We’re documenting the basics of pencils on our blog, so if you’re a pencil newbie you’re in the right place! Stay tuned for future installments.
This may come as a surprise coming from a shop that stocks around 200 varieties of pencils, but not all pencils are alike! Shocking, I know.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with choices when looking at the vast array of pencils in the world - how do you chose? What makes one pencil different than another? Here’s a few first considerations for pencil shopping.
First things first — what are you using your pencil for? Writing, drawing, taking notes in the margins of books? Determining your pencil’s purpose will help you narrow down the qualities to look at when trying out pencils. For instance, for extended writing you may not want a super soft pencil, as you’ll have to sharpen it more often than a firmer pencil. Likewise, if you’re trying to draw a dark outline on an image you won’t want a hard, light pencil - you’ll need something bold and soft. Which brings me to my next point…
Most pencils are graded on a scale according to the amount of graphite within it (pencil cores are a mix of graphite and clay — hard pencils have more clay in the mix, soft pencils have more graphite). There’s two scales commonly in use: the HB (Hard/Bold) scale or the American numerical scale (1, 2, 3, 4). In the U.S., you’ll be most familiar with a #2 pencil, known elsewhere as an HB. HB’s and #2s are the median grade of pencil - they’re equal parts hard and bold, making them pretty multifunctional (firm enough to write with, dark enough to draw with, generally not too smudgy). If you’re looking for a darker, softer pencil, you’ll want to look at the B (bold) range - B, 2B, 4B, etc. (the higher the number, the softer and darker the pencil). A softer pencil is smudgier and harder to erase, but is good for shading and outlining.
If you want a harder, lighter pencil, you’re shopping in the H (hard) range - F*, H, 2H, 4H, etc. (the higher the number, the firmer and lighter the pencil). Very hard pencils are often scratchy and can leave impressions on your paper, but are good for light sketching or very precise, sharp lines (which is good if you write really tiny).
(By the way, we’ll do a longer post on grades soon!)
Country of origin
Much like clothing sizes, pencil grading is not a universal system, so from country to country (and on a more minute scale, company to company) pencil grades vary. Thus, an HB from Japan is going to feel a bit different than an HB from the U.S. Here’s what we’ve noticed: Pencils from India and Germany run a little hard; pencils from Japan run a little soft; while pencils from the U.S., Switzerland and Portugal fall somewhere in the middle. Pencils from Japan also tend to have a little polymer mixed in with the graphite, making them a little less smudgy (great for lefties!).
Here’s a simple way to narrow down your choices: does your pencil need an eraser on the end? Typically, soft pencils do not have an eraser on the end (the softest I’ve seen is the matte black Blackwing, which is about a 4B), so that rules out most dark pencils. Additionally, eraser-tipped pencils tend to fall in the school-grade spectrum, so you won't find many premium-quality pencils with an eraser tip. That's not to say great eraser-tipped pencils don't exist (Camel HB and Palomino HB are great options!), they're just fewer of them than un-tipped versions.
If you are reaching for a tipped pencil, eraser quality is a big factor as well: Sadly, some pencils simply have terrible erasers. Pencils tipped with a plastic eraser (like the two I just mentioned) tend to have more longevity than rubber erasers (rubber dries out after a while), though rubber erasers are a little more common.
Shape and Size
There’s typically three shapes a pencil barrel can come in (though we have seen novelty shapes like hearts and flowers): hexagonal, triangular and round. Shape is definitely a comfort consideration - triangular tends to be a good choice for helping with penmanship and holding a pencil “correctly,” while hexagonal and round pencils allow you to adjust your grip a little more easily. Some pencils have really sharp corners (Musgrave Test Scoring is one we’ve noticed is pretty sharp), so that’s something to think about if you’ll be using your pencil a lot.
There’s a few different schools when it comes to size: a standard pencil diameter is around 6mm (though, much like graphite, pencil diameter varies slightly from country to country, with Japanese pencils being a hair larger than American or Swiss); mini jumbos are around 8mm; and jumbo pencils are around 10mm. Jumbo pencils are great for beginners (which is why Big Dipper is so popular in kindergarten classrooms!), though you might find that the large size is just super comfy to hold on to.
I am definitely of the school of thought that a good looking pencil makes you feel smarter. That being said, much like shape and diameter, the lacquer on a pencil definitely contributes to the comfort of the writing instrument. Some pencils have hard, plastic-y coatings on them, while others are soft naked cedar, and of course they feel wildly different. And some, like the Faber Castell Grip 2001, have texture!
Finally, of course cost is a consideration. Cheaply manufactured pencils sometimes have issues with off-center cores (so the wood covers the graphite when you sharpen them), cheap, flaky wood, or scratchy graphite. However, cheap pencils also allow you more bang for your buck if you plan on going through a lot of pencils (and there are some really nice inexpensive options out there!). More expensive pencils tend to have graphite that is milled much more finely (i.e. smooth and lovely) and stick straight cores that sharpen beautifully. But, more expensive pencils are, well, expensive and can add up quickly!
So now you’re a pencil expert - what are you going to reach for? Have we missed any points you're looking for on your pencil? The pencil experts at CWPE are always standing by to answer your pencil questions at firstname.lastname@example.org!
*F, according to the Wikipedia entry on pencils, was arbitrarily thrown in between HB and H and stands for “fine.” Way to really mess this up, F!