January 2, 2021

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I have only recently started looking for better writing pencils, and saw people talk of fine Japanese penmanship pencils.
These pencils are often triangular to help children learn proper grip technique.
I couldn't remember ever having used any so I decided to seek some out.

Only two kinds were available at walk-in stores in my area. (central USA)
It involved a bit of a drive but avoided shipping delays, as US postal mail is moving rather slowly right now.

The two I ended up buying are the Dixon Tri-Conderoga (black, left) and the Dixon Ticonderoga Tri-Write (yellow, right) shown below.

Neither of these pencils is really new, they're just new to me.
The (black) Tri-Conderogas have been around since at least late-2005, and the Tri-Writes are even older (there are early reviews of the Tri-Conderoga mentioning the Tri-Write).





I had originally planned this page to be just quick reviews of the two pencils above:

  1. the Tri-Conderoga review
  2. the Tri-Write review
The Tri-Conderoga pencils presented sharpening difficulties however, so the page content expanded in odd directions:
  1. A very short summary of both pencil reviews, for the impatient
  2. Tri-Conderoga general review, some observed sharpening difficulties
  3. Sharpening the Tri-Conderoga with an engine lathe
  4. Some reviews make no mention of the sharpening problem
  5. Carpentry pencil sharpeners as a possible solution
  6. The reason most carpentry pencil sharpeners are silly
  7. Some additional large round pencils for testing the original Tri-Conderoga sharpener
  8. A test of several carpentry pencil sharpeners from local stores
  9. the Tri-Write pencil review

The list items above are links that lead to that section.





A very short summary of both pencil reviews, for the impatient:

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Tri-Conderoga general review, some observed sharpening difficulties

The Tri-Conderogas are an oversize pencil; they just squeeze into a 9mm circle. The pencils come un-sharpened but this package of six pencils also includes a sharpener. The sharpener has two holes, one for 'normal' medium-length points on normal-thickness pencils, and the other a larger-diameter hole that produces a short point. The Tri-Conderoga will only fit into the larger sharpener hole.

The first thing I noticed was how difficult they were to get any useful point on, with the included sharpener. I ground the first pencil down nearly a third of its length trying to get a decent point, and never really did well. For some time I just assumed that I had to be doing something wrong, and I finally gave up and left it where it is in the photo above.

I noticed some improvement by holding the opposite end of the pencil not exactly on the sharpening axis, but tilted a bit in the direction that the blade edge is pointing. This only changed the result from 'terrible' to 'poor' however.

I tried using it in some of the other larger/short-point pencil sharpeners I had, and it wouldn't fit into any of them.

You can just whittle it with a knife of some kind, of course. Or maybe use a desk-type sharpener... I don't have any electric or hand-crank sharpeners, but people online note that it is too big to fit into many of them. I write on-the-go a lot and I only carry portable sharpeners; carrying a knife just for this one pencil would basically remove it from the "convenient" category for me.

It has a rubber-like coating that is stickier than normal gloss paint. As of yet I have not written with it much, so I can't really say if its an improvement or not. It is grippier if your hands are clean but some other reviews have noted that it can decay with exposure to oil or other substances. I'm wondering if just using flat paint might do better than gloss, without all the possible rubber issues?

My original summary statement was "The first thing that Dixon needs to do here is produce a manual sharpener that this thing works well in", but there are reviews for this pencil dating as far back as 2005. It has been sold in the same packages, with what appears to be the same sharpener, the entire time. I don't expect there will be much more help from that direction. I think the best bet here would be to get a desk/hand-crank sharpener that can accept the large diameter and that will auto-feed it. I don't know if that exists however.

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Sharpening the Tri-Conderoga with an engine lathe

The first day I had it I spent most of the evening trying to use the included sharpener, with very little success.
By this time it was late in the evening and all the stores were closed, so I did what any normal, rational adult would do.
I decided to sharpen it in my engine lathe.

The image above shows it mounted in a 3-jaw scroll chuck and ready for TOTAL SHARPENING JUSTICE.

The picture above is after sharpening (the photo came out a bit fuzzy, but you can see the shavings).

Hooray!
It came out with a smooth 21-degree point, and a nicely tipped centered lead.
A sharpener worthy of the Tri-Conderoga.

The photo above and below shows that I still didn't get it exactly centered, as the three cuts on the ridges don't begin at the same point. It's pretty close though.

