My first introduction to different types of pencil graphite hardnesses was from the show Full House. There is an episode where DJ is preparing to take the SAT, and the night before she has a nightmare that she shows up to the test with her #2 pencils, and what is actually required is a #4 pencil. I thought this was a funny joke, and didn’t realize that this was an actual thing.
To me, one of the first things I look for in a pencil to determine if it is good or not is the quality of the graphite core. Disclaimer – the core of your pencil, while commonly called the “lead” is actually 0% lead. The reason it has come to be called lead is merely a tradition. When graphite was first discovered, the people who found it called it what it most closely resembled – lead. But in all actuality, your pencil contains no lead, so there is no need to worry about lead poisoning.
The graphite core is made up of two ingredients – graphite and clay. The amount of each put into the mix determines how the graphite core turns out. If there is more graphite, the core will be darker and softer, and if there is more clay, the core will be lighter and harder.
There is a scale that identifies what the hardness of the graphite core is.
(Image from CW Pencils blog)
While this scale is helpful in determining what you are getting yourself into with your pencil, it doesn’t mean that every pencil core of a specific type will be the same. For example, a #2/HB pencil made in Japan tends to run a little softer than a #2/HB pencil made in America. (Side note, #1-#4 is an American system, whereas the H-B system, shown on the bottom row of the image is a more international system).
A lot of the choice of pencil graphite type is a personal preference. I prefer pencils that fall in the 2B category, but you may like something a bit harder. Or like my wife, you may like something super soft, like a 4B. However, even though it is personal preference, this is still a big deal when deciding if a pencil is good or bad, because if you don’t like the type of core because it is too hard or soft, then it won’t be a good pencil in your book.
All pencils are not graded, as well. The Palomino Blackwing line is an ungraded pencil, so it will not have an assigned number. Having a graphite grade is not a requirement, as there is not a board of standards for pencil production.
The second thing that determines if a pencil is good or bad is if the graphite core is centered in the pencil. Have you ever sharpened a pencil, and there is that little sliver of wood that runs up the side of the point? That is because the graphite core was not centered in the barrel of the pencil. This can lead to pencil points breaking very easily, and annoyance in writing because you cannot write with the full point, and end up with a weird slant thing going on.
This is an easy thing to spot. Whenever you buy some pencils, just look down the end of it before you sharpen the pencil to see if it is in the center. I don’t sit down with a ruler and measure if it is exactly in the center, but it is pretty easy to spot if the core is off-center. This is a simple way to insure a great pencil writing experience, but one that is often overlooked, or not known about.
I hope this has been helpful, and that it will lead to more a pleasant pencil using experience!