Friday, September 17, 2010

Reviving the Blackwing: Eraser Performance and Design

Ultimately, as we all now understand the story, the breakdown of the specialized ferrule production equipment and the costs to repair or replace the machine factored in the decision by Newell Rubbermaid (Sanford) to discontinue the Blackwing. The economic return did not seem to cover the cost of restarting production given the limited sales for the product and the company’s primary focus on mass market products. Of course, I also doubt anyone ever expected pencil aficionados would eventually be willing to pay from $20 to $40 each for these pencils down the road either. It’s an interesting speculation to consider if armed with such knowledge what new pricing they might have been sufficient to justify the repair or replacement of the machine and continue the product at that time. Who knows if anyone performed such an analysis or just looked at the unit volume and decided to call it quits?

Bringing back the classic ferrule with its flat rectangular, extendable eraser was a key factor for me in deciding to move forward with the Palomino Blackwing. As some fans have noted the Palomino, Mitsubishi Hi-Uni, Tombow Mono, or Staedtler Lumograph brands each have specific grades that compare rather closely to the original 602 performance. Therefore at least to me, without this classic ferrule and eraser design included there could be no return for the Blackwing brand. Finding a vendor that would agree to reproduce the functional eraser assembly to our desired quality standard while protecting our tooling investment and not allowing reproduction for other pencil manufacturers was important to me. Another key decision factor was to obtain a reasonable economic cost relative to standard tipping, even though it was clearly always going to be much more expensive per pencil than regular erasers. Important considerations became the tooling costs investment to be able to produce the assembly components as well as the appropriate minimum order volumes for a given unit cost. Discussions and investigations on this actually took place over a period of a year or more. We did commit however to the tooling cost early on to produce the ferrule (well over a year ago) just so that we could begin to produce some test samples.

At one point after we had paid for the tooling we we’re told we would have to move our original target minimum order size for our first order from 50,000 as originally quoted to 500,000 pieces if we wanted to keep the price unchanged. This just about killed the whole project and created long delays as we assessed whether to proceed or not, considered alternate options and negotiated further. By the standards of most commodity oriented good quality, high volume cedar pencils (e.g. Ticonderoga or Mirado) selling at or around $0.20 to $0.25 each 500,000 pieces is not a very high production figure at all. However, for a niche, high quality item we expected would ultimately have a retail price point, somewhere between $1.50 to $2.00 per pencil, this could be a significant initial inventory investment just for these assemblies, depending on ultimate acceptance of the product. This also raised concerns such as eraser life if initial sell through was not very good. In the end we were able to settle on an initial production run of 100,000 ferrule/eraser assemblies and this coincides with the number of pencils we are producing in this first run for the Palomino Blackwing.

Feedback on the eraser assembly and performance overall has been positive overall. Several reviewers have noted the exceptional care with which the ferrules and erasers are glued, rather than crimped on to the pencil mechanically, and that the flat side of the ferrule/eraser set is oriented so that the imprint is face up. This is not the case with the original Blackwing which has random application angles. In reality the end of each pencil is actually machined down slightly before attaching the eraser assembly vs. standard eraser tipping which more commonly slightly crushes the wood before attatching and crimping on the ferrule and eraser.

The Palomino Blackwing erasers are about 25% larger in total cubic volume and 15% wider than those of the original, providing improved eraser surface area. They are also produced with improved materials than the natural rubber/pumice composite materials used in the original Blackwing's erasers. Here I’d like to add a technical note as there have been several comments on blogs referring to the Palomino Blackwing’s eraser as a vinyl eraser. This is not the case and is an inaccurate assumption on the part of those individuals. While vinyl based materials did become more prevalent for art and pencil top eraser use as a replacement for traditional natural rubber based composites, vinyl erasers are actually currently in declining use by the industry. Our erasers are produced using Thermoplastic elastomere (TPE). Thus they are more appropriately called polymer erasers vs. vinyl erasers which are produced using PVC material. The change to TPE from PVC was initiated by the industry to eliminate chloride from the production process and finished product. The vinyl erasers that are most commonly used today are larger hand held block eraser formats. Most pencil top erasers from major brand manufacturers and all those we use in our California Republic product ranges are polymer erasers, even if they are other colors such as more traditional red or pink. For an interesting history of the eraser and technical information about the different materials used over time Staedtler has a very useful resource guide, here.

We did get some feedback that with our darker lead mark than the original Blackwing, erasing with our new eraser still leaves a slight trace of a smudge, or "ghosting". This is another issue we are re-evaluating for future production and are now told by our supplier there is an opportunity to improve on this versus the current eraser we are using in the Palomino Blackwing. However, we have not had a chance to evaluate cost differences or do any actual testing. The current eraser is the same quality as that used on our Palomino HB pencils.

Finally, some traditional fans do seem to prefer the old pink eraser color versus the white version which we selected. Others have suggested black would be very nice as well. Color of the eraser specifically is not really a factor in it's performance though it seems to be a common misconception that a white eraser works better than a red or pink eraser. It all comes down to materials. Performance differences with the original Blackwing certainly have something also to do with the age of these older pencils and the effects of oxidation and exposure to light. At this point I cannot indicate if there will be an eraser color change down the road as this is dependent upon what future cosmetic design changes we might implement for the pencil overall as well.


Andy @ Woodclinched said...

Will we have an opportunity to buy replacement erasers? One of the nice things about the Blackwing is that one you use up the eraser, you can pop it out and put in a new one, and continue using the pencil!

And thanks for the clarification about the polymer vs. the vinyl. I will clarify that on my blog and in the APCS newsletter article.

memm said...

I agree with Andy that replacement erasers should be available. Other pencils that have replaceable erasers (Graf von Faber-Castell) do also offer replacement erasers ...but it would also be much more difficult if not impossible to create your own replacement eraser for these pencils, while for the Blackwing you can just cut another eraser (you favourite eraser) to shape.

WoodChuck said...

We did originally consider the idea of offering two erasers per pencil, but scrapped that as too much cost and an added problem to address in packaging. Replacement erasers sold separately in packs of 10 or so is something we're planning to evaluate down the road. We did not ordered extra quantities to support this at this time.