Mechanical Pencil Day: Innovation in Mechanical Pencils

This post is part of our celebrations for Mechanical Pencil Day, on 05/07 - the 5th of July, 2018.

Hi. Michael here again. And I love mechanical pencils.

Pot full of mechanical pencils from aboveAsk anyone who knows me what writing instruments I prefer, and they'll tell you 'fountain pens'. Well, ok, they'd be right. That's my first preference most of the time. But I go through phases, and when I'm not using a fountain pen, it's usually because I have a mechanical pencil in my hand. That's my mechanical pencils pot in the photo - there are other pots for pens and wooden pencils, but the mechanical pencil pot is by far the biggest. No cup would take on the job, so it's a plant pot from the Eden Project.

There are plenty of good practical reasons. Despite their intricate mechanisms, mechanical pencils are simple to use and reliable. The line is nicely predictable, but still changes with pressure and speed, so they can make expressive marks. The lead feels nice and smooth on the paper - a smoother feel than most wooden pencils have, because the lead is different. Pick the right pencil, and the tip can be hidden away for safe pocketing. An eraser is usually there for when you want to correct things neatly. And graphite on paper is a very permanent mark, as long as nobody is trying to erase it. I'm usually more concerned about a spill or a bit of rain spoiling a note than someone attempting to change what I've written.

Beyond the purely practical, though, I'm a geek, and mechanical pencils are a world of geeky joy. There's that intricate mechanism - I love knowing something so tiny and detailed is at work inside every time I click the button. Some amazing precision manufacturing has gone into that mechanism, and even that is probably put to shame by the precision needed to make those tiny thin leads.

The tip of a Pentel Orenznero 0.2mm mechanical pencilThe variety of mechanical pencils available brings me joy, too. I have quite a lot of them. Some are chunky, heavy pencils, with thick lead, and positively old-fashioned twist mechanisms; and some aren't just old-fashioned, they're actually old, with old lead based on Imperial measurements and decorated sterling silver barrels. Some are simple and plastic, made to the lowest possible cost, but still working perfectly for years, with refillable leads and erasers. Some have advanced modern features, like my current favourite, the Pentel Orenznero, which can use 0.2mm leads without them snapping all the time. Quite a technical achievement.

Which brings me to another source of delight with mechanical pencils - the pace of change and improvement that's still going on. In just the last few years we've seen the introduction of the Kuru Toga, which spins the lead slowly as you write, the Orenz lead support system, and the OLEeNU mechanism for supporting the lead near the tip, preventing breakage and allowing the use of the last millimetres of lead that usually end up thrown away. Then, the second generation of Kuru Toga came along, spinning the lead twice as quickly, and adding a lead-supporting slide pipe; and the Orenz was improved to bring the Orenznero, which auto-feeds 0.2mm lead, making such thin lead even more practical to use.

Zebra DelguardZebra's DelGuard manages the impressive task of making 0.5mm lead almost impossible to break (well, unless you really try). I don't generally have trouble with 0.5mm lead - years of using fountain pens means I'm not too heavy-handed anyway - but I can scribble really quickly and roughly with a DelGuard. Their system uses a combination of two protection methods. A simple spring mechanism protects the lead from excessive pressure straight down. Quite a few pencils have done that before. The bigger problem is sideways pressure - when you're holding a pencil normally, not all the force goes straight up the lead, and 0.5mm lead can't take much sideways force before it snaps. The DelGuard has a protection pipe that jumps forward when you apply too much pressure sideways, holding and shielding the lead from your cruelty.

Oh, and as if that wasn't enough, the DelGuard ER model adds another clever innovation - an eraser that stays hidden until you need it. Turn the pencil over, and the eraser pops out, and holds in place firmly while you use it. Flip the pencil back over, and it disappears again. I've examined it closely and determined exactly how it works. It uses magic. I'm pretty sure magic is real in Japan. How else could we explain the existence of Pokeballs, or how Usagi's hair stays in place in Sailor Moon? So I see no reason their mechanical pencils can't use magic too.

Kuru Toga leadEven leads keep getting better. My favourite Pentel AIN leads were replaced with the even better AIN Stein leads. Which seemed a bit unnecessary on Pentel's part - the stanard AIN was still thought by many people to be the best lead available. Uni-ball introduced special leads to go with the Kuru Toga pencil, with clever engineering going on inside each lead. Because the Kuru Toga rotates the lead to make the wear more even, the result is, in theory, at least, that the lead wears into a conical shape. Their Kuru Toga lead is stronger in the centre, and softer around the edge, so the lead itself encourages the same wear pattern the pencil is trying to achieve.

An obsession with these wonderfully precise little tools would start to get expensive, with a new shiny along so often, but for one thing. Much of the time, these innovations come at a surprisingly low cost. Kuru Toga, DelGuard and Orenz pencils can all be had for between £5 and £10 each. Some of them have more expensive versions available too, but this advanced pencil tech in a basic but sturdy body doesn't tend to cost much. It's not often something so fascinatingly geeky is also so reasonably priced!

29 June 2018

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