We're back for our third installment on pencil shopping: pencil grades! What do those little letters and numbers on your pencil mean? 2B or not 2B, that literally is the question (and most-used joke in the pencil shop) we're going to answer here!
First things first - graphite pencil cores are primarily made up of two components: graphite and clay (give or take some binders like wax or polymer). The feel of a pencil and the mark it makes on paper is dependent on the blend and ratio of those two products: the more clay there is, the harder and lighter a pencil will be; the more graphite there is, the darker and softer it will be.
To distinguish harder and softer pencils, pencil manufacturers rank pencils on a grading scale. There are two grading systems for pencils - American and European. The American system is numerical and goes from 1 to 4, while the European system uses the letters "H" and "B" to note how hard or soft a pencil is.
The European scale was coined by Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth in the Czech Republic. The company's founder Joseph Hardtmuth invented a way to combine powered graphite with clay and form it into sticks to go inside a pencil. By varying the mixture of clay and graphite, it was discovered that you could change how dark or light a mark would be. The Hardtmuth company designated names for their blends of graphite inside the pencil: HB (named for Hardtmuth and Budějovice - also known as Budweis) and F (named for Franz Hardtmuth, who the company credits with developing the process for creating gradation). Later this was adapted into the European scale we know today, with H standing for "hard" and B standing for "bold" and that F still arbitrarily hanging out between H and HB.
The American grading system was initially invented by Nicholas Conte (who also developed a process of binding powered graphite with clay to create different hardnesses), and adopted by the Thoreau family in the U.S., where it became the standard primarily for writing pencils. Because the American scale only ranks pencils mostly in the middle range of hardnesses, it's mainly used to describe writing pencils, not drawing pencils (the HB scale can be used to describe a much, much broader range).
Here's a little table to help you compare the two scales*:
A good thing to remember:
A B grade means the core has more graphite, and will make a bolder, darker line, and also be a little smudgier than a light pencil.
An H grade means the core has more clay, and will make a lighter, finer line, and will be less smudgy than a dark pencil.
So what are these grades used for? For most everyday purposes, such as writing and simple sketching, you'll want to stick in the middle grades, like 2H to 2B. These are the most balanced (in terms of the ratio of clay to graphite), so you'll have a reasonably dark line, but your pencil will retain it's point fairly well. It also won't have the smudginess of a very dark pencil, nor the scratchiness of a very light pencil.
Harder pencils, such as 2H to 6H range, are great for very light sketching, like drafting an outline of something before you go over it with something bold, like a dark pencil or a pen, or for laying out a sketch before you paint over it. The lines you get from a hard pencil will be very precise.
Bolder pencils, such as a 2B to a 6B, are great for loose, expressive sketching or shading. Bold pencils are going to be very soft, which means they dull fairly quickly, allowing you a lot of line variation in your sketching. They also smudge very well, which is great for certain shading techniques.
If you're going to be very technical in your drawings, like some of the ones seen here, you'll want a set that includes a range of pencils. The very light pencils will be good for lighter areas that need shading, while the dark will do the bolder shading. We typically recommend getting a set for this purpose (like this one or this one) - different companies have different standards for their blends of graphite, so a 2B from one company will not look or feel exactly the same as a 2B from a different company.
Which leads me to my last point: pencil grading, like clothing sizes, is not universal! Standards vary across companies, and across countries. Our general rule of thumb: German and Czech pencils tend to run a bit hard, U.S. and Swiss pencils tend to be more medium, and Japanese pencils run a bit soft.
Need more explanation? Did we miss something you wanted to know in our Guide to Pencil series (check out "Beginners Guide to Pencil Shopping" and "Best Basics" for the first two)? Let us know! Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org - we'd be happy to answer any pencil questions!
*In older pencils, you'll sometimes see the grade #2 5/10, or 2 1/2. Those you can consider to be around an F grade.