THE BLACKWING EXPERIENCE: the Art Directors Club celebrates the iconic pencil of the creative process

On April 17th, the Art Directors Club partners with Palomino Blackwing to present THE BLACKWING EXPERIENCE. An opening party for the week-long Blackwing Experience exhibition in the ADC Gallery, this is a multimedia event celebrating the iconic Blackwing pencil.

For decades, Blackwings were the pencil of choice for a generation of visual artists, illustrators, animators, editors, composers and writers, and beloved by many of the greatest creative minds. The brand went dormant in the 1990s, although an impassioned fanbase remained. Two years ago the Cal Cedar company revived the Blackwing, in a new version painstakingly modeled after the original. Now, as a new generation of creatives is discovering this classic tool, the Art Directors Club hosts a party that includes contemporary artists’ homage to the pencil, works by the Chuck Jones Center of Creativity,“artisanal pencil sharpening”, antique pencil memorabilia, live music, live projection drawing and more: plus opportunities for attendees to grab a drink, grab a Blackwing and create their own masterpiece.

We asked Charles Berolzheimer, the CEO of Cal Cedar, some questions about the return of the Blackwing. The man responsible for the reviving of the brand, he is also a sixth-generation pencil-maker, and has a true passion on the subject. In this interview he delves deep into what this pencil means to the creative fields, the involved process of bringing it back, and what it means to pick a pencil up in the digital age.

So, we’re celebrating a pencil. What is this Blackwing and where does it come from?
The Blackwing 602 was originally introduced by Eberhard Faber in the 1930’s. It had two distinctive features compared to most other graphite pencils used for art and writing purposes in its era. It had a special formulation for its graphite core which provided for a very smooth writing performance that was marketed with the slogan “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed”. The graphite performance was similar to Eberhard Faber’s premium Microtomic range of graded leads for artists and technical drawing purposes, but available only in one grade which was never imprinted on the pencil or commonly disclosed. Additionally the Blackwing features a distinctive ferule and eraser design with a removable and extendable block eraser that offered some improved utility vs. standard cylindrical erasers permanently fixed to the pencil.

The Blackwing was produced by Eberhard Faber until 1987 when the company was acquired by Faber-Castell USA who took over production relocating to their Lewisburg, Tennessee factory. For a brief period the pencil became the Faber-Castell Blackwing 602. About 1994 Faber-Castell USA was purchased by Newell Rubbermaid through it’s Sanford Sharpie division, although the brand rights to Faber-Castell name were retained by the German partner. Newell continued production of the Blackwing until 1998 when it was discontinued due to lack of sufficient sales given their primary focus on mass market high volume products.

The new Palomino Blackwing and Palomino Blackwing 602 models are produced in Japan by small customers for our wooden cedar slats who have an exceptional level of craftsmanship and reputation for high quality. Japanese produced graphite cores are among the smoothest darkest available in the world. The Palomino Blackwing model first introduced in 2010 features a softer formulation with a buttery feel ideal for sketching and music notation offering a rich, dark mark. Subsequently we worked closely with our graphite supplier to introduce our Palomino Blackwing 602 model with a slightly firmer lead, that more closely replicates the original Eberhard Faber version both in function and design, including the “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” slogan. The 602 model provides for a longer lasting point between sharpening with slightly lighter mark nearly comparable in smoothness to our standard Blackwing model and is favored by writers and others seeking longer lasting sharpness. Both models revive the unique replaceable eraser with a slightly larger and better performing white and black erasers that pair well with the matt black and pearl grey finish of the two pencils. Pink replacement erasers are available as an add-on purchase for those who prefer a more traditional look.

The Genuine Incense-cedar wood our company supplies for these pencils grows in the forests of California and Oregon and provides for exceptional smooth machining, sharpening and brilliant lacquer finish for which this species and our company’s slat products are long respected. In fact, Incense cedar is the one raw material consistently sourced and utilized along the historical timeline of production for the Blackwing Pencil. From the first Eberhard Faber versions produced in the US in the 1930s through to our Palomino version today produced in Japan. Incense-cedar is part of the legacy of the Blackwing brand.

