For 400 years, pencils have been used to record, create and share.

When we think of the humble pencil, we often remember our childhood of using a pencil daily before “graduating” to a pen. Yet writing with, or creating with, a pencil is a pleasure that can still be enjoyed as an adult. Many famous creators chose to work in pencil – including John Steinbeck, Rohald Dahl, Earnest Hemingway, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Edison. Pencils have even been used in space by astronauts!

There’s no denying the way we “write” has changed over the years, especially with the advancement of technology. But the act of handwriting will always hold that tactile experience, that pleasure and the art of leaving something behind – or not, if you choose to erase it.

So there’s more to the pencil than many of us know. We’d like to show you exactly why no pencils are the same and each have their own special characteristics.

But first – what is a lead pencil made of? Hint: It’s not lead.

You might be surprised to learn that a pencil is not made of lead, and it never has been. The core of a pencil is actually made with a non-toxic mineral: graphite.

Graphite

Geology.com

The use of graphite came into discovery in 1564 when a large deposit was found in Borrowdale, England. Discoverers found that it left a dark mark, making it ideal for writing. However, graphite was also soft and brittle so early users wrapped graphite with string to keep it together. Later, people sawed this graphite into thin rods and sandwiched them between pieces of wood to make the first crude ‘lead’ pencil.

Did you know: The word graphite stems from the Ancient Greek word graphein, meaning to write/draw.

It wasn’t until 1795 when a French chemist and fighter in Napoleon’s army, Nicholas Jacques Conté, discovered a new process for making graphite pencil leads – he added clay.

He found that mixing powdered graphite and clay in water formed a texture that made the graphite harder, while also giving it shape and improving adhesion to the writing surface. Later on, this also allowed manufacturers to control the hardness or lightness of the mark left on paper. We delve into this further below.

How the pencil is made today

Once the graphite and clay have been processed to remove any impurities, a machine shapes the mixture into a block that looks like a large square cake. Depending on the manufacturer this is either baked in a kiln to remove the moisture; or a machine is used to squeeze out all the water.

The mixture is then ground into another fine powder and water is blended in to make a soft paste. The paste is then pushed through a metal tube and comes out in the shape of thin rods, shaped like spaghetti-like strands of “lead” that are cut into pencil-length pieces and dried. They are then soaked in an oil or wax to add smoothness.

What about the outer casing?

Pencils are most often made from wood, with one tree able to produce about 2,500 pencils. The most common woods used for pencils are Incense-cedar and Basswood.

Once the tree is harvested it’s sawn into “pencil stock”, which looks like a block that’s slightly longer than the length of a pencil, before a factory turns them into slats.

Britannica Kids.
Britannica Kids.

These slats are then sent to the pencil factory where they are sent to the Grooving department. Here the writing core is sandwiched between two layers of wood panels. The two panels are then glued together and set to dry.

Once dry they are transferred to a Shaper, where they are trimmed to their correct length and cut into its pencil shape: round, triangular or hexagonal.

The pencil is then given a polish through a machine where it receives layers of lacquer, sometimes up to ten, depending on the desired colour. Optionally, each pencil has a shoulder cut on one end to allow for the ferrule to be secured onto the wood, which holds the eraser.

Manufacturers will usually also engrave the pencil with their brand name, number and/or a design, which takes place in the Finishing department.

And voila, the pencils are then ready to be sharpened and used!

Did you know: An enterprising Hyman Lipman attached a rubber eraser to a pencil in 1858 and patented it. Prior to that, bread was used to remove graphite marks. Mr Lipman is the reason why we celebrate Pencil Day on March 30 each year!

The world’s oldest on-going pencil manufacturer?
Faber Castell

Officially founded in 1761, Faber-Castell is one of the world’s largest and oldest manufactures of pens, pencils and other office and art supplies. Cabinet maker Kaspar Faber started making pencils on the side in the late 1600s, eventually finding his pencil business more successful. After his death his son took over the business and acquired land for a workshop, with the location still the headquarters for Faber-Castell to this day.

