I’m a huge Johnny Gamber fan and honored he agreed to be my first interview. He’s been running Pencil Revolution, a blog primarily about woodcased pencils, since 2005. More recently, he’s been a co-host of the Erasable Podcast, a podcast about woodcased pencils. In internet years, he’s the “wise old man” of the stationery blogoshpere. He’s certainly not old, but his encyclopedic knowledge of pencils is second to none. He’s the original pencil blogger and still going strong.
He doesn’t realize it, but he’s had a big impact on me. Johnny is a major reason I’m so into woodcased pencils and started this blog. I’ve listened to every minute of his podcast and read a countless number of his blog posts at Pencil Revolution. Proceed to his site with caution— you will lose some time for sure.
Johnny is one of the nicest and most helpful people I’ve encountered in the stationery blogging world, and honestly, just life in general. He reached out to me soon after I started Write Analog with words of encouragement and a mention on his site.
Johnny is such a fascinating guy. This interview covers much ground, but I could’ve kept asking him question after question. I hope I get the chance to interview him again.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop and let you read the interview.
You’ve been running your blog, Pencil Revolution, since 2005. What was the catalyst that motivated you to start a blog about woodcased pencils? Can you walk us down the path you took to get Pencil Revolution to where it is today?
When I got into pencils in the summer of 2004, the biggest stationery blog was Moleskinerie, operated by Armand Frasco. It was about more than just notebooks, and encompassed pens, literature, science. . . lots of interesting stuff. Armand inspired more than a few people to explore blogging, and I started a personal blog in February 2004 (which ran until late 2012). I found myself blogging about pens here and there and about pencils more and more. “Which pen is the ultimate Moleskine pen?” was a topic that came up often among our little circle of bloggers, and I was waiting for someone to suggest that the perfect pen might be a pencil. I was musing in my notebook one night that it might be fun to start a blog promoting the use of pencils— an effort to get other people to fill their Moleskines by means of wooden pencils. “A pencil revolution,” I wrote. After a few months of dancing around the idea, I took the plunge in July 2005, in the midst of my preliminary exams for my doctorate. It provided a good means for getting out of my head— and out of the heads of the likes of Kant and Hume, about whom I would frequently dream. I mentioned Pencil Revolution on my own blog after I registered the former at Blogger, and Armand plugged it on Moleskinerie right away. Largely as a result of Armand’s help, Pencil Revolution sort of took on a life of its own. I was unprepared for this, but it was exciting. I still owe Armand a great debt for his support and for valuable advice he gave me early on about running a community-centric blog.
I took time away from Pencil Revolution for a few years during actual dissertation writing and my two years in AmeriCorps VISTA. The stationery blogger community had grown while I was gone, and this league is full of generous folks that helped Pencil Revolution ease back into the altered milieu of stationery blogging in 2010. After a few weeks, I had forgotten that I had been away from pencil blogging.
When Pencil Revolution first existed, social media was very new. The comments sections of our blogs were where discussions took place, and sometimes exchanges would take the form of a blog post dialogue, across two or more different blogs. Now we promote and supplement our blogs via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. The relationships between bloggers, made easier by social media, have born such fruits as the Erasable Podcast, which Tim Wasem (The Writing Arsenal) and Andy Welfle (Woodclinched) invited me to be a part of last year. The individuals with whom I have been fortunate enough to interact and – especially – the friends I have made, are my favorite part of the changed blogging/media landscape since 2005. Pencil Revolution is just one of dozens of stationery blogs, and I love that we have this community.
I’m very curious. . . For your Doctorate in Philosophy, what was your dissertation about?
My dissertation was an exploration of the usefulness of hate, using the methods of Pragmatism and the philosophy of Nietzsche. It’s as exciting as it sounds.
You’ve been writing (and more recently, podcasting) about pencils, and other analog tools, for almost a decade. What trends, positive or negative, have you noticed in the world of woodcased pencils or stationery in general?
