The notion that China will be the intellectual, cultural, and finacial hegemonic presence in emerging economies is disturbing. What’s more, I can’t think of an administrstion less capable – or perhaps inclined – to deal with it. Telling was this particular quote, “The best course for Washington is to offer a positive vision of physical and digital connectivity while taking concrete steps to limit the initiative’s most illiberal effects.” I don’t see Washington doing THAT any time soon.
Or, Hard Traveling Heroes
When the innovating notebook company, Baron Fig, released its first pencil in the Fall of 2016, it met with an expected degree of fanfare and fairly universal praise.* Indeed, I was among the early evangelists of the Archer. My wife bought me a set for Christmas, and I almost immediately inserted the new offering into my top five pencils.
But, like many Christmas gifts, I used the Archer for the portion of a day and put it down, half forgetting I had received it at all. Since we have never had the luxury of spending a Christmas in our own house, we often “lose” Christmas gifts to the chore of packing and the inevitable failure to unpack. Consequently, the Archer set ended up at the bottom of a small box of stocking stuffer-type goodies that immediately found a home in the back of our spare room. I certainly remembered receiving the Archer, though I had absolutely no idea where I had placed it.
Process of elimination eventually led me to the small shoebox with my set of Archers at the bottom. Ok, honestly, I was looking for something else and stumbled upon it.
Immediately, I recalled that I had intended on giving this pencil a very thorough review since I hadn’t seen much about it following the initial release. Not that any of those reviews were cursory, but I wanted to truly put the pencil through the wringer for a week to see if my own impression remained justified.
Short answer – yes, after some Augustinian doubt.
What drew many people to the Archer at its release time was the pencil’s design. Most observers would expect a well-designed product from Baron Fig, a company that made its name by concentrating on the intersection of form and function. Like early “i” era Apple products, Baron Fig notebooks are known for their impeccable design and remarkable usability. To be fair, this philosophy tends to be a hallmark of the niche stationary market. Nonetheless, even in a market defined by this exact premise, Baron Fig tends to exemplify the philosophy the strongest because of their commitment to a fundamentally minimalist approach.
And, as expected, the Archer is a masterpiece of minimalist design. Even the case – a telescoping cylinder of glossy cardboard – sets the Archer apart from other pencils. Blackwing sends its pencils in beautiful boxes, but they look almost too nice to use. They seem more designed for preservation and display than for toting from place to place.
I’d feel comfortable tossing the Archer case in my book bag. It’s made of a strong stock cardboard, so it will hold up to wear and tear. Additionally, it’s cylindrical shape helps to maximize its storage capability while minimizing the surface area it takes up. Still, because it is so well-made, and because I only own one set of Archers, it remains safe and sound on my desk at home.
The design and construction of the pencil itself also helps to set it apart. It is far more nuanced than almost any Blackwing offering. At first glance, one might be easy to compare the Archer to a Mitsubishi. From a distance, that comparison might be fair, but up close, the Archer clearly eschews a thick lacquer that one would find on premium Japanese pencils. The German comparison is likely more apt. A reader commented on the Office Supply Geek Archer review that he thinks the Archer is a repurposing of the Staedtler Mars Lumograph, a comparison I can’t seem to get out of my head. I didn’t have any Lumographs lying around to test this claim, but I can say that the Archer appears slightly thicker than both the Rally and the Norica based on my Blackwing point guard test.
Nonetheless, compared to the case, the Archer pencil is similarly minimalist. Much like the Blackwing 24, the Archer seems designed to stand apart by not standing out. Charcoal gray with a black-dipped eraserless capped end, the Archer is only slightly appointed with discreet white san-serif caps “BARON FIG” right-hand painted on one hex, with the Archer arrow logo painted on another. It’s interesting that Baron Fig decided not to stamp these pencils. There is no foil, nor any other degree of texture to the pencil. The thin white lettering is applied with a strong paint and does not smudge in the slightest, compared to, say, the smudging paint on the Staedtler Rally.
The paint does manage to fade with some wear, though this is both 1) barely noticeable as it fades instead of smudges and 2) possibly a self-fulfilling prophecy as I actively tried to wear down the paint.
Design only goes so far. There are plenty of pencils that champion utilitarian design and performance. How does the Archer perform? That is what will determine whether $15 for a dozen is a justifiable expense.
Initially, it is important to note that the Archer will not appeal to a certain demographic of the pencil population. First, there are pencil users who appreciate an eraser cap for various reasons. In terms of functionality, I would have to agree that there is something missing without an eraser. Since the Archer has been billed as a writing pencil of sorts, the decision not to include a built-on eraser is a little confusing. At the end of the day, I don’t mind pulling my Mars Plastic out, but I can completely understand why someone would. Second, it is a light pencil in terms of weight. There is ample debate between pencil people as to whether a lighter pencil lessens or worsens writing fatigue. As someone who tends to press exceedingly hard while utilizing a G.I. Joe kung-fu grip, this debate is fairly moot.
