Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Review: Blackwing Lab 11-26-21 (Extra-Soft Core)

Blackwing's 11/26/21 Lab edition with a new extra-soft core.

Among the many limited-edition pencils that Blackwing puts out is the California company’s Lab series, which began in 2020. (A Lab edition released in July 
that I reviewed briefly is the Blackwing non-photo blue pencil.) These very small batches “may see us experimenting with new features, or putting new spins on old favorites.” The most recent Lab edition, which was released Nov. 26, experiments with an extra-soft graphite core, which is “softer, darker, and smoother than anything we’ve done before.” As a huge fan of all soft, dark, smooth graphite, I immediately ordered a box (which is essential if you want one, since these Labs tend to sell out within hours, not days).

I received box 1,184 out of a limited edition of 2,000.

The glossy blue barrel is fine but nothing special. On the reverse side of the Blackwing logo is the “Lab 11-26-21” imprint.

Unlike most Japanese and European graphite pencil manufacturers, Blackwing does not use the conventional H/B grading system. Instead, the current five grades are named extra firm, firm, balanced, soft and now extra soft. To further complicate matters, the grades are not imprinted on the pencils themselves, so I have to pull up Blackwing’s spreadsheet or memorize which edition contains which core. For the purpose of this review, I used four Blackwing Volumes pencils in grades from extra firm (XF) to soft (S), plus the new extra soft (XS). (I apologize that the B may be confusing; it does not indicate a B grade but stands for “balanced”).

Pulling one out of the fresh box, I sharpened it up. The core is slightly thicker than Blackwing’s soft core.

The extra-soft core at left is slightly thicker than the soft.

Since I already know and love Blackwing’s other grades for drawing, I didn’t bother to test before making a first sketch on Stillman & Birn’s Zeta paper. As expected, it is smooth, dark, Japanese graphite (assembled in California, Blackwing’s pencils contain graphite cores made in Japan). Typically, I would start a graphite drawing with a harder grade and build up to this degree of darkness, but this extra-soft core is smooth enough that it wasn’t a problem. I’ve often found that low-quality graphite will have uneven chunks and bits, so when a soft grade is applied directly on paper without several layers of harder graphite first, the application will be spotty and inconsistent. Even with high quality graphite, it’s easier to get a smooth, consistent result by using several grades instead of one soft one (examples of this effect shown in this post).

12/14/21 Blackwing extra-soft graphite pencil in Stillman & Birn
Zeta sketchbook

Next I pulled out two sets of comparable Japanese graphite: Mitsubishi Hi-Uni and Kitaboshi. Using the range HB through 6B, I looked for closest matches with Blackwing’s cores. The chart below is what I came up with for extra soft: 6B in Hi-Uni and 5B in Kitaboshi.

Swatches made on Strathmore Bristol Smooth paper

Curious about the thought I had while sketching, I made several comparison swatches with the three brands – Blackwing, Hi-Uni, Kitaboshi. I applied graphite from hardest to softest with each brand. I also made swatches to the same degree of darkness using only 6B or extra soft. The Blackwing extra soft used by itself is almost as smooth and consistent as using all five Blackwing grades together – impressive. It’s a very good pencil.

Swatches made on Strathmore Bristol Smooth paper

As a general, everyday user, however, the extra-soft core is probably less versatile. For example, I almost always carry a soft grade Blackwing in my bag because it can be used for both drawing and writing – a highly versatile pencil. While the extra soft is lovely to write with, the point will be gone in a minute, so it’s less practical.

Still, I’m pleased that Blackwing offered this excellent extra-soft grade, even in a limited edition. Like the non-photo blue edition, it acknowledges the drawing side of pencil use, not just writing. I hope that this is a sign that Blackwing may eventually offer extra soft, like the other four grades, as a standard edition. 


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...