If you’re a sketch artist or a designer who prefers to use pencil and paper to computer drafting programs, you may feel that the modern world is quickly leaving you behind. But don’t fret, because pencil and paper are far from obsolete! The level of fine work that can be done using the right pencil on the right type of paper is good enough to do any job whether it’s artistic in nature or technical. In this article, I hope to answer every question you may have about pencils and the relative hardness of the graphite inside them. Now, there’s a lot to be said on the subject, so let’s get into it.
Table of Contents
- What is Pencil Lead Made From?
- The Two Graphite Scales
- Comparing the Graphite Scales
- How to Choose the Right Pencil Grades
- What Graphite Grade does a Mechanical Pencil Use?
- Why You Should Swatch Your Pencils
- Additional Tips
What is Pencil Lead Made From?
The cores of nearly all pencils made in the last century are made from graphite. People usually refer to it as “lead” because long ago, before the toxicity of lead was well understood, the soft metal was used to make pencil cores. In this article, we will refer to the material in the core of the pencil either as “graphite” or as the “core,” not as “lead.”
The core of a graphite pencil is made of two primary components, clay, and graphite. Some contain a number of other binders such as a polymer or wax, but for the most part, you’re only going to need to be concerned about the clay and the graphite. The way your pencil feels when you move it across the page and the way it rubs off onto the paper is all about the ratio of the graphite relative to the clay. The more graphite there is, the darker the mark, and the softer the core. The more clay there is, the harder the core will be and the lighter the mark.
The Two Graphite Scales
Fortunately for us, there are useful grading scales for the hardness of pencils for drawing, so that you know what your pencils are graded as before you buy them. There is an American grading scale and a European hardness grading scale. The American scale ranks pencils from one to four, while the European scale is larger and more nuanced, making it the better scale for artists.
The European Scale
The European scale ranks them using letters and numbers and it goes as follows:
4H – 3H – 2H – H – F – HB – B – 2B – 3B – 4B – 5B – 6B
4H is the lightest pencil and 6B is the darkest. HB is the medium shade. This scale can even extend to covering from 9H to 9B, but the grades shown are the most common you’ll find in pencil sets.
In the European scale, sometimes referred to as the Hardtmuth scale, for its creator Koh-i-Nor Hardmuth, the H stands for “Hard” and the B stands for “Bold.” The “F” stands for “Franz,” which is the first name of one of the people involved in the process of creating the grading scale, but it really just means “darker than “H” and lighter than “HB.”
The American Scale
The American system for grading pencil core hardness was invented by the same man who pioneered a new way to bind powdered graphite with clay, Nicholas Conte. The scale was adopted the Thoreau family, of Henry David fame, and went on to become the standard for the entire nation in grading the hardness of writing pencils.
The American scale only marks four ranks of hardness that fall around the middle of the European scale. As such it is simpler, easier to remember, and is more than good enough for choosing a good pencil for writing with. A #1 pencil is the same as a B pencil in the European scale. #2 is HB, the medium shade, #3 is F, and #4 is H.
Comparing the Graphite Scales
The European scale is better suited for choosing a grade of pencil that is meant for performing some kind of fine work or art. As such, the European scale provides much more variation, and an experienced artist will find great value in knowing where a pencil ranks in hardness higher and lower than what the standard American scale will accommodate.
For almost anyone, any pencil between the grades of 2H and 2B will prove to be more than sufficient. These pencils offer the most well-balanced blend of graphite and clay. That is, after all, the reason the Thoreau family favored those hardness levels and why the nation has accepted them for longer than any living person can hope to remember.
How to Choose the Right Pencil Grades
While they may be quite hard to find unless you go to a seller of tools for fine art, the upper range goes as high in the hardness scale as 6H. This would be ideal for artists who want to put a very fine point on a pencil and produce very fine marks.
One of the nice things about a very hard core it that it will keep its point longer and will be much less prone to darkening the heel of your hand as you work across the page.
A downside about very hard pencil cores, which you will discover if you like to cover large areas of paper, is that they can be a challenge to sharpen. They will tend to break inside of the average electric pencil sharpener. If you plan to do a lot of work with a 6H pencil or a pencil near that level of hardness, you may need to use a razor to sharpen it. An X-Acto knife or another type of craft knife can work well. Alternatively, a nail file might be a good tool for grinding down the tip to a very fine point without breaking it, if you feel the need to do so.
There are specialized sharpeners on the market for honing very fine points, but you’ll find that they can be a bit pricey—and there is a learning curve to using them well.
The Best Pencil Grades for Shading
Likewise, those who wish to produce solid bold shadows, those who like to create impressionistic art, or those who just want to be able to fill in those large shaded areas with greater speed and ease, pencils can also be found as bold as 6B. However, you’ll have to purchase these either online or at a fine art store because they aren’t very common.
