Tilting at Castells

If there are such things as “classic” pencils, then the Castell 9000 would likely be one of them. It has been manufactured by Faber-Castell for 107 years and its design has remained largely the same, but some of the niceties have changed over the years. These are but two examples of the Castell 9000.

The lighter pencil is from the 1980s, and the darker pencil is from 2005. The older pencil has a thicker diameter, and though I don’t have a micrometer, it can only be a matter of millimeters (or less). Yet, it truly feels more comfortable to hold than the 2005 Castell. For lack of a better term, it’s more “pencil-like.”

The label on the package for the older pencils states that they are made from premium cedar, and you can tell. The color of the wood is darker than that of the 2005 pencil, it sharpens very easily by hand, plus there is that unmistakable aroma—and it’s pretty strong. Not so for the 2005 pencil. In fact, I’m not even certain it’s made of cedar—the texture is similar to juletong jelutong, but I could be mistaken. (Perhaps some of the experts can weigh-in on whether jelutong was ever adopted for the Castell 9000 in some markets, or if they have always been cedar.) Either way, the wood is of a different (and seemingly lesser) quality.

Last, the older Castell is a reminder of when pencils didn’t have barcodes and URLs slathered all over them. Those graphic devices have become eyesores, and in some instances have turned what were once beautiful wood-cased writing instruments into selfsame novelty advertising pencils.

If there’s anything that contradicts the essence—or perhaps the ethos—of wood-cased pencils, it’s a barcode.

I know it’s a bit quixotic of me to wish they could go back to how they once were, but because the change didn’t happen that long ago (in pencil-years), I harbor this (false) presumption that it wouldn’t be too hard to do, and a (fool’s) hope that they’ll do it.

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21 Responses to Tilting at Castells

  1. Kevin says:

    The Castell 9000 gets a bum wrap online. Because it is a true drawing/drafting pencil, many readers ignore the 9000 because in HB grade it is lighter in tone than standard writing pencils. As someone that uses them to sketch with, the 2H in an A6 sketchbook, provides me with enough point retention to do a complete sketch, and yes, the older models are superior pencils. It really is horses for courses when it comes to the right pencil. Bar codes are a real turn off, but they can be rubbed off with a good quality eraser (such as the Mars). The only downside is it leaves the lacquer a bit dull in the rubbed area. I couldn’t resist a comment in this post, on my all time favorite sketching pencil.

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    • Sean says:

      The older HB seems a little darker to me. I wonder if the “secural” process is what contributes to the lightness of the pencil–it’s the only pencil I know of where pressing too hard means tearing the paper instead of breaking the point. 🙂

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  2. Gunther says:

    As far as I know the current 9000 is made from sort of pine, grown in Faber-Castell’s own woods in Brazil; this may explain the difference. The change in diameter ist most likely the result of producing ten instead of nine pencils per sandwich – this is a common practice.

    To me, the old design was a beautiful one, and it is a pity that they have changed it (to the worse, in my opinion). I don’t know what has made them to retire the classic design – it was so elegant in many ways. The clear lines of the famous scale gave way to the battling knights which (sorry about that) resemble squashed flies at that size. The symbolized castle was changed too; to me the older was easier to recognize. On the old pencil, the colour of the lacquer ring has matched the colour of the imprimt; unfortunately this is no longer the case. The fact that they have printed their website address on the pencil can only mean – at least to me – that the marketing department has finally won over the design department, and improving the varnish so that it no longer comes off would have been much better that mentioning that it is water-based. And what have they done to the green colour?

    Sorry for bashing.

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    • Sean says:

      “…the marketing department has finally won over the design department…”

      There are people who pity the changes more than we do!

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      • Gunther says:

        Of course this was only a guess; I don’t know who has decided what and who has the last word. – Now and then I have the impression that all the standard woodcased writing and drawing implements of Faber-Castell don’t get much attention from the company but are dealt with on the side.

        Luckily I still have a few old 9000’s which don’t look like promotional flyers.

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  3. Sean says:

    Gunther, if you get a chance, could you use your micrometer to compare the newer and older Castells (and maybe newer and older Lumographs)?

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    • Gunther says:

      My comment was misleading – my older 9000’s are as thin as the newer ones, namely 7.5mm. However, the last thicker Lumograph was 7.6mm and the current one is 7.4mm. (according to my quick measurements with a simple caliper rule).

