If you're new to pencils, you've probably noticed that one of the things that distinguishes one pencil from another is the letter or number printed on its barrel. It might be a #2 or a #1, or it might be a letter like H or B. Let's make sense of all of this:
What is a pencil made out of?
The "lead" of a pencil (which, by the way, has NEVER actually contained actual lead) is traditionally made of three things: graphite, clay and water. These days, most pencils have a little bit of wax or other additives in them, which aid in making them smoother to write with. The "grade" or "hardness" of the pencil indicates the ratio of graphite to clay.
The more graphite that is in a pencil, the softer it is. This means that it's darker, smoother, smudgier and doesn't hold as sharp of a point.
The more clay that is in a pencil, the harder it is. This means that it's lighter, firmer, less smudgy and holds a sharpener point.
Decoding the scale:
In the US, we're used to a #2 pencil being the standard pencil grade but in the rest of the world, this number designation doesn't exist. A #2 is the equivalent of an HB pencil, which sits comfortably in the middle of pencil grading scale and is universally considered to be a balanced lead that is ideal for writing and general use.
On the non-American pencil grading scale, HB(#2) is is the middle and the grades in either direction are assigned a number and a letter.
B = Softer than HB, with ascending numbers indicating increasing softness
HB (#2) = The middle! If you don't know where to start, try an HB first.
F = There's no confirmed story about where the random F came from, but it's on grade harder than HB
H = Comes after F, indicates a hard pencil with ascending numbers indicating increasing hardness
Note: The example we're using is the Mitsubishi Hi-Uni, which comes in the widest range of grades on the market! It runs from 10H all the way to 10B. Most pencil ranges stop at around 8B because anything softer has an extremely high graphite content, making them expensive and delicate to manufacture. And most ranges don't go all the way to 10H because, to be frank, using a 10H pencil feels like writing with a nail (it's SO HARD!!).
Where does this lettering system come from?
Poly-grade pencils first started showing up on the market in the late 19th century, and were labelled in a number of ways. There's no confirmed story of the exact origin, but Koh-i-Noor (formerly L&C Hardtmuth) claims to have invented the European pencil grading model. "B" stands for Budweis, "H" stands for Hardtmuth and "F" stands for Franz, the member of the Hardtmuth family who is said to have come up with all of this. Though this challenges the commonly believed story that it was the Germans who came up with this ("B"for bold, "H" for hard and "F" for firm) I like to think that the Hardtmuth's were the first. A fun fact is that originally, no numbers were used, so a 5B pencil would have been marked BBBBB.
What are all of the different grades used for?
For writing, it's only really practical for most people to stick to the grades in the middle of the scale. The more extreme grades exist for a variety of purposes!
Writing: Generally, H through 3B-ish are idea for writing. Anything harder can be too light to read and anything softer can be too smudgy. But it's totally up to you!
General drawing: We really struggle with recommending drawing pencils to people because it really really depends on personal preference and what kind of work you're doing. For a beginner, we recommend trying 3 or 4 different hardnesses, like maybe 2H, HB, 3B and 5B.
Drafting and line work: This is where to harder pencils come in! Most of our pencils harder than a 2H are sold to people who are using them for very precise drawing or for drafting.
One thing that we don't love about how pencils are marketed is that more pencils in a wide range of hardnesses are labelled "drawing pencils" but in truth, they're no different than "writing pencils", except that they come in more hardnesses. Use whatever you like! It doesn't matter what it's marketed for, they're all made the same way.
An important thing to note: the pencil grading scale is NOT universal
There's a general consensus of what hard and soft pencils should feel and look like, but there's no universally adopted ratio. That said, a 2B in one brand might feel totally different to a 2B in another brand. Different countries and parts of the world have different standards that can vary a lot but generally go like this:
We base all of our comparison regarding pencil hardness to a standard American #2 pencil, which falls somewhere in the middle of hardness feel. If you're interested in testing out your pencils against a standard American pencil, we recommend the General's Semi-Hex #2.
European pencils: the modern pencil was perfected in Europe in the 19th century, and many of the companies that still make pencils in Europe have been around for over 100 years. That said, many of them make their pencils rather traditionally and they tend to not have much, if any wax in them. Generally, European pencils run hard compared to pencils made in other parts of the world.
Japanese pencils: pencils from Japan tend to have different types of waxes and additives in them to manipulate how they look and feel. That said, they tend to run a little soft compared to American pencils, and a good couple of grades softer than European pencils. What's cool about Japanese pencils is that due to these characteristics, they tend to be darker, without as much of a risk of smudgi-ness or dulling.
The majority of the pencils we sell come from America, Europe or Japan but there are some exception, like Shahson's pencils from Pakistan and Apsara and Nataraj pencils from India, both of which run pretty close to the American scale.
Why do some pencils not have grades at all?
Sometimes, this is a marketing choice and sometimes it's because the pencil is made with other things in it and is a little more nuanced. We try our best to accurately describe these ones in our product descriptions, which also include swatches so you can see what they look like!
Need a recommendation for something specific? Email us!