A Pocket Safe Intro Into The World of Mechanical Drafting Pencils

(This is a guest post by Nick Folz. You can find more of Nick and his work on his blog, Smallberry Drive, Twitter, and Instagram.)

Pencils are essential. They are the flint, the scaffold. They are the part that says, "This isn't something yet, but it is hiding inside this." Pencils are the creation part of any project; any inking, typing or painting is a refinement of what the pencil started.

Look, I like analogies, and there are plenty in the pencil and pen world. Wooden pencils are analogous to standard ballpoint pens (they come pre-packed with the writing medium, they are typically one use and disposable) where mechanical pencils are much more like fountain pens (they are the vessels for the writing medium, you can pick your lead/ink yourself). I have long loved my mechanical pencils, but my go-to pocket utensil was always a pen. I had used a drafting pencil nearly every day for over a decade (Alvin Draft/Matic .9mm, still have it) but I wouldn't carry it daily because the tip was too dangerous to my pockets, I also didn't want to bend the tip. Well, after washing my fair share of Pilot V5's and ruining at least one load of delicates, I knew I needed to find a non-ink option to carry. Enter the Uni Shift.

The Uni Shift Pipe Lock Drafting Pencil, is a mouthful of a name, so I will be calling it the Shift. Uni's unique and innovative design, especially in the mechanical pencil world, is once more shown off here with the Shift's retractable tip. Retractable tips are not exactly a new thing in the mechanical pencil world, but it is still something that gets a new spin on it every few years. This particular pencil has been around since at least 2009, no one could call me an early adopter. Right off the bat this pencil has a lot going for it: pocket safe, cool looking, nice heft to it, decent clip. They have five sizes to choose from (.3mm, .4mm, .5mm, .7mm, and .9mm).

I choose the thickest one possible, the .9mm. Since I am typically sketching with the intent of inking over the marks, I go for a wide, soft lead that won't put too much of a dent in the page. An added bonus is that the thicker leads tend to break less. I used Pentel 2B .9mm lead with this pencil. If you are unfamiliar, H leads are harder and less dark, 6H typically being the hardest. B leads are softer and darker, 4B typically being the softest. H=Hard B=Black is an easy way to remember. I sometimes have trouble erasing anything past a 2B because the pigment will leech into the paper. I would occasionally switch over to a red lead but mainly stuck with the black.

The Shift’s gimmick has been well documented, you twist the grip and it will slide down and snap into place, displaying the lead sleeve. Twist it the other way and slide the grip back up and it will hide the lead sleeve, making it safe to tuck in your pocket. The metal grip is pretty solid when locked, which was the thing I was worried most about. Once it is clicked, it takes a very deliberate effort to un-click it. At no point in the two months I kept this in my pocket did it come unsecured on me. My only gripe with the mechanism is that it is difficult to work one handed. I have read reviews where people claim they can do it easily, “It just takes practice!” Well, so does riding a unicycle, doesn’t make me want to take the time to do it. Suffice to say it is possible, but not intuitive or quick.

The cool factor is high with this one. I had to keep it from being stolen no less than four times (once by the founder of the company I work for) and one co-worker bought one after seeing it. The body is mostly the same circumference, where a lot of drafting pencils taper in plateaus at the eraser, the consistent body gives it a great silhouette. It is forward weighted, due to the grip that is utilized as the sliding mechanism being the metal part on the body. While the forward weight might seems like a negative, the balance feels really good when writing. The metal knurling on the grip is perfect, nice wide pattern but with a fairly shallow depth so that it isn't sharp if you are sensitive to these sorts of grips.

-Warning, a bit of a rambling rant ahead-

Here is where some people are going to write this pencil off: the body is plastic. Plastic bodies are not a taboo in drafting pencils, my aforementioned Alvin Draft/Matic has a plastic body, but for Mid/High grade drafting pencils, full metal bodies are the norm. The plastic body on this pencil looks great and I'm sure it helps keep the price down, which makes this a great intro pencil, and I don't want what I'm about to say to detract from the actual product. The Shift is fantastic and one of it's main attractions is it's affordability, but I have often wondered why Uni has not done a full metal version, like they have with the Kuru Toga Roulette. Sure, the Kuru Toga has a “wow” factor to it and is arguably one of the most name checked pencils of the last decade, but the Shift is no bad shakes either. Putting the two head to head is a no brainer, I’m going to pick the Shift every time, even if the hypothetical Kuru Toga in question was a Roulette model. The lead rotating mechanism is neat, but actually using it did not work for me. I doodle, therefore I don’t pick up and put down the lead at an interval that makes the Kuru Toga engine work. Whats worse is that engine creates a bit of “play” in the lead, where the Shift has none of it. Plus, I actually LIKE that the lead wears unevenly, which is why I like .9mm leads. I can have a nice, thick line or spin it around to use the fine point for details when needed. The gimmick of the Kuru Toga never stopped being anything more than a gimmick to me, where the Shift had an honest to goodness function right off the bat. Other high end drafting pencils have similar gimmicks and functions, and if Uni were to step up the build materials, they would be competing with the best of them. For some reason, I find it super frustrating wanting the opportunity to pay more for something that should exist, but not having the ability to, because it doesn't.

There is one other down side to this pencil, it is not designed to be taken apart. For me, and I am sure I’m not the only one, it is almost a ritual. Sacred. Taking apart the mechanical drafting pencil to inspect it is usually one of the first things I do. I consider it a sort of ode to the engineers and drafters these pencils are made by and for, so I try to take the time to figure out how each one works. The Shift is not designed to be taken apart. I pressed my luck and nearly broke it once, after that I stopped fooling with it. I understand the design reason, you twist the grip to deploy and hide the sleeve so you wouldn’t want to accidentally twist it loose all of the time. But, it would be nice to be able to check to see if a piece of lead is broken or if you need to clean the inside. Maybe if they added a break lower on the pencil body, closer to the eraser, but I am no engineer and am sure they have their reasons. Price point is probably one of them.


  • Great weight
  • Looks very cool
  • Solid construction with no lead wiggle
  • Shift mechanism works wonderfully
  • Innovative design Uni is known for
  • Great price point


  • Plastic body
  • Two hands needed to deploy lead sleeve
  • Can’t take it apart

I am not sure how it comes across, but I feel like I have been beating this pencil up. Rest assured, I REALLY like this pencil, and would recommend it in a heartbeat. I like it so much that I want the opportunity to pay more for a nicer model. If you are thinking about entering the crazy world of drafting pencils, you could certainly do worse. If I had my druthers they would never stop making these, as they are a perfect starter pencil, but also introduce a Roulette version of the Shift that is all metal. Function, looks, and design make this an amazing pencil that is a bargain even if you are only just curious. If they ever do build an all metal version they would be competing with Rotring, but for now you just have a damn fine pencil, not THE damn fine pencil. The Uni Shift Pipe Lock Drafting Pencil (whew) can be found at JetPens.com in a variety of sizes.

(Disclaimer: This product was provided for me free of cost but I am not otherwise being compensated for this review. The opinions contained are my own.)

Posted on October 9, 2015 and filed under Drafting Pencil, Pencil Reviews, Uni.