A comparison of pencils

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:

Kimberly 3B

Kimberly B

Kimberly 2B

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

Palomino Blackwing

Tombow Mono Professional 2B

Mirado Black Warrior 372

Musgrave HB

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.

11 thoughts on “A comparison of pencils

  1. I will *definitely* be trying this, and soon. My daughter uses pencils only for her school work and while I’ve been an ink only guy for a long time now, your descriptions have given me the motivation to give pencils another shot. I’ve never been a fan of mechanical pencils and hearing about the different leads sorta explains why- I just enjoy how I can hear how each one feels. I love the feeling of a good, heavy, solid pen, and why wouldn’t the shape and feel of a woodcase pencil be just as important? Thanks!


  2. Hi Sean – thanks for the comment!

    Yeah, if you’d told me a year ago I’d be using woodcase pencils again I wouldn’t have believed it, but it’s a lot of fun. Let me know how it goes!


  3. As a pencil geek myself, I can’t say there’s anything wrong with getting into the weird comparisons and trying to find favorites. I still do it with pencils that I’ve compared countless times already. Sometimes it’s nice to throw in a thoroughly shoddy pencil just to remind you how good the good pencils are.

    As a point of reference though, the Uni Penmanship 4B is not part of the Hi-Uni series, and the graphite mix is different from that of the Hi-Uni 4B. You can only get the Uni Penmanship pencils in 4B and 6B (triangular or hexagonal). I personally find the Uni Penmanship to be better for writing than the Hi-Uni 4B, though the finish is much more spartan on the former. However, you should try a Hi-Uni 4B as well, and see which suits your needs better.

    Thanks for helping me justify my geekery!


    1. Hi Robert – thanks for the comment, and also for the info on the Uni Penmanship vs. the Hi-Uni series. I really like the Penmanship series, but I’m puzzled why they made the lead so thick – it’s much larger than other pencils. For writing that doesn’t make sense to me. I need to find someone who sells these individually, they’re pretty spendy by the dozen.


  4. The lead is thick in the Penmanship pencils because they are for practicing Japanese “hard brush” (pen/pencil) calligraphy. To do so, you use a broader point with larger tapered strokes to draw pretty large Japanese/Chinese characters. The 6B and 4B are actually among the hardest of the calligraphy pencils….there’s an 8B Hi-Uni Super-DX and a 10B brush pencil as well. These are all used occasionally to teach kids how to write, but they are also clearly marketed to adults (artists, writers, etc.).

    However, there are also “kid’s writing practice” pencils directly aimed at children in Mitsubishi’s NanoDia Kakikata line. I’m personally a bit intrigued by them, as they apparently use a polymer mix (instead of traditional clay) similar to their NanoDia mechanical pencil leads. This is very reminiscent of the very excellent Pentel Black Polymer 999 and the Craft Design Technology Item 17.

    A while ago, there was a 2mm leadholder for artists and writers called the Uni Artis. It used special 2mm leads similar to the superb Uni leads, but were “specially formulated” to write smoothly. They were H-HB-B range, but unfortunately they’ve been discontinued for a while. Luckily the standard Uni leads are so good that the differences are almost unnoticeable.


  5. Oh, and you can buy them in packs of three from JetPens or as singles from pencils.jp or pencilmein.jp (both of the latter are international subsites of the Japanese stationer Bundoki–I recently experienced a delayed order, but overall they’ve been good to me). I get the penmanship pencils here in Taiwan from someone who imports them frequently, and I use Bundoki for Hi-Unis and my Uni 2mm leads.


    1. Thanks Robert – I find the 4B version very nice to write with. It’s particularly awesome for freewriting in Staple’s Bagasse composition books.


  6. Hi Steve. Pencils are loads of fun, aren’t they? I enjoyed reading about your rediscovery of the simple pleasures pencils can bring, thank you. I note this post of yours is from 2011, but someone linked to it (I think penaddict or rhodiadrive) very recently, that is September 2013. And though the Tombows pictured above are outstanding pencils in their own right, they are actually from the Mono Professional line. Tombow Mono 100’s are Tombow’s apex brand, but both lines are very, very sweet.


  7. And I forgot to say that many people are smitten with Mitsubishi’s Hi-Uni ‘F’ (‘F’ for “firm” I suppose) which is an intermediate but distinct gradient between the Hi-Uni ‘HB’ and ‘H’, and which many users find strikes a perfect balance between point retention and softness and smoothness. Hi-Unis are a smidge darker than the equivalent grades offered by competing manufacturers.


  8. I am a writer and also a teacher. I always write in pencil (4B) before I type, as the creativity flows more evenly, in my experience when writing on paper. I tried many pencils, and besides those already mentioned I found Staedtler and Ching Hwa 4B to be quite good. Also they are quite a bit cheaper. Good enough for drafts and quick notes.


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