Review – Apsara Extra Dark Triangle Pencil

I’ve been looking at a lot of international pencils recently, and these are no exception. While Apsara pencils aren’t necessarily “hard” to come across in the US, these particular pencils, the Extra Dark Triangular, are virtually nowhere to be found. Are these Indian pencils worth getting your hands on, or nothing special?

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The pencil almost couldn’t be simpler. They have a rounded triangular body coated in yellow paint. The back end is also rounded off and capped with a thin amount of shiny black material. Most of your necessary information is stamped on the side and filled in with black paint, though in lieu of a hardness number (they’re 2B by the way) there is instead the vague “Extra Dark”.

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They are darker than the average #2 pencil, and quite soft/smooth, losing their point very quickly. I wouldn’t call them “extra dark” but you could certainly get away with it. And it’s nice for sketching or filling in scantron bubbles. The wood that the main body is made of is very light and cheap, with paint that is shoddily applied (it isn’t a nice, even coat, and you can see through it in places) but the triangular shape is comfortable and there’s enough friction to keep it in your hand nicely.

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It’s far from the king of all pencils, but it’s comfortable, doesn’t like to roll off tables, and feels like nothing when holding it. It’s a decent test-taking tool (though it lacks an eraser) and an inexpensive* way to get those darker lines when sketching. Personally, the darker lines and triangular shape aren’t my style, but if that interests you and you find one out in the wild you might want to take a serious look. But I wouldn’t go seeking them out until they become more widely available.

*I assume

Review – Simple Pencil Extender

Pencil extenders are something I haven’t looked into very much. I am able to “comfortably” use a pencil well into a stub, and would just as soon have that stub as a backup and get a new pencil when it gets smaller (and now I’ve mostly swapped to mechanical pencils). But that does mean I have quite a few stubs lying around, and maybe with some inexpensive “Chinese” (don’t know for sure, but it seems likely) pencil extenders I can breathe new life into them.

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This one is a bit of an anomaly to me as I didn’t get it myself (it was a gift), it has no identifying markings, and I can’t seem to find it specifically online anywhere. I have found an eBay listing that highly resembles it, but I don’t quite know about it. Still, it is strikingly close to other, more hexagonally shaped versions that can be found all over the place and likely use the same collet.

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The device is immensely simple: a rounded wooden dowel is crimped to a tube of metal with a slit near one end and a separate metal band wrapped around it. When a pencil is inserted into the metal tube the band can be slid down to tighten and secure the pencil stub in place. It’s basically a collet that slides instead of screws, and while it works there are some problems. For example, the pencil stubs that can be used must be of a very specific size. Standard hexagonal pencils fit (think Paper:Mate Americans) but the larger art pencils and every round pencil I’ve found (including all colored pencils) have been too big. In general it seems a coat of paint is all the difference it takes between fitting and not.

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And even when a pencil does fit it isn’t held very securely. Sliding the metal collar does clamp the collet tube down a bit but a good tug and the pencil comes free, though it is held in well enough that typical shakes don’t knock it loose. And the metal tube itself isn’t very well fitted to the wooden body and the two can easily be persuaded to part ways.

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Still, with the cost seemingly being almost nothing, it does a tolerable job. The pencil is held securely enough to write with, and can be used comfortably as long as there is still pencil to grip (the collet is not a nice bit to hold on to). It is fairly lightweight, which is good for portability but bad if you really want your pencil to feel the same as it did when it was longer. And even though the construction is shoddy they cost about as little as a pencil or two so if they help you finish a couple they’ll’ve been worth it.

Review – Stabilo No. 288 Exam Grade Pencils

Every time my brother goes on an international adventure, I get to reap the rewards by looking at writing utensils from another country without the hassle of actually having to visit that country. Now, Stabilo is a company with many products available in the US or easily shipped there, and the subject of this review, the Exam Grade No. 288 2B pencil, can be found and purchased here, but when you compare prices and availability it’s obvious it’s really meant for foreign markets (mine cost 36 {probably less} Thai Baht {or a dollar and 3 cents} for three pencils when compared to $3-7 on eBay or Amazon plus shipping). Is there a reason to chase them across the world or are they just Paper:Mate equivalents?

