Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Eberhard Faber Microtomic 5B: A Review


                        The Eberhard Faber Microtomic 5B

     For the initial installment of Planetary Transmission I thought I would review simplicity in itself- a wooden pencil.  The word "cult" gets stuck on just about anything if it deserves it or not.  Helpful to the cult moniker is something being obscure, foreign, or even better: discontinued and thus not available without the effort that serves as an apprenticeship to proper appreciation.  A qualification that entitles one to not just ownership, but understanding.   

   The world of cult items gets infinitesimally smaller when a search engine can conjure up descriptions, images and no doubt a link to sales. Sales that invoke the talismanic key words- Rare, NOS, (New Old Stock or Never On Sale depending on the circumstances) and attributing ownership of the item to someone famous and incredibly cool.  "Leica IIIF, just like the one used by Cartier-Bresson." 

       Gone are the pre-internet days of the cognoscenti, alone or in small groups, holding up the torch of the Saab Sonnet while some hide their light under a bushel, admiring their Canon Canonet QL17 GIII or Moto Guzzi V7 in a privacy reminiscent of someone contemplating stolen art that only they can admire.  For a few, this is enough.  

     One such item would be the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602.  Much loved for its silky smooth lead, either in truth or myth, by composers, literary giants, cartoonists and anyone wanting to tag along with them like the tail of a comet.  It is the tail that gives the comet its size, not the bright lights at its head.  Bright lights like Steinbeck probably let some people know he liked this pencil.  Quincy Jones probably did too.  Myth began to grow and the camp followers and hangers on that formed the tail that stretches far longer than the comet itself, began to link arms.  The word got around and at some point Myth hijacked the Truth plane and tried to fly it to Cuba.  Instead it flew to ebay and Etsy where prices of individual pencils began to rise to Paypal rattling heights.

                                                                   The ferrule that launched a thousand ships.
      The Blackwing 602's rise was assisted, in no small part, by its distinctive appearance.  In a world awash with pedestrian yellow pencils it had an unusual color and most importantly, the eraser and ferrule.  The ferrule was rectangular in shape and retained by a small clip that allowed the eraser to be removed and adjusted to compensate for wear or to suit the preferences of the user.  With this feature it became recognizable at a glance to those in the know.  Even the unaware would potentially notice its unusual attributes and realize this pencil was something different.

                                                           The inner workings exposed.
        Perhaps overlooked in the rush to claim rights to the pencil that was The One, is the Microtomic series.  Originally it was named the Van Dyke, then the Van Dyke Microtomic in a transition period and finally just the Microtomic when it reached this form in 1953.  Shunted to the background like Zoroastrians when the new God arrived, it quietly marched on doing its job in a quiet yet exquisite manner.  Some would have you believe the ratio of graphite and wax in its lead was identical to the 602.  This however is not what is relevant here.  What is apparent upon picking this pencil up and writing with it is that it does not lie in the shadow of the Blackwing, but instead casts its own.

                                                          The business end.  Oddly brought to a point due to operator haste in a 
                                                          Kum 2-hole sharpener.

       The 5B designation indicates the hardness of the lead.  Using the graphite hardness scale, where increasing numbers relates to softer lead,  5B denotes it as being three levels softer than the typical number 2 pencil.  What this means to the end user is a darker line at the price of having to re-sharpen more often to retain the point.

                                                        Microtomic 5B writing sample.  Paper is Field Notes Steno.

     Judgement as far as the Microtomic being the same, worse or better than the Blackwing 602 is entirely subjective.  I have no way to scientifically compare the two, nor do I think it would be necessary to do so. To put words to paper proves the point that this is truly a fine writing instrument. Its lead gives the tactile sensation of writing on ice, while the strong black line it leaves stands boldly against the page.  An anachronism that technology has, for most people, left far behind.  For some, those who appreciate it, it remains as valid as it has ever been.

      The glory of a device like this is not in comparison to its more famous sibling, but on its own merit. Also important is the idea of it continuing to be used in anger to do what it was designed for.  Sketching or writing and perhaps mechanical drawings of a teapot.  Whatever the use, put it to work.

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