned about the Blackwing becoming discontinued or obsolete and so bought up a large yet undisclosed number of pencils in the 1960’s to last out his career.

The Beginning of the End?

Seemingly, Sondheim’s inclination may have foreshadowed the coming decades. Global Stationers Staedtler took over the company in 1978, a year before John Fabers death the following year. Production of the Blackwing began to decrease although their popularity remained high. A decade later, the eighth generation of the Faber-Castell family, Count Anton-Wolfgang Von Faber-Castell, acquired the company - rebranding the pencil as the Faber-Castell Blackwing 602 although this was relatively short lived as in 1994 they were acquired by the Sanford division of Newell Rubbermaid who reverted the branding of the pencil back to its original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 name. At this time, disaster struck as the machine which produced the unique ferrule/eraser system broke down, this alongside a long standing dip in sales (from around 160,000 units per year to 12,000 annually - it should be noted the factory was capable of producing that many in an hour!). This led to the decision to cease manufacture and sell off the remaining stock. It only took 4 years for the last metal ferrule clips to run out and in 1998 the Blackwing was officially discontinued. The demise of the Blackwing meant the pencil gained almost mythical status and instances of single pencils selling for upwards of $40 on ebay were regularly reported. What was unusual about this activity was that buyers spending significant amounts on these pencils were not doing so as collectors but rather as avid users of the legendary pencil. The scarcity of the Blackwing meant that each use was carefully considered and sharpening each pencil became an art! Pencil Sharpeners - A Journey denotes the developments of the humble pencil sharpener and how an re-emergence of traditional methods can improve the longevity of a pencil. After the discontinuation of the Blackwing, It would be several years before the beloved pencil would reemerge.

Blackwing...The Revival

CalCedar, founded by Charles Berolzheimer, had a range of premium pencils under the Palomino name which artists began comparing to the Blackwing 602 in the early part of the 21st Century. Imparting his ethos of sustainability, environmental responsibility and philanthropic endeavours before his death in 1995 Charles established a culture within the company of research and development as well as engagement which remains at the core of the company. Being aware of the reputation of the Blackwings with the realisation that the original trademark had expired CalCedars released the Palomino Blackwing in 2010 as a tribute to the Eberhard Faber legendary pencil, featuring genuine California incense-cedar and premium Japanese graphite and the unmistakable rectangular eraser. Selling the pencils on the online store as part of the CalCedar California Republic umbrella, this revival received mixed reviews with some purists appearing disappointed that the original slogan was omitted, the ‘recipe’ for the graphite was not true to origin, the distinctive metallic grey lacquer was not present, and with some going so far as to be offended that Palomino was resting on the laurels of the original brand as a marketing strategy.

During 2011 aimed to increase audience reach and focus on the Blackwing range so established Studio602, to produce a broad range of creative, entertainment and educational content tied to creativity and the power of wood encased pencils. Responding to some of the critiques of the Palomino Black relaunch, they returned to the drawing board and the Palomino Blackwing 602 was launched with many of the original features being replicated in this version. Responses were extremely positive and the Palomino Blackwing 602 is enjoying a revival as the tool of choice for the visionaries, the creators and the common-man world over.

Versions of the original were released to include the Pearl which is presented in a pearl white finish with black imprint and eraser. The Pearl contains a smooth graphite core which is softer than the Palomino Blackwing 602 but firmer than the Palomino Blackwing, making this pencil a perfect balance for writers and artists alike. The ‘Natural’ is one of the newest editions to the standard lineup, finished in a clear matte finish and gold imprint one can really appreciate the natural colour and pattern of the wood. The Natural contains the hardest graphite in extra firm which is closest to HB lead.

Beyond the homage through the pencils themselves, the company stages events to honour the great Blackwing users of the history such as one held at the Chuck Jones Centre for Creativity in California. The dedication to the encouragement and empowerment of creativity in all forms is intrinsic to the company ethos with a percentage of all Blackwing sales going to benefit music and arts education through the Blackwing Foundation.

The Blackwing has reclaimed its position as more than just a pencil, but imparts its very own culture. Blackwing’s history is intertwined with music as composers, producers and award-winning songwriters having utilised the Blackwing pencils since the 1930’s. Palomino created Blackwing music, a project to promote and encourage musicians through live performances, events and album releases honouring the relationship between Blackwing pencils and the music industry.

This is something truly special about the Palomino Blackwing Company, they are all about celebration! Celebrating the achievements of others and encouraging excellence. This is clear in the way they present their Limited Edition pencils. Referred to as the ‘Volumes’ each release is thematically charged and the model number refers to an element of the occasion/person/phenomena being honoured. The first of the volumes was model number 725, referring to the 25th of July and Bob Dylan's first plugged-in set at the Newport Folk Festival and the impact of the festival on folk, rock and roots music. The Pencil itself is inspired by the sunburst finish on the Fender Stratocaster played by Bob Dylan during the festival, the barrel is punctuated with a white imprint and black eraser. 

The most recent Volume celebrates 2nd Lieutenant Jack ‘Jackie’ Roosevelt Robinson who, in 1944,was court marshalled and given an honorable discharge for refusing to move to the back of the bus, going against segregation laws. He went on to become a major league professional baseball player supporting the desegregation movement.

Volumes to date have been designed and numbered to honour the following: 

42 - Jackie Robinson

10 - Nellie Bly

811 - Libraries

4 - The 2020 Mars Rover Mission (early plans for the rovers robotics were drawn up using Blackwing pencils!)

33 ⅓ - Vinyl Records

10001 - Miyamoto Sensei

54 - Surrealism

16.2 - Ada Lovelace

1 - Guy Clark

73 - Lake Tahoe

205 - The Silk Road and Jade

530 - The California Gold Rush

344 - Dorothea Lange

56 - Joe DiMaggio

24 - John Steinbeck

1138 - Georges Méliès

211 - John Muir

725 - Newport Folk Festival

The details on each release are outstanding, for example Volume 1138 features movie barcoding where the entire 13 minute movie ‘A trip to the moon’ is represented with lines on the barrel, Volume 811 was coated with a phosphorescent topcoat so they glow in the dark in homage to the emerald green desk lamps of the traditional library and Volume 4 is finished in a rust colour lacquer with a sandy texture to represent Mars - the fourth planet  -and the upcoming 2020 Mars Rover Mission. The detail and quality of the Volumes is absolutely incredible but is by no means restricted to the limited editions. Every single Palomino Blackwing pencil is crafted to perfection .

The Blackwing is the ultimate comeback kid! With several years plagued by dwindling sales, corporate takeovers and a changing environment moving more towards a digital existence, the pencil could have died out with the Eberhard Faber Company who conceived of it. However, a cult following, a move toward the tactile analogue traditions of the past and the fact that no amount of technology can replace the need for a quality pencil has seen a re-establishment of a modern classic returned from the brink of death to continue to support the creation of some of the great works of the future. It would have been inconceivable to Eberhard Faber that his seemingly unremarkable, humble pencil would go on to become the object of such exceptional admiration that the Blackwing has been, and continues to be for many. 


 Explore the full Blackwing collection with Hamilton Pens


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