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.
#2 pencil comparisons
More #2 HB Pencil Comparisons
I tried the Sharpie Liquid Pencil. I found it wanting. It really was a struggle to write with it. I actually returned it to the store.
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!
Now that I have written about a dozen pencils that are “good enough” to use in Drawing Pencils Part I and Drawing Pencils Part II, I am covering some that might be “too good” for various reasons.
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.
What a terrible movie. But at least Ted and John’s lawyer uses cool pencils, like Black Dixon Ticonderogas and Blackwing 602s with Black erasers.
This is a continuation of my previous post about Drawing pencils. As I mention in my previous article, There are no poor or bad pencils in any of the bunch. All would work for drawing. But I have gained an appreciation for certain brands.
I will continue with some sets I have tried, but have found I do not prefer.
The Dixon Ticonderoga is the American School Pencil. (That it gets its yellow color from the Koh-i-noor pencils is another story.) Nearly all American school pencils are a shade of yellow to yellow orange. The Ticonderoga is the top level wood-cased pencil available from Dixon. They have the Oriole and plain Dixon pencil as well. The Ticonderoga comes in 5 grades, 2H (#4), H (#3), F (#2.5), HB (#2), and B (#1). Presumably, a 2B would be a #0 pencil, but it is not available.
Strangely, the HB is about as dark as it gets, the B is abou the same. Both are a darker grade than the Faber Castell 9000 HB. One could get a lot of range with the five Ticonderoga pencils if they supplemented them with another brand dark 4 – 6B pencil. Dixon was in the drawing pencil business with the El Dorado line. But, in the 21st century they are no longer offering that.
The grade appears on only one side of the Ticonderoga. And any grade but HB is difficult to find. I had to special order them. I did find some B pencils in a stationary shop in downtown San Francisco. But there are lots of other, better pencil choices from stores in San Francisco.
The Cretecolor 160 are nice pencils. Their predecessor, Cretacolor 150 pencils, are very similar to the Koh-i-noor Hardtmuth 1500 pencils. It would make sense, since the Cretacolor factory is the Austrian version of Koh-i-noor factory. The pencils currently branded Koh-i-noor are made in the Bohemian (Czech Republic) factory. During the communist era, the Czech factory was taken over by the government. It has since been privatized again, and produces a number of pencils. The Austrian pencil company changed their branding from Koh-i-noor to Cretacolor to avoid confusion. The 150 yellow pencils were then changed to the 160 pencils that are maroon with grey trim.
The Cretacolor pencils now are some of the classiest, with different color end cap lacquers for the different grades, and grades stamped on all faces. This is probably the nicest exterior of any drawing pencil brand out there today. They tend to be expensive however, and also, go dark grades very quickly. There is not much distinction at all in the B grades. The H grades are great.
Koh-i-noor Hardtmuth 1500
I had to special order these to try. They come from the Koh-i-noor factory in the Czech Republic. They are not readily available in the US. This is mostly because the Koh-i-noor Toison D’Or 1900 pencils are in the American Market. I will cover the 1900 pencils in a later article. The 1500 and 1900 scale the same and have basically the same quality. The Cretacolor 150 pencils mentioned in the Cretacolor 160 section above look exactly like these Koh-i-Noor 1500 pencils.
A historical note, these Koh-i-Noor pencils were among the first color lacquered pencils exhibited in the world, and are ultimately the reason that American school pencils are yellow. Graphite was from the East (Siberia for some time), so Oriental themes were used for marketing of pencils. Other brands like the Mongol and Mikado (Mirado) also were introduced because of the Koh-i-noor.
The Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth 150 pencils are only stamped on one face. It was fun to get them and try them out. I still like to get the set out from time to time.
Faber Castell 9000
These German pencils are the successors to the Faber Castell Siberian Graphite Polygrade pencils, some of the first readily available graphite pencils in different grades.
These set the standard, as far as I am concerned, about how light or dark pencils should be. The Faber Castell 9000 HB is lighter than many other HB #2 pencils you may use in your life. I believe that pencil manufacturers realize that people prefer slightly darker and softer leads for writing pencils, and have adjusted their formulas accordingly.
So when I say that the grades for a certain brand of pencil go darker in grade, it is because I am comparing with this brand.
One could not go wrong using the Faber Castell 9000 pencils. They are the highest quality. They are readily available at most art stores, in single pencils.
I do not prefer them because their grade stamps are hard to read. Probably only for this reason, I am not favoring the Faber Castell 9000.
Caran D’Ache Grafwood pencils
The Caran D’Ache Grafwood, as well as their Technalo line are some of the most expensive drawing pencils on the market. The Swiss made Grafwood pencils are slightly bigger in girth than any other. This is nice for my bigger hands. But once again, they only have the grade printed on one face. They do make up for it slightly by having each lacquered in a different shade of gray. Unfortunately, It is not so easy to tell the difference between each grade and its neighbor. If they were not so expensive, they might still be in the running for ones I like to use.
I purchased these at a discount store. Sometimes sets can be found at art stores. They have nothing really to distinguish them, but they are not poor quality. They will do the job.
