Latest Update: Added some brief notes on the Faber-Castell e-Motion, and the Caran d’Ache Fixpencil, and a link to an article I’ve spent a lot of time working on recently – The Cult Pens Guide to Mechanical Pencils.
- For more information about mechanical pencils than you can shake a stick at, go read The Cult Pens Guide to Mechanical Pencils. I know it’s good, because I wrote most of it, with lots of help and suggestions.
- See also: Pencil Hardness: What those letters and number mean – HB, 4B, 2H, etc.
Some of these link to full reviews of our own, and some link to reviews elsewhere (especially Dave’s Mechanical Pencils.) Others just have a few notes. We get to try lots of pens and pencils now, but don’t get chance to fully review them all. Most of the ones we’ve tried are via Cult Pens, Michael’s employer. Opinions here are entirely our own, etc.
There’s two main types of mechanical pencils – Leadholders and Automatic pencils…
These are the type most people are familiar with now – usually quite thin lead, with a clicking mechanism operated by a button at the top. The most common ones around today take 0.5mm leads.
Relatively unusual these days, leadholders have been around a long time – in fact, early leadholders were around before pencils. Some sort of clutch mechanism grips the lead in place inside a tube, usually made of plastic or metal.
- Matic – We’ve not tried any Bic pencils ourselves, but our comrades over in the revolution have just posted a review of the Bic Matic. Cheap, but good and useable. Sounds quite similar to the Pilot Super Grip, but without the grip, and with a plastic tip.
- Fixpencil – I’d never even seen one of these before, but Cult Pens managed to get hold of some. The mechanism doesn’t feel as over-engineered as the Staedtler Mars 780, and it’s much lighter. For me, the Staedtler is still the nicer pencil, but if you prefer a smoother grip or a lighter weight, or just need something that doesn’t look quite so retro-geek, it’s a very nice pencil, and takes the same lead as the 780.
- e-Motion – a thick pencil with thick lead. Takes 1.4mm lead, and twists to advance, as most mechanical pencils used to years ago. You can fully control how much lead is exposed, and the thick lead runs very little risk of breaking. Good for quick scribbling, but not so good for detailed work, as it’s tricky to keep a good point on it. I handled a couple of these when working on the Cult Pens guide mentioned above, and ended up buying one. I keep it handy all the time, as it’s be best thing around for quick notes. (Available, of course, at Cult Pens.)
- Grip 2011 at Dave’s. One that goes against everything Dave likes in a pencil, but he ends up liking it anyway. A bit like Staedtler’s Mars 780 for me, I suppose. I’ve only had a quick ‘feel’ of one of these, but it has nice balance, and a good solid feel to it. It has a nice width, too, and I think it would be very comfortable. I’d expected it to feel a bit cheaper than it actually does.
- Grip Plus – Sam’s favourite. A nice comfortable pencil for doing a lot of drawing.
- TK-Fine Vario – soft or hard – how do you like it? Some mechanical pencils have cushioned lead, so it gives a bit as you write. Others don’t. Soft is usually good for writing, hard for drafting. Drawing probably depends on your style and preferences. Well, the TK-Fine Vario can do either. I’m actually not all that impressed with this feature, but it does seem to make writing feel a bit smoother, whilst still letting you press on as hard as you need to when you’re drawing really dark stuff. Apart from that feature, though, it’s a really nice pencil. Not cheap, but not too expensive, either. It’s a shame the tip isn’t retractable, as that limits how you can carry it, but it does have a really nice balance to it, with the centre of gravity good and low. Add a twist-up eraser that’s quite effective, and the classy Faber-Castell green and metal styling, and I actually really like it. Â£7.50 from Cult Pens. (The 0.5mm is on the site, 0.3mm should be along soon. Other grades should be coming later.)
- Update: After a bit more use, I’m less impressed – still feels great to hold, but the grip is a bit too slippery for me in use. The shiny metal lets my fingers slide down, and I find I keep having to reposition – Pentel’s GraphGear 1000 is much better from that point of view. If only it was knurled. Nothing beats knurled metal, plus ‘knurled’ is just a fantastic word.
Lamy are best known for their fountain pens – one of the few independent companies still making such things, I think. They do a few interesting ballpoints and mechanical pencils too.
