I have worn out more manual pencil sharpener blades than I can count. I still use manual sharpeners for my colored pencils. But for graphite, I use these two:
The Boston Model 19 Electric Pencil sharpener. The Boston Model 19 has survived the move over the years to two new office buildings and has outlasted the original employee who requisitioned it. It still does service for one person, me, in an office of 3,000.
The X-Acto Model 41 Electric Pencil Sharpener. The X-Acto is my home model. Both have auto- stop. The “auto” is questionable, because one can force on if desired. I apologize in advance if I offend sensibilities here, but if one is serious about using pencils, these are heaven sent. They both create points as long and as sharp as the KUM Long Point sharpener makes. A worn out KUM is the enemy of soft pencils. I stopped fretting over the electricity usage when I realized I was using just as much to turn on the spot light to clean out jammed hand sharpeners over the trash bin.
Faber-Castell released a commemorative set of twelve “Polygrades” graphite pencils in the range of HHHHH to BBBBB now known as 5H to 5B.
This was to celebrate the anniversary of Lothar von Faber’s 200th birthday,
They were shipped unsharpened, but I had to try them out.
I got a little work in with the BB.
Here is a comparison with the Tombow Mono 100, Mitsubishi Hi-Uni, Staedtler Mars Unigraph, The Faber-Castell 9000, and the Utrecht/Blick pencils. As I have stated in earlier articles, I have found the Staedtler and Blick pencils to be the best every day pencils. And the Mitsubishi pencils to be the best “too nice to use” pencils.
As you can see, the Polygrade anniversary set is graded much like its modern-day descendant in the Faber Castell 9000 series.
There are nice pictures at Pencil Talk of an original set. As you can see the original laquer was brown, not black.
One of the problems with colored pencil as an art medium is that the first exposure is usually in grade school with low-quality pencils. School kids have to be equipped with colored pencils for their Social Studies classes, so they can color in their maps. The Crayola brand are better than many at $3 or less. But, get your kids some decent ones, even if it means you are spending $10.
Here are six brands that I’ve picked up thinking they would be better than average. I’ve been using the Utrecht and Blick store brands for many years. I think these are the best for my type of usage, and they hold up well. I recommend them to start if you don’t want to read the rest of this article. But I thought I would check some other types that you might be tempted to buy.
From left to right they are:
1.) Dixon Ticonderoga erasable checking pencils
2.) SOHO Austrian colored pencils, developed by Cretacolor
3.) Stabilo GreenColors
4.) Cretacolor Artist’s Studio colored pencils
5.) Alpino colored pencils from Spain
6.) Pentel Japanese colored pencils
All of the brands are reputable. However, it turns out that they do not all lay down color well. And that’s the problem time after time with poor quality pencils. Kids get better results with crayons, and certainly with markers. It would be pretty easy to ignore colored pencils after being exposed to even the cheapest of markers.
After testing I could tell you I would rate them like this:
6.) Dixon colored erasable pencils: These are the worst. They might actually be the second worst colored pencils I’ve ever used. And by the way, they don’t erase any better than any other brand. Presumably these would be the choice of teachers because of the brand, and that teachers are doing lots of grading and checking. Teachers, I would say you should get yourself a set of Col-erase Carmine red pencils and use those for checking for the rest of your career.
5.) Alpino Los colores de tu vida: I did not have high expectations for these. They are not well known in the US. I had to search for them in stores in Spain. Even in Spain, artist stores stock the German Faber Polychromos. You really have to press hard to get a good color. It’s hardly worth it.
4.) Stabilo Greencolors: Maybe you feel good inside when you buy them. But that’s all lost when you use them. They are no worse than some no name brands. But, don’t waste your money. You are not really making that much of an difference on the environment with 12 woodcase pencils any way you choose.
3.) Pentel Arts colored pencils: Probably this was the most disappointing, as I had high hopes for this brand. But you still have to work hard to get a good color laydown. At $3 a box online, if you are going to bargain shop, these are the best three dollars a dozen your money can buy.
2.) Brevillier’s Cretacolor artist studio coloring pencils: These are readily available on Amazon or at Hobby Lobby for $12-13. They give a nice coverage. But these are not the best value for your money.
1.) SOHO Professional Colored Pencils. These are the brand carried at Jerry’s Artrama. They can be had on line for $10 + shipping. Get these, or the Dick Blick colored pencil set, also comparably priced at $10. These are some of the best quality , yet easy to use colored pencils available today.
As you can see, I also included the Faber-Castell Polychromos for color comparison.
