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 – 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 – Pentel GraphGear 1000

My favorite mechanical pencil is the Pentel GraphGear 500, but its MSRP is a bit close to my usual ceiling budget for new pencils, so I was reluctant to pick up its “big brother” the GraphGear 1000, until I saw one for a good deal. There are a lot of upgrades and features the 1000 has that the 500 does not, but is it worth the extra price (it usually costs)?

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If I was to give an example of an over-engineered pencil, the GraphGear 1000 would be that pencil. The body starts out pretty simple, with the back half being mainly cylindrical and having all the necessary information printed on it. The front half has the (grip) section that is very lightly knurled and has 24 embedded rubber ovals to increase comfort and grip. The “cone” in front of the section that steps and tapers down to the “lead pipe” screws off, allowing the section to be removed and reoriented. A small cutout at the end of the section (near the middle of the pencil) can then be oriented over a scale of hardnesses that are printed (stickered) around the inside barrel to show the correct hardness of the pencil (mine was preset at HB). Then the cone can be screwed back down to lock in the selection. (Otherwise the inner barrel is a smooth black plastic with a matte finish that isn’t really intended to be seen).

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The lead pipe usually featured on “drafting” pencils is curiously absent when one first inspects the item. It can be found by pressing the clicking mechanism on the end, at which point it pops out and is locked in place via a locking mechanism on the clip. Further clicking of the mechanism will extend the lead (or, by holding it down, allow the lead to be retracted) and pushing the top of the spring-loaded clip will release the simple locking mechanism and cause the lead pipe to quickly hide away in the cone again. The clicking mechanism cap can be removed to reveal an eraser, which can be removed to reveal lead storage. Both are friction fit with nice tolerances. And the mechanism’s cap has the lead size (.5mm for mine) printed on the top for easy reading when in a pencil cup.

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How well does all of this work? Very. Everything is solid, most of the important parts being made out of metal, giving it quite a heft when compared to the 500. The clicking and locking mechanisms are smooth, quick, solid, and satisfying to use. There is no play at all when using the pencil, and it tucks away perfectly (when the lead is retracted). The HB lead it comes with is standard. It’s bordering on the hard side of HB, but it’s still pretty smooth, and from using the same variety in other pencils for quite some time I can say it is reasonably break-resistant for the .5 size. The grip is surprisingly comfortable and the rubber ovals hardly noticeable (in fact they might not be necessary, or may even make it a bit more slippery than I would prefer). The clip does a very good job of clipping (mostly because of the cutout and spring present for the locking mechanism), and it slides off with very little damage from its well-polished edges (my model has a chromed-out clip for extra smoothness and flair I guess) and it being the locking mechanism means the lead pipe will retract as soon as it’s clipped on to something, preventing damage. The eraser is the same as the one on the 500, and it does a decent job getting rid of marks while being firm enough to not disappear completely.

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With that multitude of features and solidness of performance is it worth the price? Assuredly. But do you really need all of those features? Probably not. This is a great pencil and I’m really glad I was able to get one (even more glad it was at what I consider to be a really good price) but it just won’t be replacing the 500 for me (at least at the moment: only time will tell). I’m not really sure what it is about it, since it’s got a nice weight, a satisfying feel, good writing capability, and it isn’t ugly (though my model {the PG1015} is a silver color with chrome clip and button and I wouldn’t call it the most handsome pencil in my collection) but it’s just not right for me. Still, it is an astounding pencil at a very good price and if the features I’ve talked about interest you, or you want to move up in the world of mechanical pencils either as a hobby or an artist I can heartily recommend this as an excellent next step.

Review – INC Soft Scripts Mechanical Pencils

Pencils for the office, school, or just someone who loses their pencils a lot can get pricey, fortunately there are a lot of inexpensive options out there. But are they even worth it to try? Sure, there are a lot of inexpensive pencils, but if they don’t “pencil” there is no reason to even consider them. INC Soft Scripts are one such pencil on the less expensive side of the aisle. How well do they work?

