A guide to pencil lead grades

Graphite originally became popular in England in 1564, and as the mineral was so soft and brittle that it required a ‘holder’. From here, people began wrapping graphite in string and later began inserting the graphite into wooden sticks, which is how the pencil was created. Pencils are a perfect form of expression, and whether it be writing or drawing, the pencil can aid some impressive work.

When you’re looking at buying new pencils, the letters and numbers on a pencil can be a little confusing. ‘’2B or not 2B’’ is a well-known saying in the pencil industry, and knowing your pencil lead grades is important. In this article, we will help you understand pencil lead grades and how to choose the perfect one for you and your projects.

The numerical scale

In the USA, pencil manufacturers often use a numerical scale. The scale is based on numbers, which represent the level of lead hardness in a pencil. The higher the number, the harder the lead and the lighter mark that will be produced.

The HB scale

The majority of pencil manufacturers in the UK use the HB grading system; this is based on three letters (H, B and F). However, they are often accompanied by a number to indicate the level of hardness, blackness, or fineness.


The letter ‘H’ indicates a hard lead. Hard lead is known for being smudge-resistant and giving clean lines, which makes it a great choice for outlines or technical drawings.


The letter ‘B’ indicates the blackness of a pencil’s mark (soft lead). A softer lead is often used by artists as it can create quick and heavy lines.


The letter ‘F’ indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.


A combination of letters, for example, ‘HB’ means the pencil is hard and black. ‘HB’ pencils are considered the middle point of pencil lead grades.


Today, most pencils using a HB system and lead grades will be designated a number and letter combination. For example, a ‘4H’ is quite a hard pencil but will give a rather dark mark on paper due to the softness of the core. Another example is ‘7B’, this pencil is soft and has a ‘B’ next to it, which means it will create a really dark mark when using it.

Writing with a mechanical pencil.

Which instrument to use

Choosing the correct pencil for your writing or drawing is just as important as selecting a lead grade. Pencils are extremely powerful instruments and can have a transformative effect on your work, so ensure to be comfortable with what you’re using.

Mechanical pencil

Mechanical pencils can be used for both drawing and writing. Mechanical pencils come in two main types, the ‘clutch’ pencil, and the ‘propelling’ pencil.

A ‘clutch’ pencil has a gripping mechanism, which is released by pushing the end button. This allows the lead to slide out of the pencil. ‘Clutch’ pencils are mainly used by artists, designers, and engineers for drawing.

‘Propelling’ pencils allow the lead to extend a small amount each time the mechanism is operated, the lead is never free to fall out. ‘Propelling’ pencils often have a guide tube to support the fine lead and reduce breakage.

You can view our wide selection of mechanical pencils here.

Lead sizes

Pencil leads for mechanical pencils and clutch pencils are available in a variety of standard diameters and grades of hardness.

A diameter of 0.3mm is considered relatively thin, whereas 0.9mm is a thicker lead. Each diameter of lead can be used for different purposes. For example, 0.3mm lead may be used for drawing outlines or work requiring minute detail.

From a young age, Natalya has been interested in all kind of stationery. From owning an assortment of coloured pens and pencils to buying a new notebook to write in every week. Natalya loves working for The Pen Company as it aids her in continuing her stationery passion as an adult.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *