To pay attention to craft is to learn from materials and process; to find joy in the utilitarian and the commonplace; and to realize that powerful ideas are made manifest through the works of the hands.” ~ Jean W. McLaughlin, Former Director, Penland School of Crafts, North Carolina, USA

Every artist uses pencils. Pencils are a tool used to make erasable marks. They are made of graphite, a binder, and a body to hold and protect the lead. Most of the time the body is made of wood, though there are even paper wrapped pencils. However, mechanical pencils and lead holders are refilled with separately sold leads.

Figure 1: A rough sketch of the mark darkness produced by different pencils. Try making a sketch like this, using pencils you have on hand and a scrap of paper you intend to use for a project.

Grading Scale

Grading scales measure the ratio of graphite to binder. There are two commonly used scales – numerical and the HB scale.

In the United States, numbers were originally used such as the most common #2 pencil. The higher the number, the more binder and less graphite in the pencil. As the number increases, the line made by the pencil becomes thinner and lighter.

The second grading scale is the HB scale, which runs from 9H through HB in the middle to 9B. HB refers to a balanced composition of binder (H for hardness) and graphite (B for blackness of the pencil’s mark). H-pencils are commonly referred to as hard pencils. As the H number increases, the line becomes thinner and lighter, as there is more binder and less graphite. On the other hand, B-pencils or soft pencils, has more graphite and less binder as the B number increases. This results in a wider and darker line. Hard pencils require less sharpening than the soft pencils.

There are odd numbered pencils, such as 3 or 1, but these are not easily found.

Pencil grade is usually found near the end of a pencil. If there is no grade, it’s most likely a #2 or an HB. The grade of the lead that is bought for mechanical pencils and/or lead holders, is listed on the container.

Figure 2: Pencil grades ranging from 9H at the top to 6B second from the bottom. Bottom pencil is a Blackhawk 620 which is supposed to make darker lines with less effort.

Lead Size

Pencil leads come in a variety of widths and they range from a diameter of 2.0 mm to 0.3 mm.  Any of these may be used for drawing.

The most commonly available leads for mechanical pencils are 0.5 mm and 0.7 mm, in HB or #2 grade.  However, a variety of other leads may be found in drafting, art, and speciality stores.

Figure 3: Pencil holder with 2.0 mm lead, wooden holder with 1.1 mm lead, mechanical pencil with 0.5 mm lead, Japanese mechanical pencil with  0.3 mm lead and a graphite pencil.

Sharpening Pencils

The key to drawing crisp lines is that the pencil needs to be very sharp, but this guideline does not govern pencils that are used for shading.

Generally, if we’re asking ourselves “Should I sharpen this?” The answer is “Yes.”

Pencils can be sharpened with any sharp blade such as a knife or craft knife and/or sharpener -manual or electrical.

Artists often have very strong personal preferences about what makes the best sharpener.

It’s usually a personal choice. Try different sharpeners and see which one works for you. What’s true for every artist and every pencil is to sharpen often.

The first image on the left, is an old-fashioned desktop sharpener.  Unfortunately, it is missing a piece, so right now it’s more of a paperweight, but it is a great paperweight.

The draftsman’s lead sharpener is for larger leads, such as the 2.0 mm size, and produce really sharp points.

The small black lead sharpener is also for the 2.0 mm lead, however, it doesn’t have a container to capture the shavings and it can get messy. I recommend using it over a garbage can otherwise those tiny shavings will go everywhere.

The problem with everyday manual hand-held sharpeners (image Z) is that they become dull very quickly. When an old plastic sharpener was used, the pencil at the bottom was unevenly sharpened, with chunks of wood being gouged out around the lead. It’s definitely time to replace that pencil sharpener.

Figure 4: From left to right: old-fashioned desktop lead sharpener, draftsman’s lead sharpener, small black lead sharpener, two brass sharpeners, craft knife, and pen knife. Not shown are electric sharpeners.


The whole function of a pencil is to make removable lines. Enter the eraser.

The type of eraser used is typically based on the purpose and personal preferences.

Figure 5: Top to bottom: extendable eraser holders, mini 0.3 eraser, kneadable eraser, vinyl white eraser, replaceable erasers for mechanical pencil and pencil end and novelty bus-shaped eraser.

Each of these erasers has drawbacks to consider when using. 

Kneadable erasers tend to dry out, as such mine is kept in a re-sealable container. Also, graphite tends to get mixed into the eraser over time and can become completely black. At this time, it should be replaced.

Rubber erasers also tend to dry out. While, vinyl or plastic erasers leave eraser crumbs, which need to be removed from the work surface.


Pencil Care:

Pencils are low-maintenance tools. However, it is important to note,

  • Repeated beating against a hard surface will eventually break the lead, often in the middle of the pencil.
  • A sharp pencil is dangerous as it can break the skin and damage the eyes.
  • Graphite is relatively harmless, but consuming it is not recommended.  For this reason, keep pencils away from small children and pets.

Pencil Storage:

Pencils can be stored pointed-up in a mug or other container, or lying flat in a pencil case. In some instances, protective pencil caps may be used, e.g. Blackhawk pencil caps.

Sharpening Both Ends:

Sometimes, both ends of a pencil may be sharpened if the artist is drawing and shading at the same time. One end is kept very sharp for lining and the other less sharp, for shading. One may sharpen both ends to a very sharp point to minimise the use of the pencil sharpener.

Which pencil to use?

Start with what you have. You may be surprised with how many pencils, erasers, and sharpeners you already own.

Try a variety of pencils on scrap paper before beginning a project. It is perfectly acceptable to switch out pencils during a project. The first choice may not always be the best choice.

In general, a good beginning range is 4H — 2H — HB — 2B — 4H. H-pencils are typically used to draw lines, or in a compass to draw arcs and circles. While B-pencils are good for shading and tracing paper transfer.

Copying with tracing paper depends on the surface being copied to as well as the pencil. A smoother surface, such as card stock or hot pressed watercolor paper take tracing marks easier. The rougher a surface, such as cold pressed watercolor paper tend to show broken line transfers.

Share article

Sharon Wildwind

Discovered Islamic art by chance on the Internet in the fall of 2014, she immediately fell in love with it. Has a particular love with starting on a pattern and figuring out how it is drawn, finding satisfaction to watch a pattern develop, layer by layer. Her favourite tools are Pigma Micron pens and water colours.

Similar Posts