9.16.2011

The Greatest Pencil Ever Made

I was reading my daily swath of RSS feeds when I came across one which caught my eye, entitled The Greatest Pencil Ever Made. I didn't even have to read any of the body text or click through to know that this post absolutely had to be about the Palomino Blackwing 602.

The slogan on the pencil says it all. 
(Can't see the picture? Click here)


The Palomino Blackwing 602 has a huge cult following. Ask any "pencil snob" you know -- designers, writers, illustrators -- and chances are, they've at least heard of it. And if they've ever used one, that's ALL they ever used. They were discontinued in 1998, and since that time, have gone for as much as $40 a piece on eBay. And I am one of the retards you'll look down your nose at who has paid nearly that much just for one of these.

Anyone who has used one will tell you that there's something unique about the stroke on this pencil that cannot be replicated anywhere else, with anything else. You barely touch it to the paper and you get a silky graphite line with almost no effort. Writers adore them because they dance across the page as if they're coated in a controllable grease. Illustrators love them because you can get any weight of line you want, from whispy light to inky dark. They feel good in your hand. They sharpen to a fine point which holds for a while (compared to other soft lead pencils which could create the same darkness / weight of line). 

In short, they're a joy to use. And even when they could be had for $0.50 each, people scoffed at the price. You can get a yellow #2 at Wal-mart in packs of 100 for almost a nickel a piece. People who would pay ten times that must be insane, right? 

Well, I paid $32.50 each for 5 back in 2007, and still have one left. I never use it because I couldn't bear the thought of being without it, and I've not seen any on eBay lately. So I'm completely mad, I suppose. 

Why? Well, the really simple answer is the same reason that I paid $400 for a pair of 12 year old Nike's a few years ago (I even built a website that's now expired, IWantTheseShoes.com). And I got the bastards, too.

That's what happens when nostalgia meets scarcity. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that my passion for the Palomino Blackwing 602 is a healthy mixture of my fondness for the romance of this pencil and how it was introduced to me, and the fact that it was already discontinued when I discovered it, making it a rare gem to find (when it could be found). As with anything you build a fondness for that's scare, passion soon turns into obsession. But why be so passionate about this pencil? 

Because the first person who ever took the time to actually show me the finer points of design and interfacing gave me one. And it meant the world. 

Her name was Alex, and she was, by any definition of the term you'd like to use, completely hot. But that's not why I liked her. She was smart, funny, interesting, and super intelligent. She was also on the very forefront of user interface design back in 1997 -1998, when I worked with her (in fact, she's the one who introduced me to Jakob Nielsen, literally. We were at a web development conference in San Francisco, and she walked me up to him and had me shake his hand. I went and bought all of his books the next day). 

She designed the user interfaces and front-end screens for the software that the company we worked for (I call it BOSS Systems in my books... Not really hard to figure out I changed one letter), and I did all the web development. She routinely critiqued my designs through our feedback form, and one day I got up the gumption to drive over to the other building (about 2 miles away) and track her down. 

"Wow... You're a girl," I said as I approached her cubicle.

"I hope so," she replied without batting an eye. "I'm wearing girls' underwear."

"Eh, this is Atlanta," I replied in turn. "No one judges that kind of thing here."

She laughed. "Who are you?"

"Joe Peacock," I replied. "You've been harassing me about our company's website for weeks."

"Ah, the legendary Joe Peacock!" she replied. 

"Legendary?" I asked. 

"Yeah... Heard a lot about you via Darina and Gary. You've got quite the reputation."

"I don't even want to know what it is," I said with a laugh.

"Alex," she said, extending her hand.

"I know," I said, extending mine. "It's on your cubicle. How do you think I found you?"

"Well you certainly didn't use our company's website," she replied with a smirk. "You can't find ANYTHING on there."

We instantly became friends. 

Between reading Nielson's books and watching Alex, I saw that user interfaces were far greater a thing than simply pretty graphics (as pretty as you could make them back then, anyway) and buttons and scrollbars. There was a human element to them.

"Interfaces are like a flute," Alex once said. "One finger in the wrong place and the notes go sour." 

...Yeah, I don't know what she meant, even now. She was Greek. I just assumed it was some culturally-induced grandeur. At any rate, she's the one who introduced me to sketching out designs before building a website, and letting good design guide the development process -- since the user was the one who ultimately had to deal with it, you had to start with them. And the pencil she used? The Palomino Blackwing 602. 

She was as insane as I was when it came to obsessing over niche objects. She made a point to give me one of her Blackwing 602's and insisted that I love it.

"You have to love it!" she demanded. "It's amazing!" 

"...It's a pencil, Alex," I replied. 

"Yes... Yes it is," she answered. "The BEST pencil." 

"I use pens anyway," I said, simply being defiant. 

"You can't sketch properly with a pen!" she replied. "No wonder our website sucks..."

I made a habit of stealing her pencils after that. And I have to admit -- the pencil grew on me very quickly. It didn't really hit me just how great this pencil was until I got older and used other pencils, and none ever quite lived up to how smooth and silky the Blackwing 602 was. It really is a technically beautiful instrument. 

She'd get pissy, but never quite stopped me from stealing them. And my last week there, as a goodbye gift, she gave me a Moleskine sketchbook (another thing I thought was stupid back then, but have since grown very fond of) and several Palomino Blackwing 602s. 

It really is a fine pencil. And when you add to that the fact that one of my mentors used it -- which instantly makes me feel empowered and just generally better when I do -- and the fact that it was nearly impossible to find for years and years, you can say that I developed a rather deep bond with this pencil. Enough of one to establish an eBay automated search and pay over a hundred bucks for five of them. 

Anyway, the point is they've brought it back, and you can order them now. If you are so inclined, anyway. I'm ordering a gross on payday... Just in case Alex ever finds this blog and hits me up, so I can pay her back in pencils.