The Different Types of Graphite Pencils

Deciphering Drawing Pencil Codes

Sharpened pencil amongst blunt pencils, close-up. Samuel Ashfield

A pencil is a pencil, right? Artists quickly learn that this statement is not true and there is a variety of graphite pencils to choose from. Most commonly, you will come across drawing pencils marked with an H, a B, or both. These abbreviations are used to indicate the hardness (H) and the blackness (B) of the pencil's graphite.

The Grading Scale for Graphite Pencils

Pencil makers use abbreviations to indicate the type of graphite used in each pencil.

Although there are no specific regulations for this grading system and they can vary by brand, they do subscribe to a basic formula.

Quite simply, pencils are marked with H's and B's: the H means hard and the B means black. These letters can be used alone or in combination with one another, such as the HB pencil. The HB is equivalent to that American Number 2 pencil you've used for years. A Number 1 pencil is the same as a B pencil.

Many pencils also have a number associated with them. This indicates the degree of hardness or blackness the graphite produces. Pencils are graded from 9H to 2H, H, F, HB, B, and 2B to 9xxB. Not all pencil makers will produce every grade.

Deciphering the Graphite Pencil Code

It's good to know about the materials you're using, but how do you apply these descriptions to your drawings? Each artist and pencil are going to be a little different, but there are some general rules that you can use as guidelines.

  • H pencils are hard and they leave less graphite on the paper. This means that they are lighter.
  • B pencils are softer and leave more graphite on the paper, meaning they are darker.
  • F means Fine Point. This is quite a hard pencil and is easy to keep sharp, but generally a bit too hard for general drawing.
  • The more H's, the harder the pencil is. This means that a 4H is harder than a 2H and therefore, the 4H is also lighter. The 9H is typically the hardest and lightest graphite pencil available.
  • An HB pencil is kind of in the middle. For drawing, it's still reasonably hard.
  • The more B's, the softer the pencil is. This means that a 5B is softer than a 2B and the 5B will produce a darker mark. The 7B is the softest and darkest among common pencils, though you might come across an 8B or a 9xxB pencil as well. 

Swatch Your Drawing Pencils

The best way to understand exactly what any pencil has to offer is to do a swatch. This allows you to see how light, dark, soft, and hard each pencil is in your set. If you keep your swatch with you while drawing, you can use it as a reference or cheat sheet when deciding which pencil to pick up.

Making a pencil swatch sheet could not be easier. Simply grab a spare piece of your favorite drawing paper.

  1. Organize your pencils from hardest (H's) to softest (B's).
  2. One by one, draw a small patch of shading in a single layer with each pencil. Do so in a grid and label each shade with the corresponding pencil grade as you go.
  3. As you add a new pencil to your collection, add this to your swatch sheet. 
  1. If, at some point, you find that your cheat sheet is unorganized because you've added or subtracted pencils, simply make a new and updated swatch sheet.

Now, next time you need to do some deep shading, you'll know exactly which pencil is your darkest. Need to make light cross-hatching marks? Just grab the perfect H pencil for the job. This simple, five-minute task can take the guesswork out of drawing.