Understanding No. 1 & No. 2 Pencils: The Complete Guide

There is no universal pencil grading system, as different regions have their methods for labeling pencils. Pencil grades depend on the graphite's hardness, which affects the shades produced. The HB and Numerical Grading systems are the most well-known and used. This blog post will explore these systems and discuss everything about No. 1 and 2 pencils.

HB Grading System vs. Numeric Grading System

What is the HB Grading System?

The HB Grading System is a standardized way of labeling pencils and their lead depending on what shade they produce. This system was developed in Europe.

What is pencil lead made of?

Pencil lead is composed of two naturally occurring minerals:

Graphite (soft mineral)

  • Effortlessly makes marks on paper
  • Very smooth to write with

Clay (harder mineral)

  • It provides resistance and is more durable
  • Requires more pressure to write with
The ratio of graphite to clay determines a pencil lead's hardness or softness. Equivalently determining how dark or light the lead's shade is. For example, leads with higher clay quantity are ultimately harder and produce lighter shades, and leads with higher graphite quantity are softer and produce darker shades.

To better understand, the 'H' lead that produces a very light shade (as pictured below) consists of more clay than graphite. Equally, the '7B' lead that produces a dark shade consists of more graphite than clay.
pencil lead material
More B = Softer & Darker; More H = Harder & Lighter

History of the HB Grading System

  • Developed in the early 20th century in Europe
  • Collaborative efforts by pencil makers like Brookman and Koh-I-Noor
  • Popular in Europe, known as the 'European' way of grading pencils
  • Also used worldwide, especially in countries with strong English and European influence
  • Not officially recognized as a universal pencil grading system
The HB grading system was created in Europe in the early 1900s by several pencil makers who sought a standardized way to label pencils.

Over time, it gained popularity in Europe and became widely used worldwide. However, it has yet to be officially recognized as a universal pencil grading system.

How does the HB Grading System work?

  • Over 15 degrees on the spectrum, consisting of numbers and letters
  • H = Hardness, B = Blackness, F = Finepoint
  • HB pencil is the neutral midpoint, perfectly balanced between light and dark
  • 'B' labeled pencils get softer and darker; 'H' labeled pencils get harder and lighter
  • 'F' pencil grade, between 'H' and HB, ideal for precise, fine writing
  • Commonly used by artists for shading options, marketed as 'drawing pencils'
The HB Grading System is a spectrum with over 15 degrees, using numbers and letters to indicate lead qualities. The HB pencil is the neutral midpoint.

As you move towards 'B,' leads become softer and darker, while towards 'H,' they become harder and lighter. The 'F' grade is ideal for precision and is commonly used by artists.
graphite grading scale

Numeric Grading System

the range of different pencil leads

Who invented the Numeric Grading System?

Henry David Thoreau, an American naturalist, invented the Numeric grading system for pencils. Similar to the HB grading scale, it labels the pencils depending on the hardness of their lead.

However, the range of different pencil leads found on the numeric grading scale is much more limited when compared to the HB grading scale. The numeric grading scale only consists of five different pencil leads, listed below:
  • No. 1 pencil equivalent to a 'B' pencil
  • No. 2 pencil equivalent to an 'HB' pencil
  • No. 2.5 pencil equivalent to an 'F' pencil
  • No. 3 pencil equivalent to an 'H' pencil
  • No. 4 pencil equivalent to a '2H' pencil
An easy way to remember how the Numeric grading scale works is by remembering that the higher the number, the harder and lighter the pencil lead.

Most pencil manufacturers in the US and Canada use the Numeric grading scale when labeling their pencils, making it the 'American' way to grade pencils.

Comparing the HB and Numeric Grading Systems

In conclusion, the HB Grading scale, which consists of a broader spectrum, is commonly used to label drawing pencils, as they come in many shades. While pencils labeled with the Numeric grading scale are more typically used in schools and offices as they are much more applicable to everyday use.

What Distinguishes the No. 1 Pencil from the No. 2 Pencil?

  • No. 1 (B) pencil: more graphite, slightly softer, smudges easily, not ideal for precise lines
  • No. 2 (HB) pencil: most commonly used, equal to HB pencil, neutral and versatile, perfect boldness, and firmness

The main difference between No. 1 and No. 2 pencils lies in the graphite-to-clay ratio, which affects their hardness.

The No. 1 pencil is softer and more prone to smudging, while the No. 2 pencil is more neutral and versatile, making it suitable for various tasks.

No. 1 Pencil and No. 2 Pencil
Ticonderoga Pencil

Source: weareticonderoga.com

The World's most popular No. 2 Pencil

The Ticonderoga Pencil is among the world's most popular No. 2 pencils. It is known for its durability, ease of sharpening, and smooth writing experience.

The Ticonderoga Pencil's popularity is a testament to the versatility and appeal of the No. 2 pencil, making it a top choice for students, professionals, and artists alike.

What to Know Before Buying Your Pencils

When purchasing pencils, it's essential to consider the intended purpose, whether for drawing, writing, or other tasks.

No. 1 and No. 2 pencils differ in their lead composition, affecting the hardness and darkness of their marks. The No. 2 pencil is more popular due to its versatility and suitability for various tasks.

Understanding the differences between these two pencil types and the pencil grading systems can help you decide when purchasing pencils for your specific needs.

How to Choose the Right Pencil for Your Needs?

Consider the following factors when selecting a pencil:
  • The intended purpose (writing, drawing, etc.)
  • Your personal preferences for lead hardness and darkness
  • The environment in which the pencil will be used (e.g., school, office, or home)
Remember that No. 2 pencils (HB) are the most versatile and suitable for various tasks. They are also less likely to smudge than No. 1 pencils (B).
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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