When buying pencils, or pencil lead, for drawing, it can be very overwhelming to see all the different types – ranging from 10H to 10B (using the European system). This was me when standing in the art store wondering what the difference was anyway. But, after some research, here is a short breakdown for you, as well as some links for more information.
Firstly, a bit of basic information. Pencil lead is a mixture of graphite and clay. The formula of the mixture is what determines the grade – or the rating between 10H to 10B. The more clay in the formula, the harder the lead (10H), and vice versa – the more graphite, the softer the lead (10B). This hardness helps determine the strength, smoothness, and pigmentation of the lead. It also affects the smudge resistance.
Using the corresponding number, like 10 in 10H, translates to the highest clay content resulting in the hardest lead and lightest strokes. I like to use a 6H which falls in the mid-range between 10H and an HB lead (which is the standard lead grade on the market). Our generic yellow pencils brands are HB graded lead– which means an even mix of clay and graphite.
Below, I’ve broken the characteristics of each letter grade of pencil lead down for you for easy reference:
- High in clay
- Hard lead
- Light strokes
- Smudge-resistant – harder to erase
- Typical uses:
- Light sketching
- Technical drawings
- Watercolour sketching
- Even mix of clay and graphite
- Standard lead grade
- Dark enough to read clearly
- Fairly smudge resistance compared to B grades but will still erase well unlike H grades
- Primary uses:
- Writing in schools
- High in Graphite
- Soft lead
- Dark strokes
- Smudges easily – easier to erase
- Very little friction in strokes
As with more artistic tools, paper plays an important role in quality and outcome. The B grade leads will work better on rougher papers as the graphite content allows for better clarity in the composition. This is why I prefer the H grade pencil leads as I prefer to use smoother papers. I also prefer lighter sketching before inking over top of the piece.
My 3 go-to pencil leads are 6H, my 6B and B lead. My favourite pencils to use are lead holders but you can purchase the different leads as traditional pencils. These are available at any art supply store as well as some general office supply stores, and, of course, Amazon.
I hope you found this helpful in your artistic adventures. Please comment below or reach out to me with any additional questions you may have.