Generally speaking, there is more of a push for American-made products these days. Field Notes, Nock Co. and others have made a name for themselves by making products that are not only well-made, but also USA-made. This comes on the heels of the end of a large portion of American pencil production over the last decade. First, the pencil that I considered to be the iconic American pencil, the Dixon Ticonderoga, started to be made in Mexico and China, and then Papermate stopped their own American pencil production. Both of these shifts were sad to see, especially Ticonderoga, a company for whom Norman Rockwell painted ads. Papermate has managed to ruin just about every pencil they have gotten their hands on over the last 10–12 years, which is doubly disappointing for fans of pencils such as the Mirado and the Black Warrior.
I feel like stationery as an interest has shifted from the domain of “nerds” to “hipsters” in some ways in recent years. This comes with a lot of the feigned connoisseurship exhibited by hipsters who know all that there is to know about artisanal ink, angel-skinned notebooks and condor-feather pens. The visibility of high-end stationery products like Field Notes, Blackwings and Midori books has certainly been helped along by this trend (which is not to say that these are not great items). But I am afraid that it might spell doom to stationery’s current popularity when the Cool Kids move on to something else. I hope this isn’t overly negative to hipsters. I appreciate all of the coffeeshops they patronize in my neighborhood, keeping great coffee within a thousand feet of my door.
How have your own stationery interests and preferences evolved over that time?
In 2004, I was mainly interested in plain old semi-cheaps: pencils easily available that are not the cheapest store brand (a Ticonderoga versus a Staples brand pencil). This was also when you could walk into a drug store or big box store and get a ten pack of American-made pencils for a buck or two. For a long time, the most expensive pencils I wrote with were various Mirados and some Faber-Castell GRIP 2001s I bought on sale at Office Max, three for three bucks. When Palominos came out in 2005 and when we published their first review, I received a lot of messages from readers suggesting new pencils to try, and I simultaneously started experimenting with “art pencils,” such as the Kimberly from General’s Pencil Company and the Castell 9000. Then the Blackwing MMX (called simply the Blackwing by Pencils.Com) came out in 2010, and I found myself largely using more expensive or rare pencils. In recent months, however, I have been moving back to the semi-cheaps that got me interested in pencils in the first place. Their simplicity is part of their draw, as I suspect is true of a lot of dedicated pencil users.
This one is really for me, but what is your workflow for getting a blog post published on Pencil Revolution?
For shorter posts, I usually just jump right into WordPress and hope that I avoid typos. For reviews and longer posts, I typically write things down in pencil on a large pad and then type it all up in Ubuntu’s office program. I format images in GIMP, though my photo editing skills are not very good.
You’ve been blogging for a relatively long time. In internet years, you’re our Yoda. You’re the Elder Statesman of the Stationery Blogosphere. You’ve been a co-host of the Erasable podcast for a little over a year now. How has the transition from behind a keyboard to behind a mic been? Can you see yourself doing more podcasting outside of Erasable? “The Johnny Gamber Show” has a nice ring to it.
I am uncomfortable with all of these titles. You’re making me sound old! I have always been that guy who can’t sleep three nights before doing any kind of public speaking. So when Andy and Tim asked if I’d like to be a part of the podcast last year, I was a little terrified. I think I even warned them that I am an appallingly bad public speaker. But Andy and Tim are some of the nicest people I’ve come to know online, and I was excited to collaborate on a project with them.
Transitioning to more of a “performance” style publication/broadcast was very strange for me at first, and I don’t think that I hid that very well. I still get nervous when we record, especially when it’s my turn to host. But I’ve enjoyed myself more than I ever thought I would. That has everything to do with my wonderful co-hosts and with the fantastic community of listeners we are lucky enough to enjoy.
I would be willing to do some podcast guest spots in the future. But if I ever made a podcast on my own, I’d probably use a fake name and try to cover up my Baltimore accent a little better.
I won’t ask you to pick just one, but what are your current top three woodcased pencils? Do you have a “grail” pencil (or pencils) you are on a mission to acquire?
