That’s So Last Year: A Belated Reflection on 2016 Favorites

Or, a Renewed Call for the Continued Production of the Blackwing 24

There are a number of great things that made their way into our collective consciousness this past year – stationary items, literature, music, even television. Looking back on 2016, it is certainly easy to complain about the loss of beloved inspirations such as David Bowie, Prince, Carrie Fisher, Richard Adams, and many others who touched our lives in meaningful ways. It is far harder to focus on the aspects of 2016 that brought us joy. And though they may be trial, commercialized things, they ultimately help us to discern meaning or at least grasp some degree of comfort amidst surrounding chaos.

 

Limited Edition Stationary Items

I first thought about putting together a “best of” list, but then I realized that I might end up having lopsided categories. 2016 brought us a number of incredibly cool stationary items from stalwarts such as Field Notes and Blackwing, and it ushered in some new entries into the limited edition/subscription market from Write Notepads and Story Supply Company. I subscribe to the Blackwing Volumes, a subscription I began with the release of the 24. Though I don’t subscribe to Field Notes, I’d say I purchase about 3/4 of their “colors” releases.*

Favorite Limited Edition Pencil

Let’s be honest, this is as much an evaluation of some of my favorite things as it is a veiled attempt to justify the continued production of the Blackwing 24. If you haven’t guessed, the 24 ranks as my favorite limited edition pencil of the year. It also tops my list as my overall favorite pencil.

 

The 24 immediately tugged on my heartstrings with its connection to pencildom’s most famous ambassador, John Steinbeck. The (perhaps undeserving) Nobel prizewinner is a somewhat divisive literary figure, but he is generally held in high regard by pencil folk because of his dedicated evangelization of the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 and Mongol as well as the Blaisdell Calculator. If you’re a fan of Steinbeck, you’re probably an apologist. I don’t know many people who have a lukewarm opinion of him. Most people who don’t care for him are likely scarred by their high school readings of Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath. Tragic, certainly, and certainly understandable. Many of us took years to warm to Hawthorne for similar reasons. There are also plenty of people who likely don’t care much for Steinbeck as a person, and that’s certainly reasonable as well.

Personally, I’m a fan of Steinbeck, but I have always been a fan of minimalistic, terse prose, the kind I think Steinbeck nearly masters. I also have been a fan of the thinly veiled political treatise at different times of self-righteousness, and undoubtedly Steinbeck excels in this style as well.

The fact that the pencil came bearing Thom Steinbeck’s** stamp of approval added another element of personal connection as well as legitimacy. I don’t think the 344 had any direct connection to Dorothea Lange’s family, nor the 56 to DiMaggio’s. (The 211 had a stronger connection to John Muir, if not familial).

Romanticism aside, the 24 is my favorite all-time pencil for entirely pure pencil reasons. Had there been no connection to Steinbeck, my admiration for this pencil would not diminish one iota. I adore this pencil for the simple reasons.

The Point – The core of this pencil, for me, is the more versatile and balanced core I have ever used. I tend to prefer a dark line, and I have been happy with the core of the Blackwing 602 among others (to be revealed a shortly below in my Top 5, I’d assume), but the 24 is far superior. The strength of the core is its hallmark, for sure. The 24 is stronger and more durable than many ostensibly “harder” lead grades. The beauty of this pencil isn’t in its point retention, though. Pencil lovers have long lamented the core tradeoff – point retention for line darkness. This tradeoff is nearly absent for the 24. The ratio between line darkness and point retention is almost 1:1. It maintains the point longer than solid 2Bs such as the Unigraph and darker HBs such as the Golden Bear and Norica, while marking far darker than lighter HBs such as the Ticonderoga or point retention all-stars such as Faber-Castell Fs.

The 24 is the writer’s pencil, and I think Blackwing would be well served to create a permanent pencil that utilizes the 24 core. I’m not alone in this though, obviously. The Erasable guys made this exact statement a few episodes ago. Additionally, before I started penning this original draft, Blackwing had yet to release another volume edition with the extra-firm core. Since the winter Gold Rush 530 debuted with the 24 core, it’s safe to say that Blackwing looks to be keeping my beloved core in some sort of rotation. However, while the 530 uses the 24 core, and while it is a stunning pencil in its own right, it is not the equal of the 24.