It wasn’t until founder Caspar Faber’s great-grandson, Lothar took over the small company in 1839 that the rise of the German pencil industry blossomed. He gained a true market advantage when he obtained exclusive rights to a graphite mine in Siberia in 1856. The pencils gained a worldwide reputation. As the US Civil war progressed, getting pencils to the US became difficult and his brother Eberhard set up manufacturing in Brooklyn. They later went their seperate ways, spawning the independent Eberhard Faber company.

Castell was added to the A.W Faber-Castell name after a marriage of Faber heir Baroness Ottilie von Faber to Count Alexander zu Castell-Rüdenhausen in 1898. Today, the company still has an 8th generation Faber-Castell at the helm.

castell pencils

Pencil Grades — what do they mean?

Remember at the start of the school year your stationery list included a range of pencils with varying letters and numbers that you had to purchase? What exactly did 2B — or not 2B — really mean!

So we know that pencil cores are primarily made up of graphite and clay, and it is the formulation of this mixture that determines its lead grade. The hardness or lightness of the mark made on the paper is dependent on the ratio: the more clay there is, the harder and lighter a pencil will be; the more graphite there is, the darker and softer it will be. This makes perfect sense when we think about these two ingredients.

The formulation of this mixture determines its lead grade.

There are two grading systems for pencils: American and European. The American system is numerical and commences from 1 to 4, while the European system uses the letters “H” and “B” to note how hard or soft a pencil is.

Pencils.comPencils.com

European grading system

Founder of Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth in the Czech Republic discovered that you could change how dark or light a mark would be by varying the mixture of clay and graphite.
The characters run from 4H, 3H, 22H, H, F, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B and so forth.
The grading HB is named for Hardmuth and Budějovice – the company’s location, and is the standard writing pencil today, as it’s equal parts hard and bold.

Today, this has been adapted as ‘H’ standing for hard and ‘B’ standing for bold. The ‘F’ grade stands for Franz Hardtmuth, who is credited as the producer of the gradation process, and it sits between the grading of a ‘H’ and a ‘B’.

American grading system

The American grading scale, invented by Nicholas Conté, uses numbers to describe the lightness or hardness of the core.

The higher the number the harder the writing core, where number 2 ½ sits in the middle of the scale and usually correlates to the European HB grade. We say usually as the lead grade and results does vary from brand to brand. For instance, Japanese leads tend to be darker than their European equivalents despite using the same system.

Most commonly you will find the European grading system used.

Why all these grades, you ask?

Great question! The wide range of grades is especially important for artists, who can achieve different effects and tones with the full range of lead grades. Let’s not forget the writers too, the engineers, the architects… The hardness of a lead affects its smoothness, strength, smudge resistance and pigmentation.

Life drawing
Looking for a darker, softer pencil? Opt for the B (bold) range. Don’t forget, the higher the number, the softer and darker the pencil. Note that a softer pencil will make it harder to eraser, but these pencils are great for shading and outlining.

Looking for a harder and lighter pencil? The H (hard) range is your pick. The higher the number on this side of the spectrum, the firmer and lighter the pencil. These are great for smaller writing, sharp lines and light sketching.

Koh i Noor

Other styles of pencils

Of course not all pencils are created the same and there are many other types of pencils used for different purposes.

Clutch Pencils

Also known as leadholders, these clutch pencils date back hundreds of years. Their claw-like fixture allows the single lead to push out as far as you need it to, clicking the push-button to still it in place. Clutch pencils are perfect for shading, technical or rapid work.

LAMY ScribbleLAMY Scribble

Mechanical Pencils

Reliable and fantastic tools that you’ll keep forever through endless refills. The lead is not bonded to the outer casing and can be mechanically extended as its point is worn away so there’s no need for sharpening. Mechanical pencils are perfect for drawing or writing, ideal for designers and engineers.

ystudio mechanicalystudio Sketching Mechanical Pencil

View the full range of mechanical pencils.

