The Return of the Palomino Blackwing Pencil

by Cara on July 17, 2015

Article by Waylon Bacon

A pencil is just a pencil, right?

According to some, no. Just as there is a large community of pen collectors, the humble pencil also has a group of passionate advocates who run websites, argue on message boards, and have strong opinions on what combinations of lead and wood create the best experience.

At the top of the pile is the Blackwing 602 Pencil, commonly referred to as “the best pencil ever made.” Much like the now defunct Parker 51 Pen, the Blackwing has taken on a legendary status, in part because it is no longer produced, but also due to its highly specific design.

I only recently became aware of its existence because we started carrying a revival of the pencil in March. I noticed a few regulars regarding the pencil with a certain amount of reverence. Reading the back of the box, I was intrigued by this: “The Blackwing 602 Pencil was favored by many Oscar, Grammy and Pulitzer prize winners throughout the 20th Century. After they were discontinued, fans began paying as much as $40 per pencil to seize unused stock.”

What is it about the Blackwing that makes it so unique? Why did it then, and continues to now, fascinate people?

There are many terrific articles on the subject, a few of which I have linked below. But the basic story is this:

The Blackwing was first introduced in the 1930’s, and immediately stood out from the competition due to its highly stylized design. It features a body painted dark grey (as opposed to the standard yellow of most pencils), a flat eraser housed in a metal bracket for easy extension and replacement, and a soft lead that required half the pressure with which to write. It was both very much a product of its time, in that writing instruments were often heavily designed and ridiculously specific, and utterly unique in that this was the type of innovation normally reserved for pens.

It immediately became a hit with artists, who appreciated how easy the soft lead made writing and drawing, and that the flat shape of the eraser kept the pencil from rolling off desks. The pencil was heavily used by animators at Disney, and later such notable figures as Steven Sondheim and Quincy Jones. But the Blackwing was also an expensive pencil to both make and sell, and as interest in writing instruments as objects (as opposed to tools) changed, the Blackwing’s sales began to decline, and the pencils were eventually discontinued by early 1998.

At the same time however, the internet was just starting to become a fixture in households all over the country, and with it came ways for collectors and fanatics to find each other. When they did, the stories of the Blackwing grew and grew, until it had become a legend by the middle of the 00’s.

This brings us to the present. Sensing that the reputation of the Blackwing might be enough to turn a profit, Cal Cedar began to work on doing a reissue of the pencil. The first attempt was in 2010. Although it was warmly received, purists complained that the new Blackwing took so many liberties with the original design that the reissue was pointless. Therefore, a new version was issued in 2011. Although the reissue has been divisive (as there are still some differences between this new Blackwing and the original version) the pencil itself has generated an enormous amount of interest; partly because of its notoriety and history, but also because it’s a genuinely great pencil.

Elizabeth Montgomery using the Blackwing on an episode of, “Bewitched.”

I bought one almost as soon as we got them here in the Vroman’s Pen Department, attracted to both its history and the promise of a great writing (or in my case, drawing) experience. It didn’t disappoint; the lead is indeed very soft, and you will find yourself using less pressure than normal to get it to write. The feel of the black paint on the body of the pen is matte, meaning that after long term use the pencil won’t get slick in your hands like the standard, yellow pencils.  Additionally, the shape of the eraser makes for a much more accurate approach, and the fact that you can continually pull up the eraser as it is worn down gives it much more life.

If you want to try one out for yourself, you can purchase them at the Vroman’s Pens and Stationery department, for $2.95 (individual) or $25.95 (box of 12). It’s worth it, not just for the experience of what might be the only GREAT pencil ever created, but also because a bit of history has been brought back to life; to write with one of these things is to step into the shoes of some of the 20th century’s greatest creative minds. Although it takes more than a pencil to write something like ‘West Side Story,’ it’s fun to pretend that you’re at least halfway there with a trusty Blackwing in your hand.

There are a number of websites on the subject of the Blackwing 602, which are far more detailed than this blog. IF you’re interested in finding out more, here are three links to get you started:

A terrific history of the pencil and its influence on pop culture from the Hollywood Reporter:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/blackwing-602-why-is-hollywood-600265

The Boing Boing review of the most recent addition of the pencil, which we are now carrying here at Vroman’s.
http://boingboing.net/2011/06/17/the-new-palomino-bla.html

And lastly the definitive website on the subject, Blackwingpages.com, with everything from history, to specific differences between the originals and the reissues, and gobs and gobs of old advertisements dating from the pens inception all the way to its rebirth in the 21st century.
http://blackwingpages.com/no-ordinary-pencil/