While we may go on and on extolling the virtues of woodcase pencils, fountain pens, gel pens, and rollerballs, something must be said about the universality of the humble ballpoint. When you think of a pen, the first thing that comes to mind is the ballpoint, and it's easy to see why; they're everywhere.
But that was not always the case. Back before the invention of the ballpoint, every bit of ink writing needed to be done with a fountain pen. Though many enjoy using fountain pens, the need to fill, clean, and maintain them is seen as a hobby to some and a chore to others. To cater to the need for a self-contained ink-filled writing instrument, one that could write on nearly any paper, no matter how cheap (try writing on newsprint with a fountain pen), and anywhere, including an airplane, Laszlo Biro introduced the ballpoint pen in 1938. After buying the patent from him in 1945, Marcel Bich introduced the Bic Cristal in 1950. The "Biro," as it is known in many countries, is the archetype of the "pen." And, at only $1 for ten of them, it's the cheapest good writing instrument out there, to this day. Pencils in this range include the woodcased Dixon #2, which has been accepted as one of the worst pencils out there, and the Papermate Write Bros mechanical, which bends, cracks, and breaks in less than a week. I will acknowledge that in terms of overall writing experience, you can do much better with the likes of a fountain pen or rollerball, or even a premium woodcase pencil, but that's not the real point of the Bic Cristal. The Cristal is versatile, dependable, and really, really cheap, and that's what makes it classic.
Fit/Finish: The hexagonal shape and long, thin body are tributes to the traditional woodcase pencil, and makes the pen comfortable to hold while simultaneously resisting rolling off a desk. Mold lines are visible, but not too sharp to the touch, and the clear body makes it easy to see when you'll run out of ink. The pen is surprisingly robust, and will not bend or crack in the hand.
Performance: For the price, nothing even comes close. The line is smooth, legible, and consistent, unlike the $20 Caran d'Ache 849. According to Bic's website, the pen will write for 2-3km (1.2-1.9 mi). Not too shabby for 10 cents!
Overall: Inducted into the MoMA's permanent collection, the Cristal is timeless, made to precision standards, and performs well. Anyone looking for a classic writing instrument with a ton of history behind it need not spend $40+ on an original Blackwing 602, nor $100+ on a Waterman, Lamy, or Mont Blanc fountain pen - the humble Bic Cristal has what you're looking for.
Over the years, Eagle/Berol/Sanford/Papermate has traditionally been conservative about the designs of their premier Mirado and Black Warrior lines. A prewar Eagle Mikado is easily identifiable as the ancestor of today's Papermate Mirado Classic.
hi-res images here https://flic.kr/s/aHsk1Ffzsj
But with the Mirado Design, Papermate is attempting to attract a "new crowd" to the Black Warrior. With a design near the front of the pencil reminiscent of the Sanford chevron logo, it clearly appeals to kids who want something "cool" to differentiate themselves from their yellow-number-2 yielding friends.
Unfortunately for Papermate, however, it's no more premier than a run of the mill #2 in terms of quality, and is in my opinion unworthy of the Mirado name.
Fit/Finish: Even before opening the package, I could see splintering of the wood near the point. After handling the pencil for awhile I noticed how thin the paint was and how the branding was not foil-stamped, but painted on. While the ferrule is attached securely and the red band around it nicely finished, there was some chipping of the paint at the attachment point. Though the pencil retails at $2.99 for a 5 pack, I got my pack for 79 cents, and am glad I did.
Performance: While the pencil sharpens well and the lead in this one is centered, the writing experience itself is nothing of note. The line is not especially black or dense, and the point retention is average at best. Erasability?
Not too shabby; the attached eraser is leagues ahead of the one on the standard Mirado Black Warrior. But the lead has plenty of rough spots, and for a pencil positioned as "a cut above the rest" it's not quite good enough.
Overall: Again, as with the General's Semi-Hex, this is NOT a bad pencil. But considering its pedigree and the quality many have come to expect from the Mirado name, the Mirado Design fails to satisfy. For someone looking for a "cool" pencil, with a unique design to stand out from their peers, it's OK, but for those concerned with performance and quality, look elsewhere.
