"Do I really need a Blackwing?" asked a friend via anti-social media recently. "What for?", I nosily enquired. "Writing, mostly, and a bit of drawing occasionally. It just needs to be smooth".
Game on! Don't get me wrong; the reborn Blackwing is a lovely thing to behold, and to use. But they're jolly expensive, getting harder to obtain, and usually come only in bulk, all of which are good reasons to look further.
But where to start? Well let's look at three sensory pleasures one can derive from a great pencil; visual, tactile and olfactory. I'll try not to kill the romance with that sort of terminology again, I promise.
When it comes to looks, that's always a personal thing but there are plenty of other options worth considering. For a retro mid-twentieth century look (combined with technical excellence) Mitsubishi is a promising place to start. If you want even earlier styling, the convincingly old-school Portuguese firm Viarco takes a lot of beating. Should effortlessly cool Scandy sketching be your thing, my hot tip is a Viking.
Of course, the intended purpose of any writing implement isn't really to serve as desk-bound eye candy, although that's a nice plus. How it works on the page is probably going to make the biggest difference to how you feel about your putative pencil purchase. The secret to that is to master the arcane mysteries of graphite hardness ratings. An awful lot of pencils are sold by default in HB ('Hard Black') format, also known in the States as #2. It's a middling option which doesn't suit half as many writers as manufacturers assume. Switch to slightly softer B, or even a noticeably smoother 2B (my own preference), and you'll feel the difference immediately. There's a trade-off in that you may have to sharpen your pencil a little more often (or, for mechanical pencils, click the advance button a bit more frequently), but it's so much more enjoyable to use that you might find it's worth it. For stellar value, classy looks and gratuitously grand graphite, I recommend the venerable Koh-i-Noor. At a similar price point, albeit with a more modern appearance, Nuremberg's own Staedtler also offers the full range of graphite ratings in its Mars Lumograph range.
Last but certainly not least, aroma. No, seriously, you're among friends here; if the smell of pencil shavings gets your creative juices flowing, this is completely normal and the group understands. The trick is to pick the right tree, and as it happens that's cedar. Actually, that's how the rebooted Blackwing got started, via a firm called California Cedar Products. But they make other, less costly pencils too, such as those found in the fulsome Palomino sketching set and the humbler but very good Forest Choice. Incense cedar, no less - not to be sniffed at. Although....