Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lead Pencil Grades

Ah, lead pencils...such a personal favourite. Ever since I failed my pen license test in primary school, I've found a real partner in lead pencils. They understand me, they accept my hand for its wayward marking and they just work so well.

And they have quite a story behind them too. See, lead pencils (obviously) don't contain any lead...this is good news, as lead is totally poisonous. We have the British to thank for the misnomer. The core of your Palomino Blackwing or Field Notes pencil is made of a mixture of Graphite and Clay and it was in discovering a huge graphite deposit in the 16th century that the Brits mistook it for 'lead ore' and like most of their mistakes, this one has had long-lasting consequences and the name just stuck.

Actual lead does deserve a small footnote in the story of pencils as a lot of pencil barrels were coated with paints that contain lead but fortunately this practice is long dead. Happily, we are left with graphite which is for all intents and purposes totally harmless. I haven't tried it, but you could even eat a little and be completely fine, spare your tastebuds perhaps. But back on point, the 'lead' of lead pencils comes in quite a range of formulae which is why we have the (very loose and informal) grading system of 9b to 9H.

Prepare yourself for a very silly taxonomic system. So, we know that your pencil is predominantly graphite (the black stuff that does the marking) and clay (to hold it all together) but the proportions in which you mix these ingredients determines what grade of pencil you have. B stands for Black and H stands for Hard...so, blackness and softness go hand in hand and greyness and hardness likewise.

If you have a very soft lead pencil (take the extreme, 9B) you can expect a lot of graphite and little clay. It will be very black and the point will positively disappear on you. It you have a very hard pencil (9H), you can expect a very light grey point that basically never diminishes. Sketchers love the Bs for shading and varying the degree of blackness. Designers love the Hs for hard, sharp lines and edges. Most pencils in general use are HB, B or 2B and this keeps most of us happy most of the time.

The full system descends in order from 9B to 2B then stumbles through B - HB - F - H before regaining its feet to some extent and running 2H to 9H for a respectable finish. The core of graphite and clay is fired at 1200 degrees Celsius and then cased in timber to keep our hands clean. The best timber for pencils is incense cedar which is forested fairly intensively in California. Believe it or not, the best age for such timber is 150 to 200 years old, so you're sharpening quite a little story in and of itself every time you refine your pencil point.

It's a pretty bland, straightforward act of chemistry in putting together your lead formula and choosing your proportions of graphite and clay. But a romantic like me will return to the 16th century and claim that some pencil makers go beyond chemistry and cross over into alchemy, taking earthly substances and basic elements and turning them into solid, pure gold! Yes, Palomino...I'm looking at you.

All of this aside, i'll always give an heartfelt recommendation to try some new pencils out. They look cool, most of them have a lovely aroma, they have a wonderful breadth of functionality and best of all, you don't need some stupid 'license' to use one!


  1. I enjoyed reading your delightful and informative post. Field Notes pencils are my favorite. As a writer, their H quality is perfect.

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