Thailand, I discovered, is a great place to be if you’re a pencil dork. Things there generally run a little cheaper than they do in the west, which is always nice. The state of the Thai retail economy is such that the distribution of goods generally seems to flow through market vendors and Mom & Pop shops moreso than big box stores. I also perceived there to be a greater appreciation for stationery-type items, and learned that there are several pencil factories in Thailand which make products for both the domestic and export (to them) markets. All of this combined means that a leisurely stroll down a shop-lined street will often result in stumbling upon a small, dusty stationery shop stocked with a variety of hitherto unknown pencils, all to be had for just a few Baht.
Case in point: the twelve-pack of Masterart Blacklead Wood 2B pencils I picked up in Bangkok for 30 Baht (less than $1, USD). Made by DHA Siamwalla — the same company that makes the Elephant — these are Thai pencils made for Thai writers. I’ve had them stashed in my drawer for over six months, waiting for the right moment to give them a whirl. Today, I’m excited to share my findings with you.
The Masterart Wood pencil has a look that should not be unfamiliar to anyone who has used a pencil like the Cedar Pointe or Forest Choice. The semi-hex barrels are completely unfinished, save for a simple black imprint with the Masterart logo, “Blacklead Pencils” specification, and 2B grade. A tin-can ferrule with a black stripe holds on a black rubber eraser.
In this case, the naked wood finish (or lack thereof) really works. Low-cost pencils usually cheap out on the lacquer and imprint, giving off a vibe of corner-cutting. In this case they just got rid of the lacquer all together, which I think is a much better aesthetic than doing a half-assed job of it.
The wood casings are pretty darn straight. A few of them have a slight crown, but none of them are bad — in fact, I’d say that the bunch I have on hand is better in this regard than the average pack of pencils. Core centering is acceptable, but not great. About half of the core are dead-on centered; the other half are a little off, but still fully functional.
The species of wood used is interesting. As you may have expected, it’s a light-hued type of grainless wood — not cedar. I think it’s a little too colorful to be basswood, and it’s certainly soft. It has about the same coloration and softness as white fir, although you can usually see somewhat of a grain in fir.
Whatever it is, it sharpened up just fine and dandy. With a hand-held wedge, a single ribbon of wood shaving peeled away with little resistance to yield a finely-finished collar. The transition from collar to core is almost perfect. Of course, a helical sharpener made a point that is even better.
During my use-testing, I didn’t notice any issues with faulty cores. A tip did snap off during use, once; which isn’t bad considering I have a heavy hand and it’s a soft pencil. Other than that, the cores seemed well-bonded and the lead remained perfectly intact from the beginning of the pencil until the end.
Even for a 2B pencil, Masterart’s natural-finished product is dark. It lays down a significantly bolder line than the Castell 9000 2B. In fact, it’s up there with the Marco Grip-Rite 2B and even the “standard” Palomino Blackwing.
The lead of the Masterart Wood 2B feels nice and smooth. It’s not a waxy, slick type of smoothness but more of a dry gliding feeling. It does have a little bit of a gritty inconsistency to it, occasionally, which is slightly irritating. But in general, I find it to be one of the smoothest-writing pencils in my arsenal, even for a 2B pencil: smoother than the Blackwing 602, Kimberly 2B, Marco Grip-Rite 2B, and more on par with the Blackwing Pearl.
The point of the soft core seems to wear down fairly quickly, yielding only a paragraph or two before needing a fresh sharpen. That said, I don’t think it is significantly worse than, say, the Blackwing 602 or the General’s Kimberly 2B. I did some head-to-head comparisons and the tip seemed to wear down at about the same rate as those pencils.
Like most soft, 2B-graded pencils, Masterart’s “Blacklead Pencil” core is a bit on the smudgy side, making a longer smear than the Chinese Ticonderoga. However, it seems to me to be a tad messier than even some of its 2B grade-mates such as the General’s Kimberly. I’d say it even out-smeared the Blackwing 602. I also noticed it’s smudge-proneness when writing, although it wasn’t like ridiculously messy or anything. I’d say it’s a little worse than average, both for a 2B pencil and in general.
I realized after a while that my review was starting to sound a lot like the one I wrote for the Elephant 2B a while back. Given that both of those pencils are products of the same parent company (DHA Siamwalla) I figured I’d compare them side-by-side. My conclusion is that these pencils are probably built around the exact same core.
In everyday use, I thought the eraser did pretty well for a built-in eraser tip, but after doing a more objective test I decided that my eyes must be deceiving me. It couldn’t even out-erase the Pink Pearl, or the highly-mediocre Blackwing eraser. It’s not the lead that’s the problem, because the Hi-Polymer block eraser manages to buff out almost 100% of the graphite it puts down. So, I guess the Masterart Wood’s eraser is just kind of lousy. Maybe I didn’t notice it because it leaves a dark enough line that the “ghost” of the words I erased weren’t so obvious.
Overall, I really dig this pencil. It’s soft, smooth, and dark — and the eraser sucks. So basically, like a Palomino Blackwing, except an entire dozen box of Masterart Wood pencils will cost you half as much as one Blackwing pencil. It comes with similar baggage; the point retention isn’t great, which means that you’ll have to sharpen often and you’ll burn through an entire pencil in no time. It’s a little bit messy as well. But I didn’t find any of this to be out of line with what I’d expect for a pencil this soft. That’s just kind of the trade-off for smoothness and darkness, and you get about what you’d expect here.
In terms of intangible aspects, I wouldn’t say it felt as “fine” as a Blackwing, but it definitely had a similar something about it. Reaching into my pencil bag, I often felt myself drawn to the Masterart.
Interestingly, although the wood seems “naked” and unfinished, it doesn’t seem to pick up a patina of hand funk the way that Cedar Pointe and similar pencils do. Maybe it’s because of the type of wood used, or perhaps because the soft core results in a pencil that gets eaten up in a hurry. Anyway, if your favorite part of unlacquered pencils is the weathered look that results, this one will be unsatisfying. Or, if that grosses you out, you’re in luck.
One other remarkable thing I noticed is that, according to the box, the Masterart Wood is actually made in China. I’d assumed that, since Thailand has an indigenous pencil industry, DHA Siamwalla is a Thai company, and these pencils seem to be marketed primarily toward domestic Thai consumption, that they’d be made there. For whatever it’s worth, though, they’re made in the same country that many of our “American” pencils here in the States are. I guess it’s true even halfway around the world: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Masterart Wood 2B is definitely one of the better budget pencils I’ve used (assuming a trip to Thailand is in your budget). It’s smooth, it’s soft, it’s dark. It’s sturdy and, overall, pretty well built. For my 30 baht, I’m not sure that a pencil can do much better.