I got this pencil today while at the Botanic Gardens here in Glencoe, Illinois (near where I live). I was passing by the room where they had some kind of a flower show going on, and saw this pencil sitting on the table, through a glass door. Opening it up, a lady in her 60s notified me that they were closed. I said, "I have a strange request, but could you please hand me that pencil over there?" Slightly confused, she said, "This one? Do you need a pencil?" and then "You can have that one."
After confirming, I gladly took it with me. How does it write? Well, it's smooth and light, as a #3 should be. I have several #2s but no #3s of the 482 so it was a great addition to my collection. Definitely the highlight of my day.
Please excuse the picture quality, it's from my phone.
I got this pen for my birthday three or four years ago - it looks amazing, with all-metal build and that awesome yellow color, which happens to be my favorite. It's even shaped like a pencil! What's not to love? Well...read on.
hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZZSf14
Fit/Finish: The pen is built like a tank as its Swiss construction implies. The paint does not chip off and the clicker mechanism is near-silent and silky smooth. Branding is understated - literally, it's under the clip - and overall the 849 exudes quality. One thing I don't particularly care for is the length - it feels a bit too short for my taste, at five inches. The clip looks removable but isn't, with a nice angular design that doesn't seem ready to detach. So, a 5 in the fit/finish department, but...
Performance: Here's where the pen loses its marks. The Goliath refill may be high capacity, but it's not a rich black, nor is it consistent. The pen performs like your average disposable black stick pen, albeit a little smoother. Inconsistency and white spots in the line have plagued this refill since I got the pen. This refill is just BAD.
Overall: Not a horrible pen - actually, a great one - if not for the refill. Parker-style refills can be hacked to fit (they're a tad bit too long), but they, especially the Fisher refill - are loads better than the included one. Still, the quality of the metal body and clicker mechanism are good enough to give this pen at least a cursory glance.
Here is another special series of the 207 that I'd like to share! I picked this one up at Wally World for $5, and these colors are pretty much the antithesis of the loud "colors" series from a few posts ago. They are billed as "black infused with color," and indeed unless you look closely, they seem like black, especially the green and purple. The bodies are stealthy, with the nose cone and clip matching the rest of the black look, as opposed to their customary silver.
Check them out below!
hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZZfvMp
Yet another classic from Fisher, the Bullet was immortalized by induction into the MoMA's permanent collection due to its iconic design. The #1 best-seller in Fisher's lineup, the Bullet is popular thanks to its low price, excellent build quality, and of course its infallible refill. This is my second one - I lost my first one, a chrome Bullet, after five years and only one refill change. Here's to the next five years!
Hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk1zUptj
Fit/Finish: The pen is built in the USA to very high standards, and it shows. The refill writes smoothly with no issues starting up, and will write upside-down (I tried) and underwater. There is no rattling or wobbliness at all, and the clip is securely attached. The stealthy matte-black finish stays pristine, even where the cap attaches to the back of the pen when posting. Once the cap is posted, transforming the Space Pen into a full-size (5.25 inches) instrument, and the cap doesn't come off unless pulled off. When closed, the Space Pen makes a great pocket pen, at 3.75 inches, making it the pen many EDC'ers recommend, including Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage.
Performance: Excellent, as the refill never fails (until it runs out, of course). Speaking of which, it will write for 2-3 miles according to Fisher's spec, and I had one write for four years until needing replacement. The supplied black medium refill works fine, but the blue fine refill is even better. Upside down, or at any angle, the pen is just as smooth.
Overall: At only $15 on Amazon, the Fisher Bullet Space Pen is a steal. Reliable, portable, and solid, this one can go with you anywhere, and once you try one, you'll want to take it with you! An excellent, practical ballpoint for any occasion.
