Raise your hand if you know what a #2 pencil is.
Great - now, do you know the difference between a #1 and a #2? How about a #3? Do you know their European equivalent? This is easily the most common topic we discuss with customers, given that #2 pencils are so prevalent in the U.S. - so much so that unless you went to art school, you may not have even tried anything beyond a #2. Let's get shady with pencil grades!
One of the first numerical pencil grading systems was invented by the Thoreau family back in the 1840s, when John and Henry David Thoreau began experimenting with clay and graphite ratios for pencil cores. Their #1 pencil had the most graphite inside, making it the softest and smoothest, while their #4 had the most clay, making it the firmest and most crisp. At the time that the Thoreaus were experimenting with graphite blends, pencil manufacturing was an up and coming industry, so their grading system was picked up by other American manufacturers, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Because the American numerical grading system was limited to 4 pencil grades just within the very middle of the hardness scale, numerical grades became a marketing tool to distinguish writing pencils from drawing pencils (drawing pencils come in up to 22 different grades!). When the American National Bureau of Standards introduced rules in the 1930s about pencil color, erasers and ferrules, the yellow #2 with a pink eraser became a best-selling standard for writing, and that's stuck around through today.
But why did just the #2 become so prevalent? What about its brethren, the #1, #3 and #4? Well, a #2 pencil represents a fully balanced pencil: the core is equal parts clay and graphite, making it firm enough to keep a sharp point and not smudge too much, but also dark enough to show up nicely. These reasons distinguished the trusty #2 as the best pencil for standardized testing in particular, where visibility and smudge-free writing are super important.
Mental Floss: What Makes #2 Pencils So Special?
Business Insider: Here's what the No. 2 on your Pencil Actually Means
CWPE: How to find your Perfect #2
These days, it's uncommon to come across the full range of numerical graded pencils - you really only see #2s or #1s, or sometimes you'll come across the odd #2 1/2 or #2 5/8s.
A quick note on fractions - It used to be common to see pencils graded a #2 1/2 or similar fraction. Caroline did extensive research on this for The Pencil Perfect to figure out why each company had its own half-grade hanging out in between #2 and #3 (marking the pencil as just a little firmer than a #2). It turns out that many larger American pencil companies trademarked their fractions so the rest had to get creative.
So if #2s are the Goldilocks of pencils (just right), why would you even need to try another number? That really depends on your preference and purpose. Here's a quick guide:
- #1 - Soft, generally smoother and darker than a #2. Great for crossword puzzles (i.e. newsprint or magazine paper), musicians, and for extra dark writing needs (such as writing something to scan later). A #1 pencil is equal to a B grade on the European scale.
- #3 - Firm, crisp, a little light. Great for writing in the margins of books, or anyplace you need to write really small and precise. Also good for people who don't like to sharpen too often. A #3 pencil is equal to an F grade on the European scale (or sometimes an H, depending on the brand)
- #4 - Extra firm, usually a little raspy on paper with a light line. Great for point retention and light outlining or pre-sketching. A #4 is equal to an H on the European scale (or sometimes a 2H)
Speaking of sketching, drawing pencils still more commonly use the European system, where the letters H and B are combined with numbers to describe a pencil's hardness. Drawing pencils can range in grade from 10H to 10B (that's the widest one in the world!). You tend to only need the grades on the broader ends of the spectrum for artistic purposes like shading, but many find that they prefer an extremely soft or an extremely hard pencil over a balanced #2.
CWPE: Beginner's Guide to Pencils - Pencil Grades
Now that you're in the know about the variety of different strokes for different folks, here's my #PencilPrompt monthly challenge for you: Try a new pencil grade! Move away from the trusty #2 for a while, and see if a softer pencil makes sketching a breeze, or if a firmer pencil gives you the point retention you've been missing in your life. Try a new skill with a new pencil (maybe even on new paper!).
When I first started working for CW, I had originally decided that I prefer a nicely firm pencil, and the Cedar Pointe #2 became my favorite. I rarely stray from its lusciously crisp lines. This month, I'm going to give softer pencils the consideration I've neglected and will be working with a Gekkoso 8B (which super, super soft) as I practice my illustration and penmanship skills. What will you try?
Extra firm and crisp:
Smooth and lightly soft:
Test Scoring 580
VERY soft, practically butter:
Kohitsu Shosha 10B