One of the most beautiful qualities of a pencil is its forgiveness. A mistake made in graphite can be neatly swept away with one of pencil's BFFs - the humble eraser.
Let's dive into the soft, squishy world of erasers and talk types, purposes and favorites, and determine some guidelines for picking out an eraser to clean up you work.
A Little Background (which you can read more about in The Pencil Perfect!)
The original, original eraser was actually crusty bread - early graphite users would scratch their mistakes off with stale chunks. In 1770, Joseph Priestly discovered that the elastic gum that came from the bark of the Hevea brasiliensis tree was more effective than yesterday's sandwich for rubbing out mistakes (thus why erasers are still called "rubbers" in many parts of the world). The trend caught on, and eventually Italian pumice was added make erasers more effective due to the abrasive qualities of the pumice combined with the stickiness of the rubber. Pumice is also where the iconic eraser pink color comes from - the substance was a pinkish red, which of course tinged the rubber it was mixed into. Hello, Pink Pearl.
In 1858 Hyman Lipman patented the first pencil with an attached eraser (or rather, inserted eraser - the eraser was glued inside one end of the pencil, rather than attached with a ferrule), which is considered to be the birthday of the traditional pencil with eraser we have come to know and love - and why we celebrate March 30th as National Pencil Day!
Erasers have come a long way since the days of hard bread. Most are made out of synthetic or plasticized materials, but there are still a few natural rubber erasers to be had in the world.
Natural rubber: These erasers are slightly abrasive, and leave quite a bit of dust behind. Abrasion plus the friction of rubbing act as sort of a broom to pick off particles ground into paper. They are nicely effective for graphite, but do have a tendency to dry out after a while and may not be the gentlest on some papers. But they do have that nostalgic rubber smell!
Synthetic rubber: These are made to mimic the feel of natural rubber, but are made with synthetic compounds and plasticizers, making them cheaper and more widely available than natural rubber. Synthetic erasers tend work similarly to natural rubber, but can be a little less effective. On the bright side, these won't dry out and they tend to make a teeny bit less dust.
Art Gum: Gum erasers are either made with synthetic rubbers or vulcanized corn oil. These are made to be especially gentle on paper and are great for erasing large areas. They are, however, very very messy as they tend to crumble to pieces when you are erasing, but at least the larger crumbles can be reused.
Plastic: This is where it can get a little complicated and confusing, as there are so many different types of materials and processes to make plastic erasers. They are commonly made with vinyl, polymer or PVC, though there are also non-PVC types that act like plastic but are made with synthetic rubbers. Plastic erasers do not dry out and tend to be fairly gentle on paper and clear graphite and colored pencil away very cleanly. On certain papers (and if the erasers are of cheap quality), plastic erasers can smear graphite around, so you'd need thin edges if you wanted to be very precise. Plastic erasers leave the least amount of dust behind - they actually sort of act as a vacuum and roll the particles into a little ball.
Sand/Ink Erasers: Often made out of rubber mixed with sand or silica, these erasers are the toughest out there - they really are rough enough to scour ink off of paper. That being said, the grittiness of these erasers tears through paper with ease, so they are definitely not all-purpose. These are great, however, for stubborn colored pencil marks.
Kneaded: Commonly found in artists' toolkits, kneaded erasers are made out of very pliable materials and can be shaped to form precise points to erase very small marks. They sort of absorb graphite, making them a good tool for blending, rather than removing.
A Couple Things to Consider:
Pressure - Application of pressure is really important with erasers, which I think is a consideration that is often overlooked. Erasers work with friction; the rubbery materials in an eraser get super heated when you apply pressure, which makes them sticky enough to attract and remove graphite particles. My advice: test the eraser out on scratch paper to determine how much pressure is needed for the type of paper and eraser you're working with - you don't want to just smear the graphite around, but you also don't want to push so hard you tear a hole in your masterpiece.
Application - I just want to get this out of the way: colored pencil can be extremely difficult to erase. Colored pencil pigment can stain the paper, while the wax in the core can sort of bind the color to the sheet. That being said, colored pencil can be a thing to consider when picking out an eraser. Gritty erasers or really high quality plastic erasers work best with colored pencil. If you're working with very soft graphite, I tend to recommend a firm eraser so it doesn't smear too much, but again, a high quality plastic eraser works great here too. For regular, plain old #2 graphite, honestly, just about anything works.
Precision - Eraser edges can be important too if you're looking to only erase tiny areas. For letter writing and illustration, I prefer a mechanical eraser that contains a very very thin eraser meant for precise erasing, so nothing surrounding the area I'm erasing gets messed up. Big block erasers are really great if you're erasing large areas at once.
Mess - Dust! So much dust. If you are really, truly looking to avoid sweeping away bits of eraser dust, then you definitely need a high-quality plastic eraser like the Technik that kneads the eraser bits into one large chunk. Sand erasers and gum erasers are the messiest culprits, but as we discussed above they can be incredibly useful! I recommend a little brush to sweep away the bits.
Pictured below is a complete swatch test of all the handheld erasers in our store (next time, I'll do one dedicated to just tipped pencils!), sampled on a Mnemosyne notebook with a Semi-Hex #2, a KM-KKS 6B, and the red side of The Editor (AKA a red Supracolor). I was seriously surprised by the Laufer L-125 - the firmness of this eraser gives you excellent precision, and you're able to apply a lot of pressure with these without smearing graphite around. The latest eraser added to our collection, the Sakura Sumo, is also a new favorite - the plastic is just really, really high quality and removed graphite and colored pencil very well.
Here are my favorites after testing out all these erasers:
For colored pencil: Mono Sand (though it did lightly begin tearing my paper); runner up: Caran d'Ache Technik or Sumo
For soft graphite: Sakura Sumo; runner up: Laufer L-125
For #2 graphite: Milan Nata; runner up: L&C rubber erasers
For general purpose: Mono plastic erasers; runner up Laufer Plasti-combi
For precision: Mono Zero; runner up: Laufer-125