Blackwing made beautiful pencils this year, and they certainly weren’t alone as the stationary world made some of its most aesthetically pleasing products in 2016. The 344 is one of the most unique pencils I have seen or held, and 530 stops just sort of being “too golden” at a nice sweet spot that connotes more of an upgrade to the Ticonderoga metallic than a gaudy piece of bling, and the 56 apes the most iconic uniform design in all of sports. Nonetheless, the 24 stands in stark contrast to the other three Volumes offer this year. According to the Blackwing manifesto that ships with each volume edition, the 24’s head-to-toe jet black finish would have been Steinbeck’s preferred choice for pencil design. It would make sense than a writer who saw value in simple prose and the composition of a novella would love a pencil devoid of flash. Steinbeck allegedly disliked colorful pencils – namely bright yellow – because he felt they were distractions. The 24, like any Blackwing product, is going to be durable. The pencil is strong and sturdy. It’s lacquer is thick – not 344 thick – but thick enough to provide a more luxurious write than the average pencil and even some other Blackwing releases.

While it seems apparent that Blackwing will keep the 24 core in their Volumes rotation, Blackwing surely needs to create an everyday version of the 24 that upholds the minimalist aesthetic they achieved when they first issued this release. Blackwing has never chosen to use a Volumes release as the basis for a core product, but there is ample precedent for this model based on Blackwing’s subscription-inspiration, Field Notes. The pocket notebook brand has taken four of its iconic seasonal releases – Byline, Shelterwood, Night Sky, Expedition – as models for four year round releases – Front Page, Cherry Graph, Pitch Black, and the continued Expedition. Blackwing could easily mimic this strategy to make the 24 a part of its everyday lineup.

Are there problems with this concept? Maybe. The 602, Pearl, and Blackwing*** each have a unique core, so the 24’s graphite would not overlap with anything. Color scheme might be the hard sell. While the 24 sports a shiny black barrel, black ferrule and eraser, it could look a little soo similar to the original Blackwing that sports a matte black barrel with gold lettering and a gold ferrule with a stock white eraser. I’d be concerned that Palomino wouldn’t want two black pencils available for everyday use.

 

Favorite Limited Edition Notebook

Field Notes, Word. Notebooks, Story Supply Company, Baron Fig, and Write Notepads all produce some exemplary (mostly) pocket notebooks. All but Word offer a subscription model for limited editions. Word. doesn’t necessarily offer limited editions, but some of their special editions sell out, adding a de facto “limited edition” model to the mix.

I bought a number of limited edition pocket notebooks this year. I’ve more or less become a Field Notes acolyte since I discovered the brand about five years ago after using Moleskine pocket cahiers and volants almost exclusively. This year, I bought a few pocket notebooks, many more than I will tend to fill. At one point, I thought I would become a “Cherrywood” apologist, and I pretended to swear off the limited editions. That didn’t last long. I purchased a Field Notes Shenandoah (yes, it was 2015, I know, but I bought it in 2016), the Lunacy, and Black Ice (and I’m still kicking myself for not buying the Sweet Tooth when I bought the Black Ice).

I expanded my horizons beyond Field Notes. How could I not? With Write Notepads making their exquisite notebooks thirty minutes north of me in Baltimore, all I needed was an excuse to plunk down $10 for three more notebooks. After missing out on both the Lenore and Charcoal Briquettes limited editions, I’m fairly certain I bought the Royal Blue edition the week it became available to non-subscribers.

The Write Notepads Royal Blue is exceptionally constructed. When I first purchased this set of notebooks, I was a little concerned about the binding because I had been previously let down by glue-bound notebooks. (To be fair, most of them have been of a more of the “budget” side of things). I’ve been fine with stapled notebooks, and sewn books work very well, too. I was entirely wrong to have even a modicum of trepidation. The Royal Blue is as strong as a sewn notebook, and has some significant advantages over a staple-bound book. I came to love the notebook for three keys reasons: 1) the squared-off edge reminded me of the Moleskine Volant I had loved in a past life; nostalgia is the basis for all of this, after all. 2) the sharp color is distinctly non-stationary and stands out amidst collections of notebooks that run the gamut from brown to tan to black; 3) the cover held up remarkably well with wear; some Field Notes covers have been stronger than others – this one is rather durable.

