Cal Cedar and the Palomino brand have done a lot to make pencils cool again. By reviving the classic Blackwing product line, they introduced a gateway drug to aspiring writers everywhere; one that hooks them with the addicting realization that writing with pencils doesn’t have to suck. Then, by throwing their weight behind the Golden Bear pencil, they took a step further and proudly proclaimed that pencils can be — and still are — made in the United States of America.
But the next move was the one that really surprised me. Having already staked out their turf in the high-end segment, and put a product on the market that appeals to Made-in-USA purists, they set out to prove that there are pencils made in developing Asian economies that also don’t suck. This statement came in the form of the Made-in-Thailand edition of the Golden Bear No. 2 pencil, which I’ll be reviewing for you today.
If you’re familiar with the American Golden Bear — particularly the orange-clad version — the Thai model will look very familiar to you. A glossy, smooth, orange lacquer coats the barrel of this pencil from head to toe. The semi-hex casing features a gold foil imprint on one facet, bearing (see what I did there?) the Golden Bear brand and logo, No. 2 designation, and a symbol of the country of origin. The ferrule is a similar brass, tin-can ferrule with a smooth orange stripe around its midsection, and holds on a similar blue eraser nub.
The main difference between the USA and Asian versions of this pencil is the imprint. While many pencilmakers who have offshored their production prefer to downplay any indications of their products’ origins, this bear has nothing to hide. Instead of simply removing the “USA” seal from the design of the original Golden Bear, these pencils are proudly stamped with the abbreviation TH and a lotus flower symbol, done up in a tidy gold foil imprint, to represent their Thai place of birth.
As soon as I opened the box, I could plainly see that they are doing something right down in Thailand. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a dozen pencil cores this precisely centered. Unlike the Made-in-USA Golden Bear pencils, which have the same claim of “centered cores” printed on the box, the Thai version actually does have something to brag about. The barrel straightness isn’t as fantastic. The dozen pencils in my box ranged from perfect to borderline, but they averaged out to decently straight, and all were usable.
While most pencils made from southeast Asia come encased in one of a small handful of species — jelutong, basswood, etc. — the Golden Bear from Thailand stays true to its roots and utilizes delicious-smelling cedar slats. The wood sharpens pretty good, too. It’s a little more fibrous than basswood, as cedar tends to be. However, it sharpens easily and yields a good point. I carried this pencil on my recent travels, meaning that I used a hand sharpener more than usual; I don’t recall any snags or troublesome defects while using a blade. Mechanical sharpeners finish up the point just beautifully.
While the cores seem to be bonded to the wood securely, the lead appears to be fairly brittle and prone to breakage. During my week or so with Thai Golden Bear in hand, I noticed that the tips snapped off more frequently than other pencils. Generally, a high-quality HB core won’t snap off at all if not subject to abuse, but I somehow managed to break the tip off of this pencil at least a handful of times, and I’m not just talking about freshly-sharpened needle-points. As I sat here toying with it and finishing up this review — snap! — it did it again. It’s safe to say that breakage is a downside to this pencil (despite claims to the contrary on the box).
There are times when I feel as though testing out pencils, at least as they function in a general writing role, is a little bit of a case of “seen one, seen ’em all”. But the core of this pencil is nuanced enough to ponder over.
I swapped the made-in-Thailand Golden Bear off an on with other HB/No. 2 pencils for a week, and perceived my writing with it to lay down a little darker than the others. I didn’t find it to be wildly misgraded, but definitely somehow more conspicuous. On the other hand, during more objective swatch tests, it was really hard to distinguish it from other HB pencils, especially the General’s Kimberly. The two cores looked about the same in that circumstance.
It did rouse my curiosity that I would get different results in different settings. My eye sees a bit of a warmer tone to the Thai Golden Bear’s writing than other HB pencils I compared it against, and perhaps that helps it “pop” on the ivory page of my journal more than it does the white graph paper I use for swatches.
Another hypothesis that crossed my mind is that the core is softer and slightly more crumbly than most HB pencils, and thus may tend to leave a bolder mark on a toothy page that would capture and retain more graphite. When doing my swatch testing, I did notice that writing with this pencil left substantially more errant dust (at least when freshly sharpened). I also felt, during everyday writing, I was sharpening the pencil more frequently than the typical No. 2 would require. Of course, this is the usual trade-off for darkness, so that might be expected.