Other notable pencils tried Part II
These are available in some places, including Amazon. They were once more common in retail markets, including Canada , I understand. There was a set at a girl scout camp that I tried. They are one of the few round drawing pencils to be found. There are not particularly great. But, like the Caran D’ache pencils, the barrels are colored in variable grey depending upon the softness, which can help the artist easily choose the desired grade.
General’s Semi Hex
I covered these in the General’s Kimberly section in Part I. They come in lots of grades, but they are not of the highest quality. The Semi hex set the shape for pencils we know today. Other options are round, which tend to roll away easier, and less commonly triangular pencils, for people who prefer that grip.
General’s drawing pencils
These are different from the General’s Kimberly and Semi Hex. They are round and come in a set of HB, 3B, 4B, 5B pencils. They draw nicely too.
Derwent Graphic and Derwent Sketching pencils
These are available in single pencils at Michael’s Stores, which is one of the largest art supply chains in the United States. They have a history which stretches back to the first graphite mines in the Cumberland region of the UK. I like the thicker Derwent sketching pencils which come in softer B grades. They are thicker, with thicker leads. They are only marked with the grade on one side. But, I had some bad luck with the 6B pencils which broke leads much too easily. That can happen if you are not careful with just about any soft pencil. But I consider myself a careful sharpener, and I found this to be too frustrating to maintain an exposed point. You should not have to fight with your tools.
End of Part II
I have tried many different brands of drawing pencils and thought I would offer some insight on what I like about them. There are many different brands of graded graphite drawing pencils available today, probably 30 or more.
The best place to start, if you are interested in the history of graphite pencils, is this book:
The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, By Henry Petroski
There are several features of wood cased pencils I have identified that make a difference in choosing a favorite
- Easy to obtain individual pencils: I need to be able to replace just one that has worn down. Some pencils are only available in sets. I have big hands. At shorter than four inches, a pencil is difficult for me to use. I have tried pencil extenders and will only use one if I have to. I need to be able to buy just one.
- High-Quality wood case: The best pencils use the best California incense cedar slats. These sharpen nicely.
- High-Quality graphite: The cores don’t break, which can happen on the softest leads of most brands, there is grade separation with the different formulas.
- High-Quality finish: Nice lacquer, stamping and end cap. I have found that I prefer one specific feature, and that is an end cap stamped with the grade on all the faces.
This first of four articles starts off with some pencils I have tried, and would no longer purchase. I have made test patterns of all of these pencils to show how much grade separation there is, and also to demonstrate how the graphite/clay ratios are different between manufacturers. The process to make a pencil is followed closely by all the manufacturers. Clay and Graphite are mixed in certain ratios to obtain harder and lighter to softer and blacker leads. The pencil lead is basically a ceramic craft. It is baked in an oven. After that, the pencil lead is sandwiched between two pieces of wood, called slats. The slat is trimmed to form the pencil.
I would like to say there are no bad pencils among any of those available today. Any graded pencil will work for drawing, and many artists have their own personal preference. Probably, artists tend to stick with the brand their teacher used, or the first brand they ever bought, because they are familiar. Certainly I have seen artists produce fabulous graphite drawings with any random stub of a pencil.
General Pencil Company Kimberly
These are there very first graded drawing pencils that I ever purchased. The General Pencils are made in America. They have everything going for them, high-quality, good differentials between grades, ready availability, and reasonable price. I have found that I cannot read the grade number on the pencil easily. General stamps the grade on multiple sides, which helps. These also have a distinctive brass ferrule end cap. These would be my pencil of choice if they added the one final feature of a grade stamp in white on all six faces. I have also tried the General’s Semi Hex pencils. The grades are nearly the same, they just seem to be the lower quality cases, with more warped pencils, no ferrule, and a poorer quality lacquer. I might even venture to guess that all General’s drawing pencils begin as Kimberly pencils, and the ones that fail inspection become Semi-Hex. It is interesting to know that “Semi-Hex” is something that now all modern hexagonal pencils are: having rounding edges.
Although they may no longer be made in America, just about everything else I said about the General Kimberly pencils could be said about the Prismacolor Turquoise pencils. They have a long history beginning with the Eagle pencil company. They have been used by artists and engineers in the U.S. for many years. As I stated with the Kimberly pencils, these could be my pencil of choice if they added the one final feature of a grade stamp in white on all six faces. They are the only other current brand I found that has a metal cap ferrule besides the General Kimberly pencils.
Prismacolor Scholar / Design 3800
These also have a long history, beginning with the Venus drawing pencils with their distinctive green crackle finish. They moved on to Sanford and ultimately lost the Venus name and the green crackle. These are the cheaper entry level Prismacolor offerings. They can be found in blister packs in many retail stores. I have found some Sanford and Prismacolor ones that were warped. But, they draw and write acceptably. They are no frills, but hold up well. Sometimes old Venus pencils can be found on eBay, and these have erasers. The current Scholar pencils have plain unfinished ends. If you prefer to sharpen both ends of a pencil for convenience, these are a better choice then some of the higher end pencils.
