A Pencil Revolution Review: The Tennessee Red Cedar Pencil

Tennessee Red Cedar Pencil Review

Editor’s Note: This blog originally ran on PencilRevolution.com and was written by Johnny Gamber, the host of the pencil podcast The Erasable Podcast. Johnny is a long-time pencil enthusiast and expert. We did not sponsor this post, but are wildly grateful for his thoughtful write up! After his piece ran, we asked to repost with permission.

Johnny, thank you for your enthusiasm for The Tennessee Red Cedar Pencil! All pictures and images are courtesy of Johnny Gamber.

If you listen to Erasable, you know that the incense cedar you and I grew up with is a lovely wood to behold, is nearly ideal for pencil manufacturing, and is fragrant as all get out. You probably also know that this was not the originally preferred species of cedar for pencils. It’s not what’s in your closet or chest or bunny’s cage. That wood, red cedar, was used up by the early 20th century, and incense cedar became the preferred American wood for pencils. Most premium pencils (from Japan, Germany, the USA) all have barrels made of this fragrant wood. I grew up smelling this wood spilling out of the communal classroom sharpener in Sr. Teresa Mary’s classroom at St. Thomas Aquinas School. It’s a nostalgic aroma for me, and I have to say that I generally have a bias against pencils that are otherwise wonderful but which are not made of cedar. In recent years, Musgrave has moved away from incense cedar, along with other manufacturers, due — in part — to a global shortage. The smell of my childhood is becoming harder and harder to find in the school supply aisle. I miss cedar Ticonderogas (and just might have a few dozen squirreled away.) But Musgrave is turning all of this on its head and changing the game completely with the release of the Tennessee Red.

Musgrave has been making pencils since 1916, when Henry Hulan’s grandfather founded the company in Shelbyville Tennessee. Read more about Musgrave’s history here; it’s a great story, involving fence rails and burlap sacks. You can listen to Andy and I have a much-anticipated discussion with Mr. Hulan on episode 106 of the Erasable Podcast. (The Single Barrel 106 is a reference to that episode, but that’s another post.) Nicole and Tim Delger have worked with Musgrave to veritably reinvent itself, and this pencil is a product of this collaboration.

It is nothing short of amazing to me that Musgrave decided to design and manufacture the Tennessee Red, a production (non-limited edition) pencil out of the wood that Thoreau would have smelled in his father’s pencil factory. I’m floored by it. I’ve rambled a lot on Erasable about it. I still pull out my box and smell them to remind myself that they are, in fact, real. But they are not merely beautiful in theory and definitely not only to your nose.

With a very pronounced hex shape, this pencil screams “Musgrave!” as soon as you pick it up. The clear lacquer showcases the lovely variations of the red cedar, and it protects a wood that, I am told, picks up dirt by simply existing. The imprint is, of course, red, and it’s crisp and even on all of my pencils. The gold ferrule and white eraser are perfectly attached, and the eraser works well enough for a pencil-planted eraser. White is seldom my first choice for eraser color, but it just works here (still, I wonder what it would look like with a dark pink eraser). The sometimes-dark wood feels brighter with the shiny gold ferrule and white eraser.*

I say without reservation that this is one of the most beautiful pencils I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of pencils.

And Musgrave more than does it justice with two great packaging options. For Christmas this year, one of my very favorite gifts was two dozen Tennessee Reds in a lovely cedar box. This sliding-top box amplifies the aroma, as you can imagine, and it’s just gorgeous sitting on a desk. Plus, it serves as a NO KIDS warning for my thieving children.

The other option is a red box that holds a dozen pencils snugly inside of a matchbox-style container. The pencils do not rattle around, and the box is made in the US.

That’s fine, but is this pencil for looking at or for writing with? I am not sure who made this core, but I love it. It is dark enough that I would be very comfortable calling it a 2B. The output is smooth, and it has a certain quality that I only find in American-made pencils. They are smooth in a very different way than German pencils (which feel like hard wax) and Japanese pencils (which have a polymer-like feel to them, like mechanical pencil leads). Despite the crumbling of a lot of the industry in this country in general and the shrunken American pencil industry, it makes me happy to no end that we can get some very American-writing and American-looking pencils in 2020. And the cedar is something out of a time capsule to boot!

Did I mention the price? The Tennessee Red will run you a mere nine bucks a dozen. For less than a ten-spot, you get a lovely box of premium American pencils made of a wood that your great-great-grandmother might remember from her childhood. It feels like buying some history at a scandalously low price from people who love what they do.

I have always been loathe to call something my favorite pencil, but I have slipped on more than one occasion and called this my new favorite pencil. I must mean it.

*(There are some known issues with the red cedar slats and some off-center cores. For what it is worth, my box only came with two pencils that were pretty off-center, but they are definitely still perfectly usable. I’m told that Musgrave is working on finding another source for the slats that will hopefully address this very small issue.)

Special thanks to Johnny Gamber of Pencil Revolution. Check out his blog to read about all different kinds of pencils and pencil accessories!


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