What makes this such an iconic creative instrument?
First, the distinctive design and performance of the Blackwing has had a unique appeal throughout its lifetime. Under Eberhard Faber and it’s successors the design went through several variations as the brand evolved over time. In fact the oldest models had a slightly softer graphite core and a darker black lacquer finish evolving over time to the gunmetal grey metallic with the harder formulation produced in later years. These historical evolutions in design and performance are mirrored somewhat in the differences between our earlier Palomino Blackwing and Blackwing 602 models today. The users of Blackwing pencils seem to have identified with the distinctive look and feel of the pencils and associated this with their creative process in some way.

Throughout it’s history the Blackwing pencil was used by a broad range of creative artists in the arena of music and lyric composition, animation, and broader artists and writers as well as others who simply appreciate the pencil for its excellent performance, look and feel. Leading creative influences such as Chuck Jones, Steven Sondheim, Steinbeck, Duke Ellington and more are all known to have used the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing. The directors of the Boston Athenaeum, a private library liked it so much that when they learned the Blackwing was to be discontinued, snapped up much of the remaining supply Within four years after its withdrawal from the market fans and collectors of the pencil were will willing to pay upwards of $20, $30 and even $40 a pencil for old stock via eBay auctions, some of these occasionally offered by the Athenaeum over the years. In 2002 Ales Beam writes the first article on the story of the Blackwing Pencil. Later stories appear in the blogosphere by Mark Fraunfelder from Boing Boing and Doug Martin of American Pencil Collectors Society on his Pencil Pages website plus a few animation and pencil bloggers also write about the Blackwing.

Our re-introduction of the Blackwing in it’s two models has renewed interest in the Blackwing pencil from traditional fans of the pencil as well as a new generation of creative artists, musicians, writers, animators and more.

It disappeared from the market: why bring it back? What was that process?
I think it’s probably an old familiar story that can be seen in a few industries. For years we had witnessed and dealt with the impact of increasing globalization of the pencil industry on our company and on our customers purchasing our wooden pencil slats around the world. Larger more powerful retailers demanding ever reduced pricing, offering reduced shelf space to the category, mergers and acquisitions within the industry leading to product line rationalizations with some brands like the Blackwing disappearing altogether and others experiencing a reduction in quality as traditional producers began substituting inferior materials and workmanship to address the incursion of lower quality cheaper pencils from developing countries. Despite modest growth in unit volume around the world there was little product innovation in the pencil industry except from a few industry leaders. Increasing supply chain efficiency, rationalization, margin reduction and cost reduction were the driving factors, but unlike other industries that continued to innovate, the lack of product innovation meant that typical users of pencils were getting short changed. They were paying less for their pencils, but a new generation was at risk of growing up not ever experiencing what a good quality pencil really looked and felt like, hardly anyone was spending much on advertising and promotion of their pencils as opposed to their overall brands or other writing instruments with higher margins and ultimately this probably was not good news for the pencil industry as compared to alternative writing and communication tools.

Palomino started really more as an experiment. We knew some great small sub-contract manufacturers in Japan who we’ve had relations with for several generations as a wood supplier. Given demographics of the Japanese pencil market which is declining in annual unit volume a number of these smaller producers with their excellent skills and craftsmanship have been at risk of passing through to successive generations. Could we help them establish a new market in the US and abroad while beginning to tell a story that reminds people what a great pencil really is and see if we could have a positive impact on these trends for our company and our customers in the industry alike? Because of price competition Japanese pencils were not really being exported at all, even by the largest well known producers such as Mitsubishi and Tombow. We originally introduced our Palomino range of drawing pencils which covered a grade scale of 2H to 2B in 2005 via eBay, and have since extended to include 4B and 6B which are even darker and softer than the rest of the range or our two Blackwing models.

At the same time, Web 2.0, blogging and early stages of social media was just beginning and we saw an opportunity to tell our story directly to the end users. I started my Timberlines blog but was inconsistent in my time commitment to blogging, but it helped get the Palomino going. By the end of 2007 we completed a shareholder transition that allowed us to better align company strategy with my vision for renewing the company as an industry innovator vs. continually focusing on cost reduction, shrinking and preservation of assets. That year we also closed down our own 5 year experiment with pencil manufacturing in Thailand where we had successfully increased volume and made some pretty good pencils for our traditional slat customers, however thin OEM margins and too much working capital tied up meant minimal return for the effort and money invested. In 2008 we converted our old Incense Cedar Institute Pencil Pages site which had several hundred thousand visitors per year from teachers, students and pencil enthusiasts to and started our own ecommerce sales on that URL. I didn’t really know what I was doing, the site was a mix of a store and a social network narrowly focused on pencils, the teachers and students visiting were not really the target market for $1 each Palomino pencils. I was afraid to spend anything on marketing and advertising until I began to see some return for the investment I had made to date so we operated with a very thin team of people pulling double duty in both our core slat business and this new e-commerce effort.

