School-supply lists had come in, and I sat in the store dizzied by the multitude of mechanical pencils. Rather than sink dough into something that would be thrown away within a week, I called around for some info.
“I’ve tried many pencils, and I keep going back to this one [Pentel Quicker Clicker automatic pencil, $9.99 for a two-pack on Amazon],” said my friend Giovanni. “I like 0.5 lead. It’s good for writing and sketching notes. The body of the pencil is a bit thicker. It feels more substantial in my hand. Thin pencils feel like they’re slipping through my fingers. This pencil has a button on the side that allows you to push lead through while you write — no stopping to monkey with a button on top. I use the transparent pencils so I can see if there’s lead in it.”
Ben preferred the Bic Grip ($2.99 for a five-pack at Target). “Just click and keep writing,” he said. “No need to stop and twist to advance lead.”
Aidan touted 0.7 lead pencils. “The lead on the 0.5 is always breaking. I only use the 0.7s.”
That evening, now armed with some info, I did a sweep of stores and headed over to my friends Frank and Bernice’s house for some test scratching.
It wasn’t long before quite a few brands sat in the discard pile. The Staples Postscript mechanical pencils (12-pack, $5.49) were too stiff. “It hurts to write,” complained Bernice.
The rubber grip on the Office Depot mechanical pencils (12-pack, $6.79) was hard and unyielding.
“Dr. Grip sounds like a gangster name,” said Frank, eyeing the next package (Dr. Grip mechanical pencil, $5.74 at Target). Though the large size of the pencil made it comfortable to hold, lead was snapping all over the place.
“They’re selling this baby on looks,” smiled Bernice, holding up the stainless-steel Foray mechanical pencil ($6.29 for two at Office Depot). Pat said, “The 0.9 lead feels like when a regular pencil starts getting dull and the line starts getting schlumpy.”
Another looker was the Zebra stainless-steel pencil ($3.44 for two at Walmart). “I’m more of a clicky-top than a twisty-bottom man,” announced Pat, clicking the pencil. “A teeny eraser, but the lead holds up to writing.”
“Too much jiggly bottom on this one,” said Frank, inspecting the Paper Mate SharpWriter ($1.97 for a six-pack at Walmart). “The lead shakes around too much for precision writing.”
“This one says, ‘Longest leads available,’” said Bernice, reading the package of the Paper Mate Write Bros. Grip ($2.74 for a six-count at Target).
“No good if the lead is all wobbly,” said Pat.
“That’s why it’s called ‘Reaction,’” countered Bernice. “It’s got an ‘Exclusive shock-absorbing spring system.’”
Its cousin, the Paper Mate Infinite Lead, claimed it could write over two miles without a refill ($2.84 for two at Walmart). Though a bit scratchy, it was plopped into the passable pile.
The Sharpie Liquid Pencil ($3.97 for two at Walmart) was a smooth but light write, and no good for lefties. “My pinkie is erasing as I write,” my left-handed husband exclaimed.
The rock-bottom price of the Bic Pencil ($1.47 for a ten-pack at Walmart) was enticing, but the lead kept disappearing into the shaft. “And not refillable — an environmentalist’s nightmare,” noted Bernice.
A keeper for the environmentalist was the Paper Mate Biodegradable mechanical pencil ($6.29 for a two-pack at Office Depot). The soft ivory- and teal-green color of the pencil wouldn’t work at Pat’s business meetings. “But Grandma would love it,” he smiled.
The Pentel Jolt ($5.99 for a two-pack at Staples) proved troublesome for the testers because of a bumped-out window on the side that forced you to hold the pencil uncomfortably.
Another design-flaw entry: Paper Mate’s Clearpoint Jumbo Twist-Up Eraser ($5.24 for three at Target). “If you hit the side-clicky by accident, your lead will be moving,” complained Pat.
At the end of the evening we picked winners based on function and price: the Soft Scripts Lumina ($3.64 for a 14-pack at Walmart), the Pentel Twist-Erase Express ($3.24 for two at Walmart), and the Bic Velocity Pencil ($4.24 for four at Walmart). Runners up are the Pentel Twist Erase III ($9.29 for two at Staples) and the Paper Mate Precision ($8.49 for two at Staples).