Become a Pencil Connoisseur

Christy Olsen

Graphite pencils are great for sketching or drawing because they produce grey or dark marks that are easily erased but otherwise resistant to moisture, most chemicals, ultraviolet radiation,  and natural aging.

Become a Pencil Connoisseur

Made with natural or synthetic graphite, a pencil's core is primarily made up of graphite powder mixed with a clay binder or wax to create a rod that is surrounded by cedarwood.

A Brief History of the Pencil

"Pencil lead" is not chemically made up of lead at all. The substance was named graphite, after the Greek word meaning "to write," since that's how people used the substance initially. We call it "lead" because the person who first discovered graphite believed they had found a significant lead resource. More than 200 years later, an English scientist discovered that the substance was not actually the property of lead but a type of carbon instead. 1

During the 17th century, graphite and clay were grounded by hand, put into a cylindrical mold, and fired in a kiln to create the rods. Woodworkers milled cedar to sandwich the graphite in between, creating a crude version of what we now call a carpenter pencil.

Today, machines mass-produce pencils. The pencil's core is manufactured in various sizes. Most wooden pencils are mass-produced from large blocks of cedar cut into slats. A machine cuts eight grooves, half as deep as the graphite-clay rod is thick, into the slats and then places rods in each groove.

Different qualities of clay and graphite result in a wide range of textures and values (lightness or darkness). The amount of clay determines the hardness. The more clay, the stiffer the pencil point and the lighter the marks created by the pencil.

How to Navigate the Pencil Grading Scale

Pencils are usually stamped or marked with the grade. However, note that there are no industry standards for pencil graphite grades. Results will vary from brand to brand.

The hardness or softness is graded on a scale that came into use in the 20th century and is determined by the amount of binder used during the manufacturing process. The letters "H" is for hard, "F" is for fine, and "B" is for black.

The other grading scale is the size of the pencil's core. Both are used as a continuum from very hard (9H) to fine (F) to very black (9B).

Pencil Cross Section Grades

The International System uses numbers and letters that range from 10H, 9H, 8H, …, 2H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, …, 8B, 9B going from stiff graphite to soft. In this system, letters may be combined. For example, a pencil marked "HB" is stiff and black. The U.S. system uses numbers only, no letters. The U.S.-manufactured pencils usually have a shaft that is hexagonal shaped.2

Pencil Swatches © 3

Generally, an HB grade about the middle of the scale is considered a medium pencil, great for sketching, and dark enough to see clearly with minimal smudging. The correlation between the two systems is listed in the table below.

The U.S. International Description
#1 B 1x Black
#2 HB Hard & Black
#2½ F Fine Point
#3 H 1x Hard
#4 2H 2x Hard

The higher the number combined with "H," the stiffer or harder the writing core, as well as the lighter the mark on the paper will be. Hardness affects the pencil's strength, smoothness, smudge resistance, and pigmentation. Hard pencils are extremely smudge-resistant and well-suited for precision in technical drawings. "F" indicates that the pencil sharpens to a fine point.

"B" stands for black, referring to the blackness or darkness of the pencil's mark. This indicates a softer pencil as less clay has been added to the graphite core. Soft pencils are great for sketching because of the glide across the paper. However, note that some manufacturers include carbon in these pencils, making them darker, staining the paper, and making them harder to erase. Higher-rated "B" pencils are best used for dark accents or finishing marks. Below is a grade, smudge, and eraser test provided by

Image ©JetPens.com4

A Unique Pencil Designed in the early 20th century.

The BLACKWING 602 has a unique tactile feel for anyone who sketches. It possesses the exceptional softness and smoothness of a 3B/4B type pencil but with the rate of wear that an HB pencil usually encounters.

The pencil flows nicely over the paper without a lot of pressure. However, applying more pressure will get a darker and more precise mark. It also has a unique flat square ferrule with an eraser that never falls out and is designed to be easily replaced.

Palomino BLACKWING 602 Pencil

A Brief History of the BLACKWING 602

The BLACKWING 602 pencil was designed uniquely for shorthand or stenography. It was introduced in the 1930s with the slogan "Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed," which appealed to any stenographer.

Stenography, from the Greek stenos (narrow) and graphite (to write), was a writing process in shorthand before recording devices or dictation machines were invented. It used a symbolic writing method to increase the speed and the brevity of writing compared to writing out each exact letter or complete word. It was primarily used by journalists who needed to take notes at a press conference or write too quickly during an interview.

Fourth Generation Blackwing 602

BLACKWING 602 pencils were manufactured by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company from 1934 to 1988 and sold for 50 cents each. It was used by Chuck Jones, the "Father of Contemporary Animation" best known for his work with Warner Bros. on the Looney Tunes cartoons, starring Bug Bunny, Daffy Duck, or the Road Runner.

BLACKWING 602 evolved from an office tool into an artist tool and quickly became synonymous with quality. Pencils were then manufactured by Faber-Castell from 1988 to 1994 and by Sanford from 1994 to 1998.

However, when manufacturing ceased, bidding wars began on eBay for any existing pencils, where some paid up to $40 for one single BLACKWING 602. Giving it the unprecedented title of "the $40 pencil."

Palomino BLACKWING 602

A Revival of the BLACKWING 602

With family roots in the pencil industry dating back to the mid-19th century, Charles Berolzheimer became Palamino's founder. Artists soon noticed that Palomino's range of premium pencils compared favorably to the BLACKWING 602. They began asking Palomino to consider reviving the Blackwing brand, complete with its defining rectangular eraser.

Charles Berolzheimer used the company's unique supply relationships to re-introduce the BLACKWING 602 2010. This time, featuring California genuine incense cedar and premium Japanese graphite, launched exclusively on Since then, it has been distributed to retailers worldwide and received rave user reviews.

Blackwing 602 Anatomy

Today, a portion of all BLACKWING 602 sales benefits the BLACKWING Foundation. Its mission is to support music and arts programs in public schools at the K-12 level. BLACKWING now has a following of people who like to unplug and engage with the physical world around them. One that values authenticity, simplicity, and, perhaps most of all, connection.

Suppose you really want to geek out on sharpening pencils. In that case, you should look at David Rees' book How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants.


  1. Contributors, H. S. W. (2019, May 1). How do they get lead in a wooden pencil? Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
  2. Rees, D. (2012). How to sharpen pencils: a Practical Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Pub.
  3. What is a No. 2 Pencil? (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
  4. The Best Lead Grade For Every Application. (n.d.). Retrieved November 30, 2019, from
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