Why a woodcase pencil makes a great adventure journaling tool

  1. Hemingway used one. Even if you’re not Hemingway, or even if you don’t really care for his writing, it’s still cool.
  2. You know how much is left. And, it seems that no matter how small it gets, there’s always a little bit left to write with.
  3. You have to sharpen it, which requires a knife, which is all kinds of adventurous. And the shavings from sharpening could act as a fire starter.
  4. You can erase. Did the fish seem bigger the next morning? No problem.
  5. Low risk – they’re mostly disposable. Ok, the really nice ones might be $2 a piece if you paid a very high price or a lot for shipping, but even then, it’s not that much.
  6. Some people think a pencil will write 45,000 words. That should be far enough.
  7. They’re light. Outdoor adventures always seem to involve carrying stuff, and the less the better.
  8. Water resistant. Alcohol resistant. Fade proof. While erasable, pencil is very resistant to the other things that might wipe out what you’ve created.
  9. Heat & pressure resistant. Pencils don’t leak on airplanes, or in hot cars.
  10. Sketching with a pencil is more forgiving than with a pen.

The incredibly resistant ink I should be using

Many folks have made a substantial investment in pens and ink to ensure that their journal last through the ages. I certainly have, but there aren’t many fountain pen inks that really last, behave well, and are commonly available. There aren’t many disposable pen choices either – even fewer if you hate felt tip pens as I do. Is there another choice that makes more sense for posterity? 

What if there was as ink that worked well with all papers, didn’t bleed, didn’t spill, and could be removed to fix mistakes?

Enter the pencil. 

Yep, the lowly pencil. It resists solvents, water, and the sun. It’s easy to carry, attracts little attention, and even the most expensive brand is cheap. It can be erased when needed, and even comes in different colors, albeit with different properties.

Pencil would seem to be an ideal journaling medium, and I suspect that many of the most famous journals have been kept in pencil. 

Imagine yourself tossing in an open boat sailing from Elephant Island to South Georgia – are you going to be able to refill your pen with ink? Are you even going to be able to write very many words without crossing them out and rewriting? That Shackleton got anything down at all is amazing.

I originally drafted this post in my journal using Noodler’s bulletproof black ink, as good a choice as any for permanence and longevity. I’m not sure I need to protect my work from forgers. Checks? Sure. The signatures on a really important document? Often. Scientific measurements used to support patent filings? Protocol suggests it’s foolish to use anything else, but I don’t know that one’s actually required to use ink. 

 But my journal? Pencil is vulnerable to erasure, but is anyone going to devote the time and effort needed to erase my journal? I think it’s pretty unlikely. Perhaps I might, to get rid of an offending reference written in haste, but there aren’t many secret plans in there, and even if there were, an eraser weilding perpetrator has many hours of boring reading before they’re going to find them. 

 What is likely (and indeed has happened) is spilled coffee or other drinks (including booze, which will dissolve ballpoint ink). Sure, if I spill coffee on a page I can rinse it with water, and probably be left with a readable image with many inks. Rinse again with alcohol and the list of inks shrinks. With pencil there’s no problem.

In the same way that fountain pens have shading, and other dynamics of line width, pencil has it’s own character. The line width varies and when using a sharp part of the point it can be dark and dense, but as the point dulls it grows wide and wispy. 

There are lots of other considerations, like sharpening, smudging, ghosting, etc. but I often ask myself when using a rollerball or the like if I wouldn’t be better off with a pencil.

Pencil review: Palomino HB

It was a matter of time before I tried the Palomino HB pencil, since I like the new Blackwing models made by the same company, and I prefer bright colors. I ordered them in orange:


  • Pretty much exactly the same lead as their Blackwing 602 pencil. Sometimes I feel like the 602 is a tad harder, but mostly I cannot tell them apart.
  • The finish is very nice. The paint is luxurious, and the lettering has a decent indentation. But despite that, the gold flakes off eventually. I’m not sure why this is such a challenge with Palomino when it’s not for other brands, but it’s not a big deal to me.
  • The eraser seems to be the same formulation as used on the Blackwing erasers. Better than a standard pink, but more abrasive than a vinyl eraser. The problem here is the ferrule that holds the eraser is not firmly crimped onto the pencil. It was loose immediately, and so far the three pencils I’ve tried have been the same. A letter to the company confirmed that they were aware of it, and if they found product that did not have the problem they would send me some. They offered to refund my money if I returned the pencils. Then the next day I got a notice saying an order had shipped, which I assume is replacement pencils, so they are responsive.

