Pencil Review: Dixon No. 2/HB

Most of us are probably familiar with the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil. I think pretty much everyone in the United States over the age of six has used one at some point in their lives, and I imagine that anyone reading a blog about pencils and writing supplies from abroad are at least aware that they exist.

However, you wouldn’t be blamed if you had no idea that other Dixon pencils not named “Ticonderoga” exist. The Ticonderoga is a pretty decent (but not amazing) pencil, and in the Dixon world, it’s their flagship. There is the Dixon Oriole, which I can’t comment on other than to say that it’s perceived to be a rung below the Ticonderoga [note: I do have a box in line to review at a later date, though.]. And then, below that, there is a pencil that hasn’t even earned a model name. It’s known simply as the Dixon No. 2/HB pencil.

I have no idea where I got these, because it seems pretty rare to come across them in a retail location. However, I’m certain they were very cheap, and they came in a box of 20. So the question is: what does it say about you when you’re the third-string quarterback on a team whose starter is just “pretty good”? I would guess it means that you’re either pretty lousy, or your talents are being overlooked. Let’s have a look at the Dixon “No-Name” and see which scenario best describes it…

Construction Quality

If you were going to take a shot in the dark and try to describe this generic, American #2 pencil without seeing it, you’d probably hit the nail right on the head: yellow lacquer, tin-can ferrule, pink eraser. The imprint is sparse, with only “Dixon (R) No. 2/HB” embossed in black appearing on the barrel. The imprint is fine and it’s nice that it’s got a straightforward, uncluttered design. The lacquer is smooth, shiny, and thin. The casing is carved into a traditional semi-hex shape.

Speaking of casings, overall the wood barrels are pretty straight. One or two of them were pretty out of whack, although not ridiculously so. The rest are all good.

Core centering is a similar story. For the most part, the cores aren’t centered too bad. Some of them, though, are significantly askew. I’d say about three out of the twenty — which isn’t a terrible ratio at all, compared to some of its competitors. However, the one I chose to sharpen up was pretty “borederline” as far as whether or not it was too off-kilter to be usable. In the end, though, it worked out OK.

The casings are made of the totally-expected white material identified only as “100% real wood”. Other than being a little bit fibrous or rough in texture, it did shave off quite smoothly in a perfect, solid ribbon with my M+R brass wedge sharpener. Unfortunately, a whole slat’s worth of collar broke off leaving the throat exposed, so it’s definitely not a perfect sharpen; but it’s generally alright. My helical hand crank and X-Acto electric sharpeners were capable of producing a clean, smooth point.

Another bright spot seems to be that the core is sturdy and well-bonded. The classic complaint about cheap pencils is that they break often, and that the leads come out of the casing willy-nilly, making it difficult to achieve and maintain a suitable tip. In my experience, the Dixon No. 2/HB holds up well in that regard.

Performance

The construction may seem pretty good, but the core of this guy is the real letdown. Since they’re made in China, and the Chinese Ticonderoga pencils tend to run a little darker and softer than the Mexican variants, I had hopes that the core of Dixon’s no-name #2 would stand out. However, upon putting the tip to the paper I discovered that this is a light-writing core. I compared it to the Cedar Pointe #2, which I perceive to be a “standard” HB, and the Dixon literally pales in comparison. It might even be on par with (or even lighter than) the Castell 9000 HB, which runs a little fainter than what we expect from HB pencils here in the States. It seems more like an F or an H to me.

As far as the feeling goes, the core of Dixon’s generic is very firm — rigid even. The page feel is actually pretty smooth, which is normally a good thing. However, taking all of this together — the sensation when writing, the feeling of the core, and the faintness of the mark — it feels a bit off-putting to me. It’s like there’s just not a lot of graphite being laid down onto the page. Actually, it kind of feels like the lead is made of literal lead; like trying to write with a fishing weight. There’s also that occasional chunk of sandy grit that I’ve come to expect from cheap pencils; it’s present in Dixon’s no-name, although not as bad as some other pencils.

I was itching to see how well this pencil held a point. My rationale was that if it felt firm and wrote faintly, maybe it was just a hard pencil, and good point retention is sometimes a fair trade-off for line darkness, right? Well, don’t get too excited, because the Dixon No. 2/HB doesn’t hold a sharp tip any longer than some darker, softer pencils such as Dixon’s own Chinese-made Ticonderoga. Objectively, it’s not bad, but it’s just kind of mediocre — not enough of a trade-off for the light laydown. If anything, it’s worse in practice: the light-colored line makes me feel like I want to sharpen more often to get a sharp tip capable of leaving a stronger mark. So, basically, it’s like a hard pencil but without the main advantage of hard pencils.

As far as smudge resistance goes, at least it’s pretty decent in that regard. When given the ol’ sweaty finger test, it smears about as much as the Musgrave Ceres, General’s Cedar Pointe, and Staedtler Rally, which are all fairly good smudge-resisters. I didn’t notice any rub-outs or errant fingerprints while subjecting the Dixon #2 to daily use.

Don’t worry though, because you can definitely use the eraser nub to smear graphite around! It’s pretty awful. It’s dry and abrasive. It leaves a smudgy mess, and underneath the graphite it’s smeared around the page, you can still see a pretty clear remnant of what you attempted to erase. Of course, you could theoretically solve this by adding an eraser cap; except that while the ferrules are pretty tight out of the box, a few uses of the eraser will cause them to start wiggling their way loose. By the time you get toward the end of the pencil, the ferrule feels like it’s about to come flying off at any moment. Eventually, I solved this problem by just ripping the whole thing off.

Conclusions

I keep going back and forth about where I stand on this Dixon No. 2/HB. On paper, it sounds good: it’s well built, it’s very reasonably priced, and it allows you to write things down. The utilitarian in me says that it checks all of the boxes. But then my inner Marie Kondo points out that the process of writing with this pencil certainly does not spark joy.

Again, the build quality and QA/QC are good: the cores are reasonably well-centered and stay intact, the barrels are straight, the lead is well bonded, and so on. It just doesn’t feel good to write with. It’s like writing with a hard rock, or a pencil that’s made of actual, literal lead — like writing with a fishing weight.

I don’t think this is just my soft-pencil bias coming out to rag on a core that’s harder than graded; if it had above-average point retention I could justify the weird pagefeel as a trade-off for durability. But it doesn’t. I believe that the core is the most important part of the pencil, and the effort to build a well-made pencil around such a disappointing core comes across to me as an exercise in turd-polishing.

I keep finding these pencils in the wild. I’m not sure where they come from since they rarely seem to pop up in retail stores, at least around my neck of the woods. However, I find them in an office pen cup or laying around on a friend’s kitchen counter more often than expected. Maybe because they’re a bit like bad pennies: once you get one, it’s going to be a while before you use it enough to justify tossing it out.

And while they are very affordable, they are far from the best option at their price point. The Dixon No. 2/HB will set you back about $11 for a gross on Amazon right now, which sounds like a great deal; but the nearly-identical Pen + Gear (made in India) only costs $10 per gross (two 72-packs for $5 each), writes — and erases! — way better, and can be picked up at your local Walmart along with your milk, eggs and bread. Even if you’re in the market for a truckload of no-frills pencils at a rock-bottom price, Dixon’s economy model is still a lackluster option, in my opinion.

I guess this answers the question: If your starting quarterback is a middling performer, your third-string quarterback probably sucks.

One thought on “Pencil Review: Dixon No. 2/HB

  1. Anon May 14, 2020 / 7:43 pm

    This confirms my choice to go with Mirado. Thanks again!

    Like

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