Every blog has to start somewhere. As an aspiring office-supply blogger with a particular fetish for pencils, what better place to start than a review of a benchmark pencil — nay, THE benchmark pencil — against which I can evaluate future test subjects? So let’s set that bar right now with the first Polar Pencil Pusher pencil review, a review of the most prolific pencil in North America: the Dixon Ticonderoga.
Now, I need to be specific, here: Today’s review is going to focus solely on pencils of Chinese origin. Ticonderoga pencils were previously made in the USA, but are now manufactured in Mexico and China. Spoiler alert: the Mexican variants are not identical to the Chinese ones. So we will leave those out from this review and perhaps come back to them at a later date.
Also, because Dixon makes Ticonderoga pencils in all sorts of variants, even within the same Chinese factory, simply specifying “Chinese Ticonderoga” could include any number of product lines with different lacquers, woods, barrel shapes, etc. With that in mind, I expanded the original scope of this review to cover not only the “classic” yellow cedar-bodied pencils I obtained for review purposes, but also a handful of the basswood Ticonderoga Black pencils I happened to have on hand.
Construction Quality: “Classic” Yellow
If you’re reading a blog about office supplies, you probably know what the standard-issue Dixon Ticonderoga pencil looks like, but I’ll do my due diligence and describe it just in case. The soft-hex barrel is coated in a classic yellow lacquer and imprinted with green foil text. The yellow of these pencils is sort of a “mustard” yellow, compared to the brighter “safety” yellow of some of it’s competitors (or even some of it’s predecessors), which I appreciate. It looks slightly more mature in a more muted tone. The ferrule, which retains a pink nub eraser, is part of the Ticonderoga’s trademark look: shiny green aluminum with a pair of yellow stripes. This is a calling card of the Ticonderoga pencil.
The roll test was encouraging for these specific examples, but it seems fair and necessary to mention that some of the Ticonderoga pencils I’ve picked up for personal use previously have been very warped. I mean severely — no, comically — warped. The pencil shown below was taken from a different batch of cedar-cased, made-in-China Ticonderogas (the wood slats and cutting process are ostensibly the same, but with a different color lacquer applied). No, that’s not a camera lens distortion. It’s pretty bad. I almost threw it away but I decided to hang on to it since it was a little bit hilarious. I guess it’s also worth noting that there were only a couple of pencils in that 12-pack that were unusably bent; I kept the other ten and have used them on the daily since.
Now, on the other hand, the yellow dozen I picked up for this review were surprisingly straight. Not perfectly arrow-straight, mind you; most rolled with a tiny bit of a wobble, but it’s extremely rare to find a pencil that rolls straighter than these ones. Taken all together, I’m not sure what to make of it. I guess I’d say that PRC Ticonderoga pencils are usually very straight — except on the rare occasion that they’re not.
The Walgreens I bought these Ticonderogas at just so happened to have cedar-cased models, according to the proudly-displayed symbol on the package. We’ll talk about the basswood bodies below in the review of the Ticonderoga Black, but I don’t turn my nose up at basswood. That said, cedar does have a certain mystique surrounding it, and I was naturally stoked that I’d got “the good stuff”. Naturally, then, I was a little disappointed when these pencils did not sharpen especially easily or smoothly. They did make fairly decent cedar ribbons with a few cranks of the hand sharpener, but the process felt a little more like grinding than shaving, and the finished tip was not as pristine as I’d hoped. In fact, sometimes the finished tip was pretty bad, with the wood splintering away to expose the throat of the collar! To top if off — and this might be kind of petty, so take it or leave it — they also don’t smell like cedar, or much of anything really, which is kind of a bummer.
In general, the cores tend to be as durable as I could hope for, although the bond with the wood casing can be a little hit-or-miss. I have had a few tips randomly break away from the wood. It’s rare, but it has happened. The centering of the leads appeared slightly wonky at first glance but turned out to be decent; well within tolerances, anyway.
Construction Quality: Ticonderoga “Black”
The main difference between the Ticonderoga “Black” compared to its more mainstream sibling is, obviously, that they are painted with a black lacquer instead of a yellow one. The imprint — aside from adding the “BLACK” label and omitting the “SOFT” designation — is the same, except done in silver foil rather than green. However, the hallmark green-bodied yellow-striped ferrule is wisely included. All things being equal, I prefer the black color scheme to the yellow, if only because it feels a little bit more like a pencil that would belong on the desk of an adult and not so much in the backpack of a third grader.
