By Scott Daniels
$2,000 worth of pencils.
There are, among everyday possessions, those objects which are cherished by their devotees and described with the kind of prose generally reserved for particularly enthusiastic lovers or memorable bottles of scotch. Some may speak of the perfect glide of their favorite, now-obsolete razor. Or the perfect smartness of eyeglass frames sported by the jet setters of the 50s. There’s the fellow with the wristwatch he could not bear to be without, the woman who searches eternally for a certain pair of heels that have never let her down.
For writers, artists, and composers of the 20th century, that object was a pencil: The Blackwing 602. Made for some 80 years, their discontinuation in 1998 sent men and women scurrying to grab up the last boxes. Today, they’re reproduced in pretty much identical form by a firm other than their originator. But for the purist, a pre-1994 Blackwing 602 is a slender, cedar muse which they will literally insist be tucked into their coffins.
Eberhard Faber was once, at the time of the American Civil War and after, a world-renowned maker of cedar pencils, with a factory in New York where the United Nations complex now stands. In the early 1930s, the company risked bucking the Great Depression by introducing a new pencil aimed at the well-off. It was made of American Cedar, as had the company’s pencils from the beginning. The lead was especially creamy and responsive, the ferule flat and squared off, with a replaceable eraser which could be advanced for fresh corrections as it wore down. The design prevented it from rolling off the desk. The name was embossed in gold: Blackwing 602. It was a super premium product launched into the fog of the dust bowl, and it was a hit.
It was quickly taken up by anyone who had reason to scrawl something on paper. John Steinbeck was an early adopter and lifelong disciple. Everything written by Stephen Sondheim has begun in the barrel of a 602. Nabokov caressed his 602 as he scratched out drafts of “Lolita.” Truman Capote kept boxes of them by the bed. The animators of Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny… well, most every animator who used a pencil, used a Blackwing 602. Shamus Colhane was a Disney animator, and by God, when he died, he clutched his 602 in his cold hands and took it to his grave.
In a familiar story playing out, Eberhard Faber was bought up by this company and that, and the product line became just a marginal company asset for a bigger concern with little care for old pencils. When, in 1998, with little more than 1,000 boxes of 602s being sold annually, the ferule machine gave up the ghost, the line was discontinued.
Passionate doodlers rushed to buy up what was left, and the remaining supply dried up until the desperate began searching drawers at tag sales for stubs. Prices soared to $50-100 per pencil, if you could find one. eBay prices hit $2k per 20 pencils. People ponied up anyway.
Since the trademark was allowed to expire, the Blackwing brand was revived in 2010 under the name Palomino Blackwing, and you can now get a box of 12 602 pencils (along with the resurrected complete Blackwing line of varying leads and colors) at $25 per dozen. They’re quite excellent pencils and worth the cash—this writer has had the chance to try an original and has a stash of the new. One gets by with what one can find.
Though lavishing praise and coin on something as humble as a pencil may seem a bit silly, it is an instrument which really does inspire good work. On a basic level, it writes smoothly and quickly, living up to its old slogan, “half the pressure, twice the speed.” It sharpens to a long, sharp point, tends to wear slowly and resists the constant, off-pissing breakage common in cheap yellow No. 2s. More esoterically, it can sometimes be the thing that breaks a week of creative block. If Steinbeck used this thing, maybe some of the magic will pass to me, too.
Toss the Blackwing 602 in with the Tart Arnels, the Levis selvedge jeans, the Stratocaster, the original Gillette, the Gruen Curvex, all of them remarkable among the mundane.