This is a review that’s been a long time coming. That’s because the Staedtler Noris pencil is so prolific, all over the world — except in North America, for some reason. In Europe, though, the Noris seems to be equivalent to our Dixon Ticonderoga: the go-to pencil 90% of the time. During my recent travels on the Iberian peninsula, I found it harder than expected to locate pencils in general, with the Noris being the one exception. If a shop carried any pencils at all, odds were good that they were Staedtler Noris pencils available in several grades from a display at the check-out counter.
Part of the reason I waited so long to review this pencil — despite the urging of Matthias at Bleistift to write about this favorite of his — is that I knew I’d find some on my trip, therefore it wasn’t a priority to mail-order something I’d likely be able to procure in person. And procure I did! I made sure to grab a few each of several grades. So today I’m going to start the process of writing one of what will hopefully be several reviews of the Staedtler Noris pencil, starting with the obvious place: the HB grade model.
The Norris has a distinct appearance, built upon a base of black lacquer applied to a semi-hex barrel. Two opposite facets remain black, with the brand, model, grade, and “Made in Germany” label all imprinted in gold foil on one side of the hex, with a bar code and product numbers printed in beige on the opposite. The remaining four hexes each feature a yellow stripe running lengthwise down the barrel. The stripe pattern is identical to the Staedtler Rally, except that the Noris is yellow-on-black versus the Rally’s white-on-blue. The end terminates in a white dip with a colored “crown”; in the case of the HB model, red. The imprints look precise and clean, and the lacquer is a medium thickness — it’s got a little bit of show-through from the wood, but doesn’t tend to chip off when the teeth of my hand-crank sharpeners gnaw on it.
The fit and finish appears to be excellent. The pencils roll easily across the desk, and upon close examination appear to be perfectly straight. Although I only have three examples to evaluate, and they came pre-sharpened, the cores look very well centered.
Sharpening the Noris is like a pencil lover’s dream come true. My hand-held blade peeled away shavings with barely any resistance to yield a long ribbon of slightly translucent wood. The finished point was impeccable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a pencil that sharpened by hand this well. The wood has an earthy color and a discernible grain to it, although it doesn’t smell like cedar. I’m thinking more like white fir. Regardless, it seems like a high-quality material.
I burned through the entire Noris pencil without noting a single flaw regarding the core — and the pencil doesn’t even have the “SV” logo on it! Imagine that. No breakage, poorly bonded lead, or other issues. Just like the rest of the pencil, the core is sturdy and solid.
The Noris is built to a high standard of quality, but when it comes to the core, that’s where things get a little tricky.
My eye can’t discern much of a difference between the Noris’ HB grade, and the typical HB/No. 2 pencil. It may be slightly darker than average, and there are subtle differences between this pencil and, say, the Kimberly HB or another pencil in that category (I think that the Noris’ marking looks less “warm” than North American leads) but nothing that really stands out. I’d say that Staedtler’s workhorse is pretty much right on the target with its HB designation; maybe a tick darker.
This pencil does stand out when it comes to page-feel, though. When I first put the tip of the Noris to the paper, it immediately struck me as feeling fast. By that I mean that it doesn’t seem to have a lot of drag caused by friction against the page. That said, it doesn’t have that same buttery feeling that you might find in a smooth Asian pencil. It’s got a quality that I think I’ve referred to as “dry smoothness” before. Compared to some counterparts like the Cedar Pointe and Mirado Classic, it’s definitely elicits less feedback, but without feeling slippery.
On the other hand, I didn’t find the point retention of the Noris HB to be spectacular. Before doing any sort of systematic testing, I just wrote with it, and I really didn’t feel like I could get many lines of text out of the pencil before the tip wore down. The pencil as a whole just didn’t seem to last as long as expected (before being ground down to a stub) for a No. 2, either. This is consistent with the hash mark comparisons I did to the General’s Supreme. In my opinion, the slightly-darker line doesn’t correlate proportionally to the tradeoff in durability, so I have to say that I think the point retention is kind of a dud.
While not terribly so, I also found the HB core of the Noris to be a little bit smudge-prone. I don’t recall thinking that it was remarkably smeary while writing, but I did get a lot of ghost transfer from one page to another. When I did an intentional smudged-swatch test, the Noris also left a slightly longer, slightly darker streak than the Supreme or Castell 9000 HB.
I did not get an eraser-tipped version of this pencil (nor did I come across one during my journey), but they are out there. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you if they’re any good, so for this review we will just be silent on the issue. However, I did test out some “aftermarket” erasers and found that the lead is as responsive to a good block or pencil cap eraser as the Supreme and the made-in-China Ticonderoga.
It’s kind of hard to wrap this up, because the Noris HB really is a strange beast. Let me put it this way: If we had a relationship status on Facebook it would be “It’s Complicated”.
On the one hand, these are really well-made pencils (especially for the “general writing” category). The fit and finish, the build quality, and the way the pencil sharpens are all great, and it feels nice to write with. On the other hand, it seems like it has a lot of qualities of a softer pencil except that it’s not especially dark — which is fine since it’s a No. 2 pencil, but darkness is often the main reason soft pencils appeal to folks in the first place. It’s got a weird combination of traits that you don’t often find in a pencil core, which is not necessarily a good thing. And yet, I don’t find myself frustrated with the Noris HB, or avoiding it.
I should point out that other reviewers have made contrary observations. In particular, Lead Fast opined that the HB core was hard and has “great point retention.” Meanwhile, Johnny over at Pencil Revolution agreed with my observation that the point retention wasn’t, well, on point; but mentioned that his HB Noris’ appeared darker and more smear-resistant. So, what gives? Has the core formula of the Noris changed over the few years since those reviews written — or even from batch to batch? Are we all just a few pencils short of a dozen box? I guess there’s one way to find out; pick one up and see how it feels to you (and feel free to share your observations in a comment, if you like).
Just for kicks, I did one more quick experiment. I compared it to a couple other Staedtler No. 2 “general writing” pencils — the Rally and the Norica. The Noris was definitely the smoothest of the three. It wrote darker than the cost-conscious Rally, but about the same as the Norica. However, the Norica has great point retention, so there’s your trade-off. If you prefer point retention, the Norica is for you; but if smoothness is more important, reach for the Noris.
If you live where the Noris is commonplace, you probably already know where to get it and how much it costs (and likely have a few on hand). For those of us who aren’t so fortunate, they can be found on Amazon, but supply and prices are a little spotty. Or you can just go to Spain and get some in person.
On the whole, then, the Staedtler Noris HB averages out to be an “okay” pencil to me. The build quality is superior to most pencils — especially budget pencils — the marking is on-grade at HB, and it’s really smooth for a No. 2 (without feeling weird). For whatever reason, the point just doesn’t hold up; and that’s kind of the defining feature of an HB pencil compared to something softer and darker. That kind of rubs me the wrong way, so as much as I really want to like the Noris HB, I can’t give it two enthusiastic thumbs up. But I can say, overall, it’s pretty decent — and I’m very curious to see how the softer grades compare (there’s some foreshadowing for future reviews!)