Today’s review is going to get a little weird, because it’s going to involve two pencils. But, actually, maybe just one. Clear as mud? I’m talking about the “No. 2/HB” store brand pencil(s) from Walmart. One is a “throwback” thrift-store find from the Casemate brand; the other is current-production material of the Pen+Gear make.
Why review them both simultaneously? In order to answer that, a little backstory is necessary. A few years back, Walmart’s Casemate brand started putting out cheap “no-name” yellow pencils that were made in India. Rumor on the internet was that these pencils were actually made by Hindustan Pencil Co., maker of the Nataraj Bold pencil (which I really like). At some point Walmart dropped the “Casemate” label in favor of “Pen+Gear”, and — rumor also has it — started to source their store-brand pencils from another manufacturer. Rumor also has it that they kinda went to hell at this point. Well, I happened to come upon both old and new models of their pencils and noticed that they are almost identical with only minor changes. So, what’s going on here? Are they the same pencil with different branding? Are they different pencils? And, most importantly…are they any good?
The parent company didn’t change much when they switched from Casemate to Pen+Gear branding in 2016. The packaging, down to the logo, is virtually identical, with only the actual brand-name text differing. The pencils themselves are likewise identical, with no differentiation other than the color scheme. Purely by chance, I reckon, I happened upon “classic #2 yellow” pencils of the Casemate variety, and an assortment of neon colors of the Pen+Gear variety. Anatomically, however, the two examples are identical: spartan imprint with only the “No. 2/HB” grade, standard hex body, basic tin-can ferrule, typical nub eraser.
[Note: after beginning the initial draft of this review, I noticed that an updated Pen+Gear logo is being phased in, and the imprint on their Made in India pencils is changing as well.]
The fit and finish is about what you’d expect from a Walmart store-brand product. The lacquer is pretty thin, chippy, with some blotches and such. Those are just cosmetics, though. The ferrules are firmly attached, which is a good sign.
Both Casemate and Pen+Gear iterations of the Walmart pencil are kind of all over the place in terms of barrel straightness, but none of them were too bad. Some are arrow straight, and some are bowed; most have some sort of curvature to them. I wouldn’t say any of them are unusable. Maybe one or two out of the two packs I picked up, if you’re really picky.
The cores are a little bit funky, for both makes. As you can see below, they’re kind of all over the place. I’d say that the older Casemate version is wonkier than the newer Pen+Gear ones, although that could just be luck of the draw. Based on this relatively small sample, though, I’d say that quality has improved in the newer iterations if anything.
I picked out the worst-centered example from each batch and gave it a good hand sharpening (with a Nataraj wedge sharpener, because that just seemed appropriate). Shaving away the wood actually felt quite pleasant. Both casings peeled off in nice, solid ribbons made of a soft wood that sharpened effortlessly and finished up smoothly. The collar of the wood point transitioned seamlessly into the graphite tip. The wood is obviously a jelutong-like species; the older Casemate specimen I sharpened was made of one very freckled and pitted slat (with the opposite slat barely marked at all). The halves of the newer Pen+Gear pencil were better paired and less blemished. Both pencils responded well to mechanical helix-blade sharpening, and despite the off-centered appearance, seemed have cores on-target enough to be usable.
With the older Casemate model, I did encounter a section of core that seemed poorly bonded, continuously torquing out of the casing during sharpening or wobbling loose during writing. That’s probably one of the biggest black marks you can make against a pencil. As I found myself sharpening and re-sharpening, dislodging cores stuck in the sharpener blade, and throwing away loose chunks of graphite, I thought “this is why pencil-haters hate pencils.” It was really a downer because, up until that point, I thought these were quite the hidden gem. Fortunately it only happened during one section of the pencil, and with the older Casemate model — I didn’t experience it at all with the Pen+Gear. Perhaps quality has improved since 2016, and in any event it doesn’t seem to be a constant issue. Crappy nonetheless.
The Casemate and Pen+Gear pencils both write substantially smoother than the typical #2 pencils you might expect to find on the rack at Wally World (or at least, smoother than I expected). The tip has a bit of a creamy, waxy feel to it; it definitely has somewhat of a soft texture for a grade-HB core. They also have a consistent composition, with no chunky snags to be found.
The line darkness of both models is definitely a little darker than a run-of-the-mill #2 pencil as well. I swatched them against one another, and also against some common #2/HB pencils. I also threw in the Blackwing 602 to see how they stood out against a common “soft” pencil, and the Nataraj Bold since these pencils are allegedly made by the same manufacturer. The results are shown below. As you can see, the Casemate and Pen+Gear pencils performed identically (are we seeing a theme yet?). Also, they lay down darker than “standard” HB pencils like the General’s Supreme or Castell 9000. These pencils leave a mark that looks a lot bolder, more like the Blackwing 602. If I were in charge of grading these pencils, I’d call then a B or 2B — but most people who buy dirt-cheap pencils from Walmart would probably get very confused if they didn’t say “No. 2”!
For pencils graded HB, the point retention of the Casemate and Pen+Gear pencils tends to be an area of slight underachievement. If you’ve read along this far, that might not be too surprising given that these pencils are relatively soft. If they were graded more “accurately” (I use quotation marks because there is no standard for the HB grading system) and were given a 2B-ish designation, I might even say that the point retention is good. As it is, I have to say that the point retention isn’t great, but as a trade-off for smoothness and darkness, it’s fair.
If you try to smudge one of these bad boys, it definitely will, especially if you have sweaty hands (I gave it a whirl right after coming in from a bike ride…) but not any moreso than any others. I found it to be comparable to the General’s Supreme and better than the Blackwing 602 in this regard. I also did not identify any instances where the Casemate/Pen+Gear pencils made any particularly nasty messes in “real life” usage.
Both pencils have eraser nubs that do an OK job. They’re not great, and they do seem to wear down fast and leave some pretty major rubber chunks behind (thankfully, balled up into a couple of rolls). For most everyday purposes, though, they’re probably fine. And do I need to say it? The two brands performed identically.
So let’s do the math here. The Casemate and Pen+Gear pencils: are both made in India, have identical imprints, have identical ferrules, are made of the same wood, both write smooth and dark, and have similarly mediocre/messy erasers. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the current-production Pen+Gear pencils (at least the Made in India ones; I don’t know if there is another source) are the same as the pre-2016 Casemate pencils.
They’re certainly not perfect. The lack of bonding of the lead on the Casemate test model really irked me. The fact that erasers are blah and the core-centering is merely passable is kind of a bummer as well. That said, we are talking about pencils that are about 99 cents a dozen. They write smooth as hell, and pleasantly dark. When they work, I really like writing with them.
Yes, you could do better by purchasing a nice pencil from an art store or online. But suppose you are out getting your eggs and milk and handgun and Snuggie at Walmart, and you need some pencils. You can buy some Ticonderogas that also have hit-or-miss core bonding & centering, but are also faint and scratchy. Or, you can save a buck or two, buy some Pen+Gear No. 2 pencils for 99 cents, and (as long as you avoid the duds) enjoy writing with a smooth, dark pencil. When you think of it that way, Walmart’s store-brand pencils are actually a pretty good buy.
They’re no Blackwing-killers, but this unassuming No. 2 with a rock-bottom price tag might be one of the best of the Schoolhouse Yellow pencils.