Almost from the first time we introduced the Palomino pencils in 2005 we had a few fans started making comparisons of our Palomino graphite pencils to the performance of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. We received numerous requests to issue a Palomino version with the unique removable/extendable eraser. We explored this, but minimum order quantities far exceeded what we were even selling so far in all our Palomino pencils combined each year. After launching the ecommerce store in 2008 our volumes began to climb over the next year and I was able to negotiate lower minimums for these classic eraser assemblies. When I subsequently learned that Newell had failed to maintain the trademark on the Blackwing, I dropped the idea of naming the new product the Palomino Pegasus and claimed the Blackwing name. We planned a fall 2010 launch tied to completion of a redesign of the site to focus more on creativity and self-expression as a branding platform. Ultimately we introduced a black matt finish closer to the original Blackwing lacquer finish with a somewhat softer lead to distinguish from our most popular Palomino HB pencil and to more closely approximate the softer feel of the oldest Blackwing pencils we tested. We had a lot of feedback about the pencil and some felt it was too soft having more experience with the later pencils which were a bit firmer, as well as calls for the gunmetal grey finish and the “Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed” slogan, but we had enough feedback that we decided to go ahead.

We were fortunate to get some good publicity timed well with the October 1st launch date and the sales of the Palomino Blackwing took off right from the start. By early 2011 we had worked closely with our supplier of graphite to come up with a formulation that best matched the firmer performance of later Eberhard Faber Blackwing production and designed and launched the Palomino Blackwing 602 in June of last year to even better response and the publicity has continued to grow. Today both pencils are selling well and we’re gaining retail distribution slowly but steadily with the firmer pearl grey 602 model outselling the softer black matt model by almost 2 to 1 ratio.

What do you think it means to pick up a pencil in this digital creative era?
Digital drawing and writing tools certainly have a number of conveniences especially when it comes to speed and sharing of work with others in a collaborative environments. However, people have been predicting the demise of pencils and pens for several decades due to digital media, but it’s just not happening. There is simply a tactile sensation with the use of pencils, paint brushes, pens and other art materials on real paper that in my view transcends the digital creative experience. Also the physical transference of the graphite or other art material medium onto the paper, layering and textures offers a sensory and for some an emotional connection to the process of creation that you really can’t duplicate at this point with a digital device. Even when most of the finished work may be completed in a digital media pencils are quite often the implement of choice for the very first exploration and expression of a new creative idea by the artist, writer, lyricist or musician in sketching or notating as part of the process of conceptualization. The ability to erase pencil marks relatively easily also allows for fine tuning and editing in a simple and efficient fashion.

Certainly some people consider the need for sharpening wood-cased pencils a disadvantage, though many have a similar emotional and even nostalgic connection to the sharpening process and the use of the pencil in general. Personally, I rarely use pens except when signing legal documents and never a mechanical pencil, that would be heresy for a wood guy like me. I carry a pencil sharpener with me wherever I go.

What do you hope to accomplish with the Blackwing? Future plans?
I’d like to think that both the Palomino and the Blackwing names and our products and our company will become associated with premium quality and creative thought and expression in its many forms. I see the Blackwing as an important vehicle to get the story of the wood cased pencil out to people who perhaps have taken pencils for granted, or think of them more narrowly only as a simple utilitarian device. I’d like to get more people to rediscover the joy and pleasure of using a high quality pencil and to think of our products not just as a utilitarian good, but as an extension of their creative self. Whether that’s scoring an original composition, keeping a personal journal or sketchbook or outlining your latest marketing idea, creativity comes in almost every part of our lives.

Really, whether it’s one of our company’s brands or any of the many of fine pencils produced by our wooden slat customers around the world who make the many great brands that we are also beginning to add to our store. I just want to see that the pencil has some fun associated with its use and is considered an important part of the creative tool kit for more people overall. I hope to add new products and extensions over time in these brands, but our first priority now is really executing on building awareness in fun and creative ways like the Blackwing Expressions event and building distribution to make sure the product is available so we can build a sustainable business in the core product range we have today. Ultimately, I hope the Blackwing brand is around and well-respected 10, 20, 50 years from today and not just a passing fad and a failed experiment.