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The design here is pretty stereotypical, with the barrel being a thin, featureless tube of black plastic that tapers at one end to a plastic lead pipe. Near this end is a rubber grip in one of a few (5 in my case) colors that is narrower in the middle and has ridges toward the end, both ostensibly to help with grip, and they succeed in being barely noticeable. On the back end is a colored plastic push-advance mechanism (that matches the grip) with integrated pocket clip and eraser holder. This bit can be removed to expose the lead-holding tube that contains 2 extra leads (for a total of 3 per pencil). The clip is nothing spectacular, with most of the necessary information on it, and fairly brittle. But I feel the entire end piece would fling off before it broke.

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Performance is what one would expect. The HB lead is middle-of-the-road, leaning toward soft, but there’s nothing particularly off about it. I personally don’t use a .7mm size but it is a fairly standard size and makes breaking less of a problem. The eraser is one of the little white ones that will get the erasing done pretty well, but will seem to disappear almost immediately. The clip is serviceable but I wouldn’t recommend using it. And, finally, the mechanism is quite solid and workable; pushing lead out and holding it in place when commanded to do so.

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They’re easily usable, but far from spectacular, pencils, with their main benefits being the rubber grip (if you happen to like those) and the fact that they are the ones at the store (if indeed they are the ones at the store). There’s nothing really there to recommend them on, but no reason to tell you to stay away, either. They will perform fine for office, school, car, or other tasks where pencils should be inexpensive because of the frequency with which they are broken or lost. In comparison to others at a similar, price it would really come down to personal preference.

Review – Western Family Mechanical Pencils

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Review – Art & Parcel (September 2016)

Art & Parcel is a monthly subscription service for art supplies from H. Blyth & Co. It’s like a Lootcrate, but for art supplies; so it’s way better than a Lootcrate (my opinion). But with so many of these monthly-blind-subscription-service things around, what makes this one special enough to look at? (Answer: Art supplies) And is it worth it to get one?

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(Couple of notes here: I got this parcel for free {and even though I got to pick one, I didn’t get the one I picked, so the picking part won’t influence the review} for review, and I live in the US where the “subscription” part of this service is unavailable. From what I can tell that means that I would have to pay up front as a lump sum to get my parcels, instead of being able to pay by the month, this also means that shipping cost is terrible to get them here, £16 (About $20) is a steal for these products, and the shipping in the UK is a great deal too, even throughout the rest of Europe it doesn’t exceed the price of the items like it does coming to the US)

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The one I am going to be looking at today is September’s parcel, which is focused mainly on colored pencils, but first I’ll talk quickly about the packaging. Mine was shipped in a bubble envelope, inside of which was a very nice cardboard box that was very well sealed with brown tape. On the top the Art & Parcel logo is printed very plainly, and on the bottom in pencil there is the month. (My box was a bit dented, but this is likely from the post office as, due to my schedule, the box had to be sent through the post twice) Inside is a nice packing slip that explains everything that is in the box along with its regular retail price (if that’s anything to go on you save a pound or two from buying the items individually in this set). All of the materials are neatly and securely wrapped in a newsprint/tracing paper that is sealed with a sticker of the Art & Parcel logo. It is all very well executed and nothing got damaged.

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The first items in this box were four Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils. I am no stranger to these pencils (they were the subject of one of my first {and not as well written} reviews), though I don’t have these particular colors: Naples Yellow, Light Phthalo Blue, Chrome Oxide Green Fiery (wonderful name that), and Red-Violet. I think the choice of colors is a bit strange, but they are definitely useful, and give a better representation of the pencils abilities than a plain RGB or RYB would have. There’s not much more to say there since they are some of the best colored pencils around. One thing I do really like about them is the fact that they layer so that some colors can somewhat be on top of other colors, unlike the cheaper colored pencils where they’re pretty mutually exclusive.

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Next is the KOH-I-NOOR Hardtmuth Magic pencil, which is basically a fat colored pencil that has a “lead” made up of the 3 RYB colors. This means that as you write or color with the pencil it changes, and the colors mix together to create a nice gradient effect. In practice the yellow mixing with both the red and blue works great, but the purple almost looks black and rarely shows up, and getting a nice solid version of one of the primary colors is very difficult, so the gradient looks more green and orange than anything else. I would bet that with some practice and odorless mineral spirits with a blending stick that it could produce wonderful effects, but I would still have trouble finding a use for it.

