In a world where we spend much of our time looking at screens and typing on keyboards or smartphones, there’s something grounding and satisfying about making marks on paper with a pencil. Whether you’re writing a grocery list, drawing humorous caricatures, or creating your next great novel, putting pencil to paper may unleash your creativity and forge a sense of connectedness with the task at hand.
Fortunately, there are pencils designed for every purpose. Choose from graphite pencils that must be sharpened, or select a sophisticated, mechanical version. Don’t forget colored pencils to satisfy your inner artist, too! Read on for a wealth of information about some of the best pencils on the market for writing, sketching, drawing, and drafting—and anything else that tempts you to put pencil to paper.
- BEST OVERALL: Arteza #2 HB Wood Cased Graphite Pencils
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Ticonderoga Pencils, Wood-Cased, Unsharpened
- BEST WOODEN: Ticonderoga Envirostik Natural Wood Pencils
- BEST MECHANICAL: Pentel Twist-Erase III Automatic Pencil
- BEST FOR DRAFTING: Staedtler Mars 780 Technical Mechanical Pencil
- BEST FOR WRITING: Faber-Castell Grip Graphite EcoPencils
- BEST FOR SKETCHING: Prismacolor Premier Graphite Pencils
- BEST COLORED: Prismacolor 92885T Premier Colored Pencils
- BEST WATERCOLOR: Castle Art Supplies 72 Watercolor Pencils
- MOST ERGONOMIC: Sakura 50286 SumoGrip 0.7-mm Pencil
What to Consider When Buying Pencils
From preschool days until now, many of us have kept a few pencils on hand, but have we ever considered the grade, erasability, and smudge-proof qualities of our pencils? Do we consider the wood material in which the graphite is embedded or the lacquer finish that makes the pencil feel comfortably smooth between our fingers? This guide is here to help you investigate multiple factors when shopping for the best pencils to suit your needs.
Pencil manufacturers use two scales to designate pencil grades: a numerical scale and an HB scale. On the numerical scale, a pencil with a higher number leaves a lighter mark, and a lower-numbered pencil leaves a darker mark. This result is due to the lower proportion of clay in lower-numbered pencil cores, resulting in more graphite left on the page. For common purposes, look for a pencil marked as a #2, #2.5, or #3.
The second grading scale is the HB scale. “H” signifies a hard pencil, and “B” means that the pencil leaves a black mark. For example, a 9H pencil leaves an exceedingly light gray mark. A 9B pencil leaves a super-dark, black color on your paper. Many people prefer HB pencils, rated both hard and black. An HB rating is equivalent to a #2 pencil in the numerical rating scale.
U.S.-based pencil manufacturers primarily use the numerical scale. A #2 pencil is right in the middle of the scale—not too hard and not too soft, not too light and not too dark. An HB pencil is the equivalent of a #2 pencil. In educational settings, students are required to use #2 pencils for clarity in marking their answers on standardized tests.
The paint that leaves a high-gloss, smooth, and hard finish to the outside of a pencil barrel is known as gasket lacquer. This term refers to the industrial process for creating the finish on the outside of the pencil, which involves applying paint to the outer surface of the pencil barrel and then running it through a gasket where excess paint is removed. It’s like using a squeegee to remove excess water from a window.
This process is repeated until the desired finish is achieved. A lacquer finish is hard and adds to the durability of the pencil.
Although the term lead is often applied to pencils, pencils actually do not contain lead. Instead, the core of a pencil is made of graphite. The source of this confusion dates back to the discovery of graphite in Cumbria, England, in the 16th century when people mistakenly thought graphite was a form of lead.
Pencil cores are made from soft graphite mixed with clay, a harder element. A softer pencil contains a higher proportion of soft graphite, and the point may become blunt more readily than a harder pencil. Softer pencils may also require more frequent sharpening.
Many manufacturers sell pre-sharpened pencils—a time-saving convenience. Mechanical pencils feature the advantage of always providing a fresh, sharp point. Graphite pencils encased in wood may be sharpened with a handheld, rotary, or electric pencil sharpener. Use a sharp knife or an X-Acto knife (with care) for a customizable point.
Soft pencils leave darker marks on your paper because more graphite is left behind. These darker marks are more difficult to erase cleanly. Hard pencils leave lighter marks behind that are usually easier to erase.
What makes a pencil hard or soft? As mentioned above, pencil cores are made of graphite mixed with some clay. It’s the graphite that leaves a mark on your paper, but clay is a necessary ingredient to give the soft graphite some hardness. In mechanical pencils, polymer or resin substitute for clay in providing strength for the soft graphite.
