Design December 2002

Hand Tools

Today's most noteworthy pencils, styluses, and pen scanners

"Mechanical pencils rule," my fifteen-year-old grandniece, Genevieve, declared when I invited her to be her generation's voice on school supplies. "Nobody sharpens anymore." Then, continuing with a fashion maven's hyperbole and arbitrary imperatives, she gave a passionate disquisition on types of clickers, new grips, smaller lead sizes, and other niceties of pencil selection. As she consigned the yellow-painted wooden pencil to the wastebasket of history, I felt a rush of nostalgia for the perfumed sharpener shavings of my youth.

In fact the classic wooden pencil is hardly extinct, but one need only take a quick look at the array of vibrantly colored, subtly textured, high-attitude, low-priced mechanical pencils widely available to see that this writing instrument has become a part of contemporary youth culture.

The emotional appeal of pencils is that they are the instruments of works in progress—the quick sketch of the artist, the lines drawn by the carpenter, the notes and speculations of the scientist. Often they are the tools of people who are themselves works in progress: those in school, trying to figure the world out. Many people never quite get over the allure of school supplies, those first tools of intellect. Throughout their lives they continue to seek out and acquire pencils and pens—and now newer items such as Palm Pilots and pen-shaped scanners.

I had long thought of the mechanical pencil as the dandy of the desk set, an ostentatious substitute for the modest, perfect wooden pencil. In fact the mechanical pencil has changed, though so gradually that its progress has gone largely unheralded. Today you can spend just a few dollars and get a pencil that is easier and more comfortable to use than one that was top of the line, and expensive, two decades ago.

Most contemporary mechanical pencils have clickers or ratchet systems to advance the lead in very small increments, which reduces the likelihood that you will break the point. They make a fine yet dark line because they use slimmer leads that have been engineered to reduce breakage. The most recent innovations involve ergonomic hand grips that have been softened in some cases and reshaped in others to increase comfort and decrease the possibility of doing damage to one's hand. The mechanical pencil that finally won me over was a Sanford PhD, which has a fashionably large body; a tapered, textured, three-sided grip; and a sleeve into which the lead can retract. It costs about $8.00.

You can pay hundreds of dollars for a pencil, but its mechanism will be essentially the same as that in the pencils that cost much less. "There are a couple of factories in Japan that make the works for everybody," Marilyn Brown told me. She runs the "fine writing" department at the New York specialty writing store Art Brown (, named for her husband's late uncle. "But the guys who shop here aren't going to use a two-dollar pencil. They want to show off."

Brown took from her display case a mechanical pencil by Faber-Castell, a leading maker of traditional wooden pencils, and let me examine it. Its barrel was made of ribbed Pernambuco wood. "This is just like an old wood pencil," she said of the elegant object in my hand, "except that it costs $195." Then she handed me a $26.95 model from the same manufacturer, called the E-Motion. It had a wooden barrel, a brushed-metal clip, and an extra-thick 1.4mm lead, thus evoking both mechanical and wooden pencils of bygone days in a smoothly contemporary form. "This," she said, "is a real pencil pencil."

Whereas the pencil is more than 400 years old, the Palm Pilot—the product that made personal digital assistants (PDAs) cool—has been around for only six. It comes with a stylus for tapping on the screen and writing notes in the modified alphabet that the device requires you to use. Nevertheless, many people want a different kind of stylus.

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