Pencil Review: Empire “ARCO” 88

If we’ve chatted in the last few months, you’ve probably heard me rant about my love of the unsung hero of the graphite world—the Empire “ARCO” 88 No. 2 pencil.

This unassuming writer doesn’t have fancy fonts or a particularly brilliant paintjob. There’s nothing remarkable about its ferrule and its shape is fairly pedestrian.

What a salesman am I!

But, it does the one thing well that a good, nay, great pencil must do … it writes like a mofo!!!

I love soft dark leads. My favorite pencil on the planet is a very old Eagle Reliable 305 No. 1, which dates to probably the 1930s.

I wish modern pencil makers would create something along the lines of the ER305 or my even older Daily News of New York pencil, which has a super chunky core packed with soft dark lead.

Alas, number 2 is where it’s at when it comes to writing utensils.

Of course, you can get all sorts of grades in a drawing pencil. And my next big project is going to involve selecting a couple dozen specimens and seeing if I can’t find something comparable to my all-time favorites.

But back to the “ARCO” 88.

Why do I keep putting parentheses around ARCO? Because that’s how it appears on the pencil.

What does “ARCO” 88 stand for?

Good question.

  • ARCO stands for the Atlantic Richfield Company, founded to produce oil in the 1960s.
  • ARCO is a musical term, indicating how a bow on a stringed instrument should be used.
  • It’s also an abbreviation for “Augmented Representation of Cultural Objects.”
  • ARCO is a slang mashup of “architecture” and “ecology.”
  • ARCO might stand for “Angry Rhinos Can’t Ovulate” … but it probably doesn’t.

While I wasn’t able to figure out what the pencil is named after, I have discovered the “ARCO” 88 is a joy to write with. (“With which to write,” may be correct but it sounds dumb.)

After having written a number of letters to pencil pals around the nation, a few journal entries (nothing tawdry), one grocery list for fish tacos, and performing the usual pencil lead paper test, here are my findings:

Standard hex barrel with rounded edges. Good wood that’s rough enough for a good grip at the point but that doesn’t flake when sharpened. The imprint is so large and deep that you feel the indentations of the letters. I don’t care for this but it wasn’t enough to make me put the pencil down.

The “ARCO” 88 No. 2 has good page grab without being aggressive.
Nothing worse than an aggressive eraser. I blame the schools.
There is just the slightest bit of scratch—enough for some satisfying feedback but not enough to drive you crazy. Unless you hate pencil scratch, in which case any scratching is bad news for mother.
Graphite goes down smooth and dark. Could be a touch smoother but then you’d have a softer lead prone to breakage and, gasp, crumbling.

Surprisingly very little smudging. I’m not sure how, considering how dark the lead goes down. Just another wonder of the “ARCO” 88.

As it stands, this pencil has found just the right balance between dark lead and good point retention.
I prefer a short and medium sharp lead, and when sharpened this way, the point never broke once.
I did not attempt a long point because I detest them and will not have long-pointed pencils in my office.

You can find these here and there for anywhere from $15-$20 per dozen.
My shop sells them singly for $3.75 but my pencils come with lots of extras and a hand-written letter.

All in all, I love the “ARCO” 88 as both a collector piece and a daily driver. And I would put its performance up against any top tier pencil—including the vaunted Blackwing 602.

Published by Ben Gohs

Benjamin J. Gohs is a longtime journalist, novelist, and essayist who writes from Michigan, where he shares an apartment with one very patient woman and two spoiled dogs.

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