Some pencil snobs might bristle at the notion of ordering pencils off of AliExpress. But what can I say, I like to live on the freshly-sharpened edge. I’m also always in search of a good deal. And, finally, I began to think about how remarkable it is that the People’s Republic of China has so many pencil factories that are making products specifically for export to other countries, but even in the world of pencil snobs we seldom hear about their domestic products. Surely people in China write with pencils. What kind of pencils do they use? How do they compare to the ones they’re exporting, and the ones the rest of the world makes?
Those are the things that motivated me to order ten Chung Hwa 101 grade 2B pencils. I had never heard of Chung Hwa pencils before — in fact I just ordered them on a whim from AliExpress without having any clue what to expect — but a little research indicated that they are made by the Shanghai-based China First Pencil Co. The 101 is positioned as Chung Hwa’s “drawing” pencil, and as such as available in a full spectrum of grades; its sibling, the 6151, is better known for writing purposes. Nonetheless, it seems that the 101 gets regular use as a writer in China, where both product lines are fairly prolific — in fact, in 2008 a Chung Hwa pencil was launched into space with the crew of China’s Shenzhou 7.
And on that note, let’s launch into our review…
The Chung Hwa 101 pencil comes in a typical hex shape with a semi-gloss green lacquer. There is a subtle bamboo leaf pattern printed on the barrels, which looks a little bit like marbled jade from a distance. I do like the shade of green, but don’t particularly care for the bamboo pattern. I will say, though, that I have never seen a pencil that looks like this one! There are no erasers on the 101, and both ends are uncapped and undipped. Three sides feature an imprint, mostly in white, but the model number “101” and some Chinese writing are embossed in gold on one facet. Unfortunately I don’t read Chinese, so I can’t tell you what it says! Some of the imprints were either rubbed off or perhaps not applied especially well, but I do like the green and white look, and think it coordinates well with a Pentel Hi-Polymer eraser cap.
Each pencil has a little bit of a bow to it, making it difficult to roll them, but not enough to be perceptible with the pencil in hand. A peek at the unsharpened ends of the Chung Hwa 101 was not very encouraging. As you can see in the image below, about half of the cores are visibly off-center. Fortunately, the tips sharpened evenly enough to avoid causing problems, even on the worst offenders. However, the condition of the wood was not exactly the best, with a few clearly visible defects. I can’t help but wonder, just by looking at the ends, if the slats used to make these pencils weren’t some sort of composite rather than a piece of solid wood.
Given the look I had at the outside of the pencils, my first impression wasn’t the best and I was cautious about getting my hopes up. However, I was surprised at how well the 101 sharpened. My hand sharpener was able to easily shear off long ribbons of wood and produce a quite acceptable finish. There was a little bit of an exposed throat where the wood chipped away from the tip of the core, but overall I’m satisfied. If I had to guess, I’d propose that the casing is made of basswood, although it’s a bit darker than most casings of that species.
I was also really impressed that they didn’t cheap out on the cores and make a product that’s crumbly or brittle. No breakage problems whatsoever from these pencils! In fact, I was impressed that even when needle-sharp, the tips stayed intact.
Upon putting the tip to paper for the first time, my initial reaction was that the Chung Hwa 101 writes well, but perhaps a bit harder than expected from a 2B. The more I wrote, the more I began to feel that the 101 2B would make a very solid HB pencil.
More objective testing revealed that in many ways the Chung Hwa 101 does appear to have many of the attributes typical of a grade-HB pencil. The more I wrote with it, the more I was blown away by the point retention. I used my test subject to take some notes for my graduate studies and thought it remarkable that I could write with a 2B-graded pencil at such length without re-sharpening. I was still skeptical, but the more I used it, the more I felt like this thing could go forever. The 101 also writes with a little bit of grit for a 2B, but is still smoother than the typical HB pencils like the Chinese Ticonderoga and the General’s Supreme.
OK, so is China First Pencil making what the rest of the world considers HB cores and trying to pass them off as 2B? As it turns out, once I started comparing swatches and written lines, I found that the Chung Hwa 101 actually lives up to its 2B label sufficiently. The line it leaves is right in there with the 2B-graded Faber-Castell 1112 and Prismacolor Turquoise; darker than the Ticonderoga and lighter than the Blackwing Pearl. In other words, pretty much right on the money for a 2B. It’s just weird because it doesn’t “feel” dark when you write with it, but apparently it is. That said, it also has a typical 2B-grade smudginess to it; perhaps even moreso. It smeared all over the page even worse than the much-softer Pearl. So there’s that.
Chung Hwa 101 pencils come with no eraser of their own to test, but I went ahead and tested the eraseability with a Pentel Hi-Polymer block just for kicks. I found that the graphite the 101 lays erases just fine.
I have to say that this review turned me into a bit of a fan of the Chung Hwa 101 2B pencil. My first impressions had me a little skeptical, both when I first opened the package, and when I first began to write. And due to that initial skepticism, I really think I put this pencil through the wringer, just to make sure I was doing my due diligence. To my surprise, the longer I lived with the 101, the more I liked it.
Although the construction looks a little rough around the edges, these pencils are highly usable, and the cores are deceptively good. They seem to combine the nice, dark line of a typical 2B with the point retention of a HB. They’re a little smeary — probably not a good choice for lefties. They’re not buttery smooth on the page, either, but certainly smoother than the typical budget pencil.
Specifically, I feel like the combination of hardness and darkness makes them a great companion for smooth, slick paper. My work journal that I currently use is made of a very silky stock. I appreciate point retention when I am trying to focus on work, but hard pencils tend to pale in comparison (literally) to their softer counterparts when used on such a toothless page. The Chung Hwa 101, though, pops out of the page sufficiently despite its hard-wearing point, and with smooth paper, the relative roughness of the core isn’t as much as an issue.
The ten pack of Chung Hwa 101s I ordered off of AliExpress set me back $2.59, shipping included. That’s about 26 cents per pencil — cheaper than American budget competitors. At that price point, the 101 2B certainly punches above its weight class. Believe it or not, there are Chung Hwa 6151 HBs for sale even cheaper…and you know I just ordered a box to review!
It would be remiss of me if I did not mention, once again, that there were some pretty noticeable physical defects. They did not result in any sort of writeability issues for me during my review, but it doesn’t seem out of the question that a person could find a problem child or two in a ten-pack. Also, I think they’re a little ugly, and if the “squishy” feeling of a soft point melting away under pressure is important to you, you won’t get that here. But, all of that being said…wow. A pencil that makes a bold line and has great point retention? People search high and low for that, and rarely find it. Somehow the Chinese figured out how to make it work.
It may not have attained favorite pencil status, but I’m definitely going to keep my Chung Hwa 101s around for personal use. The price is right if you want to go out on a limb to try something different.