Friday, November 25, 2016

Brush Pencil: WTF?

11/23/16 graphite
If you’ve kept up with my blog for a while, you know that I have a mild obsession with all things fude (perhaps it was even here that you learned that fude is the Japanese word for brush). From my favorite fountain pen nib of all time to its various knock-offs and wannabes to all the many, many brush pens I have used, writing instruments of the fude kind interest me for one primary reason: They are designed to mimic the tapered and variable lines that can be made with an actual bristle calligraphy brush – and I simply can’t resist the beauty of those lines.

Given this obsession, I occasionally visit (the largest American source of Japanese brush pens) and put “brush” in the search line just to see what new products come up. After scrolling past all the pens I was already familiar with, imagine my surprise one day when I came upon the Uni Mitsubishi brush pencil.

Say again? How can a dry instrument like a pencil mimic the fluid line of paint or ink? And almost as curious, why in the world does one pencil cost $7.50? My curiosity got the better of my pocketbook; I clicked “add to cart.”

(Incidentally, I wondered if the name “brush pencil” was nothing more than JetPens’ marketing description. When I received the pencil, I used my kindergarten-level Japanese reading skills to decipher the characters stamped on the pencil, and I found that it says, fude enpitsu, which means, literally, “brush pencil.”)

Straight out of the package with its pre-sharpened point, the graphite brush pencil has an extremely soft and dark 10B core. Admittedly, I’m not much of a graphite user, but I had never seen a pencil graded 10B (the highest grade I’ve seen in other brands is 8B). What really caught my attention, though, was how thick that core is – much thicker than average writing pencils and even most colored pencils.

The marketing copy says, “Adjusting your writing pressure allows for exquisite variation in darkness and line width, mimicking the elegant sweeps and tapers of a traditional Japanese calligraphy brush.” I wasn’t quite getting those elegant sweeps and tapers yet, but I could see that with some practice, one could get a lot of line variation. My interest was piqued!

I sharpened first with a sharpener to take the wood down, then
cut the chisel tip with a knife.
Over coffee one day, I showed the pencil to a friend, and she mentioned that she had once seen a YouTube video in which an artist had sharpened the point of a pencil into a chisel shape. Light bulb moment! I didn’t even bother to search for the video – I just got out my knife and cut that extra-wide core’s point flat!

With that cut, I can use the corners to make fine lines and the flat, broad end to make wide, dark strokes – and moving it around gives me everything in between. What’s more, the core is so soft that a line can be smudged easily with a fingertip for shading. You may recall that I hate using charcoal (I won’t touch it without gloves), so smudging with a finger is not my favorite sketching technique. But I have to admit that I love the look that results.
Side view

Although the brush pencil smudges as any soft graphite core will, thankfully, very unlike charcoal, it doesn’t transfer too much to the opposite sketchbook page (at least in the signatures of paper I carry, which don’t allow the pages to rub together much). (Edited 12/12/16: Never mind. . . it transfers quite a bit. I've begun skipping pages in my sketchbook to avoid the mess.)

10/23/16 graphite, colored pencil
Of course, because the core is so soft, it wears down pretty quickly. After making several sketches with it at Zoka Coffee (the man working on his laptop is one), the sharp corners and edge were well rounded by the time I left. Stopping on the way home to sketch the street scene (top of page), I realized I didn’t have a knife to recut the chisel shape, so I used my usual pencil sharpener instead. The sharpening exposed a big wedge of graphite on the side, which I then used to make heavy shadows very quickly. So either cut with a knife or sharpened traditionally, the thickness of the core can take as much credit as its softness for producing fude results.

Like I said, I haven’t been much of a graphite user, but with this “brush pencil,” I may be!

Now – about that $7.50 price? I cruised through all of Uni Mitsubishi’s pencils on JetPens, and I spotted one in its Hi-Uni line that also has a 10B core. (According to JetPens, “Hi-Uni is Uni Mitsubishi's best-selling highest-level wooden pencil line with an incredible selection of 22 hardness grades.”) While not inexpensive, this pencil is $2.50. Hmmm. It’s not a “brush pencil,” but its core is the same grade and made by the same manufacturer. The next time I placed an order, I put one of those Hi-Uni 10Bs in my shopping cart.

Spoiler alert: As far as I can tell, the two pencil cores are exactly the same. The gold-body brush pencil is prettier, and the beautiful finish feels like lacquer, but I’m good with a regular Hi-Uni for $2.50 instead.
Top: Mitsubishi "brush pencil"; bottom: Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencil

While I was searching for that Hi-Uni 10B, I spotted a Staedtler Mars Lumograph with an 8B core, and from the photo, its core looked plenty thick, so I put one of those ($1.80) in my shopping cart, too. I just gave it a chisel cut. I haven’t sketched with it yet, but its initial scribble test is just as dark and feels slightly waxier than the Uni-Mitsubishis. I’ll probably report back on that someday, too.

The Staedtler Mars Lumograph 8B with a chisel cut.


  1. I'm not much of a graphite user, but this is an interesting idea. Glad you did such a thorough test. I do like the variety of lines and tones you were able to achieve...but probably not enough to buy one. lol Hope you are enjoying the post Thanksgiving buzz.

  2. If that Staedtler 8B is the same one I have, it is carbon, not graphite. Really nice to draw with and a very black line, but I am not sure how it smudges. Have you tried a Carpenter's Pencil? General Pencil makes an "artist's" version in 6B. At least a 1/4-inch wide chisel. Hmm...I should draw with pencils more often.

    1. Someone else recommended the General carpenter's pencil, too . . .it's on my wish list!


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