I love the color, and I love writing with the pencil. If the ferrule problem is solved, it’s a winner for me.

If you’re looking for a cheap alternative to Palomino’s Blackwing 602 I think this is it.

Manual vs. Mechanical Sharpening

So why on earth would anyone sharpen a pencil by hand. I mean, other than as an artisinal pencil sharpener?

Well, if you haven’t tried it before you should.


First, you get a point that is the shape and thickness that you want. If you are looking for the greatest possible efficiency, you can just carve away the wood to expose the graphite and not waste any. A hand sharpened point tends to have sides rather than be round, which actually enables writing with a finer point because of the corners.

Second, it’s satisfying to do, if a bit messy. It takes longer than using a sharpener, but because the resultant point lasts so much longer I believe it may be a wash over the long haul.

Third, it’s portable. Ok, maybe not for air travel, but a pocketknife is easy to carry and serves a lot of purposes.

Fourth, you can sharpen any pencil, any size.

Fifth, it’s cool. I haven’t ever carved my own quill pen, but I imagine writing with a hand sharpened pencil has some of the same mystique.

Finding the right pencil lead

Who knew there were so many brands and types of mechanical pencil lead. At least 3 major brands, with perhaps 3 lines each, and this is just looking at JetPens.com. Hi density, long wearing, with silica, and more. At a few bucks each (ok, maybe 6 in some cases) it’s hard not to order them all and try them out. So instead I ordered 3, and decided if I couldn’t tell the difference I’d end it there.

The three brands I tried were Tombow, Pentel Stein, and Hi-Uni, all in HB, B, and 2B. They all come packaged in very nice plastic containers, with nice closures designed to keep you from dumping all the lead out on the floor. Definitely a far cry from the usual box we find in a US store.

I could tell the difference between them in writing feel, but I’m not sure I could tell them apart on the page once I’d forgotten what I’d written where. I did not test the longevity of them, as a single lead can write several pages even in the large A4 size journal I’m using.

Pentel Stein was my least favorite, although if I was a student I might feel differently. It felt the hardest, and wrote slightly fainter than the other two, I think. How adding silica to a lead and making it more wear resistant is different than simply choosing a harder lead, I can’t tell you. Perhaps there isn’t any difference, it’s just not hard enough to be a full grade harder. Regardless, it felt a bit scratchy.

The Tombow was fairly pleasant, and seemed a bit darker. I could live with this lead easily.

The HI-Uni was the smoothest of the bunch. Buttery is a word that comes to mind, Rich. Dark. Wears quickly. I noticed I was hitting the clicker button more with that lead.

There was not a lot of smear difference between them.

Really, I think it comes down to how they feel to you. If I was back in school, taking math and engineering classes, I would probably start with the Hi-Uni, but end up with the Stein. Eventually the wear rate of the softer, albeit more luxurious lead would drive me to go after the harder stuff. Then again, I might just end up with B, or HB in the Uni instead.

At $4 or so a pop, it’s blessedly cheap to experiment.

Pencil Review: Uni Kuru Toga .5mm with Auto Rotate

I remember the dark ages. Back when one had to actually get up, out of the chair, walk across the room and turn a dial on the TV to change channels. In fact, there were two dials, and a switch to choose between them. It was hell.

The miracle of technology has brought us the remote control, electronic tuning, and lots of other conveniences. But it was still the dark ages because even now, when 300 channels isn’t the top end cable package, we still have to manually rotate a pencil while writing to keep the point conical.

That is until the Hi-Uni Kuru Toga .5mm mechanical pencil with auto rotate. This truly inspired device actually rotates the lead 10 degrees or so each time the pencil makes contact with the paper. It does this without making the pencil feel spongy, or making any noise whatsoever. It’s not even expensive, at $16.50 from JetPens.com.


It’s got a sturdy clip, a comfortable grip, and is neither too heavy nor too light. It comes in black, silver, and a few colors so you could have multiple grades of lead in use. It does not have one of those lead indicator bands to show what lead is in the pencil.

But does it work? Does it really result in a narrower, more consistent line? Yes and no. My experience is that when I’m printing or writing lots of numbers it does a good job. Writing cursive, not as good. The purpose of cursive is to reduce the number of times the pen is lifted from the paper, and it does exactly that. The result with the Kuru Toga is more of a chisel point, unless there are a lot of dotted & crossed letters or punctuation. With softer lead a conical point becomes even harder to maintain. I’m still using it because it does help some, and it’s certainly no worse than a regular pencil. I can still rotate by hand if I like, any autorotation is better than none, and the pencil is comfy to boot.