pencil hardness chart

Pencil Hardness Grades and Their Use in Drawing

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Pencils are an ideal drawing tool for sketches and drawings. However, not all pencils are the same. The wood-covered graphite pencil is available in various degrees of hardness for different applications. In this article, you will find out about the different pencil hardness grades that are available, and for which applications most suitable for which hardness of pencils.



The Invention and Development of the Pencil

The Egyptians poured molten lead into bamboo or reeds about 5000 years ago and wrote with it. But the lead was too solid and had other disadvantages, even though it was not known at that time how harmful its constant use was to health. About 500 years ago people switched to graphite, an element of carbon, which is much softer than lead.
The abrasion caused black hands. So it didn’t take long before the idea was born to encase the graphite rods in wood for better handling. As the black material was then considered to be lead ore, pencils were given the name which has been used until today. From the 19th century until today, a mixture of graphite and clay as well as various oils or greases for impregnation has been used to manufacture the pencil leads.



Why There Are Different Pencil Hardness Grades

Not all pencils are the same. From technical drawing to writing to artistic sketches, you have the choice between around 20 fine gradations in different degrees of hardness. This offers many advantages. Depending on what you want to use the pencil for, you can choose the appropriate hardness. The mixing ratio between graphite and clay in production determines how hard or soft the lead will be.

Very hard leads only have a proportion of about 20 percent, and very soft leads contain up to 90 percent graphite. The heat and duration of the burning process also determine the hardness of pencils. Extremely hard pencil leads have less abrasion. When sharpened well, they will leave very thin grey lines, which makes them ideal for detailed sketches.

Particularly soft pencils give you a broader, rich black line. They are primarily suitable for artistic purposes. However, the soft lead also wears out much faster and therefore has to be sharpened often. A pencil of medium hardness is best suited for writing. If you write on it, you can quickly erase it again with an eraser. Especially stenographers appreciate these advantages.

pencil hardness



Pencil Hardness Chart and Their Applications

There is no worldwide unified standard for pencil hardness. This can be illustrated well with an example: A pencil of hardness HB is of medium hardness in Europe, a soft pencil in Japan, and a pencil with a hard lead in the USA.
The 20 different degrees of hardness of pencils in Europe range from 9H for extremely hard to B9 for very soft. In the middle area, you will find the designations HB and F. The number after the letters H or B determines the respective degree of hardness within the ranges.


Pencil Hardness Chart

HB ScalePencil hardnessUse
H9 – H6extremely hardfor lithography, cartography
H5 – Hhardfor technical and graphic drawing and writing
HB – Fmediumfor drawing and writing
B – B3softfor writing and freehand drawing
B4 – B6softfor artistic sketches and drafts
B7 – B9very softfor artistic designs and studies


Buy Pencil Hardness Grades Separately

Are you looking for individual pencils specifically for certain applications? Fortunately, the well-known manufacturers today offer the different degrees of pencil hardness individually, so that you do not have to buy a whole set.



Pencil Hardness Test: Applying the Different Grades

No one who uses pencils for work, whether in a technical profession or in an artistic profession, can manage with just one pencil hardness, but often uses the entire range. Drawing with pencils requires some practice. If you have no experience at all, the medium hardness between H2 and B2 is recommended. You can draw shades of brightness from very light to dark grey. The more pressure you put on the lead, the darker the strokes become.

Medium hardness grades are comparatively easy to use. They can be sharpened well and also erased well. If you are inexperienced, a pencil that is too hard and used with too much pressure can quickly leave marks on the drawing paper in the form of dents or even holes.

A too soft pencil lead has the disadvantage that it smears slightly when erased and the stain on the paper remains visible even when you paint over it. The abrasion is stronger with a soft lead. Care should be taken when sharpening as well as drawing because soft pencil leads break off easily. You can change this by taking care not to use a sharpener with a blunt blade.


The Right Pressure for Different Pencil Hardness

If a fine and precise stroke is required, as in graphic or technical pencil drawings, it is best to use the harder leads from H3 to H9. The stroke tone will be a lighter grey and will become only slightly darker even with increased pressure. As already mentioned, too much pressure will only ruin the drawing paper.

For pencil images, use the soft pencil leads, with their thick, almost black strokes which can create strong contrasts. The different hardness of pencils combined with watercolor painting is suitable for a mixed technique. The possibility to apply extremely fine strokes to the paper allows you to draw with great attention to detail. If, on the other hand, you want to make an initial sketch of something, a pencil with soft lead glides more easily over the drawing paper. It is also ideal for shading and darker areas.

pencil hardness test



Effects with Drawing Techniques and Materials

You can learn to draw with a pencil. Of course, this includes trying out many things but also applying techniques that help you achieve a specific effect. Hatching, i.e. drawing parallel lines, is a good beginner’s exercise. You can experiment by varying the density and direction of the lines.

If you like, you can draw a pencil lead hardness chart so you can see at first glance how hard the lead can be used to achieve the desired artistic effect. It also plays a role in how hard you press on the paper while drawing. The less you press on the paper, the softer the lead can be and vice versa.

If you want to draw a photo or something else, making a grid will help you to reproduce the proportions exactly. Remember that you will want to erase the grid after you have finished your pencil drawing, so you should apply the grid with a fine line without pressure. You can use a simple brush to remove eraser residue. So nothing can blur or smear.


Paper Structure as Another Influence

The structure of the paper is also important for the desired result. The rule is to use a softer pencil for rougher drawing paper because on smooth paper the abrasion of the lead is lower. The paper quality also plays a role. You can make first sketches on simple paper, a precise pencil drawing requires a higher paper thickness.

hardness of pencils


The Pencil Quality

In addition to the appropriate pencil hardness, quality is also a criterion if you want to have fun while drawing or sketching. Bad wood is more brittle, a bad varnish flakes off. You will notice this at the latest when sharpening the pencil. Refills of poor quality show irregular wear. Especially when drawing very fine lines, this is annoying.

Therefore, it is worth buying a higher quality pencil. A more expensive purchase here pays off due to its longer durability. Nevertheless, proper handling of the material is also crucial for its durability. If a pencil falls down, even a hard lead breaks through. The hexagonal shape was developed to prevent the pencil from rolling off a table, for example. Only those who use the pencil constantly, like a stenographer, prefer a round pencil.

In various pencil hardness tests, the Faber-Castell company has achieved excellent results with the Castell 9000 pencil in all degrees of pencil hardness. The renowned companies Stabilo, Lyra, Staedtler, Derwent, and Koh-i-Noor also consistently produce top quality.


Pencil Set with all Degrees of Pencil Hardness

Do want different degrees of hardness over the pencil scale for different applications? Then we recommend that you get a pencil set. These already contain a large selection of different lead hardnesses and you will save a lot of money compared to buying them individually.


Pencils have many advantages over other writing and drawing instruments, of which their versatility is only one. They are very practical and inexpensive tools that you can get anywhere. Another positive aspect is their ability to write in any position (e.g. lying on your back overhead) and at any temperature. And finally, you can immediately erase mistakes when writing or drawing with a pencil in the truest sense of the word. If you are interested in drawing, we would like to recommend our article on learning to draw very simply. We hope this artickle has helped to better understand the full pencil scale.


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