A student's guide to pencils
December 2, 2015
Pencils are pencils, but to say all pencils were created equal is a stretch of the imagination that one should not be so willing to make. What exactly is a pencil? Here we shall assume that a pencil is a utensil that utilizes graphite to write, so as to be able to easily erase any erroneous marks. Such a definition creates a massive pool of possible tools that may be dubbed "pencil." What could possibly mark some pencils greater than other pencils?
Let us begin by creating a simple classification of pencils within four base categories: those basic wooden ones, lead holders, mechanical pencils and drafting pencils.
First off, those wooden blocks with some graphite shoved within. These are good for art, not much more than that. The variations in these are quite subtle, and can be broken further down into three sets. The most important aspect of these is the grade of the lead, this will be a recurring theme throughout all types of pencils; different grades of lead will write with a different weight, that is, a different level of darkness. Normal, as in what schools want you to use, grade is HB. This originates from those bubble tests, HB (or #2) is in the happy medium between dark enough to be picked up easily by the scanners but light enough to be easily erased. Lighter grades (which go along the lines of HB, F, H, 2H, 3H…) are better for lightly sketching the frame of some art thing, whereas darker grades (B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B…) are more permanent and therefore better for finalizing and shading. The shape of the pencil is more relevant for having sloped desks, something like a triangle will be less likely to slide off than a dodecahedron. Whether the pencil has an eraser or not could also be a contributing factor, for convenience and such. Bonus! Sometimes they come in pretty colors and cool designs, mostly for advertisement grab bags, if you’re into that.
Lead holders are the wooden pencils of not wooden pencils, they can be made of wood even. Basically, these are just tubes that hold a graphite refill that can then be adjusted for length. These also need to be sharpened in the same way the wooden ones do, except due to their shape some normal sharpeners won’t work. If you’re planning on buying one of these you ought to also plan to invest in a good sharpener. The shape of these can vary much more than the simple rods that are wooden pencils, the cases can be made of a wide assortment of materials and ergonomics can become a factor in whether to buy a certain pencil over another.
Mechanical pencils are like the middle-class of pencils. They are arguably better than wooden pencils but not as good as drafting pencils, just a mediocre medium. The majority of these will be plastic, though in some rare occasions you can find them in metal. These tend to be marketed in packages of many, full of colors and fanfare, but the build quality is basically just what you would expect from something meant more so to be sold than used. It is at this point that we must begin to consider lead widths. The standard for most people is going to be 0.7mm, which basically writes like a decently sharpened wooden pencil (depending on how well you can keep rotating the lead to keep the width consistent). If you’re going to writing massively or doing some sort of art, both of which it is preferred to use a wooden pencil for, then you may want to go up to 0.9mm. For those who want to write smaller or sketch more precise lines, 0.5mm is a better option, and 0.3mm (sometimes referred to as 0.35mm) is possibly the best option. There are some other intermediate levels but finding lead refills for those may be difficult, so it is best to stick within these four standard measurements. As before, different grades of lead may be used for different things, these will be the same as the wooden pencils, but rather than buying per pencil you’ll be buying per package of refills. These are generally assumed to have erasers, so we’ll skip that topic.
Here is a bit of a gray area, these are features that rest on the edge between mechanical and drafting pencils, though obviously will be much better pulled off in the latter. Some pencils will automatically rotate the lead, to avoid the aforementioned issue with the inconsistencies that arise especially with mechanical pencils. This is often preferred for those who want the luxury of a nice, consistent writing width, though may often be quite the pricey endeavor. Still other pencils will offer an auto-feed feature (as opposed to the standard ‘knock’ feature) keeping the lead at a consistent length to avoid stretching the muscles in your hand to click the end of the pencil.
Finally, we reach the epitome of writing utensils, drafting pencils. These are those with the extended sleeve for the lead, this allows the lead to reach far enough beyond the base of the pencil to be able to see where you are writing, while still keeping the lead from snapping. As this sleeve is often an extremely thin tube of metal, the best option is to find a pencil with a retractable tip, this feature is either accessed by twisting a knob near the end of the pencil or shifting the body of the pencil back to retract the tip. Many artists and designers will have several of these pencils around with varying grades of lead, if this fits your intent then you may want to invest in a pencil with a lead grade indicator. While this is functionally useless, it is a nice little twisty thing that allows you to designate which pencil has which grade in it. Some extremely high end pencils will allow you to adjust the length of the lead sleeve or even how much the lead proceeds with each knock (click of the button). Speaking of the button, these do have erasers (though not usually obvious) hidden underneath the button. These erasers are typically very small and customized per pencil, so expect to pay some extra money for more erasers. The only other major factor is going to be the build quality. A lot of these pencils have gnarled, metal grips; while this sounds uncomfortable at first, it turns out to be very nice over time. Metal grips also create a center of mass that is much lower on the pencil, requiring less muscle to write and therefore less fatigue over time, so get a pencil with a metal grip.
Trevor Hoglund is a student at UW-River Falls.