How to Choose a Pencil – Ultimate Guide

There are hundreds of different pencils available to buy in 24 different graphite grades. The reason there are 24 grades is that pencils can not only be used to write with but for many other things.

In this guide, we will show you what makes a good pencil and how to choose the best pencils for drawing, journaling, marking wood, note-taking, sketching, technical drawing, and writing.

When choosing a pencil, the first thing that you need to consider is what will you be using it for?

Depending on what you are using it for will determine what grade of graphite pencil you need as the graphite core is a lot harder for a light grey and very soft for dark black and it reacts differently with the paper.

Then the reliability of the pencil how will it sharpen, does the lead break often. This is determined by the type of wood that the pencil is made from and the quality of its graphite core.

The other thing worth considering is the pencil’s profile or shape. Most pencils have either a hexagonal or round-shaped barrel.

Although there are exceptions such as carpenters’ pencils and triangular-shaped pencils for those just starting to learn how to write.

1. The Graphite Pencil Scale

The Graphite Pencil Scale

In very simple terms the graphite pencil scale is a way of categorizing how light or dark and how hard or soft the graphite in a pencil is.

It is represented by letters H and B where H represents hardness and B represents blackness. This is on a scale from 1 -12 with 12H being a very hard light grey graphite and 12B is a very dark soft crumbly graphite.

This is important when choosing a pencil and the first step is depending on what you need the pencil for this will then determine what grade of graphite pencil is suitable for your needs.

If you would like to know more about the graphite pencil scale, then check out our Graphite Pencil Scale Ultimate Guide.

It is worth noting that sometimes the graphite pencil scale is incorrectly referred to as the lead hardness scale. Check out What Pencil Lead is made of? for more details as there is no lead in pencils.

2. Why The Type of Wood is Very Important

Wooden Pencils with Shavings

Pencils are a simple tool dating back to the 1500s. Modern pencils are made from wood with a graphite core which is often incorrectly referred to as pencil lead.

The graphite core is encased in wood and some pencils have an eraser that is attached by means of a metal ferrule.

The type of wood that a pencil is made from is crucial as to how it sharpens and how easily the lead breaks. The wood of a pencil needs to be a soft, strong fine-grained wood without any knots that are easy to sharpen.

Californian Cedar Wood has traditionally been used to make pencils as it has all these qualities. However, rising costs and environmental concerns have forced pencil manufacturers to look at using different types of wood.

In fact, there are at least 14 different types of wood used to make pencils. Cheaper pencils use fast-growing softwoods such as eucalyptus or basswood that is harder to sharpen and breaks easily.

If you would like to know more about the different types of wood, then check out our guide What Types of Wood are Pencils Made of?

3. Bonded Graphite Core for Added Strength

Gluing Pencil Leads

Modern-day pencils are manufactured by placing a graphite core into a wood slat and then gluing another wood slat on top of it.

To provide additional strength and minimize lead breakages all the top manufacturers also glue all around the graphite to the wood as well as gluing the two wood slats together this is known as lead bonding. (Due to graphite being referred to as pencil lead for many years.)

In cheaper pencils, the lead may not be bonded and only the slats glued together, or it may not be fully bonded and glued on only one side.

4. How to Choose a Pencil for Writing

Person Writing With a Pencil

When choosing the best pencil to use for handwriting with the first thing that we need to consider is how dark a mark will the pencil leave on paper.

The mark that the pencil leaves on the paper needs to be dark enough to be clearly visible and the graphite core needs to be strong enough so that it does not easily break.

If you look at the image of the pencil grading chart you can see that it has 20 grades ranging from 9H to 9B and underneath from 2h to B is the US equivalent for what is considered general-purpose office pencils by U.S pencil manufacturers.

A #2 pencil which is the equivalent of an HB pencil is the most used pencil for everyday writing. The graphite is hard and does not break easily and the mark that it writes is dark enough to be clearly visible.

It also has the added benefit of not smudging very easily and can be cleanly erased.

You can go darker if you prefer with a B or perhaps even a 2B however the trade-off is that at these grades the graphite core is softer and more prone to smudging. If you are buying a pencil for younger children, I would stick with #2 pencils.

