Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Uni-ball Kuru Toga Pencil

Uni-ball Kuru Toga Pencil
As much as I like wooden pencils, when drawing with graphite my favorite tool is a leadholder, sometimes called a drafting pencil or clutch pencil; basically a mechanical holder for a nice big shaft of 2mm graphite that can be sharpened or pointed in a variety of ways. Many comic book artists and illustrators swear by them, as I pointed out in my post about The Drafting Pencil Museum.

Leadholders are usually used in conjunction with a separate leadpointer, though, which makes them less than ideal for carrying around when sketching. Likewise wooden pencils need to be frequently sharpened.

The solution for sketching, then, is a mechanical pencil, which holds a much thinner “lead”, usually .5 or .3mm, and keeps a reasonably consistent point without sharpening.

“Reasonably consistent point”, though, is a lukewarm assessment and hardly ideal. The problem with a mechanical pencil is that the lead wears down on one side, becoming a flattened chisel shape instead of a sharp point. While chisel points are often nice when intentionally used for special effects in pencil drawing, they’re not what you want most of the time.

Artists who use mechanical pencils frequently learn to turn them in their hand while drawing to keep the sharp side of the point down, but it’s distracting and basically a PITA, and I often just put up with the less desirable flattened point and the clunkier line it produces.

Not any more.

Enter the Uni-ball Kuru Toga Pencil, a cleverly different mechanical pencil from Mistubishi Pencil.

Kuru Toga means “auto-rotate pencil”, and the device actually contains a small geared mechanism that automatically rotates the lead each time it is pressed against the paper.

The result is s beautiful, consistently fine line that is a joy to sketch with. I picked up a .3mm model and it has immediately become my favorite sketching pencil.

The pencil does have some minuses, it’s not retractable, making it less convenient for sticking in a shirt pocket, the eraser is tiny and not very useable, and there is no under-the-eraser wire for pushing old lead bits out of the shaft. These are small quibbles, particularly in light of the Kuru Toga’s unexpectedly reasonable price of about $7 U.S.

Unfortunately, they seem to be in short supply at the moment, probably because there are several mentions of the Kuru Toga circulating on the web, like the mention on LifeHacker, and reviews on Pens and Pencils, Dave’s Mechanical Pencils and Trendhunter.

The latter has a short video (also on YouTube) that shows how the pencil’s transparent lower barrel allows you to actually see the clutch mechanism turning as you hit the point against the paper.

I found the Kuru Toga where I often find cool stuff, on Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools, in a review by Jonathan Cope.

Most articles point to JetPens as the mail order source, though I found mine on J Stationery (.3mm and .5mm).

Sorry to tell you about it while it’s out of stock from both suppliers, but I figure better now than when it’s come back into stock and gone out again.

If you’re interested you’ll just have to watch for it and stay sharp.

20 thoughts on “Uni-ball Kuru Toga Pencil

  1. JG

    Interesting idea, and great article. Haven’t tried one myself, but i see how it may be of inconvenience:

    1. it rotates only in one direction? so, given the same pressure applied, it’ll make a fainter line in one direction than the other, because the graphite would roll on paper one way and “slip” on it the other; it may require getting used to and it’s deffinately not natural, because no other drawing medium acts like it. Flipping the pencil is hardly an inconvenience, i flip all pencils all the time without even noticing, and as you mentioned – the chisel point can certainly be advantageous when you need lines of different sharpness fast.

    2. it uses pressure to advance the mechanism? so the graphite is on a springy support rather than firm? It may be just me, but .5mm’s ment for writing and having springs as “anti-breaking safeguards” that retract the lead when too much pressure is applied (they never work, because uninteligent people can’t figure out that whether the lead breaks or not, depends on ANGLE for any given pressure and not just pressure alone – you can’t break the lead if you press on it at 90 degrees angle to the surface, you can crush it but it wont snap), annoy the living hells out of me… as in – i tear my hair out, literally. I cannot comprehend how someone could draw with such a mushy tool.

    Then again, haven’t tried it myself, so it may be just speculation.

    A .5mm has been my main sketching tool for the last 6 years or so and i really like it. Thin-leads (.7mm .5mm .3mm) have their own special techniques and interesting nuances. For example: 1. retract the lead, leaving only the metal coating; 2. firmly hatch/crosshatch the paper with only the metal point, no lead, so you don’t make any marks, just scratch and dent the surface; 3. pull out the lead again; 4. (optional) put it on the side and draw a few light lines on a scrap to make a gentle sloping chisel point for a very broad line; 5. use the broad side to gently cover the area you just sratched with graphite; 6. you get – a hatch/crosshatch of thin sharp white (!) lines… you can’t do such fine nuances with an eraser. Looks great if used in moderation.