Once you start getting into the higher end ones, like the Faber and Prismacolor brands, they get hard to sharpen and break easily. It takes a steady light hand to use those brands.
Here’s a look at erasing your colored pencil work with high-quality erasers:
And Finally some blending, including some other brands. By the way, the Ticonderoga ones look REALLY BAD in this exercise. Prismacolor pencils are your one of your best blending bets.
As a postscript, I also tried the Staedtler 12 color basic set. I found it at Marshall’s.
The answer varies widely by manufacturer. In this scale from Wikipedia, the pencil known as a Number 2 is also known as an HB, a middle grade of pencil. It has less graphite and more clay than a B and the 2B through 10B. It has more graphite and less clay than the H and therefore 2H through 10H.
Henry Petroski , in his Pencil book, claims that pencil grades vary “depending upon the manufacturer, when the pencils are made, and the source of graphite and clay. One analyst found that graphitic carbon content, for example, to vary from about 30 to about 65 in a variety of different pencils bearing the same designation.
The Number 2 pencil is the standard for test taking and writing, and is the most commonly available pencil. Pencils that are not marked with a grade, like promotional pencils or fun giveaway pencils are also likely within the acceptable range of graphite levels.
School pencils in the 21st century in the United States are most commonly the Dixon Ticonderoga, as teachers are now asking for them by name. And sometimes, teachers even require that each student supply 50 pre-sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga pencils! One assumes that not all students can or do comply, or that the teacher is doing a lot of writing during the summer.
These pictures show a wide variety of #2 school pencils –
Yellow #2 Pencils
– as well as other HB pencils, including brands from other countries, or ones that belong to drawing sets.
Variety of #2 HB Pencils
I separated out the yellow/orange ones, which take their color cue from the Koh-i-noor pencils, and have become the de-facto color for school pencils. In fact the yellow pencil is a symbol for schools and learning.
I have covered many other pencil sets in previous posts that have HB pencils not pictured here.
As you can see by these samples on Strathmore drawing paper, the pencils lay down graphite in a noticeably wide range.
I was at the Blick Studio store. Ahead of me in line, a person bought 18 Strathmore 400 drawing pads and 18 Dixon Black Ticonderoga HB pencils. The drawing tablets were on sale. This is someone who knows exactly what works, and probably does a lot of sketching.
Here are the winners in the multi-year comparison. I chose four from the all the ones I have tried. As I state earlier, these are recommendations, and it is highly personal. Also, not all will agree with me, but would probably concede on some of these points.
The main criteria for the final choices were these:
High-quality graphite leads that did not break upon sharpening
High-quality cedar slats that did not split and go off-center
Wide range of hardness to blackness availability
Hardness label (B-HB-H) on all faces of the pencil
Semi-Hex preferred over round to prevent rolling and personal preference for grip
Smooth, high-quality lacquer
Ready availability in the U.S.
Ready availability in single replacement pencils, not just full sets.
As it turns out, three of the four finalists likely are made in the same factory in the Czech Republic.
Blick Studio Pencils / Utrecht Art Pencils
I have put the Blick and Utrecht pencils together for these reasons: Both brands are made in the Czech Republic, probably by the same manufacturer. Both brands have the same characteristic endcap labeling. Dick Blick recently purchased Utrecht Art. Because these two pencil lines are so similar, I had always believed the companies had some sort of relationship. As of this writing, September 2015, the Utrecht stores are merging or closing in locations where there are Dick Blick stores. The Utrecht line of paints will remain as a brand for a long time, but the Utrecht branded pencils are slowly selling out online. Get a set while you can. Some may prefer the royal blue lacquer finish of the Blick Studio, some the black lacquer of the Utrecht. These are available as singles and sets in stores in many large cities, as well as on line at reasonable prices. The Blick studio brand does not have a 7B or 8B, but the 6b is quite dark.
Koh-i-Noor Toison D’or 1800 Pencils
In places where Dick Blick Art supply stores cannot be found, these pencils made in the Czech Republic are available as singles and sets. Independent art supply stores often stock these in singles. They can be found on line in singles in the UK. As I state above, I believe the Koh-i-Noor factor had been producing the Blick and Utrecht pencil lines, and I find them to be similar quality.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph
The Staedtler Mark Lumograph is probably the best set to start with. These are available on line in single pencils from many art supply stores, and they are available in sets even at Office Depot. In this brand, the 8B is more of a carbon pencil than graphite. The are a standard for art, design, and engineering drawing.
