Pencils have three main components: a graphite core known as the "lead", a plastic or wooden body that encases the lead, and an eraser. Depending on how hard the lead is, the pencil makes different marks. A hard pencil lead leaves light, fine marks that are great for drawing precise details. A soft pencil lead leaves dark, heavy marks that are typically used for filling in large areas, or for shadows. Pencils in the middle of the spectrum are most suitable for writing, but as usual, it comes down to personal preference -- you have to play around to figure out what works for you.
Not all pencil leads are made equal. They vary in strength, smoothness, smudge resistance, and hardness. Some are relatively dark, while others are relatively light. Refer to the chart below for details.
GRAPHITE GRADING SCALES
This chart shows pencil lead hardness grades from 10H to 10B, using Uni-ball Hi-Uni Wooden Pencils.
There are two systems for grading lead hardness -- the European system uses letters (like HB), while the American system uses numbers (like #2). Generally, a #2 pencil is about the equivalent of an HB pencil.
European Letter Scale
According to this system, pencils are graded on a continuum for "H" (hardness) and "B" (blackness), with a number to say how hard or how black it is. The more H's you have, the harder the lead and the lighter the lines. The more B's you have, the softer the lead and the darker the lines. HB occupies the very middle of the scale, and is included as the default lead in most mechanical pencils because of its suitability for writing. There's also "F", which marks the halfway point between HB and H, but does not stand for anything.
American Number Scale
The American system uses numbers only, ranging from #1 (softest) to #4 (hardest). If you look at the chart below, you'll notice that this system only has 5 grades, making it seem quite limited compared to the European system. This is because it's used primarily for general purpose writing pencils, rather than high-end artist's pencils.
Unfortunately, there is no industry standard for how dark a certain grade must be, which leads to inconsistencies between different countries and brands. A #2 pencil from Faber-Castell might not make the same mark as an HB pencil from Uni. In fact, due to consumer preferences, Japanese leads tend to be softer and darker than European leads of the same grade.
HB pencils are the standard for writing, but picky writers might want to check out the surrounding grades too. If you prefer a darker line, B to 4B pencils produce richly visible handwriting.
Palomino Blackwing 602 Wooden Pencils
Speaking of rich and dark handwriting, that's pretty much the trademark of these incense-cedar Blackwing pencils. They're about 3B or 4B, but can hold a finer point than most artist's pencils, and are quite solidly made overall. The graphite cores, or "leads", are consistently centered in the wooden body. This ensures that the leads won't break easily when sharpened. As a bonus, the rectangular eraser pops out of the metal ferrule and can be easily replaced.
Pentel Stein Enhanced Silica Pencil Leads
Available in a wide range of grades (4H to 4B), Pentel Stein pencil leads are a good pick for heavy-handed writers that tend to snap leads. They're strengthened by an innovative ceramic cell structure that resists breakage, making it easier to avoid frustrating interruptions. With unique grades like HB Soft and HB Hard, there are a lot of choices here for writers that want a certain line or feel. Many users recommend pairing the HB Hard with a Uni-ball Kuru Toga Pencil because of how smooth and long-lasting it is.
Most artists stay within the range of H to 9B for sketching, with 2B and 4B being the most popular grades. Engineers and architects tend to favor control and precision in their sketches, using harder leads in the 9H to B range.
Uni-ball Lead Holder Refills - 2 mm
Using thicker lead sizes like 2 mm, you can create fast and loose sketches without worrying so much about breakage. This is especially important with subjects in motion, if you want to be more expressive or shade areas quickly. These leads are smudge resistant, dark, and available from 3H to 3B. They come in Uni-ball Field Lead Holders, but would also work nicely in a Ohto Comfort Sharp Lead Holder.
Prismacolor Turquoise Non-Photo Leads - 2 mm
Non-photo leads are a specific shade of blue that can't be detected by copiers or printers, and their markings can be easily removed via Photoshop. They're perfect for concept sketches and preliminary guidelines, like perspective lines or layout boxes, since you don't have to erase anything after inking. The point can go rather quickly though, so pick up a lead sharpener to keep things crisp. The leads should be paired with a clutch lead holder like the Rotring 800.
Pencil leads have a respectable range (4H to 6B) and don't require sharpening, which works just fine for most drawings. If you want to pull out the big guns, you can always call upon wooden pencils. With grades from 10H to 10B and plenty of depth, they're ideal for realistic drawings.
Uni Hi-Uni Hi-Density Pencil Leads
Available in 2H to 4B, these leads are smooth, long-lasting, breakage resistant, and easy to erase. The 0.5 mm leads are excellent for precise line work, while the 0.3 mm leads are useful for smaller, more intricate details.
Uni-ball Hi-Uni Wooden Pencils
These pencils have the greatest range of all the pencils we offer (10H to 10B), and are available in nicely packaged sets of 12 or 22. The wood case is classy and well-made, richly layered in maroon and black and gold, and the graphite core is consistent and smooth. Professional artists, animators, and illustrators enjoy both the look and the feel of these premium pencils.
Tombow Mono 100 Hexagonal Wooden Pencils
These pencils are the gold standard for professional artists, illustrators, and animators in the industry. The cedar wood case is manufactured perfectly, with a glossy black body and golden imprinted text. It's so nice that it's almost a shame to sharpen it, but once you do, you'll find that it comes to a point easily and crisply. The HB pencils are excellent for writing, and with a 9H to 6B range, there are plenty of options for artists.
Check out the rest of our pencil leads here for even more colors, sizes, and brands! There are color leads for underlining key phrases, huge 5.5 mm leads for sketching, and slim 0.2 mm leads for detailing technical drawings.
What pencil or pencil leads do you like to use?