- Lamy 2000 – the fountain pen version is one of my regular objects of drooling. Maybe if we find ourselves with a bit of spare cash at some point, I’ll get to try one out. Anyway, I’ve not tried the pencil version either, but it’s another of Dave’s favourites, so you can read all about it there.
- Lamy Scribble – a dumpy little thing, which rather appeals to me, but not one I’ve had chance to try yet. Dave has, and wrote about it on Pencil Revolution. He’s also written a bit about a ‘day in the life‘ of his Scribble, taking it with him to do conservation work near where he lives in New Zealand.
- Technician II – a guest review on Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. Eric does like his PaperMate.
- EZ#2 AX17 – not one I’ve even seen around here, but Dave has reviewed it. A very cheap, but reasonably decent pencil.
- Sharp P205 – we’ve not tried one, but Dave has, so go read his review. It’s a fairly basic, but very well made pencil.
- GraphGear 500 – one I’ve only played with briefly. Very similar to the GraphGear 1000, but with a plastic barrel, and without the retracting tip. Because the whole top end is so much lighter, I actually find the 500 better balanced for my tastes than the 1000. Quite similar in a lot of ways to Faber-Castell’s TK-Fine Vario. The switchable lead cushioning on the Vario is a nice touch, though, and I prefer F-C’s styling.
- GraphGear 1000 – solid and metal, with fully retracting tip. Looks cool too.
- Kerry – more class than most. Resembles a nice pen more than a pencil. Convenient and totally pocket safe. I love my Kerry.
- Birdie – very thin, but surprisingly solid. If you need something to fit in a Filofax or notebook pen loop, the Birdie is nice and shiny.
- Super Grip – cheap and cheerful, but works really nicely.
- Easy-Lead – a slightly odd sort of lead – soft, black, and slightly squeaky.
- H32 – a ‘professional’ pencil from Pilot. See the photos on its page at Cult Pens, but don’t take too much notice – in the pictures, it looks a bit cheap and plastic to me. The reality is better – looks and feels quite good. I’d have bought one if there had been a 0.3mm on the shelf at the time, but I really wanted to try a 0.3, so I grabbed a Staedtler Mars Micro instead.
The Shaker – just shake to advance the lead – a meh answer to a question I never heard anyone ask.
Croquis– thick, thick lead, for sketching. Nice dumpy shape – not good if you like a long bodied pencil, but I like it.
- Core – by Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. A bit of a nasty-looking thing. Good and grippy, but I think there’s better looking pencils around for the money. Unless you like that ‘extreme sportz’ look.
- Tikky II – a fairly small update to the classic Tikky. I only actually own an old Tikky, but I’ve tried the new one, and it’s very similar. At an RRP of £2.19, these things are great value (even better – only £1.99 at Cult Pens). Apart from the lack of a retractable tip, they’re as solid-feeling and reliable as almost anything else. I’m not keen on the grip, personally, but at that price, it’s not too much to risk.
- Newton – another review at Dave’s Mechanical Pencils. This Newton is actually a three-in-one pen and pencil. Personally, I had a lot of trouble with the pencil mechanisms in the very similar Quattro Data Pen snapping leads, so I couldn’t recommend either of these if you mainly want a good pencil, but they’re very handy, and you get three or four ‘devices’ in a single pen that’s no thicker than a normal pen.
- Schmidt Converter at Dave’s Mechanical Pencils – a mechanical pencil built in the shape of a Parker ballpoint refill, so in theory you can use any ‘parker-compatible’ ballpoint you happen to like as a mechanical pencil. Doesn’t work with all of them in practice, but it’s still an interesting idea.
- Triplus Micro – Cult Pens sent me one to try, and I wasn’t all that impressed. Dave has tried the same pencil, though, and really liked it. Just shows how much tastes can differ. It’s a very good eraser, especially for such a slim pencil, and the triangular shape does make it quite pleasant to hold. I can’t quite work out why I’m not keen on it, but they’re reasonably cheap, so it might be worth a try – see if your tastes are more like Dave’s or mine. I want to say that I don’t like it because it’s so long and thin, but the 780 is more so, and I love that one.
