One of my constant fears since starting to go full-steam on this blog has been that eventually, some day, I’ll run out of pencils to review. Let’s do the math: if I average a pencil review per week, that’s about 50 different types of pencils a year. It seems like I’m on pace to exhaust the possibilities within a few years; or at least the easy ones. I feel like I’ve already picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit.
Needless to say, I was excited when I walked into a local chain-brand supermarket and found something I’d never seen before. Just this fall, a company called Written Word Pencil Co. has started putting out several lines of USA-made pencils that they’ve branded America’s Finest. I eagerly snagged the two versions available — naturally-finished “American Arbor”, and accurately-named “Prestige Black” — to have a look a closer look at them.
Both iterations of America’s Finest that I’m reviewing today come in a circular barrel shape, which is one thing that makes these pencils interesting considering hex-cut seems to be the go-to for pencils in this market segment. They’re imprinted with a simple, white screen-print that reads “America’s Finest Pencil”, the grade of HB/2, and a description of the particular model: “Natural White Fir”, “Natural Cedar”, or “Matte Black”. The imprint has a classy austerity, although it’s applied a little sloppily.
The natural fir and cedar versions seem to have a light, clear finish on them although it’s hardly detectable. The matte black finish is exactly as described, and looks sharp, although the lacquer is definitely on the thinner side. All pencils are tipped with a ferrule not unlike the classic Ticonderoga two-stripe model, except in this case the stripes are white and the ferrule is black. The erasers on the black pencils are black; the natural pencils have a white one. The promotional material advertises that they are a little more girthy than most pencils. At first I couldn’t really tell, but after a while I did notice the difference.
Right out of the box I could tell that the core centering was kind of bad. Some of the cores are so off-center that the factory-sharpened point has a wooden “fingernail” that extends almost to the tip of the lead. Of course, the factory sharpening is pretty stubby. A longer point helps alleviate this issue, but it’s still pretty borderline, and for those of you who don’t like a long point it might be problematic. In any event, this is an ongoing pet peeve of mine and it seems like American pencil manufacturers still haven’t figured out how to consistently get the core in the middle of the casing.
The good news is that the pencils are mostly straight. Some of them have a little bit of a crown to them and, despite their round cut, tend to settle onto a high spot instead of rolling freely. Maybe that’s a good thing, since it will help keep them on your desk! Otherwise, though, the curvature is hardly perceptible.
One noteworthy feature of the America’s Finest pencil is the choice of wood used. The American Arbor series touts its species proudly on the box, which is always nice because it takes some of the guess-work out of my reviews. But what’s interesting is that the box contains six pencils encased in California Cedar, and six made of White Fir. For one thing, I think it’s a really nice touch to add a little variety to the mix. I also think it’s really cool that they are not just advertising cedar, or “high-quality real wood”; they are deliberately using two different species and labeling them for those of us who might appreciate the subtle differences. I also appreciate that someone is willing to go on record as saying “this is a pencil made of fir, and this is what it looks like” to dispel the myth that every pencil not made of cedar is necessarily made of basswood. Kind of validating to know that my internet wood species sleuthing is warranted.
The matte black version, on the other hand, is as vague about its wood choice as most non-cedar pencils. This is probably because it is made of basswood, or some similar breed of fair and faint-grained tree. Not that that’s a bad thing, as we’ll soon discuss…
If you’re a pencil wood traditionalist, please have a seat, because this next part may come as somewhat of a shock. I recognized a golden opportunity to compare three different types of casing in a population of otherwise nearly identical pencils, so I sharpened all of them up with my trusty M+R brass wedge. The results were not what the traditional wisdom might suggest. The cedar pencil sharpened the worst; it was brittle, inconsistent, and the finished point was splintery and rough. The white fir “pushed back” against the blade a little more, but ultimately resulted in a better product. And the basswood-ish pencil? The shavings peeled away like butter to yield a smoothly-finished point.
Of course, this is all a moot point if you use a helical sharpener — they all came out perfect after a few cranks of my Deli 610 — but I think it’s a pretty good indicator that cedar is over-hyped. If you’re feeling pain radiate down your left arm, please call an ambulance.
I think I had one random broken tip, but other than that, the cores seemed to be very solid and strongly bonded to their wooden casings.
One of the first things that I wanted to determine was whether or not the core of the pencils was the same, as that would really drive how this review went. My finding is that they are; upon using my three test subjects side-by-side, I determined that they make the same mark and have the same page-feel. So as far as the writing is concerned, one of America’s Finest is interchangeable with the other.
