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The sketching pencil and graphite

The sketching pencil and graphite

Can you imagine life without a pencil?

Even though we are living in the digital age, a lot of us still use pencils in our daily lives. We all like a good list! Maybe a quick sketch, diagram or a message on a post-it-note. As children, our first written word would have been with a pencil before we progressed onto an ink pen. Professionals like architects, illustrators, artists, urban sketchers, designers and the literary community may use a pencil much more frequently than the everyday person (Roald Dahl was believed to have written all his books using pencil). There is a pencil for every need and requirement from very hard to incredibly soft, from the lightest grey to the blackest black! There are mechanical pencils, white pencils, charcoal pencils, watercolour graphite pencils, carbon pencils and so on. In this article we will look at what a pencil is made from, how it is made and explain what the pencil symbols mean. We will then look at the different types of pencils available on the market to add to your essential tool kit of drawing supplies.


What is graphite?

Graphite is a mineral that is naturally occurring. It is a homogeneous solid with a definite chemical composition consisting of a form of carbon. Graphite is formed by extreme pressure and extreme heat in the earth's crust and upper mantle. Graphite and diamond actually share the same composition but have very different structures.

It can be found in large veins in older crystalline rocks and is mined extensively in China, India, Brazil, North Korea and Canada. However one of the largest deposits of graphite was found in the early 1500s in Cumbria England, it consisted of the purest and most solid graphite ever found!

Origins of graphite in drawing supplies

The pencil that you hold in your hand does not contain lead! This is a misconception. It is actually graphite, also known as plumbago or black lead. Historically, lead poisoning came from the lead paint on the pencil rather than the lead inside.

Graphite may be the oldest and the most historical mineral you have ever touched, yet we take this small detail for granted. Knowing your pencil has origins in the ancient world is incredible especially when you realise how it is still relative in this one. Originally sticks of graphite were used for writing, then during the late 1500 the graphite rods were placed inside wood sleeves that were glued together, very much like our pencils today.


The next evolution of the pencil was in 1790, clay was mixed with powdered graphite before firing it in a kiln, altering the softness of the graphite and the colour. The more clay added to the powdered graphite, the harder the lead becomes. 

Creating modern day graphite pencils

Today, to produce a modern pencil, there are as much as 14 steps or processes that need to be completed before the final product is created. Mixing powdered graphite with powdered clay to the correct properties is the first step. Then the soft graphite is extruded through a nozzle to form long strands of graphite much like watching spaghetti being made. When these strands are cut to the correct length they are dried in rotating perforated tins at temperatures as much as 1500°. Once dry, the leads are immersed in a bath of liquid wax. This wax is absorbed into the lead sticks. This process provides the graphite with a smoother finish when writing on paper. Grooves are milled into two slats of wood then the graphite is glued into place. The second slat of wood completes the graphite sandwich and then the wooden and graphite sandwich is dried under pressure for about an hour. The wooden graphite sandwiches are then cut into pencil lengths. Milling the pencils at this next stage will provide their shape, either round, hexagonal or a triangular shape. Pencils are then painted, stamped with the necessary information and branding then their ends are dipped. Once dried they are sharpened, and before being  packaged they have to pass through quality control! That's all there is to it! 

Fun Facts about drawing pencils

  • The reason why carpenter's pencils are various shapes such as oval, rectangular or octagonal, is to prevent them from rolling away whilst working.
  • Erasers were not put on the ends of pencils until 1858.
  • It has been estimated that the average pencil has enough graphite to write about 45,000 words!
  • Faber-Castell is the world's largest pencil manufacturer with over 260 years of history and experience.
  • Faber-Castell produces over 2.3 billion pencils a year.
  • On average a pencil can be sharpened 17 times.
  • An average pencil can draw a line 35 miles long.
  • Over half of the world's pencils come from China, with factories turning out 10 billion pencils, which is enough to circle the earth more than 40 times.
  • An average sized tree will make approximately 300,000 pencils.

Let's look at the classification of graphite and explain the different lead grades.

Graphite pencils are classified as either;

  • Soft Black - B 
  • Hard - H
  • Hard Black (which means medium hard) - HB
  • Firm - F  

All the numbers in between signify how hard or how soft the graphite is.

As more clay is added to the mixture of graphite, the harder the pencil becomes. The harder the pencil, the higher the number. H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H, 7H, 8H, with 9H being the hardest. Hard lead makes a light grey opaque mark.

The more graphite contained in the pencil, the softer and darker the pencil is and the higher the number. B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B. 9B. The softest graphite makes the darkest opaque mark.