- Mars 780 Leadholder – an old favourite of mine. Long and thin, which I usually don’t like, but there’s just something nice about the 780 and its 2mm leads.
- Mars Micro – I’ve always liked Staedtler stuff, and when I wanted to try a 0.3mm pencil, it was a Mars Micro I ended up with. I wasn’t too impressed on the whole. You get a lot for the money (Â£3.80 at Cult Pens, £4.25 RRP) – a rubber grip, and a retractable tip. The balance is good, and the grip isn’t bad. Retracting the tip is surprisingly hard work, though, and prone to snapping the lead. After only a few minutes of trying it out, mine stopped working entirely. It turned out that snapped lead had jammed its mechanism. Unscrewing the tip and feeding a lead through the guide tube cleaned it out, and it works again now, but it doesn’t seem as well made as some others. If you don’t need a retractable tip, I think the Rotring Tikky II is better value. If you do, and you want a ‘drafting style’ tip, I’d spend the extra for something else – a Pentel GraphGear 1000, perhaps – or even save a bit and go for the cheap-but-decent Pilot Super Grip (0.5mm only). Part of the problem may be that this is the first 0.3mm pencil I’ve used, and they’re bound to be more prone to snapping.
- Graphite 779 – at Dave’s again. Looks fairly run-of-the-mill, but it’s got an ‘auto-advance’ feature that Dave reckons actually works ok.
Uni-ball is the Mitsubishi Pencil Company.
- Shalaku DX – the button is on the side, not the top. Unusual design that works ok, but I’d still go for Pilot’s Super Grip if it’s a cheap one you’re after.
Mechanical Pencil Leads
Dave’s Mechanical Pencils has done some thorough testing, in the form of running a World Cup for pencil leads. If you just want to know who the final winner is, you could just skip to the end, but you’d be missing out on some quality entertainment…
- Pool A: Pentel, Parker, Staedtler and Student’s Choice.
- Pool B: Faber-Castell, Rotring, Waterman and Zebra.
- Pool C: Caran d’Ache, Cross, Micro and Mont Blanc.
- Pool D: Insung Hands, Lamy, Papermate and Pilot.
- Elimination Round: I won’t give the game away by sayint who is in the other rounds, but there’s a strong showing from the Japanese ready for the Semi-Finals.
- Semi-Finals: One expected result, one unexpected.
- The Final: Where the winner is declared. No great surprise to me – it’s been my favourite for a long time, though to be honest, I use whatever we happen to have. Unless I’m testing side-by-side, I can’t tell the difference.
- The Review: Dave takes a look back on the testing, and shares his thoughts on the results and the people who think he’s mad.
It’s pretty easy with most modern (clicky) pencils, but quite a few older pencils used odd twist-to-advance mechanisms, and needed filling in some odd ways. Dave explains further.
- The Quest for the Best in Mechanical Pencils at MetaFilter – lots of suggestions for good pencils. Found via Slow Burn Productions.
- Dave’s Mechanical Pencils – an excellent blog all about automatic pencils. Dave tests different pencils and leads regularly, and struggles to overcome his dislike for rubber grips. A few of the reviews listed above are at Dave’s – no point in us both reviewing the same pencils, unless we just happen to have one around.
Leadholder.com is the online drafting pencil museum, and if you’re a bit of a pencil geek, it’s utterly fascinating. I’ve just spent an alarming amount of time there, and I’m nowhere near finished yet. There’s leadholders in here dating back to 1860, right up to current models.
In addition to the actual museum, there’s a nicely written history of leadholders and the development of the clutch mechanisms – more interesting than it sounds. Even if you are a pencil geek and you already think it does sound interesting.
My Staedtler Mars 780 is there, along with the history of its model range, even down to left handed variants (left handed pencil? Yes – the printing is the other way up so you can still read it.) Some of the Caran d’Ache pencils in the specialist section are quite beautiful designs, but part of the criteria for being a real drafting pencil is to be made to be used, not looked at.
My favourites in the museum? Well, I’ve still got a soft spot for my Mars 780, but mainly because it’s available. The prettiest and most solid-looking ones take the award for me – the David Hayward Design pencils. A solid, usable pencil that looks amazing.
Thanks to Dennis for letting me know about the site in a comment on my Pilot Croquis picture on Flickr.