Story Supply Company also had a great year transitioning from Kickstarter start up to full scale notebook manufacturer. SSC makes their notebooks in York, PA. If you don’t know, York lies in a kind of mid-Atlantic nexus roughly 45 minutes North of Baltimore, 1 ½ hours+ west of Philadelphia, and only 3 hours east of Pittsburgh. It’s the odd kind of area where you will find Ravens, Eagles, and Steelers fans commingling. SSC tempted me a number of times this past year, most notably when they released a Deadpool artist Mike Hawthrone limited edition. However, when they announced the release of “Pencil Pusher,” their pencil-specific collaboration with the incomparable CW Pencils. I know this isn’t technically a 2016 release (is it?), that I technically haven’t received it yet (though I did receive shipping confirmation today), but I’m incredibly excited for this release.

I haven’t had the opportunity to purchase a Word. Notebooks or Baron Fig notebook yet. I asked my wife for the Word. Intergalactic for Christmas, but they had temporarily sold out. She did manage to find me an A5 size notebook in the same outer space theme from Etsy, so I’ll count that as a win.

Similar to the pencils I purchased this year, I wasn’t disappointed by any of the notebooks I bought in 2016. However, I’d have to crown my favorite at the Field Notes Lunacy.

That’s today. Tomorrow I could say the Royal Blue or Black Ice with as much conviction.

The Lunacy taps into my inner space-geekdom, and, more than anything else, I think I appreciate it most for its innovation. One of the things I respect most about Field Notes competitor, Write Notepads, is that they do something similar without making it the same. For instance, Write Notepads glue-binds their pocket notebooks and packages them in an exceptionally designed cardboard case. Additionally, they make a variety of sizes, compared to Field Notes singular pocket notebook focus. However, Field Notes definitely wins the pize for most original notebooks in 2016. Having established many stationary trends including the subscription model, Field Notes has always celebrated their craft and design above all else. When you have been releasing four books a year in addition to the occasional full-time release, it is easy to run out of ideas or to let things go stale. After all, there are only so many paper and color combinations before boredom sets in. Field Notes was the antithesis of boring this year. Each notebook applied a radically new concept to the brand. Sweet Tooth offered two: colored, perforated pages. The Byline represented only the second time in its history that Field Notes created an offering that didn’t fit into the pocket notebook format, the previous being their Arts and Sciences edition. Lunacy added another interesting twist on the Field Notes schema: three unique die-cut covers showcasing phases of the moon (a fourth would complete the cycle for subscribers only). One can only imagine the intricacies of planning and assembly for these books. Finally, the company closed out a banner year with the Black Ice edition, featuring a glossy, metallic hologram of a cover set off by a bound (not stapled?! *gasp*) audaciously bright orange spine. The books not only features Field Notes’ first glue binding, it also includes an embossed cover. Standing pat? I don’t think so.

 

*Yes, I’ve read the Field Notes spreadsheet manifesto that justifies the purchase of the subscription package instead of a la carte ordering, but I’ve crunched my own numbers and realized that I’ll have an insane amount of pocket notebooks left over based on the average time it takes me to fill a book. Plus, I’d rather purchase both the Write Notepads and Field Notes limited releases than receive two copies of the Field Notes edition.

** I found out about the death of Thom about two weeks after he passed away. I don’t think he necessarily gets the level of recognition he deserves, but I think we can all agree that he followed in his father’s proverbial footsteps with more grace and elan than the average son-of-a-famous-writer-who-became-a-writer would have.

*** Shouldn’t the original Palomino Blackwing have a better designation? One of the confusing things about the whole Palomino operation is the amount of brands or imprints and resulting lack of coherence. We have plain Palomino, Golden Bear, Prospector, Forest Choice, and Blackwing. In this case, Blackwing is also the brand or imprint as well as a model. Officially, it could be the Palomino Blackwing Blackwing, instead of the Blackwing 602 or Pearl.

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