Grant Christensen, the managing director of Palomino, the company that relaunched the Blackwing pencil in 2010 Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal
The Blackwing pencil, made legend by the likes of John Steinbeck, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, animator Chuck Jones and especially Stephen Sondheim, is back. I even got to road test it last week.
To be honest, I’d never heard of the implement, or that it had stopped being manufactured, until Mr. Sondheim sang, or rather spoke, its praises in a discussion with Paul Simon last December at the New Museum.
The songwriters were talking about the creative process when the conversation segued to the tools of their trade. Mr. Sondheim professed a devotion to the Blackwing so intense that he went about stockpiling as many boxes as possible when production ceased in 1998.
The Blackwing pencil Dan Gaba/The Wall Street Journal
I could relate, even though I swore off pencils around fourth grade. While a perfectly sharpened pencil is a fine thing, it requires constant maintenance. Which is part of the allure for Mr. Sondheim, as he explained during that talk. Sharpening them is a form of procrastination.
I pound out a first draft on a computer, print it and then scribble between the lines using a blue Uni-ball Roller pen with an extremely fine point. It feels as if there’s an uninterrupted connection from paper to brain that facilitates creativity. It may be illusory. But coming up with something slightly interesting to say is challenging enough; you need all the help you can get, including psychological support.
It was because of the pencil’s cult following and invaluable free publicity from the likes of Mr. Sondheim that the Blackwing was reintroduced in 2010 by its new owner, Palomino, which is part of California Cedar Products Co.
“He wrote about it in his autobiography and he talked about it in his HBO documentary,” said Grant Christensen, Palomino’s managing director. “People started going on eBay to buy the unused stock for up to $40 a pencil.”
What separates the Blackwing from mortal pencils, according to Mr. Christensen, is that it’s made from incense cedar—”the highest grade of wood for the best pencils,” he claimed—and Japanese graphite. “The best graphite comes from Japan.”
The pencil even comes with a motto: “Half the pressure, twice the speed.”
That’s probably another reason I don’t use pencils. I have a penchant for pressing down hard on the point; I suppose as a defense against life’s impermanence. I’m prepared to concede it’s a character flaw. But when the point of a pencil breaks it feels as if a small piece of your heart goes with it. So why suffer avoidable pain?
The Palomino Blackwing now comes in three versions: black, said to be soft and smooth for animators, illustrators and composers; the slate-gray “602″ model, with the firmest touch, for writers—that’s the one Mr. Sondheim stockpiled; and white “Pearl” for the best of both worlds, or polymaths, I presume. All have replaceable erasers. Their hexagonal shape is to prevent them from rolling off the slanted desks of animators and architects.
Palomino makes them in a handsome presentation box that retails for $130 and includes two dozen pencils with a two-step sharpener. “One hole sharpens the wood,” Mr. Christensen explained while doing so. “The other sharpens the graphite.” You can’t buy the pencils individually, but you can also buy boxes of a dozen for $20.
I wondered who still uses pencils these days except for elder statesmen such as Mr. Sondheim, and preschoolers, though I’m not even sure about them. “It’s the same kind of person who likes the sensation of a needle dropping onto a vinyl record,” Mr. Christensen explained. “The same kind of people who like to buy a book in a bookshop.”
I was also curious whether Mr. Sondheim had been contacted with the good news that his favorite pencil was back on stationers’ shelves, even though it sounded as if he’d purchased a lifetime’s supply.
Palomino did tell Mr. Sondheim about it, and “he sent a note back saying he supported what we were doing,” Mr. Christensen reported.
The time had come to test the pencil, to see whether it matched the hype. Needless to say, I was skeptical. How different can one pencil be from another? We’re not comparing Bordeaux, after all. The experiment started with Mr. Christensen’s publicist, Sara Rosenthal, producing a generic, over-the-counter pencil. It wrote fine. Then Mr. Christensen handed me the 602. I hate to admit it, but it was about the smoothest ride I’ve ever had with a pencil; it verily skated across the page.
I doubt it would allow me to write “Sunday in the Park With George,” or the Great American Novel that has thus far eluded me. However, if I ever need a pencil, I know the one to use.
It might even be fun to buy one of those chrome, desk-mounted sharpeners they had in grade school. While perfection in most things remains beyond reach, you’ll probably never come closer than at that fleeting instant when you remove a pencil from a sharpener and pause to admire the point.