Up until about a few years ago, I always used a roller-ball pen in my sketchbooks. That worked fine as it was mostly note-taking and thumbnails when I was doing graphic design. When I made the switch to lettering and illustration, I missed the ability to do light shading.
For awhile, I used an old Staedtler 0.5mm mechanical pencil. As I’m using my sketchbook all over the place, I find a wooden pencil just isn’t practical for me. While I could carry a sharpener, it gets messy and inconvenient.
The drawing tool geek in me started researching other mechanical pencils, and that’s when I came across the Uni Kuru Toga.
I hadn’t realized it at the time, but it turned out some of my favourite drawing tools were made by Uni—the Vision Elite (branded as Uni-Ball) and PIN ink pens, in particular. Originally founded as the Masaki Pencil Manufacturing Company, Uni has been around, in one form or another, since 1887. It’s parent company is Mitsubishi, but not related in any way to the car company.
The problem with mechanical pencils is that the lead gets worn down on one side as you write, which results in a chiseled edge. As you continue to sketch—or write—the tip will become more blunt. We’re talking about a 0.5mm lead, so blunt is a relative term. It’s certainly not comparable to a wooden pencil. However, if you change your grip, and happen to start sketching with the chiseled end, it can scratch into the paper. When the lead gets to this point (no pun intended) it can sometimes break. This may be an issue if you prefer a harder lead. I usually use a B, but even then I had more lead breakage than I’d like.
Roughly translated …
- “Kuru” (クル): Turning or rotating
- “Toga” (トガ): Taper to a point or become sharp.
The spring-loaded Kuru Toga clutch mechanism rotates the lead using the kinetic energy created by your strokes. Each time you lift the pencil, it will incrementally rotate. Because the lead rotates, it prevents that chiseled edge. The amount of rotation depends on the Kuru Toga model, but suffices to say, it is very slight. It isn’t so much that it keeps the lead tip sharp, but that it rotates it to keep it uniformly worn.
Uni has developed a special lead for their Kuru Toga pencils, with a soft outer layer and harder inner core. It’s only available in HB and B, and only in the 0.5mm size. You can use standard leads in the Kuru Toga, but I haven’t tested those, so I can’t report on the results.
The Uni Kuru Toga Roulette (left) and Advance (right).
Kuru-Toga pencils come in a wide-array of models and colours and in three tip sizes: 0.3, 0.5, and 0.7 mm.
I started with the “Starter Set”. While there were more upscale models, I wanted to start with something basic to see how it worked out. All the pencils I’m reviewing here were ordered though Jet Pens in the US, as they had the largest selection. In Canada, the starter set can be found at staples.ca. There are a few more models available on amazon.ca.
In practice, the starter performed flawlessly. The pencil was comfortable, and the rotating mechanism wasn’t just hype. I enjoyed it so much that I put in an order for the “Roulette” model. I’ll admit this was the pencil geek in me simply wanting, but not really needing, another Kuru Toga. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the starter set. However, I wanted something with a bit more heft. Plus, the Roulette just looked cool. My starter set went to my niece, so it has a good home.
The Roulette weighs in at 15g, 5g heavier than the Starter. While it may look like metal, only the lower half is metal. I find it better balanced than the lighter Starter model, and the knurled grip is comfortable. The lower half also has a slightly larger diameter, which helps comfort-wise. I find skinny pencil/pens difficult to use.
There’s a bit of a “spring” in the lead shaft—perhaps .5mm— when you put it to paper, but in actual use it’s nothing I’ve ever noticed. I can only see it in action if I go out of my way to notice it (this review, for example). On the knurled grip there’s a small window where you can see the rotation “effect”. It’s actually just the small Kuru Toga logo as it rotates around the cylinder. It’s not really a practical function, so I imagine the engineers put it there to prove this thing actually works. It does have a bit of a fun factor, so there’s that.
Knurled grip with “window” (left) and plastic end cap that contains the tiny eraser (right).
There are times when I bring my sketchbook with me on travels. This is where I started to worry about my “special” Roulette model. I’ve had issues with mechanical pencils in the past, where the metal sleeve pokes a hole though the bottom of my pants pocket. Or, it’s been bent or snapped off because I didn’t take enough care when putting it into my bag. I’ve also been stabbed a few times when retrieving it.
Fortunately, I found a Kuru Toga model with a retractable sleeve, the “Advance”.
At 12g, it’s in-between the Starter and the Roulette. It also has the window showing the rotation. The difference with the Advance is that it has an updated mechanism, which rotates the lead much faster than the standard Kuru Toga models. Normally, Kuru Toga pencils will rotate the lead every 40 strokes. The Advance will rotate every 20 strokes. The rotation “engine” also uses more metal in its construction. The standard engine is mostly made from plastic.
The Advance lets you retract the lead sleeve when not in use. Just hold the Advance perpendicular to your paper, click, and hold, the button at the end of the pencil and push. You can also push the sleeve in with a finger, which I often do.
Advance with lead shaft extended (left) and retracted (right).
The really neat thing about the Advance is it has a sliding lead sleeve that moves with the lead as you sketch. This helps protect the lead, but also means much less clicking.
Both the Roulette and Advance have the standard tiny mechanical pencil erasers. I consider them to be for “emergencies” only. I’m more likely to just scribble something out in my sketchbook, rather than uncap those tiny erasers. If you do use the erasers more than I do, just note that the Advance uses the Uni “standard” eraser (no metal sleeve). The Roulette’s eraser is smaller (they call it a size “C”), and sits inside a metal sleeve.
There are just two cons I can think of:
- The mechanism needs a certain amount of pressure to activate. If you have a very light touch it may not rotate. It will also not be as effective for cursive writing, as the tip isn’t leaving the paper as often.
- Holding the pencil as very low angles (ie. 30 degrees) to the surface won’t activate the mechanism. I can’t see this really being an issue, as this would probably only be something you would do with a wooden pencil, where you’re looking to do some broad shading.
For the reasonable cost, I think these are excellent drawing tools to have at your disposal.