These change a lot, but right now, during the beginning of March, they are: General’s Cedar Pointe #2; a pastel blue Ticonderoga from Target’s back-to-school launch in 2014; Faber-Castell Castell 9000 in B. I suspect that these will change when the new Field Notes spring 2015 edition comes out, and I feel a need to use some more Blackwings in the near future.
For grail pencils, I think of this more in terms of a stash than a single pencil. I have grail stashes. There are pencils I wish I’d stocked up more while they were around, such as the 2004 American Naturals and 2004 Ticonderoga Black. Stashes of good pencils are important for the… future generations of my family. I feel like an “original” Blackwing should make it to my list one of these days, but I would generally rather buy boxes of pencils I’d actually use for the cost.
Do you know how many woodcased pencils you have in your collection? How do you store and keep track of them?
I am honestly too ashamed to think too rigorously about the number. I do the mental equivalent of unfocusing my eyes when I think about it. I’ll admit to owning between five hundred and a thousand pencils. I keep the total down by giving away probably half of the pencils that I bring in. Very few of these are off-limits; almost all are meant for the Fate of the Sharpener.
I store my pencils in plastic pencil boxes or the boxes they came in, and these go into an antique dresser from a family friend, which is kept in my bedroom. The drawers literally creak under the weight, and the top has a pile of pencils and notebooks on it that averages six to eight inches in height in most places. My friend Dan jokingly called this “system” The Archive, and the name has stuck. We are preparing for future generations and their pencil needs.
Do you prefer pencils with or without erasers?
Some pencils have such amazing end dips/caps that it’s a shame to sully them. The Staedtler Noris is definitely less attractive with a ferrule and an eraser on it, for instance. But on the other hand, I can’t imagine using a Ticonderoga without that iconic ferrule and pink eraser. To complicate things, I enjoy some pencils both ways, such as the Staedtler Wopex (though the naked ends are not available in the USA). It depends on the pencil, I suppose.
What is your favorite “non-pencil” item in your stationery collection?
This would have to be my first Space Pen, a brushed chrome Bullet Pen. I bought it about thirteen years ago. I carried it to graduate school, my wedding and even in my Dad Pack when my kids were born. One end is pretty smashed, and the chrome is coming off of the brass in places. But I think I’d be more upset by its loss than most of my other possessions, even my pencils.
How do you feel about mechanical pencils? I know you’ve reviewed a few, but I was wondering if there’s a place for them in your analog toolbox?
I think David Rees is right in some ways in Chapter 11 of his book. You know the one. I think of mechanical pencils more as erasable pens with lead in them than I think of them as pencils. I have a few “fancy” ones that I like and that I pull out from time to time. In general, my mechanical pencil tastes range from Heavy Metal to the cheap Bic one that never fails.
From reading your blog and listening to Erasable, you’re open about your use of gel ink and other pens, but what is your take on fountain pens?
With no offense meant toward folks who enjoy them, I don’t really “get” fountain pens. Maybe it’s analogous to my lack of understanding of the appeal of Apple products and services; Linux just works. When I have a gel pen that gets finicky, it gets taken apart and recycled, and not gently. I hate to think of what fountain pens would do to my bank account, let alone my sanity— or what I might do to them.
You’ve talked about participating in NaNoWriMo and winning (completing at least 50,000 words in the month of November). What are your subjects or genres of interest? Any plans on publishing? And of course I have to ask. . . What are your preferred writing tools for your fiction-writing sessions?
This year, I worked on/started a novel about a philosophy student who worships Reason and underestimates his family, but I swear it’s not an autobiography. I got sick right after NaNo this year, and then our youngest child contracted pneumonia. Between that and the holidays, I haven’t even finished the draft yet. The pressure of NaNo really is good for people like me, and I have started to wonder if Camp NaNoWriMo might when I finally finish the draft.
