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!