Thank you for joining us. Can you give me a little bit of background on yourself?
I grew up in Stockton in California's Central Valley. It's about an hour and a half east of San Francisco. And about an hour and a half west of Tahoe. So kind of in-between. I studied English at University of Pacific, a college here in town.
Was literature a big part of your life?
From a young age, I loved storytelling and played a lot of video games. I played a lot of the Final Fantasy games, RPGs, things like that. Then expanded from that into actual books when I was a kid. Whenever we went to the store, I couldn't get a treat, but I could always get a book. So I had a lot of books. Reading has always been a big part of my life.
I knew I loved writing, I knew I loved reading, but I didn't know what I wanted to do with it. So, I went into college as an English major and a film minor. Towards the latter half of my college time, I fell in love with reading and writing poetry. I used it as an outlet to process some stuff in my life. I really found my home in poetry, but when I graduated, I didn’t really know where to go.
I became a freelance writer, doing content creation. I wrote online content for a bunch clients. It was the early 2010s and the early stages of written content creation on the internet. So, it was a lot of how-tos, list articles and things like that, really anything my clients needed. It was an interesting time to look back on. I wrote some weird stuff, man, like how to repel squirrels from your property.
We're ecstatic about bringing out our collaboration with you, which has been years in the making. How would you describe the coming together of our brands and values to create the Blackwing Høvel?
It has been years in the making. It's kind of funny to think about, but the first time I met Noah, I think he was just traveling California. He sent me an email that said, "Hey, can I stop by?" I said, "Yeah," and he came in and had this Høvel. I'd never heard of it, never seen it. And he showed it to me. I thought, this thing is really cool. I think we immediately started talking about how we could do a Blackwing version. I think you guys were in the same boat as when we were starting out. It's like, maybe we want to establish ourselves first a little bit before we go down to the collaboration route.
We just kept in touch and now we're actually doing it. I touched on it earlier about deliberateness and mindfulness. I think all of Makers Cabinet's tools embody that. You can't just whip out a Høvel and crank out a point with it. You have to think about what you want to do with it and that's really cool to me. It gives you a lot of control, but you also have to be very mindful while you're using it. I think you are very deliberate with your materials and the products you release in general. When I say our collaborations have to further a story, that's the part of our story that I think this collaboration is furthering; it's one of slowing down mindfulness and deliberateness.
So when did Blackwing come around in your life? Was that when you were still a freelancer?
Yeah! I started writing freelance content for Pencils.com, which is our sister brand. Blackwing had just been reintroduced in late 2010, and I was writing content about this pencil, the Blackwing. I didn't know too much about pencils at the time, but I was always kind of a stationery nerd. I liked a good notebook. I liked a good pencil, but I didn't know what made a good pencil. When I was in college, I was handwriting all my poetry and drafts of most of my essays. So when I started writing about the Blackwing pencil, it was such a compelling story. I didn't know why I hadn't heard it before. That’s what really hooked me.
Can you tell us a bit more about that story?
We call it the story of the $40 pencil. From the 30s-50s the Blackwing pencil was made by Eberhard Faber. John Steinbeck wrote his rough drafts with Blackwings. Chuck Jones created Bugs Bunny with Blackwings. A Disney animator asked to be buried with his Blackwing. It built this cult following around all of these really creative people that used them and all these really iconic works that were created with it.
What made the Blackwing pencil so special?
And then there are all the people that use it. You want to feel the spirit of John Steinbeck flowing through you while you're trying to write your next novel. So, a lot went into its success and its cult following. I think it's just the perfect formula.
So Blackwing really revitalised this pencil that had sort of died. Why? Why did it go away with that old brand Eberhard Faber?
So Blackwing came around and fixed the machine?
Blackwing really stands out as a pencil brand because it's more than just the pencil. It also has such a rich culture built around it. Is Blackwing alone in being a pencil maker with its own brand and culture?
I don't know that we're alone. There are a lot of really iconic, really great pencil brands out there. We typically don't see them as our competition. We feel like we're doing our own thing. Like I said, the pencil is the vessel for this culture that we're trying to build. It's our means of telling stories and connecting with people. We like to say we're not in the pencil business, we're in the business of helping people slow down. The pencil is just the main way that we do that.
Do I think we're alone in that? No. I think many different pencil companies have their own iconic brands, some of them over 200 years old. But I do think we really put storytelling and that culture at the forefront.
What do you mean by you're in the business of making it slow down?
When I tell someone what I do, or what we do is “pencils,” one of the first things they always ask is, "who uses pencils?" We all have laptops, phones, whatever. Why do I need a pencil? And we really believe as a company, as a culture, that you need a pencil because you need to slow down sometimes.
It also goes further than that, too. We've got the Blackwing Foundation, started by Charles, our CEO, which supports music and arts, education in public schools. It's kind of a parallel path where schools in the United States are focusing so much on test results, scores, and evaluating a child's proficiency in something by the number next to their name, then putting them in a box and saying this is what you're going to be in life.
Do you bring your poetry into the way you tell stories in your brand?
So the storytelling you talk about Blackwing doing is mostly through the Volumes you release?
Yeah, that's our main storytelling vessel. And like I said, the foundation of the brand was built on this $40 pencil story. Once we had told that story pretty exhaustively, we felt like we needed more, more stories to tell. So, that's kind of how the Volumes programme was born.
Can you give us a brief rundown of what volumes are and what it has been, how it started, and how it's moving forward?
Volumes is our quarterly release programme where we come out with a new special edition pencil every three months. Each pencil is a tribute to a person, a place, an event or something that we think is really important to the culture that we're building and what we think people who are fans of Blackwing will really resonate with. Folks can subscribe, get all four releases over the course of the year, or just buy each pack as it comes out. Sometimes they sell out quickly. So that's why we have this subscription option. But like I said, it started as a way to tell stories.
