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:
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.
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.