When I started doing lettering and illustration, I came across a lot of references to the Blackwing. Eberhard Faber first began production of the Blackwing 602 in the early 1930s. Their claim was it had the wear of an HB lead, but had the smoothness of a 3B/4B. This was the pencil used by legendary animator Chuck Jones and author John Steinbeck.
The original Blackwing went out of production in 1998. To the relief of the pencil community, California Cedar Products bought the Blackwing brand, and released the Blackwing 602 under its Palomino division in 2011. The pencils are made in Japan with incense cedar and waxed graphite. They’re then sent to California where the eraser assembly is attached.
Were they really that good? Would opening a box of them be accompanied by a chorus of singing angels? I had to find out. I purchased a box of 12 from Wonder Pens in Toronto—one of the few shops in Canada to carry them.
There are a few variants of the Blackwing. Going from firmest to softest: 602, Pearl, and Regular. Blackwing doesn’t grade their leads, and all lean to the softer side. There are also quarterly, limited-edition volumes that focus on a cultural icon or event.
The “Regular” is what I’ll be talking about here.
These are priced as a premium product ($28CDN), and clearly look the part. When you open the carton you’re met with the wonderful aroma of cedar. From the matte black finish of the barrel to the unique ferrule, you get the impression that no corners have been cut. These aren’t the pencils we grew up with in school. For a second, I thought “These are too nice to use.” But only for a second.
The matte finish on the Blackwing is velvety and luxuriant. I’ve read that they receive multiple coats of lacquer. The Blackwing’s barrel edges are also slightly softer. It’s these fine points (see what I did there) that make a difference. There’s something about the Blackwing that makes me want to pick it up, and that says a lot.
Note that the Blackwings are longer than a regular pencil, so they may not fit in all pencil cases.
The “Regular” Blackwing is similar to a 4B lead, so is quite dark and soft. This makes it excellent for drawing. I can get a large range of shading from very light to very dark. Many have reported on its “buttery” feel, and I would agree with that. I do tap the point a few times after sharpening, but I’ve had no annoying lead shatter while drawing. It also doesn’t splinter when sharpening.
Every pencil will smudge, and softer leads will smudge more than harder leads. The Blackwing is actually very respectable in this department.
Even though it’s the equivalent of a 4B, I find it doesn’t blunt too quickly. A lot of that will depend on your style of drawing and the paper you use. I tend not to do a lot of heavy shading. If you really like to go dark on your shading then you’ll be sharpening more often. YMMV.
The Blackwing eraser is unique in that it can be adjusted by removing it and repositioning the metal sleeve. Blackwing also sells replacements—and in different colours! You’d have to be doing an awful lot of erasing to even get close to finishing one off.
I’ll admit, I don’t really use the built-in erasers that much. If I make a mistake, I’ll typically just scratch it out. If I really need to correct something, then I’ll use my box eraser. The Blackwing eraser is no better or worse than any other built-in pencil eraser I’ve used. It still leaves some ghosting, but it’s convenient. It’s also less likely to break in use (I’ve never actually had one break). I’ve always had a gripe with the eraser breaking off of pencils—though that’s usually with the cheap variety.
I reserve my Blackwings for certain portions of my projects. It’s not because I’m being stingy, considering their cost. It’s simply that I find my mechanical pencils (particularly the Uni Kuru Toga) more convenient. It’s when I’m working at larger sizes, and at my desk, that I break out the Blackwing.
So begs the question: Is it a better pencil because it’s legendary? Or is it a legend because it’s a better pencil? It’s both. I admire the design and attention to detail. And there’s certainly an allure to the history. All of this won’t matter if it doesn’t perform well. And it does.
The Blackwings definitely market to a niche. There’s already an aura of prestige, much like the Leica camera brand or Filson bags. Using a Blackwing won’t make you a better artist, but you can at least pretend you’re a member of the secret club.
One last thing: To be using (sort of) the same pencil as THE Chuck Jones, well, that’s kinda cool.
Note: I purchased all the materials featured in this review with my own funds, for my own use.