Overall, then, I’d say that the version of the Golden Bear made in Thailand is a little softer (both in terms of laying down a darker line, and losing its point quickly) than most HB pencils. I’d also offer the caveat that your mileage may vary depending on the circumstances, and that users of toothier or warmer-toned paper may experience more of those qualities.
In terms of smoothness, the imported Golden Bear definitely gives less feedback than the Kimberly HB and some other pencils, such as the Mirado Classic. I find it to feel more like the made-in-China Ticonderoga, but certainly not as smooth as a B-range pencil like the Blackwing Pearl. Personally, I think it feels alright — it’s got a little feedback, and you know it’s there, but it’s not annoyingly gritty. I also did not experience any weird snaggly inclusions or other inconsistencies.
I did a lot of journaling and such while testing out the Golden Bear from Thailand, and its writing seemed well-suited to being handled without making a mess. I also did a swatch-smearing test which supported my more ancedotal evidence: it appeared to leave less of a streak than pencils like the Chinese Ticonderoga or the Cedar Pointe when intentionally smudged.
Sadly, I didn’t care much for the eraser attached to this one. My impression was that it did a barely-acceptable job of removing enough graphite to make writing legibly over an error possible. The actual lead erases just fine when a good eraser is used — a Hi-Polymer block had no problem whatsoever obliterating nearly all traces of the mark. The attached nub, however, does a sub-Pink Pearl quality job of picking up graphite off. If we were talking baseball, it would have negative wins above replacement. And for those of you who aren’t familiar with either the Pink Pearl or Sabermetrics, just trust me: get yourself a good pencil cap eraser.
Thailand’s version of the Palomino Golden Bear is certainly an interesting pencil — both in terms of concept, and actual writing qualities. The quality of the materials and build are top-notch, especially the lacquer and the perfectly-centered cores. Those cores are a little fragile — heavy-handers like me might get a bit frustrated by the frequency with which the tips snap off — but they definitely write in an interesting way. They feel decently smooth for a No. 2, and the darkness and point retention range somewhere from average to a bit softer, depending significantly upon the media you choose to write on.
The eraser is kind of lousy — definitely a downside for people who judge a pencil heavily on the merits of its correction abilities. But for you lefties out there, you should really take this pencil for a spin. I think it’s one of the more smudge-resistant models I’ve reviewed.
I was really curious about how this pencil stood up against its original, USA counterpart. Aside from the imprint, there are a few subtle differences between the Thai and American iterations of the Golden Bear. The made-in-USA version has a distinctly Musgrave-esque hex cut with hard corners, a thinner and more matte lacquer, and a less precise imprint. The Thai version has a silky smooth, glossy coating, and its semi-hex casing has much softer edges. They write a little bit differently as well; I could blast out a summary here, but I think that would make for an excellent blog post in its own right (but feel free to check out my review of the Made-in-USA Golden Bear if you don’t have the patience).
One other difference I will note here, though, is the price. As you might expect, the Thai version is a buck cheaper than the American one. Either one can be had for less than four bucks a dozen, so it’s not like you’re going to break the bank whichever way you go (nor are you totally scraping the bottom of the barrel).
I really appreciate these on a personal level, because Thai pencils may honestly be the reason I started this blog. If you’ve been following the Polar Pencil Pusher reviews from the start, you may know this already, but it was my trip to Thailand a while back that really opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of the world of woodcased pencils, and made me realize that it might actually be something worth starting a blog about. In fact, I still have several pencils left to review from the gigantic haul I brought home (and this wasn’t even one of them!)
So — with the good, bad, ugly, and completely irrelevant all out on the table, is it a good pencil or a bad one? I think it’s pretty decent, and definitely worth the $2.95 that Pencils.com is charging for a box. If you write with a heavy hand or really hate bad built-in erasers, it might not be your cup of tea. If you’re a lefty, this pencil might actually be your jam. For everyone, the results will probably differ based on what kind of paper you like to write on. But any way you slice it, I think the Thai version of the Golden Bear is worth three bucks a dozen, and definitely worth giving a try. I also think it proves not only that economical imported pencils can not suck, but that they can even be unique and interesting.