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Most of the information on the package is in Thai, a language that I unfortunately don’t speak or read but have enough objects displaying it around my house that I can instantly recognize it. The pencils themselves are all in English, though, so for someone like me identification and re-ordering would be an easy thing to do. They’re a standard wooden hexagonal design with a black matte finish until the final ¾”, where there’s a glossy white band followed by a glossy red “cap” of paint. No eraser is affixed; instead, a separate eraser is included in the package. On two opposing facets of the body all of the necessary information is printed (poorly) in a silver ink and ever-so-slightly stamped (there’s also a barcode in white).

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Performance is pretty par. Supposedly, these are pencils meant to take school tests with, and I would say they do a good job of that. The wood isn’t great quality, but it’s light and sharpens easily. The graphite is on the darker side being a 2B (an unusual but not unheard-of hardness for US school pencils). It looseits point quickly but makes a darker mark, something I’m not a fan of, but is good for filling in bubbles on a scantron (or something similar). The black eraser comes in a card sleeve where all of the information is also in English. Supposedly it’s “specifically designed to erase scan sheets cleanly with minimal eraser mess” (and a bit of paraphrasing). And it’s not bad. Light marks are erased easily and darker marks passably, and the eraser shavings do clump up to create less mess. It also doesn’t seem to disappear right before your eyes as you use it. It’s far from a perfect eraser, but it (the 1191) is at least comparable to the standard pink erases that are so easily found.

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As far as quality is concerned I’m not going to be running off to Thailand anytime soon to track down a lifetime supply. They’re competent but not excellent everyday/school pencils that are inexpensive and usable with a few subtle changes when compared to their counterparts in the west. If you should ever find yourself in Thailand or any area that sells them (perhaps you live there) they can easily be used for most daily tasks, but they’re nothing to write home about.

Review – Vinifan Bicolor Colored Pencils (Triangular)

I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly have memories of being fascinated by double-ended colored pencils. I actually might still have my first one around somewhere because, even though I ended up with a couple different ones in my pencil pile™, there just wasn’t much use I could find specifically for a double-ended colored pencil. But the box for the one I’m looking at today, the Vivifan Bicolor, has (as best I can make out since I don’t read Spanish fluently) listed uses for each side of the blue and red pencil. The blue side is for “writing” and the red side is for “correcting” (escribir y corregir respectivamente), but is that really a good use scenario?

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Like a few other Peruvian writing implements I’ve reviewed recently, the Bicolor has a rounded, triangular body that helps with grip and prevents it from easily rolling off the table. It’s painted red and blue on the sides corresponding with the color of the lead, coming together in the middle at a surprisingly straight line (I don’t know if that line exactly corresponds to the leads, though). Near the center, stamped in gold letters, are “Vivifan” and “Bicolor” which is enough, but I would’ve liked some more information.

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In the package, the points are very cheaply made with 3 flat cuts, but they are usable (though the points were broken or blunted on some of mine during the trip from Peru to the USA). The writing has a more-or-less standard, waxy colored pencil feeling. Coverage is pretty good when bearing down (the blue covers slightly less completely than the red), and at normal writing pressure they are darker than the average colored pencil. But, in my experience, they become unsightly and uncomfortable after only a few words. The fire-engine red and navy blue colors are unspectacular and almost non-differentiate-able from Crayola orange-red and blue pencils, but they get the job done. Both the waxy-ness and the not-good-for-art colors provided help lead to the very standard problem with inexpensive colored pencils of them not blending very well, but the packages says they’re for writing so that’s less of a concern.

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I’m still not really sure what I would use this for. The red side is good for marking corrections to be made, but the blue side is not good for writing. The color set is too limited for most artistic applications and the difficulty there is compounded by the inexpensive waxy-ness. Still, if you’re looking for a space-saving or easier-to-keep-track-of way to have both a blue and red colored pencil with you, this would be a perfectly adequate (and comfortably designed) way to do that.

