We often get questions about the letters and numbers stamped on pencils and what they mean, so here's a quick guide to pencil grades! The first thing to know is that there are two pencil grading scales: the American system that goes from #1 to #4, and the international system that goes from 10B to 10H. Because the international system includes a wider range, I’ll refer to those pencil grades with the American grades noted in parentheses, where applicable.
To understand pencil grades, it’s important to understand what’s inside a pencil. Graphite and clay are the two primary ingredients in a pencil core, with very small amounts of other things like wax or polymer. These additional ingredients affect how smooth the pencil feels and how smudgy it is.
An HB (#2) pencil is about half graphite and half clay. HBs are good for general purposes: writing, note-taking, sketching, standardized test-taking.
Softer pencil cores have a higher ratio of graphite to clay (more graphite, less clay). This means that these pencils will be softer and darker. Usually the core has a wider diameter as well. On the down side, these pencils are a bit smudgier, need to be sharpened more often, and can’t make very thin lines. Here's how the scale works on the soft side:
Harder pencils have a lower ratio of graphite to clay (more clay, less graphite). They have really good point retention and can make very fine lines with minimal smudging. The downside is that the lines can be quite faint, and, especially at the firmest end of the scale, can be hard enough to scratch the paper (like writing with a nail). Here's how they look on the hard side:
No one is sure exactly where the H and B come from, but I think the easiest way to remember them is H for Hard, B for Bold.
4B to 2H are considered the most common pencil grades. Most of the pencils we sell individually fall into this range. At the softer end of this, the 2B-4B range, we have pencils that are mostly used for drawing and sketching. These are a bit too soft for general writing: they’ll have to be sharpened a lot and can get a bit smudgy. That being said, there are many people who love to write with pencils this soft! On the firmer end, F-2H, we have precision tools. These are great for architecture, diagrams, and making really precise measurement marks. Those who write really small also tend to like pencils in this range, as the very thin line helps keep small letters legible.
If you don’t know where to start, we’d recommend trying an HB, a 2B, and an F. It’s unlikely that you’ll really dislike any of the grades, as all of them are suitable for general use, but it’s enough of a range to give you an idea of what part of the spectrum to try next.
Another thing to know about pencil grades is that while the scale is international, the actual feel of the pencils will vary a bit. I often compare this to clothing sizes, where some brands run big and others run small. A good rule of thumb is that Japanese pencil brands tend to run soft, European pencil brands tend to run hard, and American pencil brands fall somewhere in the middle.
If you'd like to try out a bunch of different grades to see what you like, we recommend starting with the Mitsu-bishi Hi-Uni range. We carry them in every pencil grade, so it's a good way to conduct a standardized experiment.
Mitsu-bishi Hi-Uni B-10B (soft pencils)
Mitsu-bishi Hi-Uni HB (#2)
Mitsu-bishi Hi-Uni F-10H (hard pencils)