What is important to note is the stellar construction of this pencil. Andy Wefle commented that the wood is not cedar, but it is of superior quality. It is a strong, hard wood that offers little to no flex. There are a number of light pencils that seem to bend in one’s hands. The Archer is definitely not one of them. Moreover, it sharpens absolutely beautifully, definitely in company with Blackwing, Mitsbubishi, or Tombow. My everyday carry Staedtler dual sharpener sometimes has issues getting a particularly sharp point on some pencils, but it works wonders with the Archer. The KUM long point sharpener predictably produces a needle-sharp point.
The Archer is billed as an HB, but it certainly falls on the side of a lighter HB. Part of me wants to assert this core is more of a 2.5/F, but I think that might be a little too far. It’s within the realm of HBs, but surely on the harder end. Appropriate comparisons for this core’s line would be the Dixon Ticonderoga or the Field Notes pencil. In many ways, the writing style is similar to the Field Notes pencil in that it can be a little scratchy at time.
The core of the Archer is designed for the specific audience of pencil users who are willing to trade line darkness for point retention. If that isn’t you, the Archer isn’t your pencil. However, if you are the tactile type who would like to have a certain feel when writing, and who doesn’t want to reach for the sharpener every half-page, the Archer is likely your Holy Grail.
Archer lines are not as dark as other traditional No. 2/HBs such as the Golden Bear, Prospector, Staedtler Norica, or even the USA Gold. Nor is the Archer that smooth. Compared to the Golden Bear or Ticonderoga, the Archer is a far scratchier pencil. It terms of writing style, I looked to compare it to a blue Canadian Norica. In previous experiences, those Noricae provide an insanely dark and thick line, but do so with an incredibly scratchy core. Many times while using the Archer, I felt a degree of similarity to the Norica. Like the Norica, it’s scratchiness doesn’t impede my writing at all, unlike a Field Notes pencil with its propensity for skipping occasionally does. However, unlike the Norica, the Archer’s core is not crumbly or weak. One or two lines into writing with the Norica and sharpening is required. The Archer feels like it can go for pages.
While the Archer is scratchy, it has that analog romantic feel to it. You know you are writing on paper when you press the graphite down. I’ll admit, my fondness for this writing style took me by surprise, considering that I hold the Blackwing 24, 602, and Musgrave Test Scoring 100 – all champions of the smooth, dark, shiny line – in such high regard. I tend to steer clear of both scratchy pencils and fainter lines. But the Archer has grabbed me for a few overarching reasons.
- The core is strong and durable. It sharpens to an incredibly fine point that manages to last for what seems like pages. While the immediate needle-sharp point wears down after a line or two, the pencil seems to retain a fairly narrow point for a while thereafter. If you want a very crisp line, the Archer won’t exactly meet those standards. The core’s performance, also, tends to vary very little from paper to paper. This isn’t exactly true for other pencils. There are pencils that can’t handle the toothier pages, but the Archer can. I’ve used the Archer almost exclusively on the fairly neutral paper in a Mead Cambridge notebook, the bright and heavy paper in the Black Ice notebook, and the graphite shredding toothy paper in a Picadilly A5 hardbound. While the Picadilly does tend to chew through the pencil more than other papers, line quality does not change with different paper. There are pencils that look incredibly different from a glossy page to a toothier one, but the Archer is remarkably consistent. The strength of this core makes the pencil an incredible value. In just over a week of usage, its lost only about an inch to the sharpener. This says a lot considering that I regularly attend meetings and take overly-copious notes. A week with me is a strong test for any pencil. I’ve never been an compulsive sharpener, so I can see people having different results, but I think they’d be impressed, regardless.
- I like the feel of this pencil. It goes against my general inclinations, as I’m wont to use a Blackwing 24 for an extended writing and as I tend to avoid scratchy pencils, but there is something about the way this pencil carves into paper that absolutely delights me. I like feeling every letter as I write; I like hearing the pencil make its way across the page.
- It provides a comfortable write. I didn’t expect this. I thought that, despite any affinity, I’d notice more fatigue because of my propensity to grip a pencil with all the grace of a grizzly bear and the increase in work resulting from the scratchy core. My hand gets tired no matter what pencil I use, and I haven’t noticed any more with the Archer. What I have noticed, though, is that much of the extra work to overcome the scratchiness is mitigated by the light weight of the pencil.
At the end of a week’s rigorous usage, I’m left surprised at my continued affinity for the Archer. Usually, after a week’s worth of writing, I’ve got enough bad to say about even pencils I enjoy that I’m ready to put the pencil down for a while before I return to it with a clean perspective. I’m planning on running this particular Archer down to a nub, though.
* Curious about some of the initial reviews? Here are some of the more thorough:
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.