Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Staedtler Noris HB

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.

In an effort to make up for temps perdu lost time I have been using a Noris HB at work.  For a child's school pencil, this is remarkably over-engineered; to be honest it's just too good to waste on children.  I have a variety of made-in-Germany and made-in-GB versions here before me, many of them chewed at the end by my eldest daughter (see photo).  There are some variations - on some this is described as the "Noris school pencil", on others, simply, "Noris".  This is a pencil aimed squarely at the lucrative educational market and is a tough, no-nonsense product.  Sculpted from light, porous European wood (no cedar here) and with one of Staedtler's durable graphite lead cores, this is equipped for the rigours of the school day (namely being dropped from a desk, having the tip snapped off when drawing a circle in maths, writing a graffito in the back of an exercise book, illustrating the water cycle in the Ice Age, poking a classmate and being dropped from a desk etc).

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.


  1. Thank you for your post about that classic pencil! To me it is almost a design icon.

    I would like to add that the German-made Noris 120 pencil has the same lead as the German tradition 110 and Lumograph 100; only the wood of these pencil (jelutong/cedar) differs.

    The finish of the Staedtler pencils is very lavish. The lacquering is done in several steps and includes - in the case of the Noris 120 - four layers of yellow lacquer. If you look very closely you can notice the transparent lacquer that is applied to the cap and ends about two millimetres below the white ring.

  2. what is perhaps unique (?) about these pencils is that each different grade has a different coloured cap.... which I do like.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. There is at least one more pencil with colour-coded caps, namely the Faber-Castell DESSIN 2000. A simpler coding with only three colours for HB, the softer and the harder grades can be found on the newer LYRA Robinson and was also part of the turquoise variant of the Pentel Black Polymer 999 (which is no longer in production).

  5. Gunther, I did not know the tradition and the Noris use the same lead (perhaps I should). I noticed a definite difference between the two that I have, though I did not do a scientific A/B comparison. Any differences between them must be due to manufacturing issues.

    The F-C Grip 2001 also uses colour-coding to identify the grade of lead; in this case, a shade of grey or black.

  6. I don't know about the non-German Staedtler pencils – maybe they have different leads

    Thank you for the details about the Faber-Castell Grip 2001; I must admit that I haven't noticed that yet but on this occasion I remembered the Maped Black'Peps pencils – their grey stripes correspond to the hardness grade too.

  7. Thanks for this great review of the humble Noris. I've read somewhere that there used to be Tradition "Made in Great Britain" but not any more. I see in the photo you've got a "Made in Britain" Noris...
    By the way, I've got the impression that the Faber Castell Dessin 2001 is a common school pencil in Greece.

  8. I do have some Made in GB traditions and they're very nice pencils; my local stationer still has a load in the uncommon F grade.