It's about time I posted about pencils again so this latest post is about the Ford Mondeo of the pencil world: the Staedtler Noris HB school pencil. Looking around, I see the Noris being used frequently; it's probably the most common pencil in England. It helps that this pencil is cheap and widely available, often in supermarkets.
It is used a lot instead of carpenters' pencils. Back in September 2010 I went to a green woodworking demonstration near my home. One of the bodgers was using a Noris to mark the wood for turning into a bowl. In addition to marking materials of all kinds, the Noris is also commonly used for jotting shopping lists or making random notes; it is commonly seen in musicians' instrument cases, for writing on their printed music parts.
I suppose I should continue here with a series of sub-Proustian reminiscences about using this pencil, which has armed generations of schoolchildren here in England. The trouble is, I don't have any. I think I used Noris pencils when I was a boy growing up in west London in the 1970s and 1980s, but I have no clear memories of this. I do remember using the more up-market tradition pencils at school, but when it comes to the humble Noris there's a big blank at the centre of my schoolday memories. This could be a sign of the sheer ubiquity of this design of pencil that I have no memories of it at all: an object so common it literally faded into the woodwork.
The overall appearance is as would be expected: a yellow-and-black striped pencil, topped off with a painted endcap in a variety of colours in its non-eraser tipped variant, Art. Nr. 120. The eraser-tipped version, the 122, can be found in stationers' such as Rymans, but is much less common.
The Noris is manufactured in five grades: 2B, B, HB, H and 2H. In the wild, the most common sub-species sports a red endcap, this being the HB variety. I have two blister-packs of these common birds, in a multipack option offered by Staedtler in supermarkets, probably with the start of the school year in mind. Here, a pack of ten Noris HBs, bundled with a Mars eraser and a functional Staedtler sharpener, is sold in my local Tesco for the bargain price of GBP2.50. In my local stationers', the eraser alone is a quid. Tesco also offer a pack of five assorted Noris grades for GBP1.40, and a three-pack of 2Bs for a pound. All offer astoundingly good value for money.
The lead is fairly dark, though not as dark as the tradition's HB. It is slightly harder than the tradition as well, probably to enable less frequent sharpening. On the paper, it leaves a slate-grey line which allows the user to vary its width. I found that I could write for a long time between sharpenings. At one point I managed to sharpen a Noris successfully with my KUM Long Point sharpener. This was good news, but turned out to be a one-off only; when I tried to use the Long Point again, I found my old problem of broken leads had returned. After three or four attempts to sharpen with the Long Point, I abandoned the idea and went back to using my standard KUM sharpener, which left me with a three-inch long stub and a pile of yellow-and-black sharpenings.
The lead smears a bit on the paper, though less so than the tradition HB lead. I have not tried using any grade of Noris other than the HB, so I can't report how those perform, but the HB certainly does a fine job of writing, drawing or marking as you require.