Pencil Review: Nataraj Bold (bonus: sharpener and eraser!)

In case you hadn’t noticed, I love soft pencils. The smoothness. The darkness. Oh yes. Another thing you may have noticed (or probably will in the near future, if you continue reading this blog) is that I enjoy sampling pencils from every corner of the earth. So when I found out that India’s largest pencil-maker, Hindustan Pencils, is producing a product called the “Bold”, which it markets as being “super black”, you know I was all over that.

India is a country that straddles the line between “developing” and “industrialized”. Their economy is more developed than most of their neighbors, and yet their median quality of life is not on par with most Western countries. All of that is to say, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this product of their pencil industry. Would it be a hidden gem, or a flop? Well, my box of Nataraj Bold pencils finally arrived, so let’s find out.

Construction Quality

The Nataraj Bold comes is a standard hex shape, with red and black stripes on alternating facets. This color scheme is kind of a thing that every Asian pencil-maker seems to do, but I like it, and the Bold wears it well. There are some minor defects where the red stripes have chipped off, but overall the lacquer seems smooth, even, and reasonably thick. The gold imprint is refreshingly minimalist; the barrel isn’t cluttered up with bar codes, URLs, and the other abundance of supplemental info that pencil-makers seem obliged to cram onto their products these days. While not perfectly consistent in terms of strength and centering, the simple gold-foil imprint is applied cleanly and looks sharp. The rounded ends are dipped, which is a nice touch, although I don’t personally care for the sparkly gold dipping. Overall these are nice-looking pencils. They fall maybe a tweak or two short of being great-looking pencils.

The examples I received got a passing score on the roll test. There were a few that were slightly bowed, but nothing unreasonable. Peeking at the unsharpened ends, a few of the cores looked a little bit off-centered. I suspected not badly enough to cause problems; so I sharpened the worst ones to use as further test dummies. One of them turned out to be borderline, and the rest ranged from okay to good.

Core centering is hit-or-miss

The Nataraj Bold sharpens wonderfully. Hand-sharpening was like slicing through soft tofu with an ulu knife. OK, that may be an exaggeration, but I couldn’t pass up the opening for simile. Anyway, the tip sharpens away smoothly, offering uniform and gentle resistance to a blade. The finish is nice and clean, both with hand-blade and an electric helical cutter. The species of wood is not specified. It’s clearly not cedar, nor is it jelutong/pulai since it does not have the telltale freckles. I’d reason it must be basswood. Also worth noting, the company states that it does not use any forest wood in its products, which is reassuring given that illicit logging for pencil production is a thing in some parts of Asia.

The barrels advertise “bonded lead”, so that’s encouraging, but not necessarily remarkable. How well-bonded is it? I’ve lived with the Nataraj Bold for over a week now and given it some heavy-duty writing and sharpening. I haven’t had a problem with dislodged points or crumbly graphite. The cores hold up solidly.

Performance

The Nataraj Bold comes ungraded. That’s always fun because I get to experiment and try to figure out where on the spectrum of hardness/blackness it happens to fit in. The fact that it is literally called the “Bold” and the packaging specifies that its contents are “super black pencils” would hopefully narrow things down to the B-side of the scale, so there’s a hint.

My first impressions when writing were that the Bold is, indeed, bold. I did some quick comparisons on a Rhodia pad and came to the conclusion that it slots somewhere in the neighborhood of the 2B. If you’re a Blackwing person, it’s very similar to the Blackwing 602; but not as dark as the Pearl. In any event, it does write with a nice, dark line. I’m a soft-pencil type of guy and I love the way the Bold looks on the page.

It doesn’t just look great, it also feels great. Nice and smooth, with consistency (no random chunks of grit). It definitely writes smoother than the Faber-Castell 1112, another low-cost Asian 2B pencil I carry in my quiver. But more importantly — and I know I’m going to catch some hell for this — I think the Nataraj Bold writes smoother than a Blackwing 602. Maybe even the Blackwing Pearl. All three of them are smooth pencils, smooth to the point that page-feedback is minimal. But when I write with the Bold, I can hear the difference. It’s quieter. Perhaps when we get to the point that the grit is so minimal that you have to listen for the difference, it doesn’t really matter anymore. The takeaway, though, is that as far as page-feel goes the Nataraj Bold manages to emerge from the crowd of dark-but-scratchy continental Asian “general writing” peers to hold its own against $2 fashion pencils.

