What’s The Big Deal About Vintage Pencils?

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I realized I’d never really talked about what I like about vintage pencils, beyond the obvious that they look cool and are old and are often relics of domestic factories of companies still in business. So I thought I’d take a moment to show you some vintage pencils in action.

Vintage Pencils

One of the great things about vintage pencils is that, no matter how old they are, they are going to write if you sharpen them. If it has an eraser, avoid it completely though. The erasers will dry out in a matter of a year or two so trust me when I tell you that a 40 year old eraser will either do nothing at all or leave a dark smudge on your paper. So don’t bother with it. But the lead? Its all good.

Vintage Pencils

Some pencils will have unusual grading as opposed to the modern B (for black or soft leads) and H (for hard and therefore lighter leads). Some vintage pencils may simply say HARD or VERY HARD like the ones shown above or a combination of text.

In the past, pencils were used for lots of purposes beyond just Scantronic tests and math homework. Remember, the pencil had its heyday in the world before computers and the power of the undo.

I have a few “film lead” pencils that were designed to write on plastic film for printing or photography. Hard lead pencils were favored by draftsmen and artists and soft leads could be used to write on wood. Pencils allowed folks to apply pressure to their writing in order to easily and cheaply use carbon copies like a store receipt or invoice.

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This is a writing sample of several of my vintage pencils. There were three stand-outs in writing quality: the Futura Medium F, the Eagle Chemi*Sealed Mirado 174 and the USA Black Flyer 4500. I was stunned at how smoothly they wrote.

I also loved writing with the Press 260 Jet Black. It reminded me of the Faber-Castell Design Ebony pencil and the General’s Layout Extra Black but when I compared them, The Press 260 was light years darker and smoother. If you like either of those modern pencils, its worth it to seek out the Press 260 Jet Black.

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On the second page, I wanted to also include some modern pencils so you could have a point of reference for how dark or light the writing is.

I would say that the USA Black Flyer is comparable to the Blackwing 602 but the Flyer is a smooth round barrel while the Blackwing is a hexagonal. The Flyer is unfinished on the end. Potentially, you could sharpen it from both ends or add an eraser cap were you to find one of these at a yard sale. The Faber-Castell Grip 2001 has a similar feel, graphite-wise, to the vintage Mirado but the barrel shapes are different, not to mention the overall appearance.

I love modern and vintage pencils with equal enthusiasm. Would I give up my stash of modern Blackwing 602s for another vintage Mirado? No way. I like having the chance to sample old pencils like rare, fine wines. I enjoy them while I can and save the little, stumpy ends like corks. And modern pencils provide me with a steady stream of writing enjoyment.

Writing sample was done on Rhodia blank pad and all erasing was done with a Staedtler Mars Plastic eraser.

A.W. Faber Sure-Grip 6803 Clutch Pencil

A.W. Faber Sure-Grip Clutch Pencil

Thanks to the fact that my neighborhood is filled with artists both working and retired, yard sales tend to be a jackpot for vintage office supplies. This little gem is a vintage A.W. Faber Sure-Grip 6803. Its a clutch-style leadholder pencil that takes 2mm leads. These are popular with architects and draftsmen (draftspeople?) as the lead is strong and can be sharpened to a wicked point using a lead pointer. It’s stamped “USA” as well.

Digging in Wikipedia and various web sites, Faber was actually part of the Castell empire as far back as the 19th century so they must have had a manufacturing facility in the US. This looks like a mid-20th century lead holder by which time, I suspect, the pencil empire required manufacturing facilities in many countries.

A.W. Faber Sure-Grip vintage clutch pencil

This particular leadholder had a pre-sharpened lead so sharp I think I could have impaled someone with it. Isn’t it fantastic? I suspect the previous owner is responsible for this and that it did not come from the factory like this.

The pencil body itself is a combination of a metal knurled grip section and a metal clutch with a metallic painted hexagonal pencil body. The button on the end to release the clutch is also metal (painted a nice red).  I like it because the painted plastic section makes the whole pencil lighter and with a lower center of gravity than an all-metal leadholder.

Overall, I can tell by the construction that this was an everyday tool on the budget side of the spectrum. As a collector’s item, its probably not worth more than about $5 but I really like it and know that it came from the nice, retired draftsman down the street who was thrilled to know it was going to someone who would appreciate it. Oh, if he only knew!

 

Film King Dur-O-Lite Twist Pencil

Film King Dur-o-Lite

This Film King Dur-O-Lite pencil. It is one of those weird and wonderful pencil goodies that occasionally find their way to me. This one came from my pal Bryan over at Field Notes (much obliged!).

It’s branding includes where is was made “Melrose Park, Illinois” (yeah!) and “Film lead D-1″. It appears to be a wood case pencil but it has a twist mechanism to reveal the lead. Around the lead point end of the pencil is a metal graduated cone in weirdly Clearasil flesh color with a gold clamp ring keeping it taut. Twisting the fleshy end will reveal more lead. I attempted to hack the pencil to see if it could be refilled and it seems a bit fussy in that regard.

Film pencils were designed with a different type of graphite to hold up better on film, mylar and other plastic-y papers used in drafting, print pre-production and by photographers and the motion picture industry. The characteristics of the graphite that made them write better on film is not as important to a modern pencil connoisseur as very few people have need of this specialized ability. I like the history of tool like this though. Dave’s Mechanical Pencils has a longer article about film leads, if you’re curious.

Leadholder has some great images of an ordering brochure for the Dur-o-Lite Pencil Company which has a great typography and a fabulous illustration. From the brochure, I can establish that D-1 is probably on the harder end of the lead grades offered and that it was touted as a disposable pencil with a cedar casing.

