Graphite Hardness Scale: Understanding Your Pencil Lead

If you are like the most of us, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about which pencils to get.

You simply go into the store and buy the first pencils you see.

But as soon as you start to use them, they feel completely different from your old pencils.

That’s probably because your new pencils have different pencil lead.

Yes, that black stuff at the center of your pencil is actually important.

And if you want to know which pencil to buy, you first need to understand the graphite hardness scale.

pencil types and their uses

What is pencil lead made of?

The most important part of your pencil is the pencil lead.

It may be called pencil lead, but the modern pencil does not actually contain lead.

Lead was used in an ancient Roman tool called a stylus, and pencil lead is a result of the association to that idea.

However, modern pencils do not contain any traces of this toxic element. Instead, they are filled with a mineral called graphite, which is completely non-toxic and can be adjusted to fit a range of light and dark values.

Graphite was originally mined in England in the 1500s. The residents of the town of Borrowdale found bits of the hard, black mineral around a tree that was ideal for making marks.

Pencils began as sticks of graphite wrapped tightly in a string and eventually evolved into graphite inserts in wood. The modern pencil – a combination of graphite and clay in a wooden casing – was developed by French chemist Nicholas Jacques Conté in 1795.

Hard Lead vs Soft Lead

Hard pencils are made from a careful mix of graphite and wax additive. They are ideal for light sketching.

These pencils leave very light marks that can be easily erased, as the hard wax prevents much of the graphite from being left behind on the page.

Hard leads are also great for fine details like hair and eyelashes. These pencils maintain their points for long periods of time.

However, a disadvantage to hard pencils is that you will be unable to achieve rich shadows and contrast in your work.

On the flip side, soft pencils come in darker, more “black” shades. They are excellent for dark shadows, pupils, and other areas of high contrast in your work.

These pencils are soft, which means that they leave a lot of graphite behind. They also need to sharpen these pencils much more frequently than hard pencils and will be used up quickly because of this.

Be cautious when using softer lead pencils, as you can easily smudge the results. We recommend placing a sheet of paper between your wrist and your illustration as you work if you decide to use a soft pencil lead.

As an artist, you don’t want to stick to one particular hardness.

In order to get the variation and contrast shown in an impressive pencil drawing, you’ll need a set of pencils with varying hardness.

This will allow you to create lighter or darker marks in your illustrations and get the best results possible.

Moreover, you sometime have to change the hardness based on which medium you are working with. For example, if you are sketching on canvas an H pencil works much better than a pencil with soft lead.

The Graphite Hardness Scale

Now that you know the advantages and disadvantages of each type of pencil lead, how do you tell the difference between them?

Fortunately, pencil manufacturers have a widely accepted numerical and alphabet scale that helps identify what kind of mark the pencil will leave behind.

A note on quality: the higher the quality of the pencil you purchase, the more true it will be to its assigned hardness or numerical scale.

Low-quality pencils tend to contain extra additives or impurities, such as an excess of wax filler or minerals from processing. These impurities make them less consistent with their assigned values and less reliable to use in your art.

Moreover, there is no universal formula for pencil lead that is consistent between companies, so a 2B pencil from one brand may be slightly darker or lighter than a 2B pencil from a different brand.

HB Scale

The HB scale is what determines whether the pencil lead is “hard” (denoted by an “H”) or “black” (denoted by a “B”).

Harder leads, as stated above, contain more wax and leave lighter marks on the paper. Softer leads are denoted by a “B,” which stands for “black.” They are known as “black” because the softer a lead is, the darker or more “black” it is.

With this logic in mind, “HH” leads would be considered “very hard,” and “BB” leads would be considered “very soft.” “HB” pencils are middle-of-the-road as they are both hard and black.

However, adding extra H’s to indicate harder and harder pencils or B’s to indicate softer and softer pencils would quickly run out of hand.

So nowadays the HB scale uses a number and a letter, where the number shows the hardness or softness. For example, an 3H pencil in the new notation is similar to an HHH pencil in the old notation.

The full hardness scale ranges from 9H (being the hardest) to 9B (being the softest), with “HB” perfectly in the center.

There is one last letter designation that you may come across, which is “F.” “F” stands for “fine” lead, which is manufactured specifically so that it maintains a fine point. This type of pencil does not need to be sharpened as frequently as other pencils.

Numerical Scale

Most people are familiar with the classic #2 pencil, which is an example of the numerical scale of pencil lead.

This scale is exclusive to the USA. The #2 pencils are generally equivalent to an HB pencil, which means they are not too hard and not too soft.

From there, the numbers increase as the pencil lead becomes harder. The most common numerical value range for pencils includes #2, #2-1/2, and #3.

Below you can find the numerical scale and how it compares to the HB scale.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which pencil lead is the darkest?

Soft pencil lead is darker than hard pencil lead. Therefore, the B pencils are darker than the H pencils. By looking at the HB scale, one can see that 9B pencils are the darkest, and 9H pencils are the least dark. On the numerical scale, the #1 pencil is the darkest pencil lead.

Which pencil lead is the softest?

All B pencils are classified as soft lead, while all the H pencils are hard lead. Increasing numbers indicate increasing softness. For example, the 3B pencil is softer than the 2B pencil. The softest pencil lead is the 9B pencil. If you are using the numerical scale, the softest pencil lead is the #1 pencil.

What is an F pencil?

An “F” pencil is a pencil with “fine” lead. These pencils are manufactured specifically so that it maintains a fine point. This type of pencil does not need to be sharpened as frequently as other pencils. In terms of hardness, the F pencil is slightly harder than an HB pencil.

What does H and B mean on a pencil?

The “H” stands for “Hard” and indicates how hard the pencil lead is. The “B” stands for “Black” and indicates how soft and dark the pencil lead is. Normally the letter is paired with a number such as 2B. In this case the 2B would be softer and darker than a B pencil. An HB pencil sits in the center of the graphite hardness scale and can be considered to be of medium hardness.

Which pencil lead is best for writing?

The HB pencils are the best for writing, since they are neither too hard nor too soft. Depending on personal preference, you can also try a slightly harder pencils such as an H or 2H pencil for more crisp lines. Softer pencils such as B or 2B are not recommended for writing since they are easy to smudge.

What pencil is best for sketching?

For sketching you want to use a variety of different pencil leads. The HB pencil is a good option to put down some rough and suggestive lines. Softer pencils such as B, 2B, and 3B can be used to add textures, shadows, and tonal range. And harder pencils such as H, 2H, and 3H are great for adding small lines and details.

What mechanical pencil lead is number 2?

The number 2 pencil lead from the numerical scale is equivalent to an HB pencil on the HB scale. In most cases your #2 pencil will perform similarly to an HB pencil. But keep in mind, that the hardness accuracy of cheap pencils isn’t very high. So if your new HB pencil doesn’t feel the same as your old #2 pencil, you can also try out an H or B pencil.

What pencil lead is the softest and which is the hardest?

All B pencils are classified as soft lead, while all the H pencils are hard lead. Increasing numbers indicate increasing softness. For example, the 3B pencil is softer than the 2B pencil. The softest pencil lead is 9B and the hardest pencil lead is 9H. On the numerical scale, the softest pencil lead is #1 and the hardest pencil lead is #4.

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