Eberhard Faber Microtomic
Anyone who is into pencils would know of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. That pencil has its origins in the Van Dyke Microtomic pencil, later just labeled Microtomic. These were available in two styles, with a small metal cap ferrule, or with a distinctive wide eraser ferrule often associated with the Blackwing 602. This ferrule eraser is one of the key features of the Blackwing. I have read that the Microtomic 2B or 3B is the equivalent to the Blackwing. If that is the case, then the Blackwing 602 is not as dark and soft as people would like to remember. I cannot see paying $20 to get a Blackwing from eBay at this point, although I have bid on a few stub pencils. These Microtomic pencils are good quality. The ferrule actually changes the balance. They are top heavy when new. When I draw, I am not sure I need the eraser on the end. I do when I write though. Sadly, these are no longer produced, and ones with Blackwing ferrules command a premium on eBay now. The Microtomic versions are more reasonable, but the market has figured out their halo relationship with the Blackwing, so they are starting to command higher prices for the soft grades with the large erasers. The HB Microtomic is much lighter and harder than any of the Palomino Blackwing models currently available.
California Cedar Palomino
I ordered a set of these when I purchased my first Blackwing pencils. They are good quality, but did not have the grade stamp on all faces that I like. I have seen that the newer versions in 2014 do have more grade stamps and a black end cap. These are not available to purchase one at a time. They also go dark very fast, meaning that even the H (Hard) grades are comparatively soft and black. The 2H, their lightest pencil, is about the same darkness as some HB #2 school pencils. Cal Cedar has set the HB formula to be quite soft and black, remarkably close to what is believed the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 formula. When the time came to release their version of the Blackwing, the Palomino Blackwing seems to have gone the same grade as the Palomino 2B. Then California Cedar reeled in back and released the Blackwing 602, which is very similar to their HB. I have spent time comparing back and forth. It almost seems as if there might be different formulas, but here is what I think:
- Palomino Blackwing -> Palomino 2B
- Palomino Blackwing Pearl -> Palomino B
- Palomino Blackwing 602 -> Palomino HB
The first Palomino Blackwing is not quite as black and soft as their 4B, it seems to me. I would not be surprised if they had a different formulation. In which case, you could use the Blackwing pencils to fill in the gaps between HB and 4B in their drawing pencil range.
I very much like the Palomino pencils for writing, and will continue to order them from Pencils.com, but they are not my preferred drawing pencils. I will use the Blackwings from time to time to fill in dark areas, and maybe will always mix it up since they are so nice.
Staedtler Tradition 110
The Bleistift website (Bleistift is the German word for pencil) has more on the subject of the Staedtler Tradition. When I was in the UK, the Staedtler Tradition was the ubiquitous pencil. This is the pencil that waiters used to take food orders.
There is also more on the German Staedtler sibling named the Noris at Bleistift, and Noris at PencilRevolution.com.
The Staedtler Mars Lumograph, which I will more to say about later, is the premium drawing graphite pencil. The Tradition is not offered in as many grades as the Mars Lumograph. It is a nice pencil, but not easily found in the United States.
The set I have states that it was Made in Germany. I purchased it at a stationary store in London for 8 pounds and 50 pence, roughly $14 US at the time. The exact same set, except with Staedtler Mars Lumograph pencils can be purchased through Blick at a slightly lower list of $13.25 on line. There are other offers on Amazon for less money for a full set of 12 Mars Lumugraph pencils in mixed grades. The Tradition 100 set also can be purchased on Amazon in the US for less. I have seen the Norica and Rally HB grades on Amazon and at Office Depot.
This Fabriano EcoQua is supposed to be a feel-good notebook. The description shows that it is 100% “Elemental chlorine free”.
The 8×6 notebooks list for $3.99 from art retailers.
I was attracted by the dot layout. The dots form a writing guideline and are just visible enough to show where to write, but not interfering with the reading back of notes.
It takes Pencil or Pen well.
Two problems , as I mention in a previous post (Fellow Notebook Aficionado at Build Conference),
1.) The binding does not lay flat, making it difficult to write. If you want the binding to lay flat, you have to tear out the pages.
2.) The pages tear easily from the binding, which is not great if you want to preserve your notes in that same book.
The best way to look at this notebook is individual note sheets, which is how I use it today. I keep it in my desk for when I want to make a note or list to carry with me.
I have been using this journal at work.
It is a brown faux leather 8×10 with 256 lined ivory pages. It is manufactured by Eccolo, and distributed by Eccolo LTD, Brooklyn, NY. It is sized nominally 20 x 25 centimeters / 8 x 10 inches on the outside and 19 x 24.5 centimeters / 7 ½ x 9 ½ inches on the inside.
I got it at office Depot for $13.99 plus tax. That is pricey, considering one could buy a common, 100 page, composition book for 99 cents plus tax. Why would you select this notebook?
Looks would suggest that it is higher quality than a lab notebook or composition book.
The writing surface is a little more matte compared to a composition book. The pages are less bright shiny white, more of an eggshell or ivory. It is more pleasant to write on than the school paper.
I prefer the binding to lay flat, like a spiral notebook when taking notes. I dislike fighting with the binding to keep the book open or flat. I will not buy another one of these.
I used some different writing instruments to show what they look like. The paper works well for pencil writing, which is what I do most.