    This is my .5mm workhorse, btw: http://www.leadholder.com/lh-thin-fc-tkvario.html
    I can swear by it, wonderful pencil. I’ve used it so much, that the chrome on the ferulle has completely worn off to reveal the brass beneath.

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks for the comments, JG.

    It only seems to rotate when first pressed for each stroke, so rotating during the stroke is not an issue.

    The amount of travel on contact with the paper seems minimal and I haven’t noticed any springiness or mushiness when drawing, though everyone’s style is different, of course.

    Reports from reviewers is that there is much less lead breakage because much of that is due to weak ends of chisel points. As their diagram above shows the distance from lead edge to point is shorter when the point is centered.

    I haven’t tested a .5 yet, some things may be more noticeable with a fatter lead.

  3. Alex Koeppler

    We appreciate your enthusiasm for this product. I work on the Uni-ball brand and we are just finalizing packaging for this product for its launch in April, 2009. The Kuru Toga will be available in stores in the beginning of April but has already launched in Asia and has been recieving great press.

    If you are impressed with the performance of the Kurutoga pencil look for the new Uni-ball Diamond Leads which are stronger than most leads on the market and create a darker, smoother line. Those will also be available in April.

    Thanks again- we always appreciate your comments!

  4. Erik Bongers

    I wonder how much pressure it really needs.
    I often use very little pressure, especially when using a .5mm. In any case, less pressure than for writing.
    And also: if I’m not mistaken, it only rotates one ‘click’ each time you put it up and down again.
    That means: a long line (f.i. with a straight egde) will result in ONE rotation AT THE END OF THE LINE. Thus the advantage is minimal in that situation.

  5. Katherine Tyrrell

    You’ve got my mechanical pencil fetish jumping! I keep trying new ones to see if anything can beat my favourite and this one sounds interesting (although personally speaking I’m a “twizzler”)

    The leads sound really interesting too – but I’m less enamoured with the idea of an eraser which isn’t up to standard.

    Now all I need to know is when does it hit the shops in the UK?

  6. Charley Parker Post author

    Ha! Right you are! Little known PITA about Wacom tablets is that the plastic nibs in the stylus wear down to a flat chisel shape as well.

    Other readers can check out Bruce Gulick’s blog and gallery of digital painting and tattoo art here.

  7. JG

    I admit – i’ve disabled the wacom stylus buttons completely and i flip it as i if it’s another pencil… it wears evenly on all sides.
    I come to realise, even if i got this Kuru Toga pencil, i’d still be flipping it. =/

    The clarifications on how it feels/works do make it sound like a decent and well-thought-out tool, rather than just a nifty trinket about to pass with a temporary fad. Thanks!

  8. eidetic

    The ironic thing is I use mechanical pencils because of the chisel edge and I do most of my drawing that way. So while it may not suit the way I draw I’d still be inclined to try it just for the novelty value.

  9. Felicity

    Thanks Charley, that’s very kind of you! I have a photo of the 2mm pencil I use here
    http://flickr.com/photos/60255010@N00/2325972477/
    The little black tip is actually a detachable sharpener with 2 or 4 (I can’t quite see!) tiny blades in it. The same for the 3mm. The leads go from H to 3B but there is very little difference between 2 and 3B and I think the equivalent in a wooden pencil seems darker. I was never a fan of mechanical pencils but I use these all the time now. The sharpener is fine but it’s messy without anywhere to collect the graphite but I carry a Kum Long Point sharpener as it has openings for the 2 and 3mm leads too (and it’s light).

  10. Sean

    When I first read about the Kuru Toga from the Jetpens website, I was intrigued. I ordered one from Tokyo Pen Shop, since they seem to be the only online store whic can keep them in stock. I haven’t received mine yet so my comment might be premature. It seems as if the design is better suited for either printing Latin-based writing or character based writing such as Chinese, Japanese etc. where there is constant picking up of the pencil point. For more complicated characters, a fine line is needed especially when the strokes are short and crowded. It will be nice to see when they will be sold in the US. Hopefully they will be reasonably priced.

  11. sal

    Im always lookin to try new pencils for comfort and ability to write smooth for better lines. I am very anxious to try this pencil where can i find it? and How do i get one?

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