Finally, I found a short stub on Wikipedia that indicated that Dur-o-lite and Auto-Point were rivals in their hey day. Dur-o-lite shuttered its operations in the 90s but Auto-Point is still in operation. I love that they still produce their classic Twinpoint.

I found one Dur-o-Lite film pencil on Ebay with a Buy It Now price of $3.35.

TOT Staples Solution

Vintage TOT stapler and MAX No. 10 staples

I love vintage staplers. They are good looking and often still work after all these years. Some of my favorite vintage staplers take the difficult-to-find TOT staples. Well, I took a chance and got a packet of Max No. 10 staples in green (of course) and lo and behold they fit and work perfectly in TOT staplers. They are also available in red and blue. All colors are available for $3.30 per box. If colored staples are not to your taste, plain silver No. 10 staples can be purchased in a box of 1000 from Jet Pens for $1.50.

Vintage TOT stapler and MAX No. 10 staples

Book: A Collection A Day

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Lisa Congdon’s book A Collection A Day has lots of beautifully composed photos and drawings of the many bits of ephemera she collects including vintage office supplies.

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I thought I’d share a few pages from the book that I found particularly inspiring.

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The erasers and pencil leads are probably my favorite spreads. I wish there was a poster available of these. They would make lovely office decor, wouldn’t you agree?

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(Book is available through Uppercase Magazine and comes in a tin, perfect for starting your own collecting. $25)

The History of the Trapper Keeper

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Oh, yes. You read that correctly. The History of the Trapper Keeper. Do you remember these jewels of high school? I sure do. Mental Floss published an exhaustive history of the design and development of the iconic notebook system. There’s details about market research, focus groups and patents. Yep, it was scientifically created to be fabulous.

Best quote:

John Mayer called Trapper Keepers “the genesis of OCD for my generation.”

 

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(via Mental Floss)

Esterbrook 2442 Falcon Nib

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Reader Cliff offered to send me an Esterbrook Falcon nib and I gladly accepted. What I didn’t realize until it arrived is that it is the same number as my favorite Esterbrook nibs — the #2442. It turns out that the #2442 is also called a Falcon nib or a Fine Stub. Needless to say, I was thrilled to have a second one as I have far more Esterbrook pen bodies than I do nibs but first, I needed to do a little research about what exactly made a nib a “falcon” nib.

a handful of Esties

As best I could glean from the Internet is that a Falcon nib was also a term used to describe a left-leaning italic nib which is also sometimes considered a left-handed italic. This does not mean only left handed writers can use it but that it does seem to benefit lefties who tend to write leaning a bit to the left.

Esterbrook 2442 side-by-side

At close inspection, the two 2442 nibs look a little different. The one on the left is the one I’ve had for some time and my go-to pen. The cleaner one on the right is the one that Cliff sent me and the tines seem tighter and the angled tip looks a bit sharper in the corners.

Easterbrook 2442 writing samples

When I put them to paper side-by-side, a mysterious and slightly unsettling thing occurred. My older 2442 wrote like butter, like it was made for my hand. With the feathery-lightest of touches, it applied ink to the page. No scritchy noises, no snags or skips. When I put Cliff’s shiny, new 2442 to paper it revolted against me. It skipped, stuttered and  behaved most uncivilized. How could this be the same nib? One would think the new nib would behave well and the old nib would be grumpy and fussy but no. It was the other way around. How could this be?

I pouted for days and grumbled and wondered. My instinct is that the new nib needs a little tuning to match my writing angle, to smooth the end for my somewhat wonky writing angle. It requires some pampering and adjustment to grow up to be as fabulous and flaw-free as the older 2442.

My takeaway from the experience is that not every nib, even from the same manufacturer, is going to be perfect, or perfect for me. We, as pen lovers, can either choose to pass it on to someone else who it might be perfect for, or tweak it, tune it or manipulate it to work with our needs. This is not the first pen that did not perform as I anticipated. I’ve had a vintage Parker that were actually broken and leaked like a sieve. I have had brand new pens from manufacturers respected for their craftsmanship fall short of my expectations (one due to an inherent flaw and one to do a user flaw). Over time though, I’ve learned not to let these experiences sour me on fountain pens. Each is a learning experience and what may be a jewel to you may not be for me. That’s part of what makes the world of pens and fountain pens so wonderful.

Feel free to share your own pen experiences in the comments, for better or for worse.

(Nib sent to by reader Cliff, aka Caleath. Thank you for your kindness. I will make this work!)

Country Living Featurette: Mad-Men Style Vintage Office Supplies

Country Living Sept 2013

Yesterday was a big day for me. The September 2013 issue of Country Living magazine showed up in my mailbox and included a Collecting featurette about collecting vintage office supplies that featured some of the jewels from my personal collection. Yep, you read that correctly.

I sent my beloved Adler Tippa typewriter and some of my other favorite vintage office supplies to the Country Living office to help them put together this feature together. I’ve had to be a bit hush-hush about it but now I can shout it from the rafters. That’s my typewriter!!!

Country Living Sept 2013

(via Country Living, September 2013 now available on newsstands)

What’s a Swivodex?

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Ever heard of a Swivodex? Its an ink wells designed by the same people who invented the Rolodex. Its a tip-proof ink well that can be tilted (think “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!”) to get more ink out of the bottle without making a mess — hopefully. They were produced in the middle of the 20th century, best guess is the 40s and 50s. If you spy one at an antique store, grab it! Could be a great way to dispense your favorite inks!

(photo via Pendemonium)