Pencils have been a part of our lives since we first started school. We’ve used them to write and to draw, but there’s a lot more to choosing the right pencil than first meets the eye.
We’ve all seen gradings, marked at the end of each pencil, but what does HB and 2B stand for, and how are they different? When do we use a graphite pencil, as opposed to a charcoal one, or one made of carbon? And why do pencils come in different shapes?
Let’s start with the easy one: shapes.
Pencils generally come in four shapes: hexagonal, semi-hexagonal, round, and triangular. Some specialist pencils are also elliptical, octagonal, or rectangular; there are also novelty pencils which come in varying shapes. These are formed by shaping the wooden casing around the lead, which prevents smudging while you work, rather than on the lead itself.
The four most common pencil shapes - Pencils.com
Hexagonal pencils are commonly used for writing. They have very defined edges for easy gripping, and prevents rolling. The hard casing, however, is not ideal for shading; and the sharp edges often cause calluses.
Semi-Hexagonal pencils are often used for drawing, and sometimes for writing. They have more rounded edges than hexagonal pencils, so are less rigid, but this also means less grip, especially for writers.
Round edges are most commonly used for promotional material, as the smooth edges are easier to print on, and fashion metal cases for. There’s significantly less grip on round pencils, which is not ideal for writers, but this can be circumvented by attaching a pencil grip.
Triangular pencils are best for children who are just starting to write. The way they are shaped helps children learn how to hold a pencil properly. Jumbo-sized options are easiest for children to hold, but are more for broad, rough use rather than fine detail.
We’ve all heard people talking about different kinds of leads for their pacers, and multiple choice exams at school have always stressed the importance of filling in bubbles with HB or 2B pencils, but what does it all actually mean?
H stands for “hardness”, and B for “blackness”, according to the European system of pencil grading. These are used to determine the different shades of grey and black that can be produced by the pencil in question.
The centre of the pencil, the graphite, is made from a mixture of clay and graphite. The relative proportions of each determine the grading of the pencil — more clay means a harder pencil, while the amount of graphite affect the blackness.
Grading chart from 9B to 9H
The American system for pencil grading uses numbers, and is primarily used for writing pencils. There are only five grades: #1 (softest), #2, #2½, #3, and #4 (hardest), which corresponds to the European 2H, H, F (midway on the scale), HB, and B.
Most pencils are made from graphite, the materials of which are made from a mixture of clay and graphite. These pencils make the smoothest strokes. Solid graphite pencils simply lack the wooden casing, and are primarily used by artists to cover large spaces.
Charcoal pencils are fuller in blackness, but smudge easily and are more abrasive than graphite.
Carbon pencils are composed of clay and lamp black, or blended with charcoal or graphite. On a scale of smoothness and blackness, they are sit between graphite and charcoal respectively.
Watch this basic video on how to choose a pencil for your first artistic endeavour:
As you progress further, you'll also come across other factors, such as specialty pencils, which are specially designed for industrial use; and colour. Try and experiment with these at least once, to get a feel for how they work, and decide for yourself if these are suitable for you.