It is not quite as obvious from the chart, but F and H-grade pencils leave more of a lighter grey mark on the paper. They have a higher clay content which is why the mark is not as dark and when writing with and they feel a little scratchier on the paper.

Once you have chosen your grade then it comes down to the quality of the pencils wood and graphite core.

It is personal preference and budget regarding if you want to pay more for the premium branded pencils. There is a big difference in price between a pack of Dixon Ticonderoga pencils at around $5.00 and Blackwing 602’s at around $25.00.

4.1. The 7 Best Pencils for Writing

The 7 Best Pencils to Write With

Check out our guide The Seven Best Pencils for Writing it includes pencils for all budgets so there should be something for everyone.

5. How to Choose a Pencil for Note Taking

Pencil for Note Taking

When it comes to choosing the best pencil for notetaking then these will fall in the same range on the graphite pencil scale as those that we have already covered in the previous section.

The main thing to take into consideration is if you are likely to be making lots of corrections then a harder grade around a #2 or HB will be more suitable as these pencils leave a slightly lighter mark, erase easily, and do not smudge as can sometimes happen with the softer darker B grades.

Therefore, depending on your budget one of the pencils listed in our guide The Seven Best Pencils for Writing should be ideal for note-taking.

5.1. The Best Pencils for Bullet Journaling

Bullet Journaling is great for getting yourself organized with tasks and to-do lists and the best graphite pencils for bullet journaling fall in the range of #2 – 2B.

To make your points really stand out with a nice black then consider using a B as opposed to a #2(HB)

5.2. Best Colored Pencils For Bullet Journalling

Why limit yourself to black and grey make your bullet journal pop out with some color. For your journal, you don’t need to rush out and buy expensive artists’ quality pencils such as Derwent, Faber-Castell, or Prismacolor.

Amazon Basics Colored Pencils

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A quick search on Amazon for colored pencils will show that you can pick up a pack of 24 Amazon Basics Premium Colored Pencils for around $10.00 and a pack of 48 for around $20.00.

6. How to Choose a Pencil for Drawing and Sketching

Drawing With a Pencil

When choosing a pencil for drawing and sketching even though there are 24 graphite grades to choose from most artists do not buy a full set of 24 pencils.

It is very unlikely that they will use above a 2H as the harder pencil grades can score the paper’s surface even if you have a very light touch. This makes it very difficult to fill in when layering with a softer grade pencil.

The range of pencils that are ideal for drawing and sketching are from 2H – 12B which is 16 grades. With 2H being used for light outlines and B grades for blacks. The only manufacturer that makes a 12B Pencil is Staedtler.

However, even though Staedtler makes the 12B pencil it is not necessarily the blackest or darkest pencil. Check out The Complete Guide to the  Darkest Pencil Lead for more details.

How Many Different Drawing Pencils Do You Need?

If you are just starting out drawing and then you really don’t need to buy 16 different pencils and the following 5 pencils will be fine.

H – The H grade pencil is the ideal starting point to do your outline sketching with although there is nothing wrong with using an HB which is more widely available. Once you are happy with your outline you can then go over it with a softer 2B grade and add then add in mid-tones and shadows.

2B – This is most artists go to pencil for drawing and sketching as it is not too dark and does not leave an indentation in the paper. It can be sharpened to a fine point for fine detailed work and by varying, the pressure applied.

4B – Is perhaps the most used pencil after a 2B for blending darker shades. It seamlessly blends 2B pencils and is great for transitioning the blacks to a darker 6B grade.

6B – When you are drawing with pencils they need to be a close enough grade to blend with each other and at the same time be different enough to achieve the effect that you are trying to create. This is where a 6B pencil is ideal as it is not too dark to blend with a 2B pencil but is dark enough to produce a nice dark black.

8B – The last pencil you will need in your 4 pencil armory is an 8B this is a really soft pencil and is used for the darkest shade. Because the graphite is so soft it is perfect for blending and smudging.

