My students frequently ask me what the letters and numbers on the back of their pencils mean. The simple answer is that they refer to the graphite’s degree of hardness or softness. For this post I’ll write in general terms because many manufacturers use their own proprietary method of designation, and the letters can vary from company to company, and country to country. In America and in many European countries, the standard is that H designates a harder pencil, B designates a softer pencil, and an HB pencil is in the very middle of the spectrum of hard and soft.
Photo Courtesy of Less Herger
Most pencils that you buy for school or writing are usually an HB, even if that is not designated on their barrel. An HB pencil is very good for writing. The lead sharpens quickly, and wears evenly, and is more difficult to break. In terms of pencil hardness, it’s middle-of-the-road. The coloration of the lead is that typical silvery gray color that comes to mind when you think of a pencil.
Stepping up the hardness a notch is an H pencil. These are a little bit harder than an HB pencil. When you apply the same pressure to an H and an HB pencil you will notice that the line of the H pencil is lighter than the HB pencil. Applying more pressure to the H pencil won’t make a darker line than an HB pencil. An H pencil simply cannot lay down as much lead as a softer pencil. A 2H pencil makes an even lighter line. Many brands of pencils have up to an 8H. An 8H pencil produces a very light line, and wears at a very slow pace.
Why would one chose to use a harder pencil? A harder pencil wears more slowly than a softer pencil, the line doesn’t tend to smudge, but it erases with relative ease. The lighter line from a harder pencil is very useful to an artist who may want their initial sketch to disappear into their final media and not be seen or noticed. They are also a great choice if you want a pencil that writes smoothly but doesn’t smudge as easily as a softer pencil. One of the downsides to using a hard pencil is that it can leave an indent in the page if used with a lot of pressure. This can make them more difficult to erase.
A grade B pencil is softer than an HB pencil. The lead tends to go onto the paper more smoothly and with less pressure. When more pressure is applied you can add a lot more graphite without gouging into the page. The B pencil is darker than the HB pencil. The B pencil is a useful tool for shading. A 2B pencil is even softer than the B pencil. Even less pressure is used to get darker areas of shading. Pencils can range up to an 8B or 9B in softness. An 8B pencil produces a very dark smooth line with very little pressure.
Photo Courtesy of Less Herger
Softer pencils are used by artists to get darker dark areas in drawings. If you are writing with softer pencils you will find you can write for a longer session with a B pencil as the graphite is smoother and takes less pressure to apply than an HB pencil. The trade-off is that the B pencil wears more quickly, requires more frequent sharpening, and smudges much more easily than the HB pencil.
Artists select their pencil types to best suit their individual artistic needs. Watercolorists use a HB or H pencil with a light hand to allow them to lay down washes of color without the pencil interfering in the final piece. Someone using pencil as their main drawing tool might use 2H (hard) all the way up to 8B (soft) to avoid the glare that accompanies using heavy pressure with pencil. An acrylic or oil painter, on the other hand, can use whatever pencil is handy or skip it for charcoal, which also comes in degrees of hardness and softness. Either way, the paint will cover it up.
For fine detail work I use a KUM long point sharpener to bring my pencils to a long-wearing point that resists breakage. I find it works equally well on 2H all the way down to 6B pencils, which is not something I can say for every pencil sharpener. If I’m going to be shading I’ll use a sharp craft knife to remove only the wood from my pencils. I like to use a sharp H pencil to start my drawings, work very lightly, and then add additional areas of dark with progressively softer pencils. I discovered that process this process works for me through a lot of trial and error and experimentation over the years.
I encourage all of my students to play with their pencils, and get to know how they work. Through experimentation and time you’ll find a process of using the many grades of pencils that suit your individual artistic needs the best. Grab some pencils and a sketchbook and try them!
Meet the Writer: Less Herger is the owner and writer behind ComfortableShoesStudio.com and co-founder of PutitonPaper.org. She’s been making art for as long as she can remember and can’t imagine a day without her pen and ink.