The other significant difference is that these pencils have basswood casings instead of cedar. I don’t know if that’s the case (pun intended) for all Ticonderoga Black pencils, or just luck of the draw, but it’s fortunate because it gives us an opportunity to review the basswood bodies and compare them to the cedar ones.
Having done so, I think I actually prefer the basswood Ticonderoga pencils to the cedar ones. Pencil blasphemy, I know! But as it turns out, the basswood versions sharpen more smoothly, requiring less effort and resulting in a much cleaner collar. Also, so far I have not encountered any of the warping issues with the basswood casings that I did with the cedar ones pictured above, so my bias is to trust the basswood line at Ticonderoga’s China factory more than the cedar one. Although cedar may be the species of choice for pencils, it’s not unreasonable to believe that good basswood beats bad cedar, and I think the pictures below prove that point.
I’m certain that the cores of the black Ticonderoga pencils are exactly the same as the yellow ones, and I did some quick tests to add merit to that notion. They seem to feel and write identically, so until someone tells me otherwise, I’m going to run with that assumption. Therefore the performance analysis will deal with both pencils interchangeably, unless otherwise noted. As it pertains to construction, my thoughts on the cores of the black, basswood-bodied version are the same as the yellow cedar ones: slightly off-centered, spotty bonding, etc. but good enough in all cases.
OK, so let’s put the pencil to the paper and see what happens!
I perceive the Chinese-made core of the Dixon Ticonderoga to be a little bit softer than its HB grade implies. The line darkness is around that of some of the “true” HB pencils I have on hand, but perhaps just a smidge darker. Likewise, point retention doesn’t quite hold up to its peers. It’s not bad, but a General’s Supreme or a Staedtler Rally would beat it by a significant margin. I prefer a dark, soft pencil, so I actually appreciate the softness of the PRC Ticonderoga pencils, but it would be remiss to fail mentioning that the HB/#2 designation may not be dead-on accurate.
Despite this perceived softness, the Chinese Tike doesn’t have that B-grade smoothness. It writes very much like a typical budget HB, with a bit of a gritty page-feel. It’s not jarringly scratchy, but it certainly doesn’t have the feel of a higher-end pencil like the HB Mitsu-Bishi 9800. Nonetheless, the core is coarse but consistent; there’s no big boulders of graphite or clay embedded in the lead to snag on the paper.
Sadly, the PRC Ticonderoga didn’t hold so well in the smudgability test. The General’s Supreme beat it, and the smear looks as bad to my eyes as a much-softer Blackwing Pearl. Granted, we already mentioned that these Chinese cores run a bit soft for their HB grade, but not that soft.
These Tikes have a passable eraser. It makes mistakes fade enough to write legibly over them, but comparing it to a Pentel Hi-Polymer (above) shows that it’s not exactly high-end. The line does seem to erase fully and cleanly with a good eraser, though. The yellow and black versions, despite being different colors, seem to be the same material with the same performance, so my opinion holds true for both versions.
I wrote the review of the Chinese Ticonderoga as a first pencil review for this new blog for a reason: I kind of already knew what I was getting into with it. This pencil is nothing phenomenal, but it has its upsides and none of its downsides (point retention, core bonding, scratchiness) are bad enough to be show-stoppers (except when you get one that’s shaped like a rainbow, but those are good for the comedy value). They don’t exactly excite me, but I find myself writing with them often, and it’s almost always a positive experience.
The dozen I picked up were going for $3.99, so that’s about 30 cents per pencil, and seems to be about the going rate for these guys. At this price point (and with a few notable exceptions) the Ticonderoga is going up against some real bottom-end pencils and easily blows most of them out of the water.
As an aside, the Ticonderoga — both Chinese and Mexican versions — come in all sorts of different lacquer schemes and casing material (cedar, basswood, recycled wood composite, etc.). So, depending on which version you happen to pick up, your mileage in terms of construction quality and aesthetic may very. The Chinese cores, however, seem to be consistent between all of these variations.
Does the Chinese Dixon Ticonderoga #2 deserve the self-proclaimed title of “World’s Best Pencil?” I don’t think I’d have the balls to make that claim, but I guess it depends on your metric. They do strike a nice balance between quality, cost, and availability (which also makes them a great benchmark pencil to compare against for future reviews). I confess that for whatever reason I always have a bunch of Ticonderogas hangin’ around, in several of their various iterations, even if I consider myself a pencil snob. That’s something that a lot of their competitors can’t say.