I fell short last year on NaNoWriMo, after coming pretty close to “winning.” I attribute a lot of this to thoughts like, “I’m too tired for this hard German pencil; I’ll get out a Blackwing,” and, “Hmmm, I’ll bet this pencil with a different point would help me write more quickly.” I was wondering if pencils, which are supposed to be simple were becoming a distraction. So this year, I used gel pens and a Paperblanks Baroque Ventaglio Grande Journal, a lovely and huge book full of great paper. I didn’t even hit the half-way mark in the journal before I got in my 50,000 plus words. I have to admit that it was satisfying to watch the spent gel refills pile up over the course of the month. Gel pens did not distract me and had the benefit over Bic Cristals (which I had considered using) of being super smooth. So they were less physically painful, and the words flowed more quickly. I might have to hide my pencils, or save a dozen of just one, if I attempt to use pencil this summer.
What are your other interests/hobbies besides writing, woodcased pencils, and other analog tools?
Three of my favorite things are walking, coffee and reading. I also play bass and try to go camping when I can, and my buddy and I were into transportation/urban cycling before it was cool. Most of my time is taken up with my adorable kids, which includes trips to the coffee shop, zoo, and art museum.
So the zombie apocalypse is upon us, and fortunately Baltimore isn’t ground zero. You have a little prep time before the mandatory military evacuations begin. You may only take a few allowed items, but you can secretly stash away a few pencils, sharpener, and small notebooks in the side pocket of your cargo pants. What do you choose?
I think I’d pick some Faber-Castell Castell 9000 pencils in HB because they last forever, and I’d take my bullet pen with a few Space Pen refills for the same reason. I’d include a small knife for sharpening pencils and for properly preparing zombies for supper. I’d grab all of the Field Notes/Word./Scout Books/Baron Fig/etc. pocket notebooks in my house and a handful of rubberbands and run!
We share a love of Field Notes. What are some of your favorite editions? From the podcast, I know you use a ton of them, but are you also a “collector”? What do you think of some the very high prices obtained for expired editions?
I really liked the American Trademan edition from summer 2011, with the corrugated cover. I feel like that one slipped in under the radar somehow. The debossed Raven’s Wing and Fire Spotter are two more of my favorites, as well as America the Beautiful and Red Blooded.
I don’t save my Field Notes for anything special or consider myself a collector. There are a few unfilled rare editions (Raven’s Wing, Fire Spotter, National Crop) that my wife gave me when she didn’t use them. I’ll fill them up when they call me somehow. I have no plans to hoard them. I put a Packet of Sunshine edition away for my daughter, since it is her birth edition, along with a set of Northerly books – because we used to watch the video for that one repeatedly when she was younger. I also put away a set of America the Beautiful for my son because it was out when he was born, along with a set of the Night Sky edition because he was sort of born in the summer, right before they came out.
I don’t understand paying hundreds of dollars for a set of Field Notes, especially when they can’t be valuable forever. For the cost of something semi-rare, someone could subscribe for a year to the seasonal editions. Of course, running a pencil blog or co-hosting a podcast about pencils is probably weird in some people’e eyes, to say nothing of the number of pencils and sharpeners in HQ. I promise I am just a little confused – not judgmental – about the rare Field Notes market.
Surprising Johnny Gamber fact?
I have extra bones in two of my toes from walking into a wall in 2003 and from getting run over by a car in 2009.
If someone (I’m looking at you my ink-only readers) who had only experienced awful store-brand woodcased pencils was ready to give up on graphite altogether, and you had a chance to intervene, what would you say or do to get them to join the “pencil revolution”?
I might suggest that it would be like giving up pens just because the one you stole from the bank performs badly. There are pencils which are as smooth as any fountain pen, which can be gotten for a much smaller investment. Plus, graphite is archival safe and waterproof, and pencils never leak. Pencils’ simplicity makes them incredibly practical, and we could all probably do well to just get down to writing/drawing.
I can’t thank Johnny enough for doing this interview— It was such a great experience. For more Johnny Gamber goodness, head on over to Pencil Revolution and listen to the Erasable Podcast. They’re both awesome and very much worth your time. I can’t recommend them highly enough.