Pencil Review: Musgrave Ceres 909 (#2)

In ancient Roman mythology, Ceres was the goddess who made civilization possible. Before her intervention, humanity lived a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Then, one day, Ceres bestowed upon us the knowledge of ploughing, sowing, harvesting, animal husbandry, and all of the skills we would need to practice agriculture, settle down and become modern folk.

If a person were to look at a satellite image of the countryside surrounding Shelbyville, Tennessee and the wider area southeast of Nashville, they wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that Musgrave Pencil Co. — one of America’s last remaining domestic pencil manufacturers — pays tribute to Ceres with it’s mainline yellow #2, model number 909. Perhaps the folks at Musgrave had the agricultural outskirts of the “Pencil City” on their mind when they named this mule of a pencil. So, is the Ceres pencil a worthy namesake for a Roman goddess? Let’s pull out a sharpener and see.

Construction Quality

At first glance, the Musgrave Ceres 909 pencil looks about like any other yellow #2. The differences that set it apart are subtle, but noteworthy. The lacquer is relatively thin, almost more of a stain or a yellow-wash, that shows the slat seam and the texture of the wood casing through its “cheddar cheese” hue. A simple, brass-toned, crimped ferrule holds a pink eraser, because of course it does. The modest, black imprint has a throw-back vibe to it, and the shape is a hard, full hexagon — no rounded edges here. This pencil isn’t for the pretentious; it wears its blue-collar, small-town Appalachian roots on its sleeve.

While the hard hex shape makes the pencils difficult to roll — great if you’re afraid of them running off with the milkman — a little nudge gets things moving evenly in the right direction, indicating straightness. They pack tightly together and sit flat on a table. For the most part, they’re arrow-straight. A few have the slightest warp, but for objects made primarily of wood they’re pretty damn good. Above average, for sure.

Sharpening the 909 reveals a type of wood that is…not cedar. Other reviews I’ve seen call it basswood, which is often a safe assumption, but I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here. If I had to bet my life on it, I’d say these pencils are made of fir. Folks often assume that any pencil not made of cedar is basswood, but this isn’t the case. There are also jelutong, poplar, pine, and fir pencil slats in common use. Musgrave’s website doesn’t specify which species, but does say they obtain their slats from China — which means it could be anything (although it’s obviously not jelutong).

But, as the saying goes, “the nose knows!” Sharpen up a Ceres 909 and hold it up to your schnozz. Dads everywhere know that smell. It smells like Home Depot. And around these parts, the big box lumberyards stock a lot of wood made from fir. Additionally, fir tends to be darker, and have a bit more of a distinct grain, than basswood (although not as obvious as cedar); compare the Ceres 909 to a confirmed-basswood pencil and this checks out. So I’m going to go out on a limb (see what I did there?) and say that these pencils are cased in the wood of the fir tree.

Whatever the species of wood, sharpening it was so-so with my trusty brass wedge hand sharpener. It felt similar to basswood, and was perhaps just a touch more fibrous and splintery, and left a little bit of an exposed throat around the core. Sharpening with a helical sharpener is a different story; the point comes out nearly perfect every time.

There was one core of the dozen that was visibly off-center, and one more that might have been less-than-perfect. Otherwise, they’re dead-on. And even the one bad apple wasn’t that bad. So far I have not had a single tip — even the freshly-sharpened, tippy tip — break on me. I had one instance of a core tip coming dislodged from the casing, which kind of broke my heart a little; but it was one isolated incident that occurred immediately after retrieving it from my man-purse, so I’m going to chalk it up to a rough commute.

Performance

There’s something about the Ceres that really seems to do it for me. Maybe it’s the fact that it is an unpretentious pencil, with many of the perks of the typical office-grade #2, while leaning a little bit toward the soft-pencil side of the spectrum.

The graphite of the Ceres 909 #2 lays down a little bit darker than most HB pencils. Compared to the selection of other HB-grade pencils I swatched it against, the only one of comparable darkness was the Chinese-made Ticonderoga. The Ceres left a mark that was deeper than both General Pencil Company offerings I had on hand (The Kimberly HB and the Supreme #2) as well as the Staedtler Rally and the Castell 9000.

For a schoolhouse-yellow #2 pencil, the Ceres 909 is also fairly smooth. You can definitely hear some feedback as it moves across the page, but you don’t feel a lot of abrasion. It feels slightly soft, but not greasy or slick. It is pretty similar, again, to the Chinese Ticonderoga — maybe a touch smoother, although definitely not in the softer range where the Blackwing 602 sits. The core is also very consistent — no gritty, irregular inclusions here.

My impression is that the point retention is pretty good with this one. Both in work notes and in journaling, I felt like I was getting a fair amount of text written down before I felt the urge to sharpen. I did a line-by-line test against the Ticonderoga #2 and they wore down about the same — the Ceres may have kept its tip sharpness just a little longer.

Overall, the core feels very Ticonderoga-like, but it seems to outperform it in one way: smudge-resistance. It’s not nearly as smear-proof as the Castell 9000, but it compares well to the Staedtler Rally and the Cedar Pointe, and is definitely more resistant to smudging than the Chinese Ticonderoga.

The eraser’s not bad. Some reviewers in days past have indicated that they don’t care for it, but I think it does the job OK. It’s no worse than the Pink Pearl, although definitely no match for the Hi-Polymer. Maybe it’s because the graphite seems highly eraser-friendly; the Hi-Polymer makes it practically vanish. The ferrules are crimped onto the pencil and eraser securely, so it’s probably not going anywhere.

Conclusions

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the old-school Americana vibe and the sharp-hex shape are pros or cons; those are just matters of personal taste. In my opinion, the strength of the Musgrave Ceres 909 is in the core. Not that the casing is bad — it’s about as straight as it gets, usually cut on the same axis as the core, and sharpens OK. Then again, it doesn’t sharpen great, the finish isn’t very impressive, and it’s just a yellow #2 pencil with a pink eraser.

It would also be great if the casings were made of cedar! I’m not holding it against them — that would hardly be fair since I give plenty of basswood, jelutong, etc. pencils rave reviews — but I guess from an old-school company, making old-school pencils, I was kind of expecting an old-school cedar casing. If there’s anyone to blame for that, it’s me an my expectations, but I’m just throwing this out there for whatever it’s worth.

So anyway, the casing — not amazing, though not bad either. But the core? That’s where it’s at. It sits in a happy place between HB “everyday” pencils and more luxurious B or 2Bs. It’s a little darker, more consistent, and smoother than your typical #2, but holds its point well, doesn’t break or crumble, and seems to stay attached to the casing for the most part. It sits very much in the “just a yellow pencil” market niche but has a little bit extra up its sleeve.

I feel like you get a little extra in terms of quality assurance and quality control from the Musgrave Ceres pencil than from its competitors. It seems like there were no “duds” in this box, and the few that weren’t perfectly consistent with their siblings were not catastrophically so. I can imagine that, being a smaller company who’s been doing this for a long time, perhaps they’ve got the kinks worked out a little better, or someone is more likely to take action when things get out of whack.

Depending on the seller and the quantity, the Ceres 909 will set you back from around 25-50 cents per pencil. Not dirt cheap by any means, but well within the budget of most folks for an everyday workhorse pencil. I ordered a dozen direct from Musgrave for $5.50. They even came in a nice little box, with a sampler pack of other pencils thrown in as a bonus.

I certainly didn’t experience anything mind-blowing when I took the Musgrave Ceres 909 for a spin, but for a yellow workhorse it’s a tick above average — and with just enough flair to set it apart from the pack.

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