We tortured these mechanical pencils. You can probably imagine what happened next. Reviewed by William Gurstelle.

Starting about 1979, a craze by Japanese schoolgirls for drawing cute cartoon figures caused skyrocketing sales of mechanical pencils. Dozens of companies began designing and manufacturing mechanical pencils and they haven't stopped. Today, Japan is to mechanical pencils as Switzerland is to watches.

Of course, there are exceptions, but for a really good mechanical pencil, the place to go is Japan. "Look for unique features like retractable tips and auto-rotating lead mechanisms," explained Elaine, the mechanical pencil expert at Jetpens. "These details are small yet practical, and they'll be appreciated by artists, students, engineers, and everyone in between."

Jetpens provided six of their favorite mechanical pencils, priced at $35 or less, for me to use and abuse.

The lineup that arrived:

Uni Alpha Gel HD Shaka Shaker Pencil $10.00
Pilot Delful Double Knock Mechanical Pencil $8.25
Pentel Sharp Kerry Mechanical Pencil $19.50
Pentel Graph Gear 1000 $16.50
Rotring 600 $33.00
Uni Kuru Toga $16.50

Except for the German-made Rotring, all of these pencils are Japanese.

A lot of what makes a mechanical pencil good or bad is in the eye (and hand) of the beholder. The grip and feel that appeal to me may not work for you. So let's begin with the cold hard facts and figures.

Pen Body Material Lead Advance Weight (grams) Tip/Pocket Protection Method Finger feel Weighting Advance per click (shake)
Uni Alpha Gel HD Shaka Shaker Pencil Plastic Shaker 17.4 None wide, cushioned, smooth Front .0450 inches
Pilot Delful Double Knock Mechanical Pencil Plastic Shaker 20.1 Retracts wide, smooth Front .0450
Pentel Sharp Kerry Mechanical Pencil cap metal, body plastic Push 21.6 Cap medium, smooth Neutral .0169
Pentel Graph Gear 1000 Metal Push 20.5 Retracts medium, knurled Back .0210
Rotring 600 Metal Metal Push 22.5 None narrow, knurled Neutral .0225
Uni Kuru Toga Top plastic, bottom metal Push 15.1 None medium, knurled Front .0225

TWO SHOT Rotring and Pentel Graphgear

TWO SHOT Pilot Delful and Uni Alpha Shaka

TWO SHOT Pentel Kerry and Uni Kuro toga

ALL SIX Car test

After I wrote, drew, and doodled with each pencil, I did some tough testing to see which of these pencils were really built to last. I washed each pencil, simulating the all-too-familiar experience of forgetting to empty pockets before throwing clothes in the washer. Then, I took the survivors and placed them on a concrete driveway and drove over them with an SUV. This simulated, well, I don't know, I guess the experience of running over your pencil with a large, heavy car.

Washing Machine Test Crush Test
Uni Alpha Gel HD Shaka Passed Passed
Pilot Delful Double Knock Passed Passed
Pentel Sharp Kerry Mechanical Pencil Passed Passed
Pentel Graph Gear 1000 Passed Failed
Rotring 600 Failed
Uni Kuru Toga Passed Passed

Here's my summary evaluation for each mechanical pencil:

Rotring 600

Dark, heavy, solid, and, expensive, the Rotring is a paean to industrial design. It's all business, with few frills, but it feels very comfortable in one's grip. It has a rock-solid lead advance, moving the graphite consistently .0225 inches a push. In my opinion, this is about perfect, sending the lead not so far forward that it breaks easily, but enough so that it clears the pencil body. On the minus side, the Rotring did not survive the washer test. The lead sleeve bent significantly and could not be re-straightened.

Pentel Sharp Kerry

The classy Kerry looks like a quality fountain pen. It has a metal cap with a cleverly designed moveable tip, allowing the user to advance the lead while the cap is in the typical in-use position. The cap prevents the pencil from getting graphite on the user's pocket, but it requires a second step in order to access the eraser. The advance-per-click is a little low at 0.0169 inches per click, meaning that the user may have press multiple times to advance sufficient lead length to write easily.

Pilot Delful

The Delful is the value leader. Yes, it's all plastic, but it costs less than a third of the most expensive pencil in this test, and the Delful's wide-diameter, cushioned body makes it fatigue free. Operating the pushbutton on the top retracts the tip into the body, protecting it from damage — a really nice feature in an inexpensive pencil. The pencil uses a shaker mechanism to advance the lead which is faster and easier than a push button advances. On the negative side, each shake is relatively huge, causing the lead to advance too far, too quickly.

Uni-Alpha Gel Shaka

Another excellent value, the shaker-style pencil, the Shaka is similar in feel, size, and cost to the Delful. It has the widest barrel and most finger-cushioning of any pencil tested, but it lacks the retractor of the Delful.

Pentel Graph Gear

This pencil has it all. It has all metal body with a solid yet comfortable feel, high-tech designer styling, and a retracting tip with a satisfying click-click operation. It's a little bit back-weighted, which I liked, and it's priced competitively for what you get. The only drawback is, that while it passed the washer test, it failed the driving-over test. It was much more deformed than the other pencils and the broken advance mechanism couldn't be repaired.

The Winner is…

Uni Kuru Toga

The half metal and half plastic Kuru Toga is a great looking pencil, with a thin upper body and solid, knurled metal base. Although it's a bit on the light side, for the actual act of writing, this was my personal favorite. The lead advance is an ideal 0.0225 inch per click. Even better, it features a clever mechanism that automatically rotates the lead as you write, making lines more even and reducing lead breakage.