You and Your drawing pencils
I would strongly recommend finding a set of pencils on eBay instead of buying new to start. In all brands, the darker B pencils wear out the fastest from 6B to lighter. There are many older brands of pencils available on eBay in the H grades. You can find a lifetime supply of the H graded pencils for a reasonable amount on eBay. Your art supplies are a highly personal choice, and replacing them can be tricky. Any pencil will do in a pinch, but it is much more satisfying to use your favorite axe!
For these next five, at least here in the United States, they are difficult to obtain in retail stores or singly.
Bruynzeel design 8815
I was able to find a set of these on Amazon.com. They are not cheap. Their predecessor pencil (or Potlood in the native Dutch) was the Bruynzeel 8615. I was able to buy some of the 8615 pencils singly a few years ago, and they were available in various places in America in the 1990s. The Bruynzeel-Sakura company is still based in the Netherlands, but the pencils themselves are made in China. The set comes in what is possibly the nicest pencil packaging I own, a heavy board stock sliding case, with each pencil individually packed in a foam slot. There is no F grade pencil, they start at 2H, then 1H, HB, 1B, 2B up to 9B. They make great markings, but they would not be easy to replace singly. The grade is only stamped on one face. They are one of the few round artist pencils I have tried, most are Semi hex. They draw high quality. I know an artist who got a set of 8615 pencils to begin his schooling and career, but has needed to supplement them with more readily available drawing pencils. That is really the point of this part III article: There are some really nice pencils out there, but is it practical to use them and get used to them?
Conté à Paris 601
As they are known in France, Conté à Paris 010463 “Boîte de 12 Crayons graphites Assorties” (box of 12 assorted graphite pencils). These also can be obtained through Amazon.com. Like the Bruynzeel 8815 above, these also are round instead of semi hex. They are stamped with one grade on the label side. The set actually comes with two HB and two 2B pencils, which might be among the most used. There is no F, also like the Bruynzeel pencils, and the grades run from 3H to 6B. They are high quality. They can be ordered singly on line. At this time they are $2.80 each, plus shipping. I could not say no to using them, but I would find it impractical to get used to them and replace.
Lyra Rembrandt Art Design 669
This is another high quality pencil made in Germany, a competitor to Faber Castell and Staedtler. The pencil is known as the Bleistift in German speaking countries. Once again, it is not readily available here in the United States. The set is in grades 4H through 6B. It works great. It still only has the grade stamped on one face. Like the Conté set, I will enjoy using them, but will likely never replace them.
Tombow Mono (Professional)
Here is a set of pencils widely praised by many, the Tombow Mono. In Japanese 鉛筆, pronounced “enpitsu”, the Tombow pencil company makes high quality drawing pencils. “Tombow” is a close approximation for the pronounciation of the Japanese word for dragonfly トンボ, “tonbo”. Their top line pencil, the Tombow Mono 100 is available at Jetpens.com. The Tombow Mono set is available in the United States at many independent art stores. There is a distinction drawn between the Tombow Mono, and the Mono 100, with no consensus about what the difference is. I have read that Tombow USA claims the graphite cores are the same, but with a different lacquer application.
I also have Tombow Mono 100 B pencils that I have used, and it just seems to me that the Mono 100 has a distinct plastic end cap. The Tombow Mono professional pencils actually have the grade stamped on all six faces in of the semi hex, vs. only one face on the Mono 100. That makes it a winner in my book. Compared to the German pencils, these go darker earlier. There seems to be a grade shift in the Japanese pencils vs. the German pencils. The Palomino pencils trend towards the Japanese darker earlier line of thinking. These are great pencils, and if one had ready access to single grades, like at Maido stationary in San Francisco, these would be worthy everyday pencils.
Mitsu bishi Hi uni
This set is probably the coolest pencil set I own. These are markedly high-quality pencils, that almost seemed thicker than a standard pencil. When measured with a micrometer, I could get a Dixon Ticonderoga into the same gap with about a half millimeter to spare. Is it the many layers of lacquer? The people at California Cedar report that Mitsubishi buys their highest quality incense cedar pencil slats. These, and the lower range Mitsubishi Uni*star pencils are available singly at the Maido stationary stores in San Francisco. I could really use these. They are just the right size, come in the most grade values from 10H to 10B, and have the grade stamped on all six faces. These are the premier pencils by which all others could be judged. They are very expensive and hard to obtain. They are almost too precious to use. The truth is that the greatest artists are able to produce great drawings with just about any pencil. These pencils are not going to make me a great artist. And, even though they are suberb, funnily enough, I do not feel comfortable using them as a tool! If I lived in San Francisco and could buy them at the store, I might feel differently.