A nice thing about pencils is that, mostly, they are quite cheap. If you buy them individually, for the price of even a modestly priced fountain pen you can probably get one of everything your local art store has to offer, along with a nice sketchbook, if not a whole lot more. So that’s what I did 😉
Pencils are complex and subtle. How they perform is greatly influenced by the paper, pressure, and the state of sharpness. What works well on the paper in my journal may be even eaten alive by the Capitol Bond I use as desk paper, and positively demolished by sketchbook paper. The pencils that work best on each of those all look more or less the same on slippery-smooth Staples Baggase paper. My journal has the Blackwing dull in a few sentences while the Uni and Tombow last longer. On copy paper they’re about the same. The texture of the graphite can be subtle, and sometimes it seems like there’s more difference in the sound than in the feel.
I filled up several pages just swapping back and forth between pencils, examining the differences. Before too long, there were some clear favorites.
In order top to bottom the pencils I tried are:
Tombow Mono Professional B
Tombow Mono Professional HB
Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 4B triangular writing
Kimberly HB Kimberly 4B
Tombow Mono Professional 3B
Tombow Mono Professional 4B
Tombow Mono Professional 2B
Mirado Black Warrior 372
Musgrave Test Scoring 100
Derwent Ketching B *
Office Depot #2, USA made *
Derwent Sketching HB *
Papermate Mirado Classic #2
General’s Layout 555Quill HB *
Staedtler Mars Lumograph 100 HB *
Unigraph 1200 B
Unigraph 1200 HB
Unigraph 1200 H
Unigraph 1200 2B
Unigraph 1200 2H
The ones marked with an asterisk were already lying around. The rest were purchased recently. I’m not going to do a detailed review of each one, and the Unigraphs I’ve covered in a different post.
The biggest thing I learned was how much nicer soft pencils are to write with than the typical HB. They take very little pressure, even as little as a fountain pen. Yes, they can smear, but that hasn’t been an issue like I thought it would have been.
My favorites for the time being, in order of preference are:
The Mitsubishi Hi-Uni 4B. Every time I write with this pencil I’m struck by how it feels. It leaves nice dark line, and the point ages so much better than the Blackwing. The triangular shape is hard to get used to, but is comfortable. When I write I tend to rotate the pencil a little after every word or so. The triangular shape makes that more difficult, but I got used to it. I need to find the right eraser to stick on the back of this thing. I’m going to order some of these in 3B to make sure, then I will probably order a box, probably in the hex shape. Well, maybe pending a test of the Palomino Blackwing 602’s.
The Tombow 4B. Almost as nice, but not quite as creamy as the Hi-Uni, just a shade more point durability than the Blackwing. I go back and forth between this and the Blackwing, but on my journal paper this one is a little nicer. But the Blackwing has an eraser
The Palomino Blackwing. Just a bit too soft, and it requires too much sharpening. You can tell I like it though because it’s gotten short. I use it a lot because of the eraser, which has worked well for me. I understand that the Blackwing 602 is harder, and I’ve ordered some to try. Add a little hardness (really, more point durability) and this will be a winner.
The think about this pencil is that if you write lightly, and you want to write fast, it is awesome. It can write with very little pressure, and when I do this the point lasts fairly well.
The Musgrave Test Scoring Pencil. It’s not especially smooth or creamy, but it’s such a good deal. Less than a quarter the cost of the others, and it’s got an eraser on the end. I imagine this will be a pencil I use a lot. The hex corners are fairly sharp, which was pretty noticeable. It really makes the pencil feel different, but I haven’t found it to be uncomfortable.
General’s Kimberly 4B. Not quite as buttery smooth as the others, and a tad softer than the Blackwing, but it’s available locally, and is inexpensive. Really, this and Musgrave’s Test Scoring Pencil are about tied. Smoothness vs. eraser.
Musgrave Unigraph 2B. A bit too soft, but very nice even so. On smooth paper it’s a pleasure to write with. On the Capitol Bond it’s eaten quickly. Again, with an eraser, which is a plus.
Musgrave HB. Nearly as nice as the Tombow HB, but much cheaper, and with an eraser. Not as dark as softer pencils, but compared to them it holds a point forever and it’s darker than the average HB. People write about this being a ‘sleeper pencil’.
I like having an eraser on the pencil. It’s one less thing to worry about. I’ve finally gotten to where I erase something without crossing it out first. Some folks avoid the erasers that come on pencils, but I’m finding that they work well enough for me. Yes, they are more abrasive than the white plastic erasers, and they leave a bit more line, but for correcting a word or a number in average use they are fine.
So, what about the rest?
What it comes down to for me is that an average HB is pretty average. In harder grades it was more difficult to tell a difference between pencils of the same grade. They write a more durable line, but it’s not as dark and it takes more effort. On abrasive sketch paper they’re nicer to use.
The 2B & 3B models are mostly in between. They don’t hold a point like the HB, and aren’t dark like the softer guys. I want either a nice dark line, or a point that sticks around. I could see that with some paper these pencils might be a favorite, but for what I’m using they seem like an awkward compromise.
Now, for those of you who think I’m nuts.
I’ve been aware of woodcase pencil aficionados for a long time. I’ve also kind of wondered what they saw in pencils. Now I know. I never would have thought I would enjoy pencils this much, let alone enjoyed comparing them.
So try this. Go to an art store and pick up a few grades and brands. Go home and plop yourself in your favorite chair, and while you’re taking in the nightly news (or the 317th viewing of Lilo & Stitch, in my case) try them out. Try different kinds of paper. See if you’re not nuts as well.