We wanted to figure out a way to tell stories to build a culture and get people who hadn’t picked up a pencil in years excited about pencils. Someone may not care about a pencil, but maybe they care about Ada Lovelace and they think that story is really compelling. So, when we do a pencil, that's a tribute to Ada Lovelace, they say, “Wow! I think that's really cool. I want to pick that up. I want to check that out, it's really meaningful to me.” So, the goal of the programme is getting people excited about the stories that we’re telling and getting pencils in the hands of people that hadn’t thought about them since they were in school.
Are you allowed to tell us at all about how that process works, how the idea of the next volume comes up? Everybody's always sort of wondering what the next volume will be.
When we started Volumes in 2015, we built out a spreadsheet of ideas. We put any idea that we thought fit the programme on it and we're still working our way through that original spreadsheet. Sometimes something will come up that we can’t pass on, like the 19th amendment pencil we did in 2020. We had someone who works in the history department of a college that said they think this is super relevant to what we are doing and we went with it. A lot of stuff comes from our big board and we say, "Yep, this is it. Let's go with that one."
What's your favourite Volume? Mine was always the Mars Volume. It’s just such a beautiful pencil. I love that planet.
My favourite Volume? That's a heavy question. We're on the same page. I think aesthetically, the Mars one is my favourite, as well. Conceptually, it's probably a tie between the Vol. 54, which was the Surrealism pencil that we did where we actually played a game to design it. It came out looking awesome and it was just such a fun experience.
We played a game called “Exquisite Cadaver,” where we broke the pencil up into the parts. We broke it into the lacquer colour, the imprint colour, ferrule colour, eraser colour and graphite firmness. And then we sat in a circle and passed the pages around, where each person blind-wrote what colour they thought it should be and then folded it over. The next person wrote the next component and passed it around in a circle. And that's the pencil that came out. It looks freakin' sick so I love that one.
I also love the Vol. 344 conceptually - that's the Dorothea Lange photography pencil - just because there was an “aha!” moment. The design is really more than just an aesthetic thing for us. It has to extend that story that we're telling. Just walking in the room and clicking on that darkroom light and looking at the pencil in my hand, saying “this is it.” This is the pencil. It was really fun. That was a great moment.
That's a fantastic moment of realisation.
Yeah, but I have to say the way Volume 24, the Steinbeck Pencil, came about and was executed, is not only probably my favourite moment working with Blackwing, but some of my favourite moments in my life. John Steinbeck was on our list because he used Blackwings. It was a no brainer.
We got an email out of the blue from Gail Steinbeck, who was married to Thom Steinbeck, saying they loved what we were doing. For context, this was the winter of 2015. So we only had three releases under our belt at that point. They invited us to their house in Santa Barbara. We went down there, met Thom and Gail, sat and just talked to them for an afternoon- about life and pencils, his dad and all sorts. It was surreal - talking about the pencil, what it would look like, what the story would be. As an English major and as someone who specifically studied American Literature in college, seeing Thom walk down the stairs - he was a spitting image of his dad. I mean, he looked just like him. It was wild. And they were both so kind and so fun to work with.
Did you decide with them that it was going to be all black?
Yeah, Thom was pretty adamant about that. All black. John didn't like distractions. So, he said it should be all black.
It was funny too because that's when I met Johnny Irion. Anyone who has followed some of the musical stuff that we've been doing probably knows that name. When we walked in the door, there was a guitar sitting on the ground. And we asked, “Oh, cool. Who’s the musician? Who plays?” And Gail said, "Oh, that's my nephew, Johnny. He plays guitar, and he and his wife are in a band together." A couple of hours go by, and the front door opens, and in walks this guy and this woman. "This is my nephew, Johnny Irion. This is his wife, Sara Lee Guthrie."
Woody Guthrie's granddaughter.
So, I'm sitting in a room now with John Steinbeck's son and Woody Guthrie's granddaughter, talking about pencils. That was another surreal moment. Johnny and I have worked on a bunch of projects since then. He’s more than just a colleague, though. I consider him a good friend. So yeah, that pencil. Too much.
Pictured: Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie
Pictured: Alexander Poirier
What were some of the original collaborations that you guys did with Blackwing? What's your process?
We were very collaboration adverse for a long time. We didn't want to do it because we really wanted to establish ourselves before we started pairing up with anybody else. We wanted to be ones that folks wanted to collaborate with instead of the other way around. In the early days, Graceland reached out to us about doing an Elvis pencil and we weren't ready for it and so we said no.
Our first collaboration didn’t come until 2019 with Trans World Airlines and their hotel at JFK Airport in New York. We met them at a trade show, and they said “We're opening this kind of vintage-inspired hotel in the TWA terminal of JFK, and we think your pencils will fit in great. They’ve got that kind of timeless aesthetic that mid-century aesthetic that we're going for. So, let's do something.” And that was what kicked off the whole collaboration thing.
We’re picky about who we work with. We really want the brand on the other side to further our story in some meaningful way. So, record labels make sense. An author like John Dickerson, that makes sense. A really cool boutique hotel opening in the airport terminal with this 1950s aesthetic, that makes sense. It’s not an exact science. It's kind of a feeling.
So tell us. What’s next for Blackwing and what do we have to look forward to?
We have some really fun pencil-related products coming out later this year, both collaborations and new additions to our core products. But, like I said, we’re more than just a pencil company. We’re finding new ways to tell stories and new ways to help folks slow down. And we can’t wait to share them with everyone.