“Wearing down seven number two pencils is a good day’s work.”
– Ernest Hemingway
When I was in grade school, I remember very distinctly discussing personal preferences in pencils with some of my classmates. In particular, I remember one friend describing how she doesn’t like sharpened pencils, but in fact prefers pencils that are just slightly dull – her writing being a bit small and curly, as I recall, and so she enjoyed having a rounded look to her lines. Obviously when it became too dull her writing became illegible, so it was a fine line (hah!).
I remember being initially baffled, and then intrigued by this possibility of intentionally writing with a dull pencil – I tried it for a while, but I think I enjoyed a freshly sharpened too much to keep at it.
When I first discovered fountain pens, it was as though a whole new world opened up to me. I realize I’m prone to being a bit dramatic, but in this case, we literally quit our full-time, secure, health-benefits-providing jobs in order to open up a shop to sell said fountain pens, so it’s safe to say I got a little excited.
However, I think at the heart of all true stationery nerds is a childhood spent learning about parallelograms and i-before-e and all the idiosyncrasies of our favourite graphite-filled writing tools. There is something indescribably satisfying about making marks on paper with a pencil, particularly when the paper has that perfect amount of feedback and texture, that reaches all the way into my mind. I know a part of it is nostalgia, but I think part of having used a tool for so long in my childhood is that it really has imprinted on the idea of focusing on writing or drawing or creating something without the distraction of multiple tabs open on a browser or buzzing on a phone.
As we begin to carry more and more pencils, particularly with different grades of hardness, I thought I would do a quick introduction guide to hardnesses, which has to do with the ratio of clay and graphite. The more clay, the harder and lighter the lead, the more graphite, the softer and darker the lead.
Our most popular pencil hardness in the shop is, of course, the HB – the standard pencil.
Here’s a chart with some of the pencils we carry in the shop, the top row is from the classic Faber-Castell 9000 pencils made in Germany:
The chart is just to give you an idea of how the lead hardnesses look against each other. Just like how one fountain pen company’s fine nib might be finer or broader than another’s, it’s easier to compare one against another (a 2B is darker than an HB; a Japanese HB might be softer or darker than a European), than it is to give a definitive chart.
The H’s actually go deeper, like an integer line:
… 5H – 4H – 3H – 2H – H – HB – B – 2B – 3B – 4B – 5B …
The farther down the H line you go, the bigger the H number, the harder the lead will be.
The farther along the B line, the bigger the B number and the softer and blacker the line will be, so an 8B will be extremely dark and soft, and a 4B will be fairly dark and soft.
I think around a 2B or 3B is my favourite range, although I suppose it’s because I have the luxury of sharpening frequently. Another minor inconvenience with the softer leads is that they tend to be a bit smudgier, something that I admit can be a bit bothersome when I’m writing notes in my pocket notebook since I go back and forth between pages with lists/projects/ideas/to-dos and then I find my pages starting to look a bit grey.
We’re often asked for recommendations in the shop, but this is one of those times I can say without guilt, you should try a few! With pencils being so inexpensive, you can get several different pencils for under $10, and try out how you like them, so you don’t have to shy away from trying a hardness that you might not have tried before.
As a general rule, though, the darker pencils tend to be more expressive – you can exert more pressure and darker, thicker lines, as well as press lightly and get thinner lines – and so they’re often used for sketching and drawing. Extra precision work will use the harder pencils.
Americans also have their own system (of course), but theirs is a bit simpler:
4 – 3 – 2 – 1
with a number 2 being a standard school pencil, with moving to 4 as being harder and moving to 1 as being softer.
And a note on the famous Blackwings! Palomino doesn’t publish or indicate the official hardness of their pencils, but their pencils are soft and buttery, a joy to write with. I put a sample of each on the hardness scale above, with the 602 being the hardest (around a 2B), the white Pearl in the middle (maybe 3B), and the Blackwing the softest (maybe a 4B). We often have customers that say once you start writing with a Blackwing, it’s hard to go back.
A direct comparison is also a bit hard because one company’s 2B or 3B can be different from another’s, but rest assured these all three grades of these pencils are ultra-luxurious, and if you’re interested in pencils, you have to try these at least once.
The big conundrum of the pencil world is sacrificing or not sacrificing hardness (and point retention) for darkness. If you look closely at the photo below, you can see the H pencil on the left and the 6B pencil on the right after about the same usage, and while the H still looks fairly pointy, you can already see some filing down on the 6B.
Basically most dark leads are also soft. People often want a nice, dark line, while still keeping a point, but these two traits are often a trade-off.
These days I’m enjoying a Faber-Castell 9008 Stenographer in a 2B. It’s a round pencil (as opposed to hexagonal like the 9000), and offers a nice, dark line. I actually have a box of them, and I’m relishing in the slightly absurd feeling of safety in having abundant stationery.
When Caleb goes off to Kindergarten next year, I’m sending him with these Faber-Castell Jumbos. For every Saturday he’s had to spend in the shop instead of at the zoo, at the very least he’s going to have some great pencils at school.
We’ve a few exciting new pencils coming in over the next little while, hopefully in time for the studio shop, and I can’t wait to see how you all like them. If you have anything or any brand in particular you’d like to see, please let me know in the comments.
There’s a different sort of magic to pencils, compared with fountain pens, which I think is in part to do with the consumable nature of a pencil. Fountain pens you refill over and over, and are carried with you for years and perhaps even passed down generations. A pencil, however, is a relatively inexpensive and consumable item, so ubiquitous and universally recognized, and yet contains so much tangible potential. There is something so satisfying about writing with it, the wearing down of the lead on the page, and additionally satisfying about wearing down an entire pencil. As you use your pencil, there’s a physical indication of your work and effort.
I think another part of its allure is in its very inexpensive nature – with so much history and culture and story wrapped up in each wizard’s wand, all for a dollar or two. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, you have this piece of wood that could transcribe a poem or a letter or a doodle. The graphite physically transfers onto a page, mark by mark, turned into words and letters and ideas, and as it gets sharpened and whittled down, all the magic of it is released out into the world.
Currently reading: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Currently looking forward to: more film arriving for my Instax camera
Currently working on: teaching Caleb better kitchen knife skills
Currently looking at: the new lamp Jon ordered me that has no lightbulb and so is just taking up desk space on a desk with very, very little expendable desk space
Current writing tools: Platinum 3776 Tortoiseshell with Diamine Ancient Copper, Pelikan M600 with Kyo No Oto Hisoku, Faber-Castell Steno 2B, Field Notes Workshop Companion