Sometimes I really enjoy scraping the bottom of the pencil barrel. That’s just kind of my approach to life in general; sure, you can drop big bucks on something and know it’s going to be good, or you can experiment and try to find a deal. I enjoy the process of finding diamonds in the rough. And let’s be honest — most people aren’t going to throw down two bucks a pop for a pencil. Sometimes you just need to grab something to write with in a hurry. Sometimes you’ve gotta outfit kids with enough pencils to make it through a school year on a budget. Those situations make it useful to be able to sort the affordable pencils from the cheap pencils. And anyway, what’s the point of writing reviews of things that everyone already knows are good?
That’s why I grabbed a box of Rite Aid “Yellow Barrel” No. 2 pencils on one of my recent trips to Seattle. We don’t have Rite Aid here in the frozen north, so I’ve actually never used one of these (to the best of my knowledge). And a box of them comes with a whopping twenty pencils. I did hesitate for a minute before making the buy — they aren’t the most inspiring subjects. But, what the hell? Let’s get weird. Here comes a review of Rite Aid’s no-name number two.
The appearance of Rite Aid’s yellow pencil doesn’t get any more predictable: an American-cheesy lacquered semi-hex barrel with a pink eraser, and very little else to distinguish it. The imprint is a gold foil bearing nothing more than the remark, “NO . 2”. The only thing that seems to set this pencil apart is that the ferrule is a bright golden color. The lacquer isn’t great; some of the pencil coatings are kind of “drippy” or uneven, but it does the job — and it’s actually thick enough that the bite marks from my hand-crank pencil sharpeners don’t chew threw it.
The appearance may be inauspicious, but I soon discovered that there is more here than meets the eye. The cores are better centered than I expected, given that these are drug-store-brand, imported pencils. That isn’t to say that the cores are perfectly centered; some of them are visibly off. But none of them look awful, and most of them are actually pretty good. As usual, I tried to pick the worst-case example as my test pencil, but as I predicted, it wasn’t far enough off-kilter to make any practical difference.
They’re also pretty straight, for the most part. There aren’t any “bananas” in the box of 20. At worst, I’d say that a few of them have a very subtle curve to them. It would be hard to get much better, though. I’ve bought boxes of high-end pencils that have come out worse.
Made in China, these pencils have the predictable basswood-like wooden casing. Pale, with little odor or grain. They sharpened up just fine and dandy — a hand wedge was able to easily turn out a flawlessly smooth wooden collar that transitioned nicely into a graphite point with perhaps just a little bit of splintering around the throat. The wooden shavings seemed to like to break apart around the slat joint, but other than the aesthetic pleasure of creating one seamless ribbon, I don’t think that makes any difference.
I didn’t experience any problems with the lead, such as premature breakage or core separation. The overall build quality of these Rite Aid pencils is really impressive for what they are. If I had to pick something to nitpick over, I’d say that the ferrule is a little bit small and doesn’t seem to be very well attached to the barrel.
With inexpensive store-brand pencils, I’m expecting some corners to be cut somewhere. So if it looks like it’s well-built, it must write like crap, right? Wrong! The lead in these pencils ain’t too shabby, actually.
Rite Aid’s no-name No. 2 pencil lays down a line that’s right in the HB ballpark. If anything, I think it might be ever so slightly darker than the “average” HB — swatch tests confirm this — but it doesn’t approach a B-scale darkness. I’d say it’s just a touch bolder than the Cedar Pointe or made-in-China Ticonderoga.
For a drugstore No. 2, I’m also pleasantly surprised with the smoothness. It has less scratch to it than pencils like the HB version of the Cedar Pointe, General’s Supreme, etc. There’s not even any chunky grit in the core — it writes consistently from start to finish.
In some ways, the “yellow barrel” reminds me of the Musgrave Ceres No. 2: a little bit darker and a little bit smoother than what you’d guess by the grade. The main difference between the two when making quick notes seems to be the sound they make against the page, interestingly enough.
Point retention is the typical point of sacrifice when it comes to smoothness and darkness, and that seems to hold true for the Rite Aid No. 2 — but it honestly isn’t bad. In fact, while doing some hash marks and scribble tests, I couldn’t really discern it from the Kimberly HB. On the other hand, in real-life writing tests, I didn’t seem to be able to get as many lines of notes out of it as I would with a pencil like the Supreme No. 2. It holds its point well enough, but Rite Aid’s yellow-barrel No. 2 might lose its edge slightly faster than some of the harder HBs out there. I’d grade it to be a little bit below-average, but still good enough, for an HB.
Smudge-resistance is an interesting aspect of this pencil. It’s not bad, but it’s not really good, either. I didn’t notice any issues in the context of normal, general writing — even when I tried to simulate writing left-handed — so that’s good. But if you do intentionally smear your thumb across the page, it’ll make a graphite streak that’s plenty long — probably longer than most HB pencils. So, I’d say that it’s a fine pencil for general writing, even in the hands of the southpaws out there, but it’s not especially suited for writing that’s going to be handled a lot.
Well, I’ve gone through nearly the whole list and haven’t found much about this pencil not to like. I was beginning to question whether or not I had lost my senses when I finally discovered the thing about the Rite Aid no. 2 that is actually really bad: the eraser. It’s abrasive, it doesn’t eraser very well, it’s a little bit smudgy, and it results in a bunch of black rubber waste that makes a real mess. It erases about as poorly as the Pink Pearl block eraser, but is way messier.
The Rite Aid “Yellow Barrel” No. 2 pencil is a surprisingly solid writing instrument. I expected something that wasn’t very well put together, but other than the no-frills aesthetic, it’s well-made. It also writes unexpectedly nicely. It sits right in that sweet spot where it’s a little darker and smoother than the average HB, but not far off into B-scale land where you start to experience real trade-offs in terms of writing performance.
Again, these are drugstore “convenience buy” pencils we’re talking about, so make sure that your expectations are calibrated. But within that category, I think they’re great. I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another pack, and the only place that I could find where corners were clearly cut was the awful eraser and the wimpy ferrule holding it on (other than the almost non-existent imprint, if you care about that). At 20 pencils per box, they’re definitely worth the few bucks you’ll drop on them.
They have straight barrels that sharpen nicely. The cores are centered and don’t break easily. They write smooth and dark, without going dull in a hurry. What’s not to like about the way these pencils write? Definitely don’t hesitate to pick up a pack of Rite Aid’s “Yellow Barrel” No. 2 pencils (and use some of the cash you saved on a pack of good eraser caps).
P.S.: I’m experimenting with a new way of displaying the performance of pencils in a consistent manner, by way of a test page or something similar. I’ve experimented with this in the past, and some of my favorite bloggers do something similar, but I’ve yet to find something that “sticks” and seems useful. So, for this post, I decided to write up a simple index card review (see above). I also used a scanner so that the lighting is consistent, although it seemed to lose a little bit of the detail. Please let me know if you think that this feature this adds value to my reviews, and comment with any suggestions you might have for improving it!