Colour Pencils

Where the fun begins! The core of most colours pencils is made of wax, pigments, additives and binding agents that must be mixed before being pressed and shaped into the final lead form. Some coloured pencils can be oil-based or water-soluble. These are idle for the creative, young and young at heart.

Start colouring at Milligram

View the full range of coloured pencils.

Watercolour Pencils

Watercolour or Aquarelle pencils contain colour leads with the added feature of being washable in water. These pencils can be used by themselves or strokes made can also be saturated with water and spread with brushes, producing a similar effect to watercolour paints.

watercolour pencils

Faber-Castell Creative Studio

Palomino Blackwing Pencils

Palomino revived the highly-sought after 602 Blackwing when the original – introduced in the 1930’s by Eberhard Faber – was discontinued in 1998. Palomino Blackwing pencils are made in Japan with genuine incense cedar, which comes from the forests of California and Oregon. Every pencil is hand shaved to fit their unique eraser/ferrule design.

Read our ode to Palomino Blackwing on the blog.

Blackwing

Palomino, Milligram

Exceptional Pencils

We thing that all pencils are exceptional, but there are others that take it above and beyond!

Exceptional pencils

1. Graf von Faber-Castell: 3-in-1: Pencil, sharpener & eraser. Hint: find the sharpener in the lid!
2. Midori Brass Ballpoint Pencil: Perfect for the pocket — pull out the pencil when needed.
3. Koh-i-Noor Special: Need to write on glass, cellophane, china and metal? It’s not called Special for no reason!
4. Monteverde One-Touch Stylus Tool Pencil: Every handy person’s tool: 4-inch ruler with 4 metric scales, double-ended screwdriver, stylus AND an eraser.
5. Fabriano Boutique Magnetic Pencil: It’s magnetic… enough said!

Notable pencil users

There are a number of notable pencil users that we had to share:

- Author John Steinbeck, a big fan of the Blackwing who needed to have each pencil with a firm, sharp point. His son Thomas says that some days, his father would use over 100 pencils. Blackwing created a limited edition ‘24’ as a tribute to Steinbeck.

Volume 24, Milligram
This limited edition is now no longer available on Milligram, but you can read more about this edition here.

- Author Roald Dahl wrote all his stories in HB pencil. He would sharpen six pencils ready at the beginning of each day and when all the pencils needed to be sharpened again he knew he’d been writing for a couple of hours and it was time for lunch.
- Host Johnny Carson regularly played with pencils at this Tonight Show desk. These pencils were especially made with erasers at both ends to avoid on-set accidents.
- Inventor Thomas Edison had his pencils specially made by Eagle Pencil. Each pencil was three inches long, was thicker than standard pencils and had softer graphite than was normally available.

Know any others? Please share them with us in the comments!

Summing up the history of the pencil

We hope we’ve taken you on a journey you may not have previously considered its origins before. The humble pencil is actually not-so-humble and comes from a long tradition of discovery, experimentation and modernisation.

The pencil comes in all forms, shapes, sizes and shades.

Ask yourself:
- What sort of pencil do I want or need?
- What will I be using it for?
- What grade should I opt for?
- What shape and length do you need?
- How do you want it to look?
- Does it need to have an eraser?
- How much are you willing to spend?

It’s just about finding what works for you!

Shop pencils at Milligram.

Sources:

Faber Castell, A brief history of the pencil

Faber Castell – Pencil Facts

Pencils.com

20 things you didn’t know about pencils

Roald Dahl: http://whatshed.co.uk/the-humble-garden-shed-writing-hut-of-roald-dahl

Jimmy Carson: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055708/trivia?tr0701188

Thomas Edison:  https://web.archive.org/web/20090617220924/http://www.readersdigest.com.au/content/printContent.do?contentId=109024