For thousands of years, people have used graphite to exercise creativity and bring ideas to life. Graphite is the key component of modern day pencil lead—in fact, lead is a misnomer as it's actually made up of a mixture of graphite and clay. The formulation of this mixture determines its lead grade. The higher the proportion of graphite content relative to clay the lead has, the softer and darker the lead will be, and vice versa.
Lead grade is an important consideration for both the artist and writer. The hardness of a lead affects its strength, smoothness, smudge resistance, and pigmentation. Writers can fine tune the darkness of their lines by moving a step up or down in lead hardness, while an artist can employ the full range of lead grades to achieve different effects.
There are two systems for grading lead hardness: European and American. The European system uses a combination of letters and numbers. B denotes soft leads, or leads with greater graphite content. The higher the corresponding number, the softer the lead and the darker the marks produced by the lead. At the other end of the spectrum, H designates leads with higher clay content. H leads become lighter as you work up the scale.
The American system uses numbers, with #2 ½ in the middle of the scale. The American #2 pencil usually lines up with the European HB grade, as seen in the graphic above. There is no industry standard for the hardness of a lead grade and results vary from brand to brand. Japanese leads tend to be darker than their European equivalents, though they use the same system. We reference the European grading system for the remainder of the article as it is more comprehensive than the American system.
Pairing any lead grade—H leads especially—with toothy paper will give you a better writing or drawing experience, as the graphite can adhere more effectively to the textured surface and be seen more clearly. The tooth of a paper refers to its surface finish, or how rough or smooth it is. The toothier a paper, the rougher the surface and the better a medium will grip onto the paper. Some of our favorite toothy papers are found in these sketchbooks: Stillman & Birn Premium Sketchbook - Delta, Maruman New Soho Series Sketchbooks, and Maruman Zuan Series Sketch Books.
As stated earlier, leads in the middle of the spectrum (HB, F) are ideal for writing—they have a good level of pigmentation and smoothness with a relatively low level of smudging. Surrounding lead grades (H, B) are also suitable for writing depending on your preference for darkness. If you prefer something even darker, 2B may be used, but we wouldn't go higher than that because of the notable amount of smudging. For a more comprehensive look at wooden pencils, see our Guide to Wooden Pencils.
Artists use both soft and hard leads to achieve different effects and styles, and many have every single lead grade available already in their arsenal. Those who are just starting out can choose a pencil line they enjoy and pick alternating lead grades to achieve similar effects without having to invest in a complete set. Wooden pencils are perfect to use for techniques such as shading because they can be used on their side without breaking.
Lead grades in mechanical pencil leads are more limited as it's quite difficult to make soft leads in thin tip sizes that don't crumble. While not a problem for writers, artists may have a difficult time finding the lead grade they need. However, artists can take advantage of these fine-tipped mechanical pencils to draw details and outlines without the hassle of sharpening a wooden pencil. While mechanical pencil lead grades may be more limited than in wooden pencils, we've managed to curate several lines of mechanical pencil leads that have impressive lead grade offerings below.
Click below to see all tip size and lead grade options for the three mechanical pencil lead lines mentioned above.
For artists who want the convenience of mechanical pencils, lead holders are an ideal compromise. Lead holders typically house leads 2 mm and up, allowing for softer leads to be utilized. With lead holders, more of the lead can be exposed during use, making them similar to wooden pencils in terms of techniques that an artist is able to employ. For more information on lead holders, see our Guide to Lead Holders here.
Click below to see all tip size and lead grade options for the three lead holder lines mentioned above.
We hope you've enjoy this excursion into the wonderful world of pencil lead and lead grades. Be it wooden pencils, mechanical pencils, or lead holders, lead grade is an important consideration for both writers and artists. What is your preferred writing instrument and lead grade combination? Let us know in the comments below!
|Product||Pencil Type||Lead Grades||Best For|
|Tombow 2558||Wooden||H, HB, B||Writing|
|Uni Mitsubishi 9850||Wooden||HB||Writing|
|Staedtler Mars Lumograph||Wooden||6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B||Art|
|Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni||Wooden||10H, 9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9B, 10B||Art|
|Pentel Stein||Mechanical Pencil Lead||See table above||Writing, Art details|
|Uni NanoDia||Mechanical Pencil Lead||See table above||Writing, Art details|
|Pilot Neox||Mechanical Pencil Lead||See table above||Writing, Art details|
|Uni Mitsubishi Lead Holders||Lead Holder||See table above||Art|
|Pilot Croquis||Lead Holder||See table above||Art|
|Staedtler Silver||Lead Holder||See table above||Art|
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