6.1. Drawing Pencil Sets

As you can see the 5 pencils that are most used for drawing and sketching are H, 2B, 4B, and 6B although it is down to personal preference, and you may find that you prefer an HB to an H and a 3B rather than a 4B.

Drawing pencil sets are relatively inexpensive and an ideal way of finding out which works best for you. There are many to choose from and we will cover them more in-depth in a different article.

But for those that are starting out, we recommend The Amazon Basics Sketch and Art Drawing kit which is a 17-piece set at a great price in the region of $8.00 at the time of writing this.

If you are looking for a professional quality pencil set then you cannot go too far wrong with the Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 Art Drawing Pencils that are available in sets of 12 and 24.

6.2. Amazon Basics Sketch and Art Drawing Kit

Amazon Basicks Sketch and Art Drawing Kit

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The Amazon Basics Sketch and Art Drawing Kit is a great starter kit and has everything that you need for an incredibly low price.

It contains 6 graphite pencils, 2H, H, HB, B, 2B & 3.B, 3 charcoal pencils, 1 sketch stick, 4 charcoal sticks, 1 pencil sharpener, 1 charcoal sharpener, 1 kneaded eraser, and 1 white plastic eraser. (17-pieces total)

The pencils look to be manufactured for Amazon by Derwent a highly respected UK pencil maker. As they bear an uncanny resemblance to the Derwent Academy Pencils which are their entry-level pencil for students.

6.3. Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 Art Drawing Pencils

Staedtler Mars Lumograph Drawing Pencils

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If you need pencils that are of professional quality, then the Staedtler Mars Lumograph Art Drawing pencils are right up there with the best and highly rated by artists.

The pencils have bonded lead that is break-resistant, easy to sharpen, and wears evenly as used. They also work very well with Staedtler Lumograph Black Pencils. These have a high carbon content in their lead which produces a dark matt black with no graphite shine.

For those not familiar with what graphite shine is, and why it’s a problem this is explained in the next section.

7. The Best Pencils for Eliminating Graphite Shine

Graphite Shine

Graphite is a fantastic medium for drawing with but one of its characteristics is graphite shine which is the Achilles heel of using soft B grade pencils to get darker shades.

When using a pencil grade of 4B or higher as you apply pressure the graphite on the paper becomes burnished and polished. This results in the pencil marks becoming very shiny and reflecting a lot of light which can make the darkest blacks look a lot lighter on your drawing.

The traditional method of eliminating graphite shine is to use layers on your drawing combining harder H grades with the darker B grades.

There is now however a specially made pencil that you can be used on its own or combined with other grades to blend with and eliminate graphite shine.

7.1. Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black Pencils

Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black Pencil

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The Staedtler Lumograph Black Pencils are not an ordinary pencil with a graphite core instead their core has a high carbon content that gives a matt jet-black finish on the paper.

If you have ever tried blending carbon and graphite pencils to achieve deeper matt blacks then you will know that it just doesn’t work.

Staedtler however has produced a pencil that eliminates this problem as not only does it lay down dark matt blacks on its own but can be blended with other graphite pencils to achieve a soft blend with no graphite shine.

8. How to Choose a Pencil for Drafting or Technical Drawing

A draftsperson or architect will normally use a mechanical pencil for technical drawing. The main reason is that they provide a consistent line width which is more difficult to achieve with a wooden pencil. Check out Wooden Pencils Vs Mechanical Pencils for more information.

There are still some people who prefer to use traditional wooden pencils or technical drawing. The soft B grade pencils cannot provide a nice tight and consistent line and can be prone to smudging.

Therefore, a draftsperson will choose a harder grade of graphite between HB and 9H. AS the H number increases i.e., 2H, 3H, 4h, etc the harder the pencil lead becomes as it has more clay content. This results in lighter sharper lines, but they can cause indentions in the paper.

9. How to Choose a Pencil for Children

The 10 Best Pencils For Kindergarteners

If you are wondering how to choose a pencil for a child? the first thing to note is that young children have not developed the fine motor skills required to hold regular pencils such as a #2 pencil.

They need a pencil with a wide barrel often referred to as a fat pencil or jumbo pencil. as they get a little older then a pencil with a triangular-shaped barrel can help them develop a proper grip.