This pencil, along with the Rotring 600, set the standard for drafting pencils everywhere. With a 4mm fixed sleeve, solid aluminum body, and knurled metal grip, this syringe lookalike means business.
hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk1zUpu1
Fit/Finish: Exemplary. The pencil is light but feels extremely durable, and everything from the clip to the lead hardness indicator is attached securely. The lead advance mechanism button, though plastic, does not rattle at all when writing, even at speed, and the mechanism itself is consistent and dependable. Branding is prominent but simple, and does not seem to wear off over time. When I got it, there was a bit of loose lead in the package, which got onto the hard-to-clean grip.
Performance: Also excellent. The balance point is a bit closer to the front than the back due to the heavy grip section, making for a very comfortable writing experience. Paired with Pentel's Super Hi-Polymer lead, this is a clear candidate for class notes and the like. The eraser works well, but is an "emergency use only" style drafting pencil eraser. A handy needle is included under it for clearing out lead jams.
Overall: I truly enjoy using the Staedtler 925 25-05, for everything from notes to homework problems. Its precision and traditional yet modern design make it a great deal at $21 (which is what I bought it for) but as of this writing, it's just $13 on Amazon, making it a steal. It's available in 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, 0.9, and 2mm lead diameters, and is a must-have for your collection.
Another classic of the American pencil industry, the General's Semi-Hex, with its school yellow and retro box to match, harkens back to an earlier time. Unfortunately, issues with its finish and core prevent it from attaining the ranks of top pencils.
Fit/Finish: The rounded hexagonal shape is back, and the barrel is comfortable to hold. The foil stamping is not even, and paint on the ferrule has chipped off with barely any use. Though the cedar smells and sharpens great, with the core perfectly centered, it looks like a second-rate product.
Performance: The lead goes down nice and dark, with a dense, easy-to-read line. I have encountered more than a few rough spots, though, and the point is wearing down quite fast. The lead smears a lot when in a notebook, and I've had a couple sets of class notes rendered illegible as a result. How about erasability?
On both fronts, there is a bit of ghosting. By all accounts, this lead rates no more than "average" in my book.
Overall: Because of its disappointing fit/finish and performance, I was not very impressed with the Semi-Hex. This is the third one of the box I purchased, and the previous two had similar issues. For the price, I think you can do better (for example, with the excellent Cedar Pointe by the same company) - but it is by no means a "bad" pencil. The cedar is very fragrant and easy to sharpen, and not once did I have any off-center or breaking lead.
Ever since I tried one a few years ago, I've been a huge fan of the uni-ball Signo 207 gel pens. Available in many different colors and designs (i.e. the BLX series), they're awesome for those who want a huge variety of colors without delving into the world of fountain pens.
Made in Japan, they perform smoothly and reliably, with the "thin lining" common with other rollers (Bic Grip Roller, for example) nearly nonexistent. With this set I wanted to show you the vibrant colors of the "colors" series. I picked up this pack for $3 from Office Max. The notepad is a standard Rhodia 5x5 (80gsm) and I chose it because its bright white stock shows inks' true colors.
Link to hi-res images: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZXgdE9
The Golden Bear is Palomino's "school grade" standard pencil. Made of cedar, it's a step up from the Prospector, and I definitely got that impression from my experience with it. Review below:
Wow - this lead is really dark! Compared to the Prospector, the Golden Bear's lead is smoother, denser, and darker. Definitely a great first impression.
Fit/Finish: When I sharpened it up, the pencil's wood splintered a little bit, leading to the "split" you can see below. The core itself is well-centered, though, so I didn't have any worse sharpening woes. As with the Prospector, this one has a sharply cornered hexagonal barrel. The ferrule and foil stamping are applied well, and the pencil gives an impression of high quality all-around. I especially enjoy the orange-and-blue design, as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign :)
Performance: Smooth and dark. Point retention does not, however, suffer as a result. The graphite does smear a bit, though, but no more than the much lighter-writing Prospector. I like writing with the Golden Bear. How about erasing?
All right, looks like I'll need to carry around that Staedtler then!
Overall: This pencil is most certainly in a different lead class than the Prospector, but the wood splintering and eraser performance bring down an otherwise stellar example of American pencil making. They're available for $2.95/dozen.
hi-res images here: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZVp5kF