Book Review: The Secret Life of the Pencil by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney

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The Secret Life of the Pencil: Great Creatives and Their Pencils started out as a photographic project by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney. The concept is a simple one: the duo asked renowned creatives – artists, designers, architects, etc. – to send in their pencils, and then these tools were photographed in extreme close-up. The result is a book full of wonderfully detailed, bright, and captivating photographs that will easily draw you in.

That’s not all, though. There is also a short introduction by writer William Boyd and a series of interviews at the end of the book conducted with twenty-one of the aforementioned pencil owners. If I have one complaint it’s that I wish the interviews were integrated with the photography (rather than being stacked in the back), and I also wish there were more of them.

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Many of the interviewees also contributed drawings done with their pencils. My favorite happens to be be the concept designs for Lego characters by Matthew James Ashton, but I also liked seeing the courtroom art of Julia Quenzler and designs of makeup artists Michèle Burke.

It’s easy for me to recommend The Secret Life of the Pencil. It’s a short and inexpensive book, easily found for under $15, and it would be great for the coffee-table or as a small gift for any creative person. And if you really like the photographs, the book a heck of a lot cheaper than ordering the prints.

Review: Muji Hex Oil, Ballpoint, 0.7mm

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Earlier this year, my girlfriend and I took a short trip to Manhattan where, completely unintentionally, we happened upon a Muji store. If you’ve never heard of Muji before, it is sort-of like the Japanese’s answer to Crate & Barrel. It’s a store full of household items, clothing, and stationery products, though all of it is unbranded.  It’s trendy and cool, and it’s difficult to walk into a Muji store without buying something. Short on time during my New York vacation, I settled on this simple Hex Oil pen, which cost about $1.50.

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The name “Hex Oil” does a pretty good job of describing the pen itself. It has an all-black, hexagonal barrel – like a cross between a pencil and a Signo RT1 – and it uses ballpoint (oil-based) ink. As you might expect, the pen itself feels very much like a pencil in hand. Even though it lacks any sort of grip, the hexagonal shape does a good job of making it fairly comfortable to hold.

The ballpoint ink, on the other hand, isn’t very good. It feels sluggish, so your hand is bound to get tired if you plan on writing a lot. Also worth noting: the ink also has a minor blobbing problem, the clip is fairly flimsy, and the refills cost a dollar each, which is way overpriced.

Perhaps a recovering pencil-addict will get enjoyment out of the barrel, but better pens exist that cost less money. Check out the Skilcraft U.S. Government Pen or the Paper Mate Inkjoy 550RT instead. They may not look as unique, but you’ll have a better writing experience.

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Notes on Wednesday Field Notes

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On one random Wednesday – July 26, 2017 to be exact – the Field Notes blog announced a “buy anything and get a special ‘Blue Wednesday’ 2-Pack free” promotion. There was no rigmarole or hurdles. It was just, buy something on this particular day and a special edition 2-pack of pocket notebooks will be thrown in with your order. It’s things like this that make me really like the Field Notes brand. So, I went ahead an ordered a steno book, partially because I needed one and partially because I wanted to get my hands on this Wednesday edition.

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Aside from their 80# blue covers, these books don’t hold anything out of the ordinary. The innards are exactly the same as the standard Kraft edition; 60# white paper with a brown, graph ruling. Even the “practical application” list is standard. However, as an extra freebie item, it’s impossible to complain. And I’m sure it was a pretty awesome surprise to those people who just happened to place an order that day, unaware of the promotion.

Please, if you want to get your hands on a set of these notebooks, don’t pay a premium price for them on eBay. They are super-fun as a bonus item, but not worth purchasing when there are plenty of other great editions still out there. Besides, I’ve heard rumors that this wont be the last time we’ll be seeing the Wednesday edition.

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Additional Notes

Squire Sub No. 03 – The Insightful Spectre

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Well, that didn’t last long. On June 27, roughly a month after releasing the second limited edition squire, Baron Fig abruptly announced an intention to end their subscription service. In an email sent to subscribers, the company’s co-founder Joey Cofone stated that the subscription service will cease at the end of 2018. However, my subscription ends at the end of 2017, and, as far as I can tell, there is no way to renew it.

Maybe that’s all for the best. I like this third edition in their series, named The Insightful Spectre Squire, but there’s really nothing new here. It has a dark gray (“phantom black”) body along with an etching of a little ghost on the barrel. Other than that, it has the same size, shape, and refill as the standard Squire, which just makes this edition a bit boring.

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If it’s Baron Fig’s intent to retain the overall design of the Squire while only making aesthetic adjustments, I’m not opposed to it. That is essentially what Retro 51 does, and I love that company’s pens. But with this Insightful Spectre edition, all I can think is that I already have a black Squire and had a charcoal gray Squire (before I lost it), so why would I want another one that looks so similar? At least the Experiment edition, the second in Baron Fig’s subscription series, had a bright color and ink to match.

To put it bluntly: if you already have a Squire, there’s no need for this one. I’d like to see Baron Fig try something a little different and take a risk. Something simple like adding a knurled grip or flat edge would be great. Even doing a full-barrel design, rather than a tiny icon, could go a long way. Baron Fig has a lot of talent and creativity (just take a look at the great copy written for this Squire edition), but with the Squire subscription service ending, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the final installment(s).

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Book Review: The Pencil Perfect by Caroline Weaver

It might sound odd, but when first opening The Pencil Perfect: The Untold Story of a Cultural Icon by Caroline Weaver, the detail that immediately struck me was the thickness of the book’s paper stock. These days, every reader has become accustomed to cheap, thin paper, but it seems to me that a bit of thoughtfulness and care was put into the literal pages of The Pencil Perfect. And that thoughtfulness and care is likely a reflection of Weaver’s devotion to the subject matter. After all, it’s impossible to finish this book without being impressed by Weaver’s passion for and fascination with the humble pencil.

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Much of The Pencil Perfect is a history lesson. Weaver traces the origin of the wood-cased pencil from the discovery of graphite (and its first use as a writing instrument) to its eventual industrialization. As Weaver points out, much of this history is unwritten, but she has done a wonderful job of following it regardless. She’s managed to fill this book with amusing stories, great illustrations (by Oriana Fenwick), light technical info, some personal anecdotes, and even a “How to Start a Pencil Collection” guide. It’s a short book, yet it manages to pack in quite a lot.

That’s not to say that the book itself perfect. A handful of typos worked their way into this first printing, and I wasn’t a fan of Weaver’s use of in-text notes. These notes have a tendency to break up the flow of the chapters in a way that footnotes typically do not. However, I can agree to labeling these criticisms as nit-picks.

So, if you’ve ever wondered about the technological or culture history of the pencil, an object that everyone has likely used thousands of times throughout their life, then The Pencil Perfect is a worthwhile purchase. But be warned: though the pencil isn’t typically an object which attracts much devotion, Weaver’s enthusiasm can be contagious.


P.S. I also enjoyed the little Field Notes Easter egg.