The Complete Guide to Graphite Pencil Lead Grade

What is Pencil Lead?

Pencil lead is the material that gives the commonly used writing tool the simple but effective power to create marks and ideas on paper. The pencil lead is not made of real lead! It is made out of a  graphite and clay mixture, and it is non-toxic.

The hardness of the lead is determined by the ratio of graphite and clay used. Graphite is a naturally soft material, while the clay is more durable.

The more clay added to the mix, the denser the pencil lead, making it less easy to break.

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Graphite Scale

Soft and Hard Pencil Lead

Since pencil lead is available in various hardness grades (shades), it is labeled by numbers and letters.

The hard rates (lighter shades) are marked with the letter H, such as 8H and 7H.

The soft grades (darker shadows) are labeled with the letter B, such as 6B and 9B.

The hardness of the lead affects the darkness and lightness of the marks it makes on paper. The harder leads produce light shades and strokes and more precise lines.

In comparison, the softer leads have darker and more expressive lines.

Lead Grades Visual Guide

Any lead darker than 2B begins to be more applicable but limited to artists and creatives. This is due to its softer quality that produces that unique shading effect.

When a lead type becomes too dark and soft, it can become impractical in other situations.

For example, shading is less of a priority when writing an important letter than having clear and legible writing. In this case, it would make sense for the writer to stick with a shade lighter than 2B.

This graphite grading scale that utilizes numbers and letters to distinguish a soft pencil lead from a hard pencil is standard worldwide except in America.

Here is an overview of the graphite pencil lead grade scale:
Lead Grades Visual Guide
HB Sketchings

HB Sketchings

For mid-tone painting or detailing

2H - 4H Sketchings

2H - 4H Sketchings

For highlights or local details

6H - 2B Sketchings

6H - 2B Sketchings

For plaster sketches or depictions of hard objects in still life

2B - 6B Sketchings

2B - 6B Sketchings

For landscape sketching or portrait sketching

4B - 5B Sketchings

4B - 5B Sketchings

For painting dark tones or blending dark details

6B - 8B Sketchings

6B - 8B Sketchings

For technical sketching and partial avatar processing

The Breakdown of The Graphite Grading Scale

1. H (hard) leads

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Physically harder yet lighter in color, making them ideal for fine lines, detailed drawings, and technical work.
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Best for an architect working on a detailed blueprint where the lines must be exact.

2. HB (hard/medium) lead

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This versatile lead balances dark and light tones. It's commonly used for simple drawing and writing and is often labeled as the base middle ground for all shades.
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Best for students in school or people in a work office. It is perfect for precise writing, note-taking, and general daily use.

3. B (soft) leads

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They are softer and darker than HB, making them perfect for shading, blending, and creating rich tones.
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Best for an artist who is beginning to understand the principles of shading would use this B lead pencil. It provides just the right amount of shading quality.
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Still, it is forgiving enough for the beginner to layer the shading to play around with the technique.

4. 2B (soft/medium) lead

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A popular choice for artists as it balances dark and light tones. This pencil can offer dark and light tones depending on the pressure applied. It's great for sketching and shading.
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Best for someone seeking the next level up from the previous pencil shade, offering the same qualities. It is better for someone with more experience with shading techniques or can even be used by someone simply seeking a bolder writing tool.

5. 4B (soft/dark) lead

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Darker and smoother than the 2B lead, making it ideal for creating dramatic shadows and deep tones.
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Best for a realistic portrait artist would use a soft 4B lead to make their art come to life.

6. 6B (extra soft) lead

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Extra soft and dark lead, providing rich tones. It's excellent for creating deeper shadows and fantastic texture.
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For less frequent use, this extra soft lead can be chosen by those who want an almost charcoal, smooth feel given off by their writing or drawing tool.

Most Popular Pencils and Their Lead Types

Wooden Pencils: The Traditional Choice

Growing up going to school, we all used a No. 2 pencil. We were all convinced at one point that this was the only type of pencil that existed.

However, you may be surprised to discover that a much wider variety of pencil leads can be found in traditional wood-cased pencils! 5 different pencil leads can be found in this pencil type.

You can find them listed down below in order from lightest to darkest.

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No. 1 or B
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No. 2 or HB
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No. 2.5 or HB/H
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No. 3 or H
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No. 4 or 2H
Other needs must be met depending on the kind of work or project. For example, a number 2 pencil would be ideal for taking an exam or notes. Still, a number 4 pencil would be the optimal choice when an artist needs to produce a drawing with darker shading or tones.
Wooden Pencils
Metal Mechanical Pencil

Mechanical Pencils: An Alternative Option

Within the past decades, the mechanical pencil has become a popular alternative to the traditional wooden pencil, as it can be more efficient due to not having to sharpen the tool constantly.

Mechanical Pencil History

The first mechanical pencil was created in the 1800s but didn't become widely available to the public until much later.

Students, teachers, and workers began using this efficient writing tool widely offered in retail stores and stationery supply shops. Many choose this newer and updated version of the traditional writing tool because of the various styles available.

Mechanical pencils come in different styles with grips and pen-like designs. However, this did not completely rule out the use of the traditional option. Nowadays, there is a varied use of both.

Refills for Mechanical Pencils

Mechanical pencil leads grade from soft (2B, 4B, 6B) to hard (2H, 4H, 6H).

Unlike a traditional pencil, a mechanical pencil allows the user to refill it manually and hide the lead by pushing it back into the base, which ultimately causes less breakage.

The mechanical pencil also gives the user freedom to choose the lead sizes they prefer to write with; the sizes refer to the thickness of the lead stick itself!

Here is a list of the different lead thicknesses available for mechanical pencils on the market:
Mechanical Pencil Leads Scale
When purchasing a pack of mechanical pencils, it should be noted that it must be refilled with the same lead size that it was purchased with when the lead ran out. The different sizes are not interchangeable because the anatomy of the mechanical pencil, more specifically the lead tube, was structured to hold the lead firmly, allowing for precise writing and neat lines.

Thick pencil leads (anything wider than 0.9mm) will be challenging to write precisely. However, if the lead is too thin (smaller than 0.4mm), it can be prone to breakage and snapping.

That being said, the most common packages of mechanical pencils will come with a lead size of 0.5mm or 0.7mm due to their versatility and durability.
Su - Interwell Founder
Hi, I'm Su, the author of this post. I founded Interwell Stationery and have served over 1000+ clients since 2003. Feel free to contact us for custom stationery supplies, manufacturing support, and the latest trends in the industry.
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