I have a confession to make: I have been starting to feel like all pencils are pretty much the same. Sure, there are minor differences to most of them, and some of them deviate from the mean significantly; but it’s definitely been a while since I saw something that was was really, surprisingly different.
And then I met this little guy: The Musgrave News 600 pencil. The Musgrave website alluded to the fact that this ungraded pencil writes a bit different than the rest of their products, even going so far as to say that it is “very soft”. But I wasn’t at all prepared for what was in store for me when I finally got around to giving it a whirl!
Like most Musgrave pencils, the Model #600 NEWS has a cool vintage look. With a rounded barrel all dressed up in glossy black, a simple white imprint written in throwback font is the only detail that stands out. The pencils come eraser-free and unsharpened.
The oversized core of the News, with few exceptions, seems pretty much perfectly centered in the circular wood casing. As far as I can tell, the barrels all seem to be as straight as an arrow.
Sharpening is smooth as butter. This is probably aided in part by the round barrels, which produced a super-long curly ribbon of wood. The wood is your basic basswood-type material, and a fresh blade makes very easy work of it. The ample size of the cores does make sharpening by hand a little messy, with lots of graphite cuttings created; but the wooden collar and graphite tip finish up perfectly smooth with a flush transition from one to the other.
The cores seem to be very fragile. At several points while sharpening (both by hand, and with a crank sharpener) the tip torqued free. I don’t think it’s an issue with bonding, because the breakage always occurred near the tip and not deep inside in the casing. Therefore I surmise that the the lead itself just tends to be prone to breakage if one isn’t careful.
I could tell right away that this was going to be a wild pencil. I expected something soft and dark based on the description when I ordered it, but holy cow — the Musgrave News is really something else.
First of all, this pencil is ridiculously dark. The core is ungraded, maybe because it’s totally off the scale. That may be a slight exaggeration, but I did some swatching and the pencils it best compared to were other ultra-soft, ungraded pencils like the Nataraj Bold and the standard Blackwing. I also did a side-by-side comparison with several grades of Mars Lumograph pencils and, to my eye, the News looks similar to a 6B or even a 7B in darkness.
Naturally for such a soft pencil, the smoothness of the News is amazing. There is simply no feedback from the page, other than a very subtle sound of the graphite rubbing against the paper.
If that all sounds too good to be true, here’s the drawback: the point wears ridiculously fast; so fast that it’s difficult to write a crisp line even when freshly sharpened. To be fair, the Musgrave website says that “the point retention wears a little faster than other styles,” but that seems like a pretty serious understatement. I’m actually struggling to put this into words, but it’s almost like point retention isn’t even a thing with this pencil because there’s no point to retain. You can sharpen up a nice enough tip, but before you finish writing the first character, it’s totally gone; by the time you’re done with the first word, it almost looks like it was written in a well-sharpened crayon, leaving behind a broad, marbled stroke. Obviously this is absolutely not a pencil to use if you value point retention.
As you might have guessed, it is also very smudgy. It’s hard to really compare it to anything else, because when I do a deliberate smear test, the smudge it makes streaks completely off the end of the page! It has no eraser of its own, but the Musgrave News responds just fine and dandy to a good block eraser.
The closest thing I can think to compare the Musgrave News to is a 6B drawing pencil, and has all of the obvious pros and cons: it’s super dark, it’s smooth as hell, it smears endlessly and the point goes blunt the instant it touches the paper.
I went into this review thinking this would be something like the Blackwing, but really it’s in a category all its own, at least as far as my experience goes. I was able to tame some of its wild tendencies by doing what artists do and sharpening softer pencils to a shorter point. We writers tend to think about long points improving point retention, but in this case a shorter point is definitely better suited. A standard Kum sharpener did the trick.
To me, the Musgrave News seems best suited as a special-purpose pencil. If you need something soft and dark, but don’t care so much about whether you are making a crisp line, it would be great. The Musgrave website mentions marking up the newspaper or sheet music. I could definitely see purposes where it would be useful like doing crossword puzzles, making notes on a document that needs to be photocopied, or maybe doing sketches or artwork where you want a big, fat, dark line. If you’re trying to do something like write in your journal or do homework, though, good luck! Your sharpener will probably eat the whole pencil in one sitting.
[Update: I did find one niche purpose for the Musgrave News that I think it’s particularly well-suited for: as a carpenter’s pencil. Check out my post on that topic!]
It’s really hard for me to make a value judgment and call it “good” or “bad” because, honestly, I think my review criteria are not calibrated for the type of job that this pencil would best suited for. So, I’ll just put it this way: the Musgrave News is a very unique pencil.