Once again, like the pencils in the very high hardness range, the very soft pencils have their own quirks and problems. Points on very bold pencils will not last long, and they tend to crumble inside pencil sharpeners. Again, there are specialized sharpeners for these pencils, but you might have the most luck with an X-Acto knife. This is yet another situation where a nail file might help you to keep your extra bold pencils producing satisfactory marks.
For the purposes of general shading, most people will be satisfied with the American #1, #2, #3, and #4 grade levels of graphite hardness. Of course, if you’ve bothered to read this far, there’s a good chance you’re not satisfied with these basic hardness levels. If that’s the case, you’ll need to go into the deeper levels of graphite softness. Start with the 2B graphite level, and go further down the spectrum until you find a level of core softness that you like.
If very dark shading over large swaths of paper is where your heart lies, then you’re going to have to drop down into the very far end of the graphite softness spectrum. For most people, anything between 2B and 6B will be more than adequate. Once you start doing shading at this level, you’re going to have a lot of graphite smudge on the heel of your hands, which is to be expected—and can earn you some street cred if you attend an art school.
Of course, if the darkest of the dark isn’t enough for you, you may be pleased to learn that there are even grades of softness that go beyond the bottom ranks of the European scale.
The best pencils for light shading are the same that are best for making very fine marks and details. The harder the graphite, the higher it is up the scale, and the less material will come off onto the paper when you move it across the page. For good results, anything between the grades H and 4H will be sufficient. As always, you’ll have to experiment with the grades and the sharpness of the pencil to find out what works best for you.
The Best Pencil Grades for Sketching
That being said, for the purposes of writing and for most sketch artists, any pencil that falls within the American grade scale will be just fine. Speaking for myself, throughout my childhood, I did quite a bit of drawing and considered myself to have a fairly decent level of competence. I was no fine artist by any stretch of the imagination. But I was able to draw a few portraits which most people thought were rather good, and which I was proud of. Needless to say, I accomplished this with the standard #2 American pencil and with paper made for printing computer generated text, which many school children probably believe is the only pencil and paper combo worth using.
If I had a softer pencil, I would have been able to do shading much more easily and with greater competence. But at the end of the day, for what I was doing, I did not see the need for anything more than what was readily available. All I wanted was a good pencil that had not been handled roughly so that the core would not turn out to be broken inside of the wood.
For almost all sketching purposes, the best choice is subjective—but many habitual sketch artists will tell you that the classic #2 pencil is truly the best.
What Graphite Grade does a Mechanical Pencil Use?
Mechanical pencils for drawing use the same types of graphite, made with graphite and clay, that ordinary pencils use. The only differences are that the graphite for mechanical pencils is graded by the thickness and that they tend to be harder by default. This is because the graphite has to fit snugly in the chamber without being too tight.
The most common hardness levels for mechanical pencil graphite fall within the HB and H grades. This is due to the fact that the graphite has to be harder than it does in most normal pencils in order to be strong enough not to constantly snap off.
Why You Should Swatch Your Pencils
We have emphasized experimenting with different pencil hardness levels in order to find the grade and the manufacturer that you prefer. But if you’re a consummate artist and need more detailed information about all of the pencils in your kit, there’s a way to have that information at your fingertips: swatching.
A swatch is a sample of a specific color. If you’ve ever been to the paint department of the hardware store you’ve probably seen swatches of color for different paints. These tell you exactly what a given paint looks like when spread thin. Well, you can create a “shading” swatch for all of your pencils that will tell you what to expect when you take one in hand. This becomes even more important if you use colored pencils, but ordinary gray pencils are a good start.
Take a sketch notebook with horizontal lines, or make your own horizontal lines. In each line create a square of shading using one pencil, then label each line and each pencil. This will give you a catalog of swatches for instant reference.
This is an easy way to know what’s in your pencil collection, and it’s something that you can do while binge-watching your favorite Netflix show.
Once you start working with pencils that you like from a specific brand, it’s best to stick with that brand. Even if you choose to use different hardness levels, it will be easier to understand what you’re getting if you stick with the same brand.
If you happen upon an older pencil, about 20 years old or older, you’ll find them to be a bit softer than what you might expect compared to a new pencil. This is due to the fact that pencil cores will absorb moisture over time, and also because newer pencils are made harder.
At the end of the day, the best friend of the consummate writer is the #2 pencil and standard notebook paper. If your goals are artistic or technical, then the advice we have provided here will help you choose the best pencil for every need. The variety of different shades that comes in a set of pencils is enough to draw anything, so I hope this run-down gets you ready to start.