Also I took these pics after I had written with it a bit, so it's not quite as pointed as it came out of the lathe.
It looks like a LOT of wood around a rather skinny lead core.
(-also I think now I should have taken better pictures; you may never see a Tri-Conderoga sharpened this well anywhere else)

Once you get a decent point on it... It writes,,, about like the regular black or amber Ticonderoga pencils.
Which is to say, okay. Not great.
My usual pencils are a Tombow 2558 and a Unigraph 1200 2B, and it's not quite as smooth or dark as those.

The oversize writing grip might be useful, but to make it appealing first there would need to be some kind of portable sharpener that it worked well with.

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Some reviews make no mention of the sharpening problem

...One thing I found odd was that after I found the sharpening problems with mine, I looked around online to see what other reviews said. Many of them note the same sharpening problems, but some of them say nothing about that,,, ??? ...which is odd to me when I tried the things in a half-dozen different brands of portable sharpeners, and it didn't work well in any of them. All of those pages gave them good reviews but I tend to wonder if those 'reviewers' even actually used the pencils at all. -Because the pencils come unsharpened... so they would have had to sharpen them before they could even try writing with them? Did they try writing with them?...

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Carpentry pencil sharpeners as a possible solution

...Another thing I noticed in the comments section on one web review page, somebody mentioned that they had to use a carpenter pencil sharpener with it...
I didn't have any of those on hand, so I couldn't immediately try that. I had to wait a day or two before I had time to get to the local hardware stores to see what was available.

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The reason most carpentry pencil sharpeners are silly

When I got to the first hardware store I went to, I found something I'd never really noticed before. They have a bunch of pencil sharpeners made for sharpening [flat] carpenter pencils into round points... -and that's doing it wrong (according to how I was taught in my early years).

One might think that the reason that carpenter pencils are flat is so they won't roll around, and that might be one benefit, but it doesn't explain the flat lead that they have. I was told that the reason that carpentry pencils have flat lead in them is so that you can draw different-width lines with the same pencil. If you hold the flat pencil perpendicular to the direction you are drawing, it makes a very wide line. If you hold it at 45-degrees, it makes a medium-width line. If you hold it parallel to the line direction, it makes fine lines.

The organization I was told was this:

The image below shows an example of a sheet laid out this way.
--The red line is the sheet boundary, representing a sheet of wood with parts to be cut out.
--(part A) and (part B) are the intended pieces, with the thin outlines.
--(salvage) is a uninterrupted rectangular waste area so it is marked with dashed medium-thick lines, and-
--the areas marked with thick-line X's are scrap that you are free to cut into as necessary.

Obviously everybody doesn't do it this way, and you can do it however you want. You cannot do it this way however, if you sharpen your carpenter pencil to a round point,,, because then it can't make variable-width lines.

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Fat round pencils for testing the original sharpener

At one of the stores that I went to, I noticed that they had these fat round pencils that had very thick lead. They don't cost much and I didn't expect them to be great (they don't even indicate the lead hardness) but I thought the thick lead was interesting and I figured that I needed a way to find out why the original Tri-Conderoga pencil sharpener didn't work so well--was the sharpener faulty somehow? Or was the large triangle pencil shape causing the problems? These pencils were as thick as the Tri-Conderogas but these were round, so they should sharpen as smooth as possible. I grabbed a half-dozen of them also. One of them is shown along a pen+GEAR pencil, that is a normal hex diameter.

When I got home and measured the orange pencils, I found that they were almost the exact same outer diameter as the Tri-Conderogas.
The Tri-Conderogas (triangles) fit into a hole about 9.1 mm diameter, and the Home Depot fat orange pencils are about 9.2 mm.

Also I will note here that both the Tri-Conderoga and the fat orange pencil will fit into all of the carpenter sharpeners here, and rotate freely.
Three of the sharpeners have rectangular guides on them (for rectangular carpenters' pencils) but the open center area in all three is still ~10mm or more across.




Testing the Tri-Conderoga sharpener with a fat round pencil

Above you should see an image showing the result of sharpening one of the fat orange pencils in the original Tri-Conderoga sharpener.
It worked out pretty well; there is significant cutting resistance and the wood and lead show some rough digs but overall it is agreeable.
This leads me to believe that the difficulty of sharpening the Tri-Conderogas is the big triangle shape itself, and not the fault of the sharpener. Eisen is absolved.

