A.W.Faber’s Polygrade Pencils and the moving F grade

This post came about because of an interesting quirk with Faber’s Polygrade pencils, the ‘moving’ F grade.  You may have noticed it, then again, there’s a good chance most people haven’t.

I’m not going to discuss Polygrades too much from a ‘general history’ point, so if you want to look at good pictures of the 2017 anniversary set, I suggest you go here: A.W. Faber „Polygrades” Jubiläums-Edition – Lexikaliker

On the other hand, if you want to know a bit more about Faber/Polygrade history, I suggest you go here: A.W. Faber Polygrades: Old and New | Contrapuntalism

To try and explain what’s going on here, I’m going to show some differences between the original box of A.W.Faber’s Polygrade pencils in the first image (first released in 1837, but my box is likely from around 1850s/60s) and the box released for Lothar von Faber’s 200 Birthday (around 2017 if I remember correctly).

The original set I am showing is a box of 5 and the anniversary set is a box of 12, but for the purposes of this post that doesn’t matter at all.

In case you wanted to read the little booklet that came with the anniversary set, it can be read online here: Limited edition “Polygrades” to mark Lothar von Faber’s 200th birthday (faber-castell.co.uk)

Original box:

Anniversary box:

The interior lid of the original Polygrades shows the F grade in its ‘original’ position on the scale i.e. somewhere between the B and the HB grades:

Whereas, the interior of the lid on the anniversary edition shows the F grade in what would be considered its ‘current’ place by today’s standard i.e. somewhere in between the HB and the H grades:

The grades are also listed along the side of the original box so that the pencils can be returned in the correct order.  Note that on the original box, the F is in the ‘original’ place between the B and HB grades, and that the pencils grades work through the Bs to the Hs, left to right:

This is where things get a little strange.

On the lid of the anniversary pencils, Faber elected to place the F grade in the ‘current’ place, but on the side of the box they shift the F grade to the ‘original’ place.  Clearly this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.  I actually think that this is a little typo on the part of Faber in the anniversary editions.  Perhaps they were working off original designs and forgot to move it to the ‘modern’ place on this side box stamping. Oops!

To confirm, even though the F is in between the HB and B on the side stamping, the core is actually a modern F and therefore should sit between the HB and H.

So apart from Faber making a bit of an error with their presentation, what on earth is going on with the moving F?

So I spoke with Faber Castell about this and they said that whilst during 19th century both grading scales of hardness were usual during the long term of production of the Polygrades pencils, around 1870 the grading scale of Polygrades pencils moved from ‘B,F,HB’ to ‘B,HB,F’.

Whilst I have little reason to doubt Faber’s intel, it doesn’t really add up with the marketing. For example, if you look at this extract from the A.W.Faber London catalogue from 1884, you can see that the F is still in the ‘original’ position between the HB and B grades (ignoring a few grades which were not part of the Polygrade line-up):

The box picture from the same catalogue shows the same arrangement on the lid:

However, the pricelist below from 1 July 1885, just a year later, it shows the F has moved into the ‘modern’ location between the HB and H:

So, it seems to me that the shift was slightly later than 1870.

But why change things?

Well, it looks like the F grade underwent a change in core: If you look at the original box lid from the 1850s, the F is referred to as ‘less soft and black’, so it makes sense for it to sit somewhere between the B and HB.  However, by the time we see them in the 1884 catalogue, the F grade is referred to as ‘Firm, for fine drawing’.  Therefore, with the change in core and recommended use, it no longer makes sense for the F to sit between HB and B.

When we look at this extract from the 1940s Faber catalogue, we can see that the F Grade is still recommended for ‘fine drawing’, so this clearly stuck as Faber moved into the 9000 series.

Anyways, now that I’ve pointed that out, I thought I’d show a few more pictures of the original Polygrades for those that are interested.

Eberhard Faber was designated as the sole agent for A.W. Faber in New York around 1851.  My examples happen to have the sole agent stamping on the reverse, so we know that these came from the New York market rather than the London market:

During the 1860s, the sole agent in London for Faber’s Polygrades was ‘Heintzmann and Rochussen’ not Eberhard Faber:

On a slight side note, when A W Faber opened its house in Paris, they stamped their pencils slightly different from the London and New York variants.  As you can see from the examples below (and we will come back to these in anther post at some point), they used ‘A.W.Faber Manufacturier‘ instead of ‘A.W.Faber Manufacturer‘:

Square cores as you would expect from pencils of this age:

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