When used on sketch pads, graphite leaves a soft shiny grey or nearly black mark depending on the degree of hardness. Rough or textured paper surfaces will allow the soft graphite to adhere better, whilst the smooth paper surfaces will allow for precision drafting using the harder pencils. The softer pencils leave a little dust, however the harder ones leave much less on the surface of the paper. Graphite will adhere to many surfaces like wood, all kinds of paper, some fabric, cardboard, mdf, anything with a slight tooth will work better. 

Usually the hardness or softness of a pencil is printed on the side with a letter on its own or with a number. See classification chart below:-



Extra soft and very deep black, for drawing of an atmospheric or organic nature, used for high chiaroscuro effects or dark silhouettes. Great for creating form in figure drawings. Excellent for expressive shading and 3d rendering. Great for quick motion drawings.


VERY Dark black finish





Extra Soft and very black. Great for quick illustrations, figurative sketches of movement or organic drawings. Great for creating form in figure drawings. Excellent for expressive shading and 3d rendering

Very Black finish



Very soft and very black for a pictorial tonal impression, creating depth and perspective in drawing. Great for creating form in figure drawings. Excellent for expressive shading and 3d rendering





Medium Soft and Black. Great allrounder pencil, drawing, writing, outlining. Good for illustration, quick sketches . Shading and 3d rendering .






Soft and Black. Great allrounder pencil, drawing, writing, outlining. Good for illustration, quick sketches . Shading and 3d rendering.


HB most commonly used pencil.

Medium soft and medium black, good for more precise drawing and sketching, great for writing. Good for creating lines with a ruler or geometry tools.




Hard pencil. good for more precise drawing and sketching, great for writing. Good for creating lines with a ruler or geometry tools.


Ideal for technical drawings, Architectural drafting plans, garden planning, fashion garment drafting and fine fashion garment pattern detailing.


Does not smudge and light pressure will guarantee a fine line. Easy to erase if a light touch is used.







Very hard


Extra Hard


Extra, extra hard





Particularly extra hard.


Most pencil manufacturers adhere to this hardness scale as it has been unchanged since 1910.

Pencils, Graphite Sticks and Blocks for every occasion

When working with graphite it is essential to find the right pencil softness or hardness for the project you are working on. Graphite is an incredibly versatile material to work with, with endless possibilities for creating different finishes; metallic lustre or matt black textures and marks. Once applied to paper, graphite can be erased, smudged, smoothed, buffed, can be used to create an ultra fine line, blackest black line, crushed to make dust or pushed into the substrate with a cloth, tortillion or your fingertips. Koh-I-Noor even makes graphite dust for those large atmospheric areas which need blending or add a little water to create washes of texture.

Similar to charcoal, graphite can be manipulated to create many different outcomes. And the same graphite pencil has endless possibilities just by altering the pressure you apply or by altering  the angle you hold your pencil. 

When buying drawing pencils there are many sets on the market to choose from, buying a set can be incredibly useful as most of them come in handy protective tins or boxes and contain a combination of soft and hard pencil grades.  We have listed some here to help you choose the right one for your project.

Derwent XL Graphite Blocks

Derwent Graphic Pencils

Smooth and refined!

From sensitive line work and subtle blending, to expressive marks and deep tonal work, Derwent XL Graphite is smooth and refined. The chunky shape of these drawing pencils is captivating, intuitive and great fun to use; you can even add water to the mix for splashes and washes. There are 6 colours in the range: 2 natural graphite, 2 warm tones and 2 cool colours.

Jumbo Woodless Graphite Sticks/Pencils

Strong hexagonal graphite pencil in a lacquered envelope with high quality graphite lead in 4 soft grades. Particularly suitable for artistic drawing, especially on large areas where strong trace is required.

Individual Pencils

Staedtler Tradition Pencils

Pencil Sets

Wolff's Carbon Pencil Set

This selection of carbon pencils is ideal for sketching, drawing and tonal work, featuring one each of B, 2B, 4B and 6B.

Carbon pencils are often considered by artists to be the perfect pencil- they combine the silky smooth advantages of graphite for sharp lines and the velvety richness of charcoal for deep black lines.

Carbon pencils enable the artist to create dramatic, textured marks and are perfect for rapid and expressive sketches and drawings. With Wolff's carbon pencils, precise drawing is effortless because only the finest quality materials are used and the pencils are consistent and void of hard spots.

We recommend using these pencils with a cartridge paper with a bit of gentle tooth to it or a lightly textured pastel paper.


Winsor & Newton Studio Collection Medium Graphite Pencil x12

A range of graphite pencils for sketching and drawing, suitable for blending, smooth-shading and fine detail. Ideal for capturing movement or inspiration on the go, they come in a range of levels of hardness, with H grades best suited to delicate, intricate drawing, and the softer, darker B grades best for shading and smooth coverage of large areas. For the perfect finishing touch, they are presented in stylish plain metal tins, embossed with the iconic Winsor & Newton logo.