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A test of several carpentry pencil sharpeners from local stores

Below shows the original sharpener alongside four carpentry pencil sharpeners that I bought at local stores.
I hadn't really thought much of using carpenter sharpeners up until this time, but all four of the ones I found ended up producing slightly different results.

Of the three sharpeners above that have entry guides (B, C and E) you can remove the guides. The entry guides are just snapped on for assembly, and you snap them off again by prying with a small screwdriver.




The Toolway ToolTech FatPat sharpener

Above we see the results with the Tri-Conderoga. You can see in the photo that the FatPat sharpener has the front corner of the blade removed (cut away at an angle) and leaves the lead unsharpened. This is an "auto-stop" sharpener; it stops cutting when the lead is long enough to hit the inside end. (Inset image) On the back of the sharpener there is a small grinding stone inlaid that you would finish the sharpening to a point if you wanted to. (this is the only one of the four sharpeners tested that had a sharpening stone built-in)

This sharpener, by not trying to produce a pointed tip, basically sidesteps the usual problem. The movement caused by the triangle shape of the pencil usually results in the tip to keep getting broken off, but this sharpener doesn't touch the lead very much.




The blue C.H. Hanson sharpener (Lowe's)

This sharpener does something similar to the one above: the blade is positioned and shaped to avoid producing a sharp point on the lead. The last ~2mm of the lead is cut "straight" instead of terminating in a point, and this sharpener is an 'auto-stop' type as well. Unlike the FatPat, this sharpener does not have any sharpening stone on the back side. If you wanted a point, you need some other way to do that.




The yellow C. H. Hanson sharpener (Menard's)

This pencil sharpener is the only one among the four that tries to produce a pointed lead.
It is also the only one that doesn't have a rectangular pencil guide on the entrance, so you can sharpen anything up to about 13mm.

Even after some careful practice, the Tri-Conderoga (black) is still cutting a bit chunky, particularly on the lead (the tip you see is among the better ones I could get, but it's still chunky and uneven).
The fat orange pencil rotates much smoother, and results in a better lead tip.
(-and so again we see, another sharpener that doesn't work well with the triangle pencil, but does perfectly fine with a round pencil of the same diameter-)




The curved-blade C.H. Hanson sharpener (Home Depot)

In the above image, the amber pencil is the pen+GEAR (a regular size hex pencil) and the black is the Tri-Conderoga (a fat triangle pencil).

Neither pencil centered really well in this sharpener, and the sharpener is an 'auto-stop' style in that it doesn't produce a pointed lead.
The fat orange Home Depot pencils centered pretty well.
A vintage round pencil I tried (A Black Mirado at least 15 years old, but of unknown age) didn't cut very well, and I didn't have any current round normal-diameter pencils to try.

I was curious at first (about this curved-blade business) but now I'm not sure what the reason for the curved blade would be.
If you wanted to write with all your lead and not grind it into dust in the sharpener, there are other art sharpeners available that only cut the wood.

If you wanted to try the vintage Faber Janus thing, it's ~$60 to ~$100 on ebay and you might get a dull blade. This is a $4 way that comes pretty close, and is in new condition.

In the store I went to, these were not in the aisle with the rest of the marking tools. These were in a counter-top display on the Pro service counter, which is a separate checkout area for commercial customers.

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In conclusion... none of the oversize carpenter pencil sharpeners worked well with regular-size pencils I tried.
The carpenter pencil sharpeners seemed to have a larger area to remove broken lead from, and that cause smaller pencils to snag the lead and break the tip off.

The carpenter pencil sharpeners do work for oversize pencils (with oversized leads) but all of the sharpeners tend to cut rather chunky--none of them really cut smoothly through the wood even on the first pencil sharpened. That could be due to cheaper blades used, cheaper wood being used, the quantity of wood being cut or all of those things. There is definitely some room for improvement. And as much as I prefer the idea of the sharpener producing a pointed lead, that doesn't seem to work real well with oversize pencils/pencil sharpeners.

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The yellow Tri-Write pencils

After all the silliness with the blacks, the yellows seem pretty boring by comparison. They basically just work?

They are small enough to fit into a 7mm hole, and they fit into all of the normal-size portable pencil sharpeners I had on hand. They don't center real well in a short-point sharpener, but they do better in a normal-length-point sharpener. And a normal plastic tip protector fits on them as well.

The lead they have is ... okay. Not poor but not outstanding in any way either. The grip feel might still sell them to some people though. I am at least willing to carry one around and try using it, since I can sharpen the thing easily.

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