Review – Pilot Opt (.5mm)

It’s always surprising how many innovations there can be for something as (seemingly) old, tried, and true as a mechanical pencil. The Pilot Opt is a fairy traditional and comfortably chunky mechanical pencil save for its unique advance mechanism. While a standard click-mechanism is available and quite usable (and necessary for retracting), there is also a sliding weight inside that allows the pencil to be shaken to advance the lead. But is this shake advance mechanism (that I don’t fully understand) a real improvement over the standard, or just a gimmick?

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The body of the pencil is fatter than the average mechanical pencil and relatively torpedo-shaped, with the thickest part being around two-thirds of the way toward the front and tapering down from there. Forward of this hump there is a (removable) rubber grip section and a metal cone, attached to which is a smaller metal cone that serves as a lead pipe. As far as I can tell, the farthest this pencil can be taken down by the user is removing these two bits, which gets you nowhere. Behind the grip section is a clear piece of plastic with a colored checker pattern (which is black, trying to mimic a “carbon fiber” look. Other syles come in other colors) below this, you can see the black tube containing the advance mechanism. Behind that is a correspondingly colored opaque plastic bit that contains just enough printed information about the pen and holds the attached spring-clip on a pivot. At the very end of the pencil is a(nother) correspondingly colored translucent plastic eraser cover, under which is a small white eraser that can be removed to access the lead tube.

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The lead and eraser are what you would expect from Pilot: that is, quite serviceable. The lead is a fine .5 and the one included feels like an HB. It’s a medium hardness and quite smooth, nothing to write home about but nothing wrong. The eraser gets the job done but like many mechanical pencil erasers is entirely too small (in my opinion). This is offset slightly by it not being they type that disappears easily. The push click mechanism is usable and gets thing done, but is a little underwhelming. And the clip is great, being smooth enough to not damage items but strong enough to hold on firmly, while the spring mechanism makes it easier to use and harder to break. But obviously the main attraction is the shake advance mechanism, which works as advertised. A good shake will advance enough lead for one to be able to write, though it might take two to get to a length most people are comfortable with. The advance per “shake” is comparable to the advance per “click” with minor length differences depending on some ethereal power (likely gravity and the external forces you apply). And the weight inside needs to reach both extremes in a short period of time with some force in order to advance the lead, this means that accidental advancement is a rare occurrence, but when intentionally done can be a surprisingly subtle gesture (though it’s still violent enough that people might give you strange looks). I haven’t had it advance in my bag, yet it’s always done so easily when I was using it.

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Without its gimmick this is still a solid pencil, though one could argue that its ¥200 (≈$1.75) price tag isn’t worth it without the shake advance (the same for its increased US price of $3.00-3.50) but even then it’s right on the line for the quality (though I wouldn’t get it without the mechanism because of its thickness). But with the mechanism it becomes a fascinating and usable utensil. The grip is comfortable, if wide, the lead and eraser are of quality, the clip is a step up, and the mechanisms work wonderfully. If you’ve been looking for a more convenient advance mechanism and other options like side advance aren’t doing it for you this is certainly something to look at. And while I probably wouldn’t have bought one for myself (it was a gift from my brother when he went to Japan), and indeed I won’t be keeping it in my daily use pencil bag, I had a fun time with it all throughout my testing.

Review – Faber-Castell Grip 2020 Ballpoint

Sometimes the basic problems of a cheap ballpoint pen can just get to you. Many ballpoints have a round or hexagonal design that can lead to hand cramping or slipping while trying to write with thick, uncooperative ink. You see additions like silicone rubber grips occasionally as a remedy in the US, but apparently in places like Peru they have attempted to remedy these problems directly in the design of the pen. The Faber-Castell Grip 2020 boasts an ergonomic triangular design, with as studded grip and “smooth writing” ink. But how well does that improve performance?

