The yellow, general-purpose “No. 2” pencil is an American staple. Ask someone who grew up in the States to describe a pencil, and they’ll probably say it has a yellow barrel and a pink eraser. It’s a safer thing to bet your life on than a game of Russian roulette, anyway. As much as we try to brag about how good we are at innovation, we Americans also tend to love it when all of the choices available to us are exactly the same. One time my ex-wife and I flew from Anchorage to Miami for vacation. What did we eat for lunch when we got there? Subway. We traveled across four time zones to experience something identical to what we’d have back home. That’s the American way. Pencils are no different. They’re supposed to be yellow. Everyone knows that.
Other countries, such as Japan, aren’t as stuck in a rut about this stuff as we are here in the States. They’ve got all of these wacky colors like red and green. Japanese pencils tend to be pretty good, and Tombow is a particular favorite of mine, but I can imagine the considerable anxiety and distress many of my fellow Americans might feel if I suggested they give something like the 8900 a try. Thankfully, Tombow has the solution to that problem: model number 2558. This yellow, general-purpose, everyday writing pencil comes in three grades (H, HB, and B) but only one color of lacquer — yellow! — and even has a pink eraser nub attached to the end. Just like we like it. So, I grabbed a few HB and B models (sorry, hard pencil lovers, I haven’t reviewed the H version…yet!) to see how the Japanese take on our favorite pencil scheme stands up.
The Tombow 2558 — which is actually made in Vietnam these days, rather than Japan — might be somewhat reminiscent of the traditional American “schoolhouse” pencil, but it is clearly a different beast; like a wolf of a pencil in sheep’s lacquer. The yellow paint is much a much richer orange-yellow; deeper than the likes of the Ticonderoga but not as “cheesy” as the Mirado. The glossy coating is thick and flawless, with a precise and detailed maroon imprint — much higher quality than the typical yellow No. 2. Even the eraser, a deeper and more muted pink, looks more grown-up than the usual bubblegum nub. The ferrule has the shape of the basic tin can, but is finished with a nice oiled bronze coloration (similar to competitor Mitsubishi’s 9852EW).
Rather than order them by the dozen-box, I picked up three individual 2558 pencils from Kinokuniya in Seattle — two B-graded pencils, and one HB. Therefore, the sample size is minimal for these tests, but I think it’s sufficient to report my findings with some confidence. All three pencils exhibited cores that were perfectly centered, and while two of the three did struggle to roll uniformly across my desk, any warping of the wooden barrels was minimal and imperceptible in practice.
Sharpening the 2558 by hand was about as satisfying an experience as sharpening a pencil can be. The species of wood used for the casings of this pencil is not one of the typical Asian standbys such as basswood, but it also doesn’t appear to be cedar; based on the scent and the hue of the grainy wood, my initial guess was white fir. This hunch was corroborated by a review of the pencil over at Leadfast, and may also explain why it feels a little “clunky” when using a mechanical helix sharpener. On the flip side, a hand blade peeled away shavings in a single, solid ribbon with buttery smoothness; and the resulting point from either form of sharpener was flawless, as you can see below (hand-sharpened on the left, crank-sharpened on the right).
I didn’t expect any core integrity issues with a Tombow pencil, and I didn’t experience any through the life of two entire pencils. No loose leads, no snapped tips. Everything was a solid as could be.
In my experience, Tombow pencils tend to push — actually, more like completely obliterate — the boundaries of their designated grade and write significantly darker and softer than expected. I was expecting more of the same with the 2558, and anticipated that part of the fun of this review would be trying to figure out how their grade lines up to that of other makes and models.
I realized that doing so would likely be somewhat of a shot in the dark, so I set about finding some reasonable “bookends”. For the HB-graded 2558, I guessed that the Thai Golden Bear (a darker No. 2) and the Blackwing 602 would be as good a place to start as any, and it turns out that the Tombow did happen to fall somewhere between the two. That narrowed things down a bit, so I stacked it up against some other pencils in that range and found the Castell 9000 and Mars Lumograph, both in 2B grade, to be pretty similar.