Like most soft pencils, the Nataraj Bold’s…boldness, and smoothness, comes at a sacrifice in terms of neatness and point retention. This is not a long-lasting pencil; I had to stop and grab a freshly-sharpened one halfway through my review sheet — which is also covered in graphite fingerprints. To be fair, I got distracted in the middle of my test page and rubbed my hand all over it. But I’d say that the point retention and smeariness of the Bold are at least as bad as that of its peers. Further, less point retention means more sharpening, and more sharpening means you burn through the pencil faster. I’m not trying to beat them up for this; to adapt an engineering adage to the pencil lexicon, “darkness, smoothness, and point-retention: you can only pick two” seems to be the way it goes. Nataraj chose darkness and smoothness, and pays for it in durability.

Finally, the eraser test! Like many Asian pencils, the Bold does not come with a built-in eraser. There is a block eraser included in the box with the pencils, which is pretty neat. I’ll talk more about that below. But for the standard pencil review, since the pencil does not have its own eraser, I have nothing to test. However, the line that the Nataraj Bold writes practically vanishes with a Pentel Hi-Polymer, so a good block or endcap eraser will handle this pencil just fine.

Bonus: Eraser and Sharpener

With every ten-pack of Nataraj Bold pencils (and, apparently, most Indian pencils) comes two bonus products: a simple, plastic hand sharpener, and a small, white, “Dust Clear” block eraser. I think these are fun little touches, kind of like the bubble gum in a pack of baseball cards (am I dating myself?), and I like the idea that each box is a self-contained “kit” with everything a person needs to start writing.

For a cheap little plastic wedge sharpener — scratch that, for any plastic wedge sharpener — the included Nataraj “Big Point” sharpener is great! It cuts like nobody’s business, shaving off paper-thin ribbons and leaving a relatively long tip with a nice, needle-sharp point if that’s what you’re going for. It leaves a clean-finished tip as well as a sharp helical blade would. The plastic might get smooshed, or the blade go dull, but that’s pretty much irrelevant since you get a free one with every pack of pencils you buy. I have actually been using this sharpener by default since the box of Bold pencils came, and I think it’ll outlast the actual pencils.

The Nataraj Dust-Clear eraser isn’t super impressive, but it’s OK. It’s a little bit stiff, and its ability to remove pencil marks rates similar to that of a run-of-the-mill pencil nub eraser. You probably know what I mean: it doesn’t quite get rid of the mark, just kind of makes it faint enough to write over. The Pentel Hi-Polymer, on the other hand, completely removes the Bold’s graphite from the page. So, if you’re in the market specifically for a block eraser, I wouldn’t go seeking out the Natarj Dust-Clear. However, I do recognize that since the Nataraj Bold pencils don’t come with a pencil nub attached, it’s thoughtful of the company to throw in a block eraser so its users have something handy.

Conclusions

The Nataraj Bold has its drawbacks in the form of some construction-quality issues; specifically core-centering that is on the fringes of acceptability at times. That said, the ones that are correctly made write wonderfully. They are amazingly smooth and leave a pleasantly dark line. The flip side is that they suffer in terms of point retention and smudge-resistance, but if you are into softer pencils you’re probably used to that.

The box specifies a MSRP of 50 rupees per 10-pencil box; or 5 rupees per pencil. That translates to 7.3 cents in US dollars. That’s stupid cheap. For those of us who don’t travel to India often, I paid about $5 with Prime free shipping for these; so that’s about 50 cents per pencil. Of course, that doesn’t take into account the free sharpener or eraser; you’d have a hard time finding comparable products retail in the US for under a buck. If ordering pencils by mail is feasible for you (or if you’re going to be in India any time soon), the Nataraj Bold is a great pencil that’ll work for peanuts.

This is the first pencil I’ve reviewed from Hindustan Pencils, or any Indian company for that matter. I’d say they really got off to a good start. That’s impressive, considering that this does not seem to be one of their top-line pencils; from what I can gather, they rank the Nataraj 621, and most of their Aspara line, above the Bold. I’m definitely interested in trying out some of their other products.

Somehow, they managed to made a pencil that writes dark bold lines, doesn’t feel like sandpaper, and sells at rock-bottom prices. In terms of darkness and smoothness, I think the Nataraj Bold tops the Blackwing 602; no joke. Sure, the construction tolerances aren’t as exacting and you might get a dud in your box; but at this price, you still come out way ahead — and don’t look like every other hipster at the mustache-waxing competition.

Plus, I’d almost buy the box of pencils just to get the free sharpener.

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