Back in May I mentioned in my monthly Confessions of a Pencil Lady post that we would be introducing a small selection of mechanical pencils in the near future. Well, my friends, that time has come. As of yesterday you can find a section on our website dedicated to our propelling friends and the same selection also installed in the shop in a lovely custom-made wooden display (made by our friend Gary).
I've mentioned before that my hesitation regarding mechanical pencils mostly has to do with the fact that they have little relation to the wood-cased pencil that I know, love and have dedicated my career to. That said, so many of you guys ask for them so I just couldn't resist any longer. In true CWPE style, I decided that if we were going to stock mechanicals we'd start with a small but thorough selection of ones that are awesome because of their function first, design second. Because stories are important to me, I thought I'd take a moment to share a very brief history of the mechanical pencil.
For just about as long as graphite has been a substance used for writing, some type of lead-holding device has existed. However, it wasn't until 1822 that John Isaac Hawkins (an engineer) and Sampson Mordan (a silversmith) patented the first "propelling" pencil in England. Mordan bought out Hawkins and continued on with his very successful S. Mordan & Co., manufacturing beautiful silver propelling pencils until the factory was bombed during the London Blitz. Early versions of a propelling pencil held tiny pieces of lead in sizes between .9mm and 1.8mm in diameter and worked by turning either the end of the pencil or the tip of the pencil to extend the lead.
The mechanical pencil experienced a couple moments in the early 20th century too. First, in 1915, when the Ever-Sharp pencil was designed and patented in Japan and second in 1929 when Caran d'Ache developed their Fix Pencil, the first modern clutch pencil.
In the US the most iconic surviving mechanical pencil company is Autopoint, which was founded in 1919 in Chicago. They're known for their old school propelling pencils in larger lead sizes including .9mm and 1.1mm (hint: if you're using an antique pre-1950s pencil and are struggling to find the correct lead size for it, the Autopoint 1.1mm is likely your best bet) as well as their Twinpoint double-ended pencils.
Most mechanical pencils these days use a ratchet or spring mechanism, though there have been some modern improvements especially in the Japanese market, including pencils that you shake to release the lead and pencils that are auto-rotating to keep the lead continuously sharp.
Finding the right mechanical pencil these days can be a bit tricky, I've learned, since there are so many to choose from. The two most important things to consider are the lead size and also the feel of the pencil. Do you want a precise line or a thick one? Is it important that the pencil is heavy or would you rather it feel weightless? Mechanical pencil lead comes in sizes from a tiny .3mm all the way up to a 5.5mm, though not all of them function the same way. For general use a .5mm or .7mm is usually ideal, while a 2mm is preferable for drafting.
For our first few mechanicals, I've carefully selected a few that are iconic. These include two varieties of Autopoints and Caran d'Ache as well as some more contemporary favorites like a Uni Kuru Toga and a couple of types of Rotring. I must admit that my personal relationship with mechanical pencils is still in its infancy and as I learn and experience more I'll tweak our offerings accordingly but for now, I hope you'll give these first few a try if you're so inclined. And in the meantime, post in the comments if there's a pencil you really want us to take a look at!
Photos: the mechanical pencil we're now selling, an 1840s S. Mordan & Co. pencil from the Met archives, an old Autopoint advertisement