The America’s Finest does have some scratch and grit to it — but not too bad. It feels a little smoother than the General’s Supreme and Cedar Pointe, which are reasonably close to average but have slightly more feedback than most HB pencils. After playing around a little bit, it feels pretty similar to a made-in-China Ticonderoga. If anything it seems more noisy than abrasive, although you can definitely feel it.
The darkness of its mark is also right in there with the Cedar Pointe and the PRC-made Ticonderoga, while laying down a little lighter than the Mirado Classic. This makes it a pretty standard No. 2/HB pencil; not as dark as some of the more luxurious or exotic ones that are labelled HB, but also not as faint as the harder European-types.
The point retention is pretty decent; and about what you’d expect from an American No. 2. I did some hashmark testing and it wore down at about the same rate as the Mirado and Cedar Pointe, and held out just a little bit longer than the Chinese Ticonderoga.
One of the few downsides I could find for the Finest was smudginess. Compared to the usual HB suspects, this pencil smears the worst. It’s worse than the Chinese Ticonderoga. Hell, it’s worse than the Blackwing 602. It isn’t until you start getting up to like Blackwing Pearl or Chung Hwa 8900 2B range that things even out.
The eraser isn’t bad, or good. It’s just kinda okayish. It does a better job of erasing than a Pink Pearl, but still leaves behind a visible ghost of the words you’re trying to get rid of. It could do better, but I guess it’s good enough. One good thing about it is that the rubbings stick together into one or two big strings, rather than making little bits that scatter everywhere.
America’s Finest by Written World Pencil Co. is just a good No. 2 pencil. It writes like an HB, it feels like an HB, and it holds its point like an HB. It gets a little messy, and the core centering sucks (which seems to be, sadly, the norm these days) but other than that it’s well-built.
I think there are two things that set these pencils apart: first, that they’re a new brand that’s made in the USA; and second, the general aesthetic. I personally appreciate the American Arbor version. I really like “naked” pencils in general, and I think it’s cool that Written Word is showcasing the different species of wood that traditionally go into pencils — both the classic cedar, and the lesser-known fir. However, if you’re more of a utilitarian type and do a lot of hand-sharpening, I think you’ll appreciate the matte black model more. The natural versions are tough to sharpen with a blade; the black pencil is much more pleasant in terms of the process and the results. Whichever you choose, I think it’s cool that they have different styles and wood species to pick from.
I did notice one interesting thing about the American Arbor series, compared to the Cedar Pointe and other “naked” pencils: it doesn’t soak up graphite, sweat, grime, etc. and get that worn-in look to it. I think this is kind of a bummer because I like that rough-love appearance. It reminds me of a guitar that’s had the hell played out of it. But for those of you who aren’t nasty earthy punk rockers, maybe you’ll like that it retains a clean appearance. Different strokes I reckon.
Before I wrap this review up, I just want to speculate a little about one unresolved issue: who’s making these pencils, anyway? We know that there are only a handful of pencil factories remaining in the United States. Off the top of my head, the only ones I know of are Moon, Musgrave, and General’s. The other American (and “American”) pencil brands are either producing their pencils overseas, or outsourcing their production to one of the other factories. So unless Written Word Pencil Co. decided to break ground on a new pencil factory, we can assume that these pencils are made in one of the above-named factories. If I had to put money on it, I’d say these are General’s pencils, simply because they write so much like a Cedar Pointe or a Supreme No. 2. Almost identically, in fact, except for one thing: they’re smoother, and smudgier. That part has me stumped.
I have to say, I’m somewhat fond of America’s Finest Pencil. Whether or not it’s made in the same place, it writes a lot like a Cedar Pointe No. 2., which is another pencil that I like. It’s not surprisingly awesome; I like the look and feel of some of the other general writing pencils I’ve reviewed lately — like the Norica and the Black Warrior — a little better. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I prefer those models; just personal taste I guess, because everything about America’s Finest is pretty legit (except the core centering and the smudginess — I wouldn’t recommend this for lefties or for detailed sketches). Furthermore, in my neck of the woods at least, it’s a little bit cheaper and a little bit more prolific than the Norica or the Mirado, so it has that going for it as well. Perhaps the title “America’s Finest” is a little pretentious, but these pencils are decidedly not bad.