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  4. Henrik says:

    I have made the same observations about Faber Castell’s products in general. Little by little the quality is declining. I used to love the “Castell” pencil, when it was “light” green (forest green?), made of cedar, just a bit thicker and didn’t write invisible. I think the SV bonding is responsible for the lighter lead, together with general cost-saving at the castle these days. So, I share your wish Sean: let’s have the old one back, when there’s still time, I mean, it could be the perfect pencil if it was a good writer as well.

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    • Sean says:

      “…and didn’t write invisible.”

      🙂
      We could always “occupy” the castle and present our demands. 😉 Which will do just about as much good as all the others.

      Where did I put that grappling hook…

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  5. Gunther says:

    Another observation: I have two 9000’s with different barcodes – one is off-white and one is gold.

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  6. Adair says:

    I agree completely about the barcodes. They seem to be most common on German and Japanese pencils lately. I do not know Japanese pencil-buying habits, but in Germany, the barcode I suppose was rationalized into existence because Germans buy one or two pencils at a time instead of by the dozen as we do here in the USA. When you go to a German stationery store (and I get excited just thinking about it!), the quality pencils (such as Faber Castell and Staedtler) are in bins or baskets for individual sale, not in blister packs or boxes by the dozen. They are also far more expensive, at about $2 each in American money, so buying a pencil really means something, and students have to take care of their writing equipment. German students cannot afford to take their pencils for granted the way high schoolers here do! In any case, because of this individual sale, most of the major companies have slapped on those hideous, odious barcodes.

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    • Sean says:

      Where, in Germany, are you most likely to see a tin with a dozen pencils, or even a box of, say, FC steno pencils? You don’t see them at all here and I’ve wondered in what kind of store in Germany you’d be likely to see them (e.g. art store, stationery store?).

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  7. Gunther says:

    Adair is right. Pencils are mostly sold individually in Germany (and not only pencils – every item, no matter how small it is, has a barcode on it, mostly on a sticker). In my area you will seldom find boxed dozens in stationery shops; they must be ordered on request or bought from an online retailer.

    The prices differ considerably. While a store may sell one Lumograph for about 1.40 Euro (USD 1.80) an online retailer may offer a dozen for Euro 7.70 which is USD 0.82 per pencil.

    Finding tin boxes is difficult. Usually, dozens are packed in cardboard boxes; in most cases tin boxes are only available with special editions (and I haven’t seen a box with Faber-Castell stenos yet). However, I am about 250 km away from Nürnberg, Germany’s pencil centre; the choice there is much larger.

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  8. Adair says:

    The FC Steno is increasingly rare to spot, even in Germany. Specialized stationery/art-supply shops have them occassionally. The big KaDeWe department store in Berlin used to carry them. I have never seen them in a tin or box—only for individual sale. I absolutely love the round barrel of the FC Steno. I fear that the FC Steno is not long for this world. Staedtler also had a great, round-barreled stenography pencil, the Stenofix, which was discontinued as of last year.

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    • memm says:

      FC does sell the FC steno in cardboard boxes, I have a few of those, but I guess shops just take them out as they have no hope whatsoever of selling a dozen FC Stenos in one go..

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    • Gunther says:

      The Faber-Castell Steno 9008 is a very special pencil, also because it is available in three hardness grades (which was also the case with the Stenofix many years ago). I don’t know how its future will look like but since Steno is a dying craft I wouldn’t be surprised if the 9008 will disappear too.

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  9. Sean says:

    The F-C Steno is definitely a special pencil; perhaps I’ll do a post on it. I was fortunate to get some from Matthias, since they are difficult to get here.

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  10. Sean says:

    All of this talk about boxes makes me wonder when and where you could find all those colorful boxes of pencils during the “Golden Age”. Perhaps it’s not much different than today, where store owners just emptied the boxes and offered them individually. And for the customer who needed more, the store owner could bring out some boxed-dozens from their overstock.

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  11. Stephen says:

    There is also a Castell 9000 sold in Malaysia (and likely elsewhere) with a somewhat different imprint. And don’t forget this post at Fred’s Pencils.

    Faber-Castell no doubt has a lot of customer information, and I would guess that the focus on pencils which (in the writing grades) keep their point and are break resistant vs. having darker leads is carefully considered.

    I was at a Staples location (here in Canada) this past weekend, and was surprised that a single Mars Lumograph had gone up to $C2.29, which is $C2.59 with tax. That is $US2.56 or 1.99 Euros.

    Unfortunately, the few remaining quality pencils available at mainstream retailers are themselves becoming scarce.

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  12. My small stash of 9000s were all bought in the US, and I noticed they stopped printing on three sides of the pencil in my newer onces, which also have a cream-colors barcode, unfortunately. Even just the different colors of code and simpler printing made a negative difference to me.

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