We recommend trying these pencils out with a high quality cartridge paper sketchbook for when you are sketching in the field.

Included in this set: 4H, 3H, 2H,H, F, HB, B, 2B,  3B, 4B, 5B, 6B.


Winsor & Newton Studio Collection Sketching Pencil Set of 10 pieces

Discover the pleasure of traditional drawing and sketching with these carefully selected sets of essential pencils and tools. These classic charcoal and graphite pencils blend easily to create evocative shading, making them ideal for life drawings and still life pieces. Brilliantly versatile and responsive, these high-quality pencils are also perfect for spontaneous sketching, allowing you to quickly capture movement and try out new ideas.

We recommend trying these pencils out with a high quality cartridge paper sketchbook for when you're sketching in the field.

Included in this set: white charcoal, medium charcoal, hard charcoal, sepia plus 2B, 6B, and 8B graphite pencils, blender, eraser and sharpener.

Winsor & Newton Studio Collection - Set of 5

Create everything from beautifully fine-detailed drawings to spontaneous, expressive sketches with these versatile, high-quality pencils. Ideal for capturing movement or inspiration on the go. The classic charcoal and graphite pencils included in the Studio Collection range blend easily to create evocative shading, making them ideal to create life drawings and still life pieces while on the go, at home, or in the studio.

Set includes: White Charcoal, Sepia, Medium Charcoal, Hard Charcoal, Eraser

Derwent Medium Sketch Pencils - Set of 12

Derwent Medium Sketching Pencils, an excellent balance of rich B grade pencils and precise H grades.

For best results use good quality cartridge paper and a high polymer eraser for cleanly and precisely correcting mistakes.

Contains 12 Medium pencils (6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H) in a tin.

Derwent Soft Sketching Pencils - Set of 12

Derwent Soft Sketch Pencils, a wonderful selection of soft pencils that will blend smoothly for deep expressive tones.

 For best results use good quality cartridge paper and a high polymer eraser for cleanly and precisely correcting mistakes.

Contains 12 soft pencils (9B, 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H) in a tin.

Derwent Hard Sketching Pencils - Set of 12

Derwent Hard Sketching Pencils, perfect for precise and detailed drawing as well as technical sketching.

For best results use good quality cartridge paper and a high polymer eraser for cleanly and precisely correcting mistakes.

Contains 12 Hard pencils (B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H, 7H, 8H, 9H) in a tin.

Staedtler Tradition 110 Sketching Pencil Set

High-quality pencil, excellent set for beginners and professionals alike. 

  • 1 each grades 2H, HB, B, 2B, 4B, and 6B
  • Especially break-resistant thanks to super-bonded lead
  • Easy to erase

Set also includes a metal sharpener and a Mars plastic eraser

Small Pencil Sets

Derwent Graphic 6 Pencil Set

Derwent Charcoal Pencils Set of 6

Derwent Sketching 6 Pencil Set

Derwent Watersoluble Sketching Pencils Set

Derwent Coloursoft Skintones Set of 6


Water Soluble Pencils For the sketcher and watercolour artist!

Derwent Watersoluble sketch Pencils Set

Six water-soluble sketching pencils, ideal for creating expressive tonal drawings and line and wash sketches


Contains: 2 x HB, 2 x 4B and 2 x 8B + A free sharpener. Includes tin.


Cretacolor Artino Watersoluble Graphite Set

This is an ideal starter sketching set, all pencils and materials are lightfast, crafted in Austria.

A 10 piece Graphite set in a tin Contains:

  • Monolith Graphite 4B
  • Graphite Aquarelle pencils HB, 4B and 8B
  • Black Drawing Pencil
  • Graphite sticks 4B and 6B
  • Water-resistant Nero pencil
  • 7mm Paper Blending Stick
  • Monolith Eraser

Lyra Rembrandt Charcoal Set

This fantastic set is perfect for sketching and fine art. It contains an assortment of quality charcoal pencils with a 5mm lead and a range of charcoal sticks and carbon pencils. 


This Lyra Rembrandt Charcoal Set contains:

  • 3x Lyra Rembrandt Watersoluble Charcoal Pencils (2B, HB & H)
  • 2x Lyra Rembrandt Carbon Pencils (2B & HB)
  • 1x Lyra Carbon Extra Dark 2B Lead
  • 1x Paper Blending Stump
  • 1x Lyra 7 x 7mm Carbon Extra Dark Square Pastel (HB)
  • 1x Lyra 7 x 14mm Water Soluble Charcoal Square Pastel (2B)
  • 1x Lyra 6mm Natural Watersoluble Charcoal Stick
  • 1x Sharpener
  • 1x Lyra Kneadable Eraser

 All contents are contained in a metal tin for easy storage.


It is recommended to use a fixative once you have finished your charcoal drawing.

