Picking the Perfect Pencil Hardness Grade

Picking the Perfect Pencil Hardness Grade

September 22, 2015 - Posted by Miriam to Guides, Pencils

Picking the Perfect Pencil Hardness Grade

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.

Grading Scale
Pencil Hardness Grading Scale

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.

H Grades
Diamine Sherwood Green
H leads are extremely smudge-resistant and give cleaner lines, making them useful for things such as outlines, technical drawings, light sketches, and even watercolors. Left-handed pencil users can also take advantage of smudge-resistant H leads. On the downside, hard leads tend to be scratchy, especially as you move up the scale.
F and HB
HB and F
The lead grades in the middle of the spectrum are F and HB. HB (American #2) is the standard lead grade used for writing because it's dark enough to be read clearly while having minimal smudging.
B Grades
B leads
B leads are smooth to write and draw with. They smudge easily, but are readily erased. They're perfect for pencil drawings as artists can take advantage of the brush-like expressions, especially in the higher B grades. Animators in particular enjoy using 10B over animator paper because it writes like butter, creating nice, quick, heavy lines with no friction.

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.

Choosing a Writing Instrument
Pencil leads are housed in a variety of ways. The wooden pencil offers the most extensive range of lead grades, and its thicker lead allows you to fully appreciate the expressions of each lead grade. On the other hand, the mechanical pencil is a clean, convenient, no-fuss tool that is great for writing. However, because most mechanical pencils have such a small tip size, they're unable to produce the dynamic expressions of a wooden pencil. Lead holders are the solution to this problem, as they marry the expression of a wooden pencil with the convenience of a mechanical pencil. However, lead grade offerings in lead holders are also limited compared with wooden pencils. Which you choose boils down to personal need and preference, and we have recommendations for all three categories below.
Wooden Pencil Lead Grades
Lead Grades for Writing
Lead grades for writing

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.

Staff Pick: Tombow 2558
HB and F
This may look like the number 2 pencil of your elementary school days, but don't write it off just yet. With three lead grades (B, HB, H) available, you can choose the level of darkness preferred. This pencil is great for the careful writer and note-taker—the pencil grips the paper firmly, giving nice control while writing. We love the gentle sound of it scratching away as we write, but if you want something less distracting, consider the Uni 9850 below.
Also Consider: Uni Mitsubishi 9850
Uni Mitsubishi 9850
Not too grippy and not too smooth, the Uni 9850 is, as Goldilocks would say, just right. This pencil is pleasant to write with and with just one lead grade to choose from, you don't have to spend a long time deciding between lead grades. The eraser on this pencil is surprisingly good, and the lead itself erases cleanly and easily.
Lead Grades for Art
Lead grades for writing

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.

Staedtler Mars Lumograph
Beloved by beginner and expert artists alike, the Lumograph has a wonderful range of lead grades that are great for anything from quick, light sketching to dynamic pencil drawings. They're smooth with a slight grip for artists to draw and sketch comfortably.
Also Consider: Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni
Uni Mitsubishi Hi-Uni
With an impressive number of 22 lead grades to choose from, the Hi-Uni pencil line has everything that an artist needs, whether you're an animator, comic artist, or watercolor painter. In the soft B grades, the pencils are buttery smooth, almost paintbrush-like in the expressive way they lay down graphite. The harder H leads are fantastic for watercolors and light sketching, but do get scratchier in the upper range.
Mechanical Pencil Lead Grades
Mechanical Pencil Lead Grades

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.

Staff Pick: Pentel Ain Stein
Pnetel Stein
The Pentel Ain Stein has an astonishing selection of tip size and lead grade combinations. It's available in a tiny 0.2 mm tip size, great for those who have miniscule writing. The leads feature a silica core that minimize breakage, even in the 0.2 mm tip size. Artists can also enjoy the sizable amount of lead grades (4H to 4B) in the 0.5 mm size.
Also Consider: Uni NanoDia
Uni NanoDia
Due to its nano-diamond infused structure, the Uni NanoDia has less slip than the Pentel Stein when writing and is perfect for those who enjoy grippier pencil leads. We experienced the least amount of breakage with these leads in comparison to the Pentel Stein and Pilot Neox, which is a definite plus for both writers and artists.
Also Consider: Pilot Neox
Pilot Neox
The Pilot Neox is the smoothest among the three lines mentioned and uses lubricating graphite crystals to create a pleasant writing experience. This lead glides effortlessly across the page and is great for artists doing quick sketches or dreamers whose pencil can't keep up with their thoughts and ideas.

Click below to see all tip size and lead grade options for the three mechanical pencil lead lines mentioned above.

Lead Holder Lead Grades
Lead Holder Lead Grades

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.

Uni Mitsubishi Lead Holders
The Uni Mitsubishi lead holders are great for beginners looking to expand their lead holder collection! This line of lead holders features a nice variety of lead grades, from 4B to 4H. With color coordinating caps, finding the right lead grade is fast and easy. The 2 mm tip size is good for fine detail work when sharpened and also flexible enough to be used on its side for coloring and shading.
Also Consider: Pilot Croquis
Uni NanoDia
Specializing in soft leads, the Pilot Croquis is excellent for pencil drawings. The 4 mm tip size provides good expression and versatility in its usage. It's easy to control how much lead is used through the twist mechanism. The plastic body keeps it light in the pocket and perfect for on-the-go sketching.
Staedtler Silver
For something a little more sophisticated, this all-metal lead holder has a nice weight and silver finish that gives it a luxurious feel. Staedtler Mars recommends filling the lead holder with their Carbon Lead refills, but it is refillable with most 2 mm leads. There are fewer lead grades offered in the Carbon line than in the two mentioned above, but the Carbon lead has more grip, giving the writer more control when writing.

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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