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The body is a simple, translucent, subtly triangular-ized cylinder with 150 small rounded “studs” for grip evenly positioned on the faces. The cap is round, with an integrated clip, and it has the relatively unique feature of sliding “under” the barrel rather than over it with the required step down being about the last quarter of the cap. Underneath the lip holding the cap in place there is a slightly tapered cone, friction fit over the ink tube; this cone can be removed, allowing the ink tube to be replaced. At the back there’s a stopper that steps down near the end, forming a space between it and the body where the cap can be posted. Over this stopper, on two sides of the triangle, there is written material: stamped in silver lettering is “Faber-Castell” and printed on a label is the barcode, model number, ink (and pen) color, and “Made in Peru”. I’m a bit disappointed by that, since, even though it’s on the back, labels on writing instruments have a tendency to get damaged and if that happened you wouldn’t know the model to get a replacement.

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Functionality is quite good. The cap both caps and posts securely while maintaining the “lines” of the pen (the pen flares out ever so slightly in the back so it doesn’t match up as well there, leaving a step down instead of a {relatively} smooth transition). The clip is fine but isn’t very tight and it slips on thin material (its attachment point and the plastic it’s made of are surprisingly rock-solid, though). The ink is smooth as promised, coming out of a very medium tip (broader than I like, to be honest). For all intents and purposes it is the same as the other Faber-Castell made-in-Peru pens, maybe a little bit darker, and with blobbing being present, but not nearly as frequent as the other models I’ve looked at (counter-intuitively {usually wider tips on ballpoints leads to more blobbing}).

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It’s a very nice little pen. For my personal daily use I prefer something shorter and with a finer tip, but this pen is comfortable, easy to hold, smooth writing, and doesn’t slip. I also really like the cap and how it doesn’t expand the circumference of the pen (save for the clip) and is probably less prone to crushing or cracking. If they managed to make the clip a little better, and offered the top in a fine I would seriously be looking to import some to use all the time. So if you’re looking for a simple, relatively inexpensive, comfortable, and durable (the plastic is very solid feeling) pen, and don’t mind importing, I’d certainly give this one a try.

Review- Ritepoint Chromatic

Every once in a while I like to take a look at something vintage and see how well it stacks up. Plus I’ve got a soft-spot for slim, fine (line) writing pens. Now I’m not entirely sure as to the status of the Chromatic (or Ritepoint, or whoever) but it does seem these pens (and refills) are discontinued, but easy to find online. Is it worth it to snag one?

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The pen body is very slim and stylish, reminiscent of the Cross Century. It’s a smooth cylinder, with a gold-banded break for the twist mechanism and tapers at the back and front. At the fron,t a third of the taper is in the form of a gold-colored metal cone, from which the point extends when the mechanism is engaged. The back taper terminates more abruptly and affixed to it is a fairly solid, basically flat clip that runs almost the length of the back section.

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The action of the pen is strange enough that I’m not sure it’s working properly. Turning the back half of the pen clockwise a quarter turn will extend the ballpoint and lock it into place. From there twisting will do nothing until enough force is applied counter-clockwise and the pen “clicks” at which point the tip will slowly retract completely. It’s an interesting compromise system and it works quite well. It’s just that everything feels a bit still and awkward. I can’t quite tell if it needs oil, is broken, or that’s just how it’s supposed to be.

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As for the writing, it’s quite good. My pen has a blue “microtip” cartridge installed. The ink is smooth enough coming out that I can write in cursive, though the lines themselves have some start-up and shading problems (oddly reminiscent of fountain pens). The line width is equivalent to, or slightly thinner than, most “fine” points and the ink properties are fairly standard. The only other function; the clip is better than average but nothing to write home about.

It’s a decent little interesting piece of history, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential for any collectors. And the impracticality of having to hunt down new-old-stock or second-hand refills or fashion your own out of whatever might fit makes it not a good choice for the regular user. If it sounds interesting to you I’d say go for it, but it’s nothing to run out and hunt down.