This is part of an ongoing series where I review some of my favorite creative tools!
I first spotted Blackwing pencils on the Instagram posts of various artists I follow, and was intrigued by these supposed “high end pencils”. The more I saw their sophisticated colors and giant, shiny ferrules, the more I needed to try one for myself!
Eager as I was, it actually took me quite a while to get my hands on one. As a Blackwing newbie, I wanted to sample one of each since the different pencils contain varying lead grades. However, Blackwings are only available in packs of 12 at most retailers… and since they aren’t cheap (about $22 for 12), an entire box is a hefty pencil commitment!
If you’re lucky though, you can find single versions in little brick-and-mortar shops for about two dollars. I picked up a few at Maido in San Jose, and one at CW Pencils in Manhattan. (I’ve also spotted “eligible singles” at both Kinokuniya branches in San Francisco and NYC, as well as FLAX Art in San Francisco.)
The original Blackwing lineup consists of three models: the Blackwing MMX, Blackwing 602, and Blackwing Pearl. Here are some details:
- Blackwing MMX: softest and darkest graphite, matte black lacquer with gold text, gold ferrule, and a white eraser. This is the only pencil that has a slim gold band printed near the ferrule.
- Blackwing Pearl: medium graphite, shiny pearl white lacquer with black text, gold ferrule, and a black eraser
- Blackwing 602: hardest graphite, shiny gray lacquer with two sides of gold text, gold ferrule, and a black eraser. This pencil has Blackwing’s motto, “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” printed on the body.
The soft MMX lead wears down rather quickly, and is best for sketching. Both the Pearl and 602 have better point retention, and are great as general-use writing pencils. In terms of smoothness, they are all very smooth — a quality that becomes apparent if you write with a Blackwing for a while and then switch back to a cheap school pencil.
It’s hard to tell in these photos, but there really is a slight variation in darkness/lightness as you go from the MMX to the 602.
In terms of sharpening, all of them sharpen very well. Cheap pencils tend to have misaligned graphite cores, which mean they frequently snap while sharpening. Quality pencils like the Blackwing have meticulously aligned cores, so they did not have any issues — even with an older, slightly dull sharpener.
They also have large erasers housed in shiny oversized ferrules. I honestly think the gold ferrule is what leads me to reach for Blackwings more often than any other pencil (oooh, shiny!). The eraser can be extended by inching it up from the metal casing, or swapped for other erasers of varying colors.
The Apple-esque colors of white, gold, black, and “space gray” make them lovely eye candy on my desk, and pretty props for my photos.
If you do decide to splurge on a whole 12-pack of pencils, it is a worthwhile purchase. The packaging is nicely done, with a minimal sleeve and a nice matte black box that definitely worth keeping.
Another noteworthy pencil point to mention is that Blackwing offers a seasonal limited edition release, called Volumes. To those outside of the stationery lovers’ circle, a limited edition pencil may seem like a strange thing to be giddy about, but even those with no affinity for stationery can at least appreciate the thoughtful design that goes into these special releases.
A recent release, Volume 211, is inspired by the 211-mile John Muir trail that runs from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. Its natural-wood finish and rustic brown eraser really evoke the woodsy, outdoor spirit of John Muir — making it the perfect match for the Field Notes Shelterwood!
As a calligraphy artist, I have found a designated use for the 602 as my envelope sketching pencil — its lead is light enough to be easily erased, yet dark enough that I can see it on colored envelopes. I’ve used up quite a length of this pencil making wedding envelopes and sketching out name cards.
I’ve also been experimenting with pencil calligrapy (penciligraphy?), and have found the soft Blackwing MMX capable of creating very elegant line variation. To accomplish this, I treat the pencil like a dip nib or brush tip — press harder on downstrokes for swells, and lighter on upstrokes for hairlines.
I’ve been using Blackwings in regular rotation for a while now and there’s just something about them that is really unique. Part of the pencil’s allure certainly lies in its chic appearance and the cult mentality of the creative folks that use them!
That being said, it also has an extensive and fascinating history, which covers legendary animators, musicians, and authors like John Steinbeck. History buffs can read about it on the official Blackwing website.