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Third up is another Faber-Castell product; one of their Pitt Artist Brush Pens, another item I’ve looked at in the past, though this is a different version. It’s a “big brush” and the body of the pen is over a half inch in diameter, a bit chunky for me but still very easy to hold on to and surprisingly comfortable. The color is “Cold Grey IV” which seems to be in the middle of the grey family, and the brush is very fat, going from lines of about ½mm to almost 5mm. It’s also got all of the stuff you want out of an ink: waterproof, lightfast, and archival quality. But I’m not really sold on how it fits with the rest of the stuff here. It is a grey, which makes it more like a pencil when sketching, but going over the same place multiple times does make it darker. It’s just strange to me, but then again I have a very different style to most people, and playing around with a new brush pen is always fun.

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And the final item included is a 10-sheet pad of watercolor paper. It’s made by Fabriano but has the Art & Parcel logo again on the front. It’s A5 size, which is about 6” x 8” and is a hefty 300gsm. It handily took everything I threw at it without flinching, bleeding, or feathering. Sharpies, calligraphy pens, and brush pens push most papers to the limit, but this stuff is truly meant for paint (watercolor at least), which I don’t have too much of lying around (in accessible areas, I did have some tempera and it handled that very well), but it seems easily capable of handling it. A liberal application of water will turn it in to one big slight buckle, but that’s about it. My only complaint is that there are only 10 sheets.

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Overall I’m very satisfied with this box. It’s well worth the money and provides several products that work in tandem, allowing you to start creating right out of the package without having to look for more materials. From what I can tell, this is true of the previous parcels as well, but each one comes based in a different medium. The subscription would be relatively inexpensive way to try out something that might not be in your comfort zone without having to do a lot of research or spend time picking out and ordering products. It was honestly really hard for me to try and pick out a parcel I wanted. The recent ones at least were all super cool (and they can be purchased even after the subscription goes out, so nobody needs to miss out like with other sub boxes) and I’d be signing up right now if shipping to the US didn’t more than double the price (damn the postal service(s)). I really like this box. It’s given me a bunch of cool stuff to play around with (and a Haribo candy to eat*) and if the idea of getting a bunch of high quality art goodies in the mail every month appeals to you I would recommend it.

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*I ate it; it was good (like a softer laffy-taffy).

Review – Bic Xtra-Fun Pencils

Sometimes I’m a sucker for buying new things for the novelty, and I think that’s what Bic is counting on (except I think their target market is children) with the Xtra-Fun series of pencils. At first (and second) glance they appear to be regular #2 pencils in wacky, fun colors. But are they usable?

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For the most part these pencils are pretty standard: a “wooden” hexagonal body with general information stamped and inked into one of the facets (each pencil also appears to have a unique number stamped but not inked into it; I am unsure of its significance). The most obvious differences between them and regular pencils is the bright-colored paint on the outside with the inside dyed a different (usually mismatched) color, and that the standard metal eraser holder has been replaced with a much larger diameter plastic one. The body looks and feels at first like a regular wood pencil, but after sharpening and handling it for a bit I would say that if it isn’t a type of plastic it is a “flaked and formed” wood that uses a different process than most pencils to give it more plasticity.

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The performance of the lead is as expected, on the soft side of middle-of the road. Not much precision is possible, nor shading; it’s good for scantrons and notes. The eraser is of the white variety, and actually very decent, erasing most typical writing lines without seeming to disappear before your very eyes. In fact, the most disappointing thing about this pencil is its structural integrity. It bends very easily, and much more so than a regular pencil. Simply handling it will result in finding out how easily it bends, which is worrisome in general, but added to by the fact that when I was using these pencils I began to sharpen one, and the tip broke off every time I was just getting to a point, down until there was no more pencil to put in the sharpener. Thus, one of my pencils was rendered entirely useless, and I hadn’t really played with the plasticity of that one, so I would definitely call it a defect, and one that makes it hard to recommend these pencils, especially for children.

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I probably won’t be buying any pencils from this range again, but that would’ve still been the case had they been good pencils. But with such an easy to encounter (albeit not in the intended usage case) flaw that essentially ruins the pencil’s penciling ability, I have to say I wouldn’t be able to recommend them to anyone. The colors are also terrible but I suppose some have different (perhaps more X-treme) tastes than I, so I can’t particularly fault it there.