Like the Dixon Ticonderoga in the US, the Staedtler Noris is ubiquitous, an icon of pencil design and available throughout most of the world. The most popular is the yellow and black striped HB with a red end dip, but the Noris line is available in a few different shapes, sizes, and barrel colors. There's even a Samsung digital stylus made to look like a Noris. I haven't used them all, but I have a few and thought I'd revisit them.Read More
If you're a member of the Erasable Podcast Facebook group, you'll already know that for me, there are two pencils I view with disdain: the Staedtler Wopex and the Dixon Ticonderoga. I dislike the Wopex for aesthetic reasons. I don't like the weight, I don't like that it's an extruded pencil made with some plastic. But I don't like the Ticonderoga because of what it represents. In the US, your choices at big box retailers of office supplies (and general goods) are severely limited in the pencil department. And the Dixon Ticonderoga is usually the one pencil brand you can find if they carry only one pencil brand. They own the market and it's kind of sad, considering the iconic American school pencil is no longer made in America or even owned by an American company (Italian company FILA owns them, in addition to DOMS, Prang, Lyra, and others).
I've purchased some pre-FILA Ticonderogas on eBay. Made with cedar, in the USA, most likely in the 70s, based on the box. Guess what? They aren't great. Better than the made in Mexico Tics, but not really better than the ones made in China. And although modern Tics are still made in different grades, good luck finding them. I found an old 12 pack of #1s at a local independent office supply store when the Mexican #2s proved to be too hard for my liking, and they weren't great either. Scratchy lead, a thick core but still wrote very much like an HB. Made of basswood like most of the Ticonderoga out there.
However, starting to pop up around my neck of the woods are some Chinese-made, American cedar #2s. The box says 2015, but with the backlog that some of these stores have, I'm seeing both the previous and the new cedar ones out in the market. I only noticed them at a Walmart just recently, and if it weren't for the fact that most of their employees completely neglect stock rotation as a prerequisite for being hired, I wouldn't have seen them at all. There was a couple packs in front of some other packs of basswood Tics.
What I bought was a 24 pack, unsharpened. They were hanging next to the 30 pack pre-sharpened basswood, and I could immediately tell the difference in the fit and finish of these pencils, particularly by the painting on the ferrule. What makes the Dixon Ticonderoga instantly recognizable is the ferrule. When someone wants to invoke a shorthand by using a pencil image, 9 times out of 10 they use a green and yellow ferrule color. It's just that well known. And the ferrules on these cedar Tics were immaculate. Sometimes the yellow paint on the green ferrule is too small or off by a bit (or a lot). Not so here. Every ferrule stripe in the pack was painted on perfectly.
They're also a bit lighter than the standard basswood Tics. That's due to being made from cedar, but also from the cedar pencil being a little bit thinner. It reminds me of a USA Gold in that aspect. I don't have any calipers for exact measurements, but it can be seen just by looking at them. The eraser seems to have changed too, still pink, but softer and sticks together better, almost like a plastic eraser, but not quite. It's on par with some of the better attached erasers in the market now. It's still no Tombow 2558 eraser, but nothing will be that good made at this scale. And the erasers in this box were all the same size, which I can't say for previous Ticonderoga boxes I compared it to.
But the core is where it's at. Most pencil nerds will take the pencils out of the box and look for centered cores, especially when buying cheap pencils at big box stores. The Ticonderoga comes in a clear box that makes this extremely easy to ascertain...and when I turned it over, there they were, all 24 beautifully centered.
I looked at this box, and the $5 price tag, and I thought "there is no WAY these are this good." The core has to suck and be a little harder like they always are, right? Wrong. FILA, Dixon, and whoever is their Chinese manufacturer have definitely stepped up their game. Maybe they switched factories? Maybe they put some quality control measures in place that weren't there before. Maybe they were just having a good day that day? I don't know.
What I do know is that this box has changed my tune on these pencils. My thought was always that there are so many pencils out there, why use these? But over the course of the last few months, I've been grabbing this pencil on purpose. Not to test or review, but because I like it. It doesn't reek of cedar like a Blackwing, but there's always one within arms reach when I need a sniff. It's not precision engineered like a Japanese or German pencil, but it also doesn't cost as much and is easily found.
I wholeheartedly recommend these pencils now and will be adding them to my rotation. I still don't like the Dixon mafia owning the big box stores and would love to see something from Musgrave and General's make its way into that arena, and I don't mean drawing pencils. How awesome would it be to walk into any Walmart and be able to buy a box of Semi-Hex? That's what I'm talking about. But it may be hard when these Ticonderoga's are starting to get good again.
The Paper Mate Flair is a classic of the pen world. Love it or hate it, the Flair has been around since the mid-1960s and is still a top performer for Paper Mate. I hadn't used a Flair (or any felt tip pen) in a long time. I remember as a kid, my brother and I weren't allowed to have markers at our grandparents' house, but Grandpa had all these Flairs we would doodle with. Back then they had ridges, so there was a little tactile feel to them. I also went through a Flair phase in college, when I learned Quentin Tarantino used the Flair to handwrite his screenplays. Well, I'm writing stationery reviews instead of snappy dialogue, so we all know how that worked out. Of course, if the tools were what made the art, there'd be as many modern Hemingways as there are Moleskine users.
Having not used a Flair in some time, I thought maybe I had remembered incorrectly, that maybe it was another brand that had the ridges, but when I looked it up, lo and behold, I was right. Apparently, when they moved production from the USA to Mexico, they stopped doing the ridges. I liked the ridges, but I can imagine a lot of gunk building up in them. The ridges also stopped just short of the end of the pen and it stepped down instead of the full taper it does now. The white cross in the cap is still there, though it doesn't spin as freely as I remember. I used to sit there and twist the pen and watch the cross spin as an absent-minded habit. Now I can barely get one of the five (the red one) to spin just a little.
The pack I bought at Target had black, blue, red, green, and purple. They don't sell the 5 pack on Amazon, but here's a standard 16 pack. I really want a dark green and an orange single.
The current Flair is what I remember, but maybe a little bit cheaper in the plastic department. The current plastic shows what I first thought where fingerprints and oily-ness, but turns out it's minor scratches or flat parts in the barrel "finish". The plastic is somewhat matte but anytime it comes into contact with something hard-ish, it will make that spot glossy and therefore look greasy or like fingerprint gunk. The tip guard used to be white plastic and, along with the ridges, added to the aesthetic. It is now clear, which makes the tip look a little awkward. The tip, however, does write better than I remember, and it is less squeaky in the aural feedback department. Could be I'm using better paper these days, but somehow the tip seems firmer upon initial tests...but let's be honest, I'm not going to subject myself to writing with this thing for a week to see when the felt tip finally breaks down and mushrooms out.
I would stack the Flair up against any broad point gel pen. They can leave a thick line without taking forever to dry. That's one reason I've always liked the Flair, and because they're cheap, they're easily tossed when they dry up. It's also a great signature pen and the choice of the true autograph hound, because as long as they aren't dry, they will write the first time, unlike a ballpoint, and when you have 5 seconds with the star, it has to write...not that any of that matters now as selfies are the new autograph. The feathering and bleed through is non-existent, except when you happen to draw over the same spot again and again, when the Flair takes on marker tendencies and saturates the page.
Overall, these little cigar-shaped marker pens are a classic. The design has changed very little since they were released in the mid-1960s, and for good reason: it's simple, effective, and minimal.
I came across a few old Flair commercials on YouTube (here's the whole Vintage Paper Mate playlist), and I felt like I wouldn't be doing my duty if you didn't get a chance to see them too. These are hilariously retro...and awesome.