A higher proportion of clay or polymer makes the pencil harder, so it’s easier to erase the light markings. A higher proportion of graphite makes the pencil softer, but it also makes it more difficult to erase the dark markings.
Colored pencil markings are difficult to erase, although some colored pencils are advertised as “erasable.” You may want to purchase a special colored pencil eraser for clean corrections.
Marks from softer pencils are prone to smudging because more graphite is laid down on the paper. Harder pencils leave light markings that do not smudge so readily.
Pencils with a lower number grade are softer due to the lower proportion of clay, creating a greater propensity to leave more graphite on the paper. Pencils with a higher number grade are harder due to a higher proportion of clay, making the marks they leave behind less graphite-dense.
Artists sometimes smudge their pencil drawings on purpose as a way of blending and shading their work. A soft pencil makes the smudging effect easier to achieve.
The ferrule is the metal cylinder that attaches the eraser to the top of the pencil. Before 1964, ferrules were made of brass, and many were flat or cube-shaped.
In 1964, J.B. Ostrowski patented the ferrule that is still in use today. It’s a serrated, aluminum cylinder that echoes the round shape of the pencil barrel. In most mechanical pencils, the ferrule is made of plastic, but its function remains the same. A strong ferrule holds the useful eraser in place on the end of your pencil.
Traditional pencils consist of graphite cores encased in wooden barrels. The most desirable wood for pencil manufacturing is incense cedar. It’s a soft wood that sharpens easily, and the even, straight grain facilitates sharpening without splintering.
Because of its softness, you won’t wear out your sharpener with pencils made from cedarwood. Additionally, the machining of cedarwood is actually facilitated by its softness, resulting in a smooth finish. If you’re interested in environmental sustainability, look for product descriptions that specify the cedarwood is harvested from responsibly managed forests.
Alternate woods, such as basswood, poplar, and white fir, are sometimes used for manufacturing budget pencils. These woods are harder and do not sharpen easily.
Our Top Picks
Considering factors such as grading, erasability, and quality materials like incense cedarwood and serrated aluminum ferrules, see the following list of top picks. Check out some of the best pencils on the market made by reputable manufacturers for a variety of uses, including writing, sketching, drawing, and drafting—both in standard graphite and in color.
Draw, doodle, scribble, and write with smudge-proof Arteza pencils. These #2 pencils provide the right degree of hardness and blackness for reliable results. They leave distinct marks that are easily erasable without creating frustrating smudges.
The graphite core is encased in break-resistant wood painted a cheery yellow. The satin matte coating and hexagonal shape of the pencil barrel ensure a comfortable grip to prevent tension and fatigue in your hand.
The latex-free erasers are nontoxic, and they’re attached securely to the pencil barrel with metal ferrules. These medium-soft erasers provide toughness without shredding your paper. Overall, these quality pencils will allow you to achieve smudge-proof and complete erasures to keep your page looking clean.
If you’re buying pencils for the classroom or the office, this pack of 96 pencils from Dixon Ticonderoga offers a budget-friendly option. For over 100 years, Ticonderoga pencils have served the public’s need for writing utensils.
Suitable for children’s classroom use, these pencils are PMA (Pencil Makers Association) certified nontoxic by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. PMA certification means that all parts of the pencil are tested and certified to be nontoxic, even if or when a child chews on the pencil.
Premium quality materials ensure durability, smooth and clean writing, and smudge-free erasures. The hexagonal barrel design and latex-free erasers provide a comfortable grip for writing and drawing, along with clean corrections.
Dixon Ticonderoga ensures managed harvesting of the premium wood for their pencil barrels as well as responsibly controlled mining of the graphite for their pencil cores. All parts of the Envirostik pencils are PMA (Pencil Makers Association) certified nontoxic.
These #2 pencils feature premium wood barrels that are not painted or covered in lacquer. Instead, the natural wood grain is sealed to provide a soft, attractive finish that feels smooth and comfortable between your fingers.
The natural wood grain pencils are easy to sharpen and topped with high-quality, latex-free erasers for clean corrections. For added convenience, these pencils come pre-sharpened.
The Pentel automatic pencil is rated #2 HB for the perfect balance between softness and hardness with clear, black marking capability. Forget about sharpening your pencil and simply click to advance the graphite core whenever you need a fresh point. The sturdy barrel provides a protective tip that keeps your point well-balanced and reduces breakage.
The barrel of this mechanical pencil is designed for comfort, featuring an extra-soft, latex-free grip that reduces fatigue and cramping in your hand from extended use. Clean corrections are easy to achieve with the larger-than-ordinary, twist-up eraser. The inner tube is made of recycled plastic, and a durable metal mechanism advances the graphite core.
