Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Product Review: Koh-i-Noor Polycolor, Retro Edition (with Vintage Comparison)

From left: old and old-looking new

A while back, Koh-i-Noor released a “retro” edition of its Polycolor colored pencil line to honor the product’s heritage. The box and pencil were designed with the Hardtmuth family crest and other elements from the early 1900s. Before I got this set, I had a small set of truly vintage Polycolors, though not from as far back as the early 1900s; my set is more likely from the ‘60s or ‘70s. I thought it would be fun to put them side by side in this review.

First, the genuinely vintage set: Like other Koh-i-Noor sets of the same era (I also have Flexicolor and Mephisto sets), the 12 Polycolors come in a simple cardboard box with an easel back.

Easel box, thick cores

Made in the USA by a company that has been producing pencils since 1790, these pencils display beautiful typefaces and dingbats imprinted in gold on a simple, round barrel.
Lovely typefaces and dingbats

Although their cores are relatively thick, they are very hard, dry and low in pigment. Alas, I didn’t even sketch with them after making the initial swatches because I knew the task would be laborious and unenjoyable.

By contrast, the contemporary retro-look Polycolor set comes in a textured, dark red box emblazoned with an ornate gold crest of the L. & C. Hardtmuth family. According to the insert, “The upper part of the box is sealed with the signature of Franz Hardtmuth himself, whose portrait is featured on a product for the first time in this form in the modern history of KOH-I-NOOR HARDTMUTH, and therefore, confirms the unique character of this product. In addition, the refined nature of Polycolor pencils is highlighted by the coat of arms of the incorporator’s family, printed on the face of the packaging.” To its major credit, the set came in a plain, cardboard outer wrapper with a barcode so that the commemorative box could be barcode-free (a barcode would surely spoil the retro look, wouldn’t it?).

Old-looking but contemporary set

The signature of Franz Hardtmuth himself

The semi-hex barrel displays typefaces and other elements that evoke that earlier era (as well as similarities to my set from the ‘60s or ‘70s). Unlike my old set, however, these have a nicely finished gold end cap. Contemporary Koh-i-Noor pencils are made in the Czech Republic.

Decorative typefaces and flourishes that evoke the turn of the previous century.

Finished end caps

Initial scribbles indicated that the new, old-looking Polycolors were softer than the truly old ones and applied relatively well, so I made a test sketch. Oil-based Polycolors are still what I would classify as a harder pencil – similar to Faber-Castell Polychromos. The Polycolors blend sufficiently, but I find them less richly pigmented than Polychromos. It’s a nice commemorative edition, but I can’t get excited about the cores.
3/23/20 retro edition Koh-i-Noor Polycolor in Stillman & Birn Epsilon sketchbook

I haven’t tried Koh-i-Noor’s standard edition Polycolors, but other than the typeface, the barrel design is the same, so my guess is that the cores are also the same. Blicks product information says that the standard edition is made of California cedar, and these Polycolors smell like they are made of the same.


  1. As always, I learned something new from your posts. I had only heard of dingbats as a Word document font (or as the rude nickname for Archie Bunker's wife). I guessed it to be the little symbol in the line of text, but I had to look it up to be sure. Just so, a dingbat is a symbol inserted in a line of text.
    Did you ever sharpen those commemorative Polychromos pencils? I wondered if they used the current formulation in their replica pencils. I found a set for a good price but haven't yet the nerve to sharpen the pristine pencils.

    1. You mean the commemorative Polycolor pencils? Oh yes, I sharpened them -- I used them to make the apple sketch at the bottom. I always freshly sharpen pencils before using. The factory sharpening is never sharp enough. Also, you can learn a lot about a pencil just by sharpening, such as whether the core is centered or sometimes the type of wood used. I would guess that only the exterior paint is different from the current Polycolor sets.

    2. Sorry! I am thinking of the faber-castell 111th commemorative polychromos pencils that you reviewed on April 3. They are 3/4 sized pencils that are not sharpened. Being commemorative makes them seem my senses. In the post you didn't make a sketch so I wondered if you used them.

    3. Oh... those!! No, I haven't sharpened those yet! Since I knew the cores were the same as contemporary Polychromos, I didn't feel quite as compelled to try them. I have it in the back of my mind that I'll take the whole box with me on a trip someday (maybe a car trip so that weight, bulk and a metal box won't be an issue). It would be fun to use them for travel as they were apparently intended.


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