I must admit before I start here that I’m not really one for charcoal as a drawing medium. It requires a fair amount of space that it’s alright to be perpetually stained with black. So, you basically need studio space in order for it to be at its peak performance, and I do not have studio space. But, I can take art classes, and that is where most of my experience with vine charcoal comes from. There are quite a few places to buy it cheaply, and the manufacturing process is probably one where it would be difficult to weed out natural inconsistencies. From my experience with several different brands, I have a hard time really telling the difference; but the main ones I’ve gone with is a set from Dick Blick, mostly because they were the last ones I was able to try out.
Vine charcoal is a particularly finicky type of drawing medium that goes down smoothly with a rich black color, and wipes away to nearly nothing with a hand or a cloth (though, if applied directly to paper, even an eraser won’t be able to remove the last ghost of a line). The sticks themselves are essentially raw: they are just vines that have been charred. Most sets (including this one) give you a pretty good selection of widths, all at around the same length. Even the girthiest of these break quite easily and most artists break them down a more manageable size both for this reason and to make manipulating them easier (I personally don’t for the most part, but then again I am persnickety). This particular set performed well. I was able to sketch with ease and clarity, while erasing and blending quickly and as cleanly as possible (and the dust trapped in my cleaning cloth made excellent shading powder in other drawings).
Blick offers a wide range of relatively inexpensive products of quality along with their brand-name selection. These fit in nicely and will get the job done. If you’re already ordering art supplies and want some vine charcoal I’d certainly recommend this (or if Blick is actually your local store)(shipping would probably be too much to make this worth ordering alone). And while there certainly may be better charcoal out there somewhere, you won’t have any problems practicing or finishing drawings with this stuff (just be sure to get a fixative if you don’t want it to disappear).
If you are ever in dire need of a mechanical pencil, and somehow find yourself at a shop that doesn’t sell Paper:Mate Sharpwriters at the price of whatever change you have in your pocket, or even at all, the Western Family mechanical pencils may be a cheaper, and click-advanceable, alternative. But are they actually useable?
The body of the pencils is very simple; a smooth cylinder for the barrel with a tapering and fluted (for grip) cone leading to a plastic nub (lead pipe) at the front (this part is free spinning but doesn’t appear to detach). At the back is a nothing-special click mechanism with an integrated plastic clip (that does indeed clip to things and hold it in place, but is pretty flimsy) and a small white eraser on the back. Removing the eraser (which actually fits down inside almost all of the click mechanism) reveals the inner lead-holding tube, which comes stocked with one extra lead per pencil. The entire click mechanism can also be removed for more direct access.
The performance is nothing to write home about. The HB 7mm lead is, as one would expect, fairly soft but not too soft, and a bit wide for people like me (I prefer 5mm, but I can live with 7). The eraser does indeed erase: it gets rid of most regular graphite marks but can be used up very quickly. The barrel of the pencil feels sturdy, but the ends are flimsy and plastic-y with tolerances that aren’t very tight.
Overall the package is fairly bare-bones, but functional. I wouldn’t use them as my main pencils, but they’d work in a pinch. For only a few dollars you get 10 pencils (in 5 terribly boring colors) with 2 leads each and a body and eraser that will hold up probably no longer than it takes to use those 2 leads (the clip being the weakest link there). There is nothing particularly appealing aesthetically about them and no information (like lead size) other than “Western Family” printed on them. They’ll work for scattering about for use if you can’t find your normal pencil or for loaning to people who don’t care about the pencil (like at the office, or playing D&D) but I can’t recommend them for any other reason.