Blackwing: (Hi)Story of Famous Pencil

In the spring of 1960, Vladimir Nabokov was living in a rented villa in Los Angeles’ Mandeville Canyon, hard at work adapting his novel Lolita into a screenplay for Stanley Kubrick.

He wrote in four-hour stretches, planted in a lawn chair “among the roses and mockingbirds,” he later wrote, “using lined index cards and a Blackwing pencil for rubbing out and writing anew the scenes I had imagined in the morning.”

With more than 1,000 cards to work with, the scribe found that his pencil arguably became his most trusted collaborator.

Nabokov isn’t alone in his devotion to the Blackwing 602, without question among the most fetishized writing instruments of all time.

It counts among its cultish fan base some of the greatest creative geniuses of the 20th century, from John Steinbeck (“I have found a new kind of pencil — the best I have ever had!” he wrote) to Quincy Jones (the Thriller producer says he carries one under his sweater when making “continual fixes” to his music) and Truman Capote (who stocked his nightstands with fresh boxes) to Stephen Sondheim, who has composed exclusively with Blackwings since the early 1960s.

The pencil even made its way onto TV’s most object-obsessive series, AMC’s Mad Men, put there by TV director Tim Hunter, who says, “I just had always felt that these folks would be using Blackwings.” Animators, including artists who drew such iconic characters as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, remain its most die-hard devotees — and earliest hoarders: The Blackwing 602 is becoming increasingly rare as it fast approaches its 80th birthday, with ostensibly only a few thousand in existence among the 13,000 that comprised its last lot in 1998, when the line was phased out.

Since then, Blackwing addicts have had to face the inevitable. “Of all tools,” says DreamWorks Animation’s Jenny Lerew, who blogs about the 602, “a great pencil is meant to be used, and in the using disappears inch by inch from the stocks of old utensil drawers, estate sales and retired artists everywhere. It’s a bittersweet conundrum. A lot of elegance and history will disappear with that last silver stub.”

The first was produced during the early 1930s by a New York City pencil plant, Eberhard Faber, founded by two German brothers in 1861 on the present United Nations site. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, the company saw an opportunity to cater to the sliver of monied elite who could afford what historian Henry Petroski describes as a “super-premium pencil.” The result was the first edition of the Blackwing 602, with its inky-black hexagonal barrel, gilt hardware, gold-embossed logo and memorable tagline, “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” Explains Petroski: “All the other pencils were yellow, the sign of a very high-quality lead. So to make a pencil black was exceedingly unusual.”

The Blackwing had another unique feature in its rectangular eraser, held in place by a squared-off metal clasp, or ferrule. When the eraser wore down, the user could slide out a small clip, extend the rubber to the desired length and refasten it. The flat eraser offered Blackwing users yet another advantageous feature: The pencil never rolled off the page. But what was under the hood was the real draw as no other pencil produced a line quite as supple, bold and creamy smooth as the Blackwing did despite retaining a point longer than those of its counterparts.

Early adopters who were animators began to spread the word. Walt Disney Studios’ Freddie Moore, the artist behind some of the best-loved Mickey Mouse cartoons, introduced it to animation’s “Nine Old Men,” including Ollie Johnston, who drew Bambi and Thumper among numerous other iconic characters. He cherished his first Blackwing and kept one taped to his studio window until he died.

When Shamus Culhane, who animated the “Heigh-Ho” sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, died in 1996, he was buried with a Blackwing in hand. “We animators have our traditions, and the Blackwing is a cult to itself,” says Tom Sito, a key player in Disney’s animation revival, whose credits include The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.

Then came the dreaded discontinuation: Tim Hodge, who works on Cartoon Network’s Tom and Jerry, discovered a shortage of Blackwings in the Disney animation offices during the early ’90s. “I went down to the lady who ran the supply department, and she said, ‘Oh yeah, they stopped making those,’ ” he says. A sudden panic came on. “I had some stubs in my drawer,” recalls Hodge, “and was trying to gather them all together and see what I had left, like cigarette butts for a last smoke.” Adds Sito: “Some of my friends were downright distraught. It was like when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn.”

The last Blackwing 602 rolled off the line in 1998. The brand had managed to survive the sale of Eberhard Faber to Faber-Castell in 1988, but when Sanford Corp. bought Faber-Castell six years later, annual sales of the already-rare item fell to 1,100 boxes of a dozen, and the machine that produced the ferrule mechanism broke down.

Fans set about gathering the remaining supply. Says Sondheim, who was inducted into the Blackwing brotherhood by the late playwright Burt Shevelove, with whom he collaborated on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: “Burt was a stationery geek and believed that if you found a stationery supply that you like, you should buy not just one but a gross because they can become instantaneously obsolete. And I took him seriously.” Sondheim won’t specify how many he keeps stowed in his closet but says he has plenty left and even gifts friends with an occasional box.

The Blackwing’s demise coincided with the rise of Internet culture, which provided its diffuse community of users a place to convene and share gushy stories as well as a marketplace to buy and sell vestigial stock.

Prices promptly skyrocketed, and these days, a single genuine Blackwing 602 easily can run upward of $50 on eBay, while a half-gross from the 1970s, in its original box, is available for $1,999.99. The brand, whose trademark had lapsed, was resurrected in 2010 by California Cedar Products Co., which sells its reissue for $20 a dozen under the name Palomino Blackwing. Opinion among purists is mixed, but the company tries to earn good will by staging events like The Blackwing Experience, a tribute that took place in June at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity in Costa Mesa, Calif. The location’s namesake — the animation genius behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote — drew only with a Blackwing until his death in 2002.

For most Blackwing fans, however, there are no substitutes for the original, pre-1994 602.

Sean Malone, an enthusiast who runs the Blackwing Pages blog, catalogs its every appearance in the pop-culture wilds and has spotted them strewn across the cluttered newsroom desks of All the President’s Men, clenched between Richard Dreyfuss’ teeth in Jaws and perched in the hand of copywriter Paul Kinsey in that episode of Mad Men. (A side note: Hunter, who also helms episodes of NBC’s Hannibal and FX’s American Horror Story, was introduced to the pencil by his Blackwing-loving father, Ian McLellan Hunter, a screenwriter known for fronting the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who penned 1953’s Oscar-winning Roman Holiday while in exile in Mexico.)

Malone also is fastidious about who is and isn’t a verified Blackwing aficionado: Igor Stravinsky and Faye Dunaway, yes; Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lennon, purely anecdotal. Fellow blogger Lerew says that despite an industrywide switch to Photoshop about seven years ago, she finds herself returning again and again to her dwindling supply of Blackwings for inspiration: “You go looking for something else, but there’s really nothing else like it.”

Adds Sondheim, now 83 and a songwriter on a Disney feature of his musical Into the Woods, starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, “I’ll be adding two songs to the score via my trusty Blackwing.”