This grip is referred to as a tripod grip and the pencil is held using the thumb, index, and middle finger allowing for a lot greater control.

For more information on the tripod and all the other types of grips take a look at our How to Hold a Pencil The Definitive Guide.

Check out The 10 Best Pencils for Kindergartners where we go into a lot more detail and show you the best pencils to start your kid’s writing journey with.

10. How to Choose a Pencil for Marking Wood

Pencil for Marking Wood

When choosing a pencil for marking wood there are a few things that you need to take into consideration.

A standard #2 will mark a wooden surface but it needs to be very smooth and due to the thin lead core and the sharp points are very prone to breaking.

To mark most woods the pencil needs to have a lot thicker lead core which makes jumbo and oversized pencils a better choice than a #2 pencil. They can also be sharpened with normal pencil sharpeners.

Even though jumbo pencils are better than standard pencils they get blunt very quickly as they have a rounded point in contact with the surface of the wood which is very small in diameter.

To overcome this problem the pencil manufacturers have designed a special type of pencil for marking wood and it is known as a carpenters pencil.

10.1. Carpenters Pencils

Carpenters pencils have a wide flat oval-shaped or rectangular shaped barrel and a large diameter lead core.

The main advantage of a carpenter’s pencils is that the lead core inside it is a wide rectangular shape. This means that when it is sharpened to a point there is a lot more lead in contact with the wood’s surface.

The large rectangular point is very strong and suitable for use on rough wooden surfaces and lasts longer than a round point pencil does before it needs sharpening again.

The size and shape of the barrel make carpenters very easy to pick up and hold giving a lot of control and they don’t roll on flat surfaces.

Carpenters pencils are very robust pencils so when it comes to finding the best carpenters pencil it comes down to the same things as regular pencils. The quality of the wood and its graphite core.

Very cheap pencils use wood that splinters easily and the lead core constantly breaks so choose a pencil from an established brand.

Irwin Carpenters Pencil

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Irwin carpenters pencils are a very popular pencil they are made in the U.S and are good value for money.

Irwin Carpenters Pencil Sharpener

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They also have a pencil sharpener available which is really handy as usually carpenters’ pencils are sharpened with a Stanley or utility knife.

11. A Pencil is Only as Good as its Sharpener.

Pencil with Sharpener

We have already mentioned how important the type of wood a pencil is made from is but the thing that people often overlook is the pencil sharpener.

To properly sharpen a pencil without the blades digging into the pencil’s wood case it is vital that you invest in a good quality sharpener.

I can guarantee that you will not regret buying a good quality sharpener as the blades will remain sharp for many years. They will also be set to and remain at the correct distance apart which guarantees optimum sharpening performance.

For more information Check out the Kum Pencil Sharpeners Ultimate Guide these are widely regarded as the best manual pencil sharpeners in the world. This is due to the hardness and sharpness of their blades and utilizing their unique curved blade technology for optimum precision while sharpening.

12. The Wooden Pencil Brands Ultimate Guide

Wooden Pencil Brands Ultimate Guide

Once you know what graphite grade of pencil that you need from the how-to choose sections above you can now go about finding the perfect pencil.

The best place to do this is by checking out our blog post The Wooden Pencils Bands Ultimate Guide. It is the only place that gives you information about nearly all the different pencils that the 20 major pencil brands make.

It is a staggering 211 pencils, but it is easy to navigate from the main menu and via the sub-menus.

You may also be interested to learn that there are 12 different types of pencils.

Check out The Ultimate Pencil  Types Guide for more information.

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Peter Warrior: Pen & Pencil Expert

With nearly a decade of experience in the pen industry, I successfully ran an online pen business for 9 years. My deep-rooted passion for pens and pencils led me to become a part-time blogger, where I've dedicated myself to sharing the wealth of knowledge I've amassed over the years. I'm a firm believer in the power of the written word, as echoed by Malcolm Forbes: "Putting pen to paper lights more fire than matches ever will." My expertise is not just rooted in business, but in the genuine appreciation and understanding of the art of writing instruments.

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