THROWBACK Pencil Review: Paper Mate American Classic

In the last Throwback pencil review, the subject of which was the Faber Castell Velvet, we discussed the convoluted series of mergers by which the lion’s share of American pencilmakers became concentrated in the hands of Newell Rubbermaid (by way of Sanford) who then proceeded to kill off their product lines, one by one. It was basically like the Hunger Games for pencils.

Actually, it was more like the formation of a black hole. Numerous pencil brands collapsed gravitationally inward creating one super-massive object from which none could escape. Sandford gave that black hole the name Paper Mate, which prior to the mega-merger was a pen manufacturer. Today, only the few Mirado lines of pencil are made under the Paper Mate banner, but that was not always the case.

[Actually, since writing my initial draft of this post, I have found another current-production Papermate pencil. Foreshadowing!]

Today we’re going to look at the American Classic, a Made-in-USA product of the early 2000s. I found a package of these, still in the wrapper, tucked away in a desk drawer, so you bet bottom dollar I swiped them and gave them a try.

Construction Quality

The appearance is exactly what you’d expect from a mainstream American #2 pencil: yellow barrel, pink eraser. The classic hex-shaped barrel is imprinted with blue foil along one facet; the writing indicates the USA origin, the Paper Mate logo, a stylized “American” logo (with a cute little flag waving from the letter N!) and, of course, the designation “HB 2”. The ferrule is just your standard aluminum “tin can” style without any embellishments. The orangish-yellow lacquer is a little bit muted compared to many of the other standard yellow pencils. Overall, a pretty basic pencil.

Many of the barrels were quite visibly not-straight. They weren’t as comically bent as some of the ridiculous Ticonderoga pencils I’ve seen as of late, but crooked enough that when you line a bunch of them up together you can tell that they’re not all going in exactly the same direction. It’s a little hard to tell because the unfinished wood ends appear to have darkened, perhaps from age, but the core centering doesn’t look great either. Sharpening the worst offenders proved that suspicion correct.

The wood sharpened easily enough with a standard brass-wedge hand sharpener, but it didn’t finish very smoothly. The wood collar splintered a bit around the throat of the core. I was also hoping for cedar, given that the American Classic is going for the “classic” and “American” angle, but instead the barrels are made of a Basswood-type material.

Performance

The written line made by the American Classic appeared at first glance to be pretty dark for a core that’s graded HB. I was a little disappointed by the results of my physical inspection into the construction quality, but pleasantly surprised by the richness of the American Classic’s mark. I did a few swatches and lines of writing to compare it side-by-side to a couple of present day American (and “American”) #2 pencils, the General’s Supreme and the Chinese Ticonderoga. Paper Mate’s American Classic does indeed stand out as darker than the typical present-day HB.

I was also pretty impressed by the smoothness of the pencil. It is a relatively hard lead, of course, since it’s an HB, so it definitely feels firm on the page and give a distinct feedback-type noise. But it doesn’t feel scratchy. The point retention seems pretty good, but the off-centered cores are a real bummer since there’s a very apparent wooden fingernail covering the side of the tip. The smudge-resistance is legit.

The eraser sucks, but let’s be honest: it’s about 17 years old now. I was in a lot better shape 17 years ago than I am today, so maybe this eraser was too. We will just agree not to talk about this.

Conclusions

There’s a lot to like about the Paper Mate American Classic. The core is pretty awesome for one graded HB: smooth and dark but still solid. On the other hand, the quality control had some serious problems, resulting in off-centered cores and crooked barrels. Those types of things make sharpening difficult, and are the types of frustrations that turned people off to wooden pencils right before PCs, smartphones, gel pens, and numerous other alternatives began penetrating the “stuff to write things down with” market.

The combination of hard-lead firmness with darkness and smoothness that one might look for in a softer pencil reminds me a bit of the Chung Hwa 101. However, the two pencils are kind of the inverse of one another. The Chung Hwa 101 is graded 2B but has “HB characteristics”; whereas the American Classic is an HB that evokes a softer pencil, in some respects. It’s interesting, though, that the two kind of meet in the middle.

There’s this popular narrative on the internet (at least among Americans) that everything in the pencil world was hunky dory until the mid to late 2000s when manufacturers by and large shifted production to Asia and Latin America, at which point everything supposedly went to hell in an instant. I don’t think this is true; I think the corner-cutting began before the offshoring, the offshoring being just one of many corners cut. In this context, I think pencils like the Paper Mate American Classic represent something of a transitional fossil. You can see glimmers of past glory in the high-quality core, but clear signs of the degenerative process of the Standard Yellow Pencil in the crappy fit & finish. Perhaps circa-2000 pencil-makers got complacent back when they were the only game in town, and this was considered “good enough”, until gel pens and smart phones came along, and today the competition that killed off a lot of the weaker product lines (like the American Classic?) is driving the revival of good pencils.

I feel like I have done more hypothesizing about economics and global trade since starting this blog than I have over the course of my entire life prior. Who knew that a random bag of old pencils could be so thought-provoking?

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