The American-made pencil just might be making a comeback. I wanted to call it a “renaissance” at first, but that’s hardly the word. There doesn’t seem to be anything fancy, artistic, or revolutionary about the pencils still made in the USA today; most of them seem to be largely utilitarian in nature. Nonetheless, the industry that was on the brink of drying up in the States not long ago seems to be slowly expanding and diversifying.
One pencil that’s been on the forefront of the re-establishment has been the Golden Bear. Sold under the Palomino brand — yes, that Palomino — the Golden Bear is a Made-in-America No. 2 pencil with a little bit extra. With an eye-catching appearance and a brand name that suggests quality among the wood-and-graphite faithful, here’s a pencil that set out to prove that American No. 2’s don’t have to be so, well, yellow. I grabbed a dozen to see what was under the lacquer and how it stood up to the competition.
The USA-made Golden Bear is sold in two color schemes: blue with an orange eraser, and orange with a blue eraser. The tones they picked out are both pretty funky. The blue is kind of a powder, “pimp-suit” blue; the orange is orange like a road cone. I have to say, I dig it. Both colors are atypical for American pencils, they’re really fun, and they go well together. Unfortunately, they don’t sell them as mixed sets. For the purpose of this review, I bought a dozen box of the blue-lacquered models.
The lacquer is a glossy affair and is pretty thin. The slat joint, wood grain, and tool marks from the casings below are clearly discernible on the surface. A gold-foil imprint on one facet identifies it’s model name, “2” grade, and its origin as a product of the USA. As you may know, there are only a few pencil factories left in the States, and the more well-known Palomino products (the Blackwing lines of pencil) are made in Japan, so the question is: who’s really making the Palomino Golden Bear? To me, the shape of the barrel is a dead giveaway. It’s a “sharp” full hex without rounded corners, which tells me that this has to be a Musgrave pencil with the Palomino brand on it. A brassy “tin can” ferrule with a distinguishing orange stripe holds the aforementioned colorful eraser in place to top the pencil off. The imprint is clean and appealing, but not necessarily applied in a precise location from pencil to pencil.
Fun aside: if you look closely you might notice that the bear logo is the same shape as the one on the California flag, complete with the little star above his head.
Right on the box, Palomino advertises “centered graphite”, which set my expectations pretty high — high enough to be a little bit let down. Frankly, the cores are not centered any better than most other pencils you get nowadays, with some of them centered well and others pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable. I picked the worst-centered one for my review and it didn’t end up being an issue in practice, so I’m not trying to suggest that the centering is horrible. It’s just not anything to really brag about, either. If you’re going to talk a big game, you ought to be able to back it up, and centering isn’t this pencil’s strong suit.
Palomino is a brand of Cal Cedar, so to no one’s surprise, the Golden Bear’s barrels are made of genuine incense cedar. If you had no idea what to expect, though, you’d know it as soon as you sharpened one up because the aroma of these pencils will smack you right in the schnozz! The smell of fresh cedar is abundant and satisfying here.
Cedar purists may not believe me, but I wasn’t over-the-top impressed with how the wood behaved during a sharpen. Hand-cutting seemed to be a little more of an arduous process than I expected, with the same freshly-bladed brass wedge I use on most reviews snagging at various points around the circumference of the pencil. Perhaps it has more to do with the bonding than the wood, because it seemed like the ribbon of shavings tended to break apart right at the seam of the slats. However, I did find the wood to be a little too fibrous to respond well to a razor. Maybe I’m just getting spoiled now that I gravitate toward helix sharpeners, because my Deli hand-crank elicited a better performance.
The good news is, the core of my test pencil remained intact the entire time I was writing, sharpening, and abusively hauling it around in my pencil bag. I did not note any issues with dislodged/fractured cores, or tips breaking off mid-sentence. The casings are pretty straight, as well. There are a few subtly-warped individuals in the box, but nothing too wild.
The Golden Bear lays down a pretty susbtantial line for an ostensibly-HB pencil (it’s only given the #2 designation, but traditionally the two are equivalent). I did some swatch tests against the Castell 9000 HB and the Mirado Classic, which I used to “bookend” the light and dark extremes of what I’d consider to be accurate HB grades, plus the Kimberly HB for a good middle-of-the road data point. The Golden Bear was darker than all of them, except maybe the Mirado. These pencils could pass as a B or even a 2B, depending.
Despite the relative darkness of the pencil, the Golden Bear’s core definitely has a significant page feel. I’d say that its general scratchiness is about what you’d expect from the typical No. 2; it’s definitely not as scratchy as the Mirado but maybe somewhere between the Cedar Pointe and the Chinese Ticonderoga. I also picked up on a somewhat gritty consistency, with the dreaded “snaggy chunks” popping up from time to time, but not enough to interfere with writing or cause too much annoyance.
Point retention was unremarkable in either a good or bad way. Overall, it’s pretty solid, although not mind-blowingly so. I felt like I could write a good amount without feeling compelled to sharpen. Comparing it to some other pencils more objectively, it’s pretty standard for an HB pencil.
Upon living with the Golden Bear daily for a week or so, it struck me as a little bit smudge-prone, but not too shabby. Under intentional smear tests it worked out about the same as the comparable “Classic No.2” pencils: similar to the Chinese Ticonderoga and the USA Gold, and a tad worse than the Cedar Pointe. It doesn’t hold up as well as the Castell 9000 HB, but few pencils do. It’s definitely not 2B-type smeary, though. I’d say that in this respect, it’s average or slightly below.
The eraser is pretty mediocre. It’s good enough for erasing words when used for general writing purposes, but if you’re working on something that requires a clean layout you’ll probably want to have a good block eraser handy. A more effective tool, like the Hi-Polymer, will have no problem handling the graphite that the Golden Bear puts down.
The Palomino Golden Bear is a good-writing “No. 2” that doesn’t have a fragile lead or print weakly, and on those grounds I would definitely recommend it to anyone who isn’t super snobby about pencils but would still appreciate something a notch above the no-name store model. They’re priced right in range with the Ticonderogas of the world, but stand out from that crowd.
On the flip side, they’re no competition for Palomino’s flagship models and certainly aren’t a “sleeper” pencil. The lacquer is thin, the tolerances for core-centering are pretty loose, and the wood — Authentic Incense Cedar notwithstanding — is a little rough. The erasers are underwhelming, as well.
By the end of my review period, my curiosity was burning. If this is a Musgrave pencil, is it just another model with a new paint job? I did some more swatching and the Golden Bear looked and felt significantly different than the Ceres and Test Scoring. However, it’s a pretty close match to the Harvest. Of course, aside from the Ceres, I haven’t used any of the Musgrave pencils for a significant amount of time, let alone write up a full-blown review; but I am pretty sure that I’ll be doing a review of all the above eventually and a deeper comparison post with the Golden Bear seems fun. So, there’s a little foreshadowing for you.
The Golden Bear is your basic No. 2 pencil with a couple of upgrades: it writes a bit darker, and it looks a lot cooler. I wasn’t over- or under-whelmed by it, but it’s definitely welcome in my pencil cup any time.
As you point out in a later post, the differences between most pencils are ultimately minute; to that point, I have no problem saying I like the Golden Bear mostly for aesthetic reasons. It’s a perfectly decent #2 pencil, but it’s got a fun name and a color scheme that’s pleasing and quirky without being ostentatious. That’s more than enough.
Also it’s cheap, which is nice.
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