Reasoning, then, that Tombow’s scale might be two notches darker than the average, the obvious place to start pinning down the true darkness of the B-graded lead seemed to be with a 3B. Unfortunately, I don’t have any 3B-graded pencils kicking around in my pencil cup at the moment, so doing a head-to-head comparison is a little difficult. But I did find that it left a line very similar in appearance to the Blackwing 602, which is definitely darker than the Castell 9000 2B, and perhaps darker than the Mars Lumograph 2B.
Having put both pencils pretty thoroughly through their paces, then, I’d judge that the darkness of both the HB and B-graded Tombow 2558 pencils would be most comparable to other pencils at least one or two grades further along the B scale. The HB writes much more like what I’d expect from a run-of-the-mill 2B, while the B is more along the lines of a typical 3B or darker 2B.
My two Tombow 2558 pencils both felt significantly smoother than their typical grade-mates, as well. The B-graded model is super silky smooth; in my hand, it felt smoother than the Blackwing 602 and more like the Pearl. The HB version of the 2558 didn’t quite write as smoothly as the Kimberly 2B, for example, but it gave much less feedback than other pencils given the HB grade, such as the made-in-China Ticonderoga.
Given the darkness and smoothness, I expected the 2558 to have atrociously bad point retention, but I was actually pretty impressed. The HB version seemed to perform roughly on par with other HB pencils, and clearly outlasted the Kimberly 2B (with which the core seems roughly equivalent). The B-graded 2558, while softer and less durable than the HB, also outperformed the 2B Kimberly. So, are we judging point retention in absolute terms? Compared to other pencils with the same grade stamped on the barrel, they aren’t the best; maybe even a little soft. On the other hand, if we are looking at each pencil more holistically, I think it’s pretty impressive that they can manage a point retention roughly on-grade despite writing a grade or two darker and more smoothly.
My findings were much the same when I evaluated both pencils’ proneness to smudging. In either case, they performed roughly equivalent to their peers in both grades, despite the fact that the cores look and feel much softer (and would, therefore, be expected to smear around substantially more). I think the B graded Tombow 2558 even stays put a little better than some of the messier HB pencils I’ve got hanging around.
And, wouldn’t you know it, even the erasers are good! For a built-in pencil eraser, they’re as functional as any other I’ve tried, and definitely better than most. While they aren’t quite up there with a high-quality plastic block eraser, they can hang with the likes of the Hi-Polymer pencil cap and do a better job in general than some of the lower-end block erasers, like the Pink Pearl. They’re also a little less messy, with the waste rolling up into a single thread instead of multiple little bits, and the ferrule is clamped on nice and tight instead of sitting loosely atop a barrel that is too small to hold it securely.
I am really struggling to find a single thing that I dislike about the Tombow 2558. Sure, there are some aspects of each pencil — such as the point retention or smudge resistance — that might be mediocre for the grade they’ve been given. The rub is that Tombow could have easily gotten away with grading them both a few shades further down the B scale. When you look at it that way, these pencils are actually really impressive. The positive aspects of the 2558 are awesome, and the drawbacks really aren’t bad — they’re still pretty okay. Taken all together, the Tombow 2558 pencil is well above average.
Price-wise, these tend to occupy a middle ground. If you order them by the dozen off the internet, they’ll probably come out to around fifty cents per; if you buy them singly from a hip Asian-stuff store, you might pay something approaching Blackwing prices. Personally, I like these Tombows better than the Blackwing pencils, so if you are cool with spending two bucks for a wooden writing stick, don’t let me talk you out of it. If you choose to go the Amazon route, however, I think the 2558 is a steal.
Honestly, I think I may have found my new favorite pencil. At one point I thought that the Tombow 8900 in 2B was the best pencil ever. Since then I think my tastes have evolved a bit; I no longer value softness above all else. I’d even say that I’ve found some pencils to be a little too smooth. The 2558, though, combines all of the things I like about the 8900 2B with a core that is a notch or two more durable, depending on which version you choose. Plus, an eraser…an eraser that is actually good! So that’s the question…which one is better? The B, the HB…and what about the H, which I have yet to review? Sometimes answering one question creates a handful of new ones.