German engineering and manufacturing bring high-quality performance to this mechanical pencil from Staedtler, a company that has been in business for over 180 years. Simply holding a superior writing instrument such as the Mars 780 technical pencil may spark your creativity and inspire your passion for drafting, writing, or drawing.
This innovative pencil is rated HB for the perfect degree of hardness. It produces a clean, black line that is 2 millimeters in width. Keep a separate eraser close by, as this pencil does not feature a built-in eraser.
The entire pencil is made from durable metal with a push-button mechanism to advance the graphite core whenever you need a fresh point.
A triangular barrel design and added grip dots facilitate a comfortable hold to promote proper hand positioning and reduce fatigue and cramping while you write. These features make the Faber-Castell EcoPencils ideal for children learning to write, older writers suffering from arthritis, or anybody in between. Occupational therapists favor these pencils for their ergonomic qualities.
Faber-Castell has been manufacturing art materials since 1761, and these EcoPencils are built with durability in mind. The graphite core is glued along the entire length of the barrel, resulting in easy sharpening and resistance to breakage. For the wooden barrel, Faber-Castell uses wood from reforested growth in Forest Stewardship Council-certified forests.
Create stunning pencil drawings with this set of sketching pencils. These 14 professionally graded artist pencils from Prismacolor provide options for producing highlights, mid-tones, and shadows in your artwork.
The set includes seven drawing pencils graded 8B, 6B, 2B, B, 2H, 4H, and 6H. Additionally, the four woodless graphite pencils—graded 2B, 4B, 6B, and 8B—can be sharpened for detail drawing or left blunt for wider coverage. Finally, a set of three water-soluble graphite pencils graded HB, 4B, and 8B can be used to create dense coverage or transparent wash effects.
Two erasers along with a steel sharpener and a sanding board round out this 18-piece set. The Magic Rub erasers combine vinyl and kneaded rubber for clean erasures.
Unlike other pencils, colored pencils do not contain graphite. Instead, the core of a colored pencil is a wax or an oil-based material infused with pigments, water, and bonding agents. Prismacolor pencils feature soft, thick cores that promote smooth, even color laydown. They’re perfect for blending, shading, and layering colors in art projects.
Whether you’re relaxing with an adult coloring book or creating a personal masterpiece, these premium colored pencils produce a high level of lightfastness for reliable color permanence. Thick, durable cores infused with high-quality pigments make these pencils well-suited for artists and hobbyists. Generate precisely detailed lines, forceful strokes of color, delicate layers, and smooth shadows with Prismacolor colored pencils.
To achieve the look of watercolors without the mess, watercolor pencils are the answer. These Castle Art colored pencils can be used dry just like any other colored pencils. They yield beautiful results with vibrant, intense colors from quality pigments. For more inspiring results and to transform artwork on the page, simply add water.
To create a watercolor effect, dip the tip of the colored pencil in water and apply color to the page. This method yields a stroke of intense, deeply pigmented color. If a more delicate color-wash effect is preferred, simply apply color with a dry colored pencil and then add water from a wet brush.
Take notes, write a to-do list, doodle, draw, and sketch with a pencil that feels light and cushiony in your hand. The ergonomic design of this pencil from Sakura is ideal for arthritis sufferers, students, or anyone interested in comfortable writing.
The triangular-shaped, rubberized grip cushion attached around a lightweight barrel makes this pencil extra-comfortable to use. Due to its natural, ergonomic design, the user’s fingers feel relaxed when gripping this pencil.
The Sakura SumoGrip pencil produces a line width of 0.7 millimeters, but don’t worry if you make a mistake. The attached jumbo-twist eraser lasts six times longer than the erasers on most pencils.
FAQs About Pencils
Pencils. We often take them for granted and grab any pencil we can find when we need one. However, by understanding the qualities that make some pencils more desirable than others, we can make choices that give rise to easier, more productive use of pencils. Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about pencils.
Q. How do you properly hold a pencil?
Using your middle finger for support under the pencil, hold the pencil between your thumb and forefinger at the point where the painted part of the barrel ends and the sharpened part begins.
Q. How do you erase colored pencil marks?
It is difficult to erase colored pencil marks with a regular eraser. Instead, purchase a special colored pencil eraser and use it by gently rubbing the pencil marks on your paper.
Q. How do you properly sharpen a pencil?
Sharpen a pencil with a handheld, a rotary, or an electric pencil sharpener. You can also carefully use a sharp knife or an X-Acto knife for an extremely precise point.
Q. How do you shade with a pencil?
By learning a variety of shading techniques, such as hatching, crosshatching, and contour shading, you can shade with one pencil or with a variety of darker and lighter pencils.