Review by Tina Koyama
When Baron Fig’s standard edition Archer pencil came out a while back, I thought it was fine as far as writing pencils go – attractive matte finish, lightweight, not smeary – but somewhat blah in appearance. As a Pacific Northwest resident who sees gray skies much of the year, I generally stay away from gray products of any kind simply on principle, but I was happy to have a couple of them to use.
A few weeks ago the New York City stationery maker released the first in its quarterly limited-edition Archer pencil series – Snakes & Ladders. Upon seeing photos of that brilliant vermilion barrel, my pulse quickened – it matches my favorite Field Notes Sweet Tooth perfectly!
Like its gray brother, it has a lovely matte finish with an elegant dipped end cap in a darker shade of the same hue. Adornment is spare: snake and ladder symbols and Baron Fig’s simple logo near the end cap. The two pencils are similar enough in basic design that they look like they belong together. Like many of BF’s products, the clean, confident design is very appealing.
Of course, there’s also the tubular container the pencils come in. I like it so much that I would be willing to buy an empty tube just to store other pencils in.
With a matte finish to match the pencil, it has the same tone-on-tone design, simple branding and a brief description of the theme. When the gray Archer first came out, I saw many photos of how the 12 pencils fit perfectly inside, and I almost bought a box just for that (but I resisted because I just couldn’t bring more gray into my life).
I have to admit that before seeing promotional info about this edition, I was not familiar with the Snakes and Ladders ancient Indian board game (though I did play Chutes & Ladders as a child). “The symbols help to encourage you through obstacles you may slither into your life as you climb to find success,” says the product description page, and I appreciate the way that ties into Baron Fig’s basic mission “to champion thinkers in their journey to create and inspire the world.” In fact, I’d say it’s the one thing I like best about all of BF’s product lines (which I can’t say about some other stationery companies’ subscription-based products): They stick to a basic philosophical theme related to creativity, exploration and inspiration.
If the Snakes & Ladders design is a template of future pencil editions to come, I started imagining a growing set of similarly matte-finished pencils in a range of colors, and my subscription finger started to quiver. I was close to tapping the button – but then I started hearing rumors and reading reviews in the stationery blogosphere that something was amiss.
The cores were breaking even without being used, as if they were already shattered inside their casings. People showed photos of entire cartons of Snakes & Ladders pencils that couldn’t be sharpened properly because the cores snapped repeatedly. Apparently Baron Fig’s customer service department was busy taking care of the problem, so subscribers eventually ended up with useable pencils. But were these random anomalies? Or evidence of a fundamental problem?
Ana sent me a couple of Snakes & Ladders to try, and I sharpened one with trepidation. As I often do with an unfamiliar new graphite pencil, I simply stuck it into an electric sharpener. (No point in babying a product of utility, I say.) It sharpened just fine. I used it to write two pages in my Rhodia journal that evening. I didn’t care much for how it felt, but I’m accustomed to my fountain pens gliding along on that smooth paper, so that seemed like an unfair test. Before using it again, I sharpened it, this time with my Blackwing long point. Again, it sharpened just fine – no breakage at all.
Next I wrote a page in my Plumchester sketchbook, which I knew to have a pleasantly toothy surface that I enjoy when sketching with graphite. The tooth gripped the Snakes & Ladders graphite nicely without feeling scratchy. Even better was a page written in my Baron Fig Confidant, which also has a slight tooth that’s just a touch less toothy than Plumchester paper. Some have said that the Archer pencil feels pleasant on BF notebook paper when it feels scratchy on other similar papers. I don’t know if BF designed its pencils to mate perfectly with its paper, but I have to admit that I’m more likely to write with it in the Confidant before other notebooks now that I know how it feels.
I must say, however, that the writing experience is nothing to write home about. It’s quite average. I suppose you could say that the Snakes & Ladders pencil does not call attention to itself in any way, which suits its unpretentious exterior appearance. It’s not silent, but it doesn’t make enough noise to annoy me. It feels pleasant but doesn’t make me swoon (as, say, the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 4B does). Perhaps the only exceptional feature is that matte finish, which feels wonderful in my hand (and this is difficult for me to acknowledge, but I like that matte finish even more than the glossy lacquer on my swoon-inducing Hi-Uni).
Finger smudging is typical for a core that I would guess is an HB grade, and erasing is also typical. My left hand did not smudge my writing across the page, so that’s a bonus.
After four pages of writing and two sharpenings, it hasn’t broken once yet.
Anomaly or issue? It’s hard to say. I might subscribe, just for that tube if nothing else. But in any case, I’m going to wait for the next edition to come out. Given the customer service and responsiveness that BF has shown, if the pencil core has an issue, it will be addressed before the next edition comes out. Although I applaud innovative designs in subscription-based services, I would be very happy if all future pencils look like they belong with this one and the standard Archer. Even the gray one looks better when standing next to the vermilion one.