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Staedtler’s Mars 501 180 – the Wopex sharpener 8

Welcome to a slightly delayed blog post. The video for this blog post was put on YouTube quite a while ago, in February, but the blog post is only out now as a busy period at work meant that I didn’t get round looking for my protractor earlier.1

The Wopex

Unfortunately there’s a lot of Wopex hate going on in some parts of social media where people discuss pencils – and there are very few people defending the Wopex2. Luckily the Wopex can convince in the long term: I was very happy to read Deirdre’s blog post where she turned from a Wopex hater (‘I HATE WOPEX’) to someone not only tolerating the Wopex, but even accepting it and it’s advantages (Some quotes: ‘graphite […] actually isn’t that bad’, ‘point retention is great’, ‘if you are writing on toothy3 paper, the WOPEX really shines’).

Suffice to say4, I love the Wopex.

Just a quick reminder: Unlike normal wood cased pencils the Wopex uses a wood-plastic-composite instead of wood. The wood-plastic-composite consists mainly of wood and is, in my opinion, orders of magnitude better than pencils that use plastic instead of wood. Not only does the Wopex sharpen better, the lead – extruded together with the pencil – is also of much better quality, too.

The pellets before they’re extruded into a pencil

In the vial above you can see how the material looks like before it is extruded into a pencil. I got this vial at the Insights X trade fair. The pellets remind me of a company I worked for during my holidays in the 1990s. They were manufacturing extruded pipes and had similar looking pellets. The recycled pellets smelled very much like washing powder. As far as I remember extruding from recycled material was not easy, the material kept expanding in the wrong place resulting in uneven products. Unrelated – but there must be so much knowledge going into the production of a product like the Wopex…

The new Noris eco pencils in 2B, HB and 2H

The Staedtler 501 180

I first mentioned the 501 180 in a blog post from 2014, but a few months ago I finally got my hands on one – they are not very common and not easy to come by in the UK. The article number has gives some clues to this sharpener’s purpose: Wopex pencils have article numbers starting with 180 (e.g. 180 40). Staedtler has now switched to using the word Wopex to describe the wood-plastic-composite material, and is not using Wopex anymore to describe pencils made from this material, but independent of how the name Wopex is used, the pencils made from Wopex material still use article numbers starting with 180 (e.g. 180 30 for the new Noris eco).

Article numbers for Staedtler’s rotary (i.e. hand crank) sharpener start with 501 (e.g. the Mars 501 20 rotary sharpener) so 501 180 is the perfect5 article number for this sharpener, 501 for a rotary sharpener and 180 for Wopex. The 501 180 was designed by Helmut Hufnagl and is made in Taiwan.

Left to right: Deli 0635, Staedtler 501 180, Deli 0620

The Video

Here’s a video where I compare the 501 180 to two other rotary sharpeners.

Clipping the pencils’ points off at about 7:30 really hurt and felt rather wasteful, but wasting so much good pencil when the auto stop of the other two sharpeners didn’t work was of course even more wasteful (…even though it didn’t hurt so much, maybe because the machine did the crippling of the pencils).

Left to right: Deli 0635, Staedtler 501 180, Deli 0620

Tip: Open the video in YouTube, you can then play it at higher speeds, e.g. 1.5x.

Here’s a little table comparing the different points created by the three different sharpeners.

Sharpener:Deli 0635Staedtler 501 180Deli 0620

..and here are the different points made by the different sharpeners.

Left to right: point sharpened by Deli 0635, Staedtler 501 180, Deli 0620

The Auto Stop

There is just so much less material wasted when the auto stop works. If you don’t have the 501 180 and your sharpener’s auto stop doesn’t work, have a look at the end of the video where I show a way of dealing with this problem. I am mentioning this simple trick here because my simplest videos seem most appreciated (e.g. how to refill a mechanical pencil), while my complex videos (e.g. the DelGuard pen force test) remain rather unloved.

Left to right: point sharpened by Deli 0635, Staedtler 501 180, Deli 0620


I have added the Wopex Mars 501 180 to the list of sharpeners, sorted by angle.

Many thanks to Benedikt Schindler for his help in getting the 501 180 to me in the UK.

  1. …because I switched to using a protractor when measuring angles I want to stick with this method so that all pencil points are measured the same way. []
  2. …with Johnny being the most determined defender in the Erasable group on Facebook. Thank you for that. []
  3. As expressed previously, for various reasons I am not keen on the expression ‘toothy paper’, but since this is a direct quote it will be one of the few occasions you can find this word in this blog []
  4. Yes, I learned that expression when I watched the English version of Star Trek Voyager. []
  5. I try to avoid using the word perfect, but in this case it is justified, I think. []

Norddeutsche Bleistiftfabrik 8


nbf packaging, design: bartsch design gmbh

These days it is quite common for Western companies to move manufacturing to China. The China First Pencil Company, manufacturers of the Chung Hwa pencil, tried the opposite. In the late 1990s they opened a pencil factory in the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Norddeutsche Bleistiftfabrik (nbf) – the Northern German Pencil Factory. They planned to produce up to 100 million pencils each year in this factory. At the time it was the first direct Chinese investment in Europe, something not so uncommon any more today.

Why did the China First Pencil Company do this? The idea was to sell pencils “Made in Germany” in Europe, maybe even to export them to the USA. To keep prices down1 the pencils were made in China using lime wood2. The nbf factory only had to paint the pencils (using imported, Shanghainese machines) that were sent unpainted from the factory in China. The design of the pencils was done in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern by bartsch design, a company that won prestigious awards for wind turbine design.

Only six months  and more than 10 million Deutschmarks in subsidies and loans later it was all over. Rules did not allow “Made in Germany” to be printed on the pencils because they were only painted in Germany …and when they did not sell, not even after the price was reduced, China First Pencil Company and their partners, a Shanghai-based and a HongKong-based investor, had enough and their subsidiary, the nbf, filed for bankruptcy.

These pencils might have had a chance, I guess it didn’t work out, either because the quality wasn’t good enough3 or because nbf just wasn’t an established name. The missing “Made in Germany” could not have been the only reason why nbf failed. Look at other companies: Since Lyra has been taken over by Fila, the Italian company that owns Dixon, most of their pencils are made in China. That doesn’t stop them from printing “Germany” (not “Made in Germany” though) on their pencils. Leica can write “Made in Germany” on their M9 cameras, even though they only pair the camera body and electronics they get from Portugal with Kodak’s sensor made in Rochester, New York, and do some testing. Maybe cutting the sandwich in the nbf factory would have been enough to be able to label the pencils “Made in Germany”…


nbf pencils, design: bartsch design gmbh

Hourly wages and exchange rates: 1997

I would like to thank Mr Bartsch and Mr Rug from bartsch design for allowing me to show the computer-generated images of the pencil and packaging designs as part of this blog post.

  1. Hourly wages at the time and in that part of Germany were nearly 12 DM per hour, at 1997’s exchange rate that was about $6.90 / £4.20. The USA’s minimum wage at the time was $5.15 and the UK’s minimum wage at the time was £3.60. []
  2. American English: Linden wood []
  3. I have never seen any of the pencils, so cannot comment whether that was the case. I assume that a few months were enough time for nbf to paint a few pencils – so there should be a few of them around. The question is how they were painted, i.e. which design was used, and where they were sold. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in variety stores. If nbf‘s machines were sent back to China they might have also sent the pencils back to China at the same time – to sell them there… []