Clutch and Mechanical Pencils 

Clutch/mechanical pencils

A clutch or mechanical pencil is basically a plastic lead holder with a separate solid graphite replaceable lead inside. The mechanism on some of the pencils clutches the lead inside hence the name and will release the lead so you can set the length yourself and some mechanical pencils once pushed down will only release a certain length incrementally. There are many different types and styles to choose from.

They never need sharpening as the lead inside the case is pushed down to the point where it is worn away. Clutch and Mechanical pencils are used for technical drawings, and also by fine artists and illustrators and provide a constant neat fine line. Fine and meticulous detail can be achieved using these pencils. The replaceable leads come in the same grades as normal graphite pencils. Another great advantage of these pencils is they stay the same size in the hand so you can maintain stability and balance whilst working.


Koh-I-Noor Versatil 5311

Mechanical propelling pencil with lead diameter 5.6mm with a robust design and metal construction. The pencil's barrel features a profile with three longitudinal grooves for better pencil grip and a handy pocket clip.

The lead is moved by pressing the end cap with the pencil tilted at a downward angle, which opens the clamp to allow the lead to advance. There is a lead pointer in the knob which is accessed by unscrewing the end cap, gently tap out any excess lead dust after pointing.

Replacement leads can be inserted via the front of the pencil while the end cap is held down to hold the clamp open or can be dropped into the back of the pencil after unscrewing the end cap.

The 5311 comes ready loaded with a HB lead. Refills available in 2B, 4B and 6B


Jakar Clutch Pencil set 2mm

Jakar Clutch Pencil set 2mm. Clutch pencil with 12 spare HB 2mm leads in storage case and a non toxic eraser.

Staedtler-Mars Technico 2mm Clutch pencil 780C

Staedtler-Mars Technico 2mm Clutch pencil 780C


  • Knurled metal finger grip
  • Sharpener built into metal push-button
  • Metal pocket clip
  • Supplied with 2mm HB lead

Staedtler Automatic Pencils

Staedtler Automatic Pencils (Set of 3)

The Staedtler Automatic Pencil is a fully retractable sliding sleeve automatic pencil with soft rubber grip. Wallet contains 1 of each :- 0.3, 0.5 and 0.7mm

Derwent Mechanical Pencil Set - HB 0.7

Professional Quality Derwent Mechanical Pencil Set - HB 0.7

Contains: 1 Mechanical Pencil, 15 HB Leads, 3 Erasers.

Derwent Mechanical Pencil Set - HB 0.5

Professional Quality Derwent Mechanical Pencil Set - HB 0.5

Contains: 1 Mechanical Pencil,  15 HB Leads, 3 Erasers.

Graphgear 300 Automatic Pencils

  • Colourful new addition to the GraphGear family
  • Quality mechanical pencil for everyday use
  • 3mm fixed sleeve and metal pocket clip
  • Supplied with 3 Super Hi-Polymer HB refill leads and replaceable eraser
  • Choice of 0.3mm, 0.5mm, 0.7mm and 0.9mm lead sizes
  • Barrel colours: 0.3mm orange, 0.5mm black, 0.7mm blue, 0.9mm yellow
  • Refillable with Pentel refill leads and Z2-1N refill eraser

Ellie Jakeman
Ellie Jakeman

I have had a strong interest in the visual and creative arts since a very early age. After completing an Art and Design Degree and Post graduate studies I have taught Art and Design, Fashion and Textiles, Textile design , Fine Art print and Illustration for over 20 years. Before teaching I was a freelance artist and illustrator and decided 4 years ago I would return to freelance and commissioned work. I have created many domestic and commercial murals for hospitals and hospices. I work part time for ARTdiscount as a content creator and product tester.

2 Responses

Ellie Jakeman
Ellie Jakeman

July 20, 2023

Hi Owen
Before applying any fixative, it’s a good idea to test it on a small sample drawing or a separate piece of paper to ensure you are satisfied with the results and to get a sense of how the fixative affects the appearance of your artwork.

Winsor & Newton Artists’ Fixative is perfect protection for your charcoal, pencil, pastel and chalk drawings. Simply spray an even layer over your work to prevent it from smudging or dusting. Winsor & Newton Artists’ Fixative dries quickly and is completely transparent.

Alternatively Daler Rowney Colourless Colourless fixative can be used for pastel, chalk, charcoal and pencil drawings. Protects the artwork against dust, dirt, and UV light. Smudge proof protection. Dries quickly to a transparent, elastic and ageing-resistant film with good adhesion property. Non-yellowing.


April 19, 2022

What is the best way / product to fix & protect my graphite pencil artwork? I want to protect against accidental damage but definitely do not want any change in the visual appearance. I’ve seen soft pastel fixative tests making artwork darker & this is putting me off.

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