Graphite or Pencils

When graphite was first discovered in the 16th century, it was thought to be a form of lead, and the connection has remained until today; however, it is very safe to use. Pencils are not made with real lead, even though we sometimes say pencil "lead."



Includes the following.

Graphite is a stable semi-metal and is considered one of the highest grades of coal. It is mined and mixed with clay to form the core of the familiar 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 after the resource was found, 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, making 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.


  1. Contributors, H. S. W. (2019, May 1). How do they get lead in a wooden pencil? Retrieved November 30, 2019, from

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.

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.

Graphite can make detailed drawings with a variety of lines, including:

  • Contour Line
  • Cross Contour
  • Dotted Line
  • Hatching
  • Cross-Hatching 
  • Scribbling
  • Feathering

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 manufacturing. 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, and 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 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


  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

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.

Materials or Supplies

Includes unique types or brands.

Woodless Graphite Pencil

They are pencils made of pure graphite and fine clay, i.e., there is no wood to hold the graphite in place, only a lacquered protective coating for clean handling. Pencil holders are also to lengthen these pencils if needed and reduce the risk of smudging. Manual or electric rotary sharpeners may be used to sharpen these pencils.

Preferred Brands

  • General's
  • OR ®Koh-I-Noor
  • OR ® Faber-Castell PITT

Preferred Grades

  • 2B
  • 4B
  • 6B

Clutch Pencil

Clutch pencils or lead holders marry the advantages of the traditional wooden pencil, such as a variety of line widths with the convenience of a mechanical pencil.


Clutch pencils have specialized sharpeners that sharpen the lead only.

Sharpener for Clutch Pencils
Preferred Brands

The Staedtler Mars Technico Holder is designed for drawing, sketching, and writing. It features a metal clip, a push-button, and a textured grip. Made in Germany.

  • ® Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holder (Size: 2 mm)
  • OR ® Uni Mitsubishi Lead Holder (Size: 2 mm)

Wolff's Carbon

Is the perfect combination of charcoal and graphite. Carbon pencils have a consistent softness for superior blending and texture. It goes smoothly and precisely in rich, velvety, matte black lines because it has a fine grain. Sandpaper is preferred to sharpen these pencils. They will break off in a manual or electric rotary sharpener.

Preferred Brands

  • Wolff's Carbon

Preferred Grades
  • 4B
  • 6B


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