What is a No. 2 Pencil?

What is a No. 2 Pencil?

When most people think pencils, the No. 2 pencil is the first thing that comes to mind. But what does the “2” on a No. 2 pencil actually mean? And what do all of the “B’s,” “H’s” and “HB’s” being thrown around mean, for that matter? Well, it all has to do with the HB graphite grading scale used to classify the pencil’s graphite core. How does it work, you ask? Let’s take a look.

A pencil’s location on the HB graphite grading scale depends on the hardness of its graphite core. The hardness of the graphite core is often marked on the pencil — look for a number (such as “2” “2-1/2″ or “3”) — and the higher the number, the harder the writing core and the lighter the mark left on the paper. As the pencil core becomes softer (through the use of lower proportions of clay) it leaves a darker mark as it deposits more graphite material on the paper. Softer pencils will dull faster than harder leads and require more frequent sharpening.

You might see other markings on pencils. Most pencil manufacturers outside of the U.S. use the letter “H” to indicate a hard pencil. Likewise, a pencil maker might use the letter “B” to designate the blackness of the pencil’s mark, indicating a softer lead. The letter “F” is also used to indicate that the pencil sharpens to a fine point.

 

No. 2 Pencil Scale

 

Historically, pencil makers also use combinations of letters — a pencil marked “HB” is hard and black; a pencil marked “HH” is very hard, and a pencil marked “HHBBB” is very hard and really, really black! Although today most pencils using the HB system are designated by a number such as 2B, 4B or 2H to indicate the degree of hardness. For example, a 4B would be softer than a 2B and a 3H harder than an H.

Generally, an HB grade about the middle of the scale is considered to be equivalent to a #2 pencil using the U.S. numbering system.

In reality however, there is no specific industry standard for the darkness of the mark to be left within the HB or any other hardness grade scale. Thus, a #2 or HB pencil from one brand will not necessarily leave the same mark as a #2 or HB pencil from another brand. Most pencil manufacturers set their own internal standards for graphite hardness grades and overall quality of the core, some differences are regional. In Japan, consumers tend to prefer softer darker leads, so an HB lead produced in Japan is generally softer and darker than an HB from European producers.

Finding what works best for your own artistic and writing needs is generally a matter of personal preference and experimentation with different brands of pencils.

7 replies
  1. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    I’ve always wondered if “F” stood for “fine point” or for “firm”. I’ve read both but I don’t remember if that was for the U.S. or Europe.

    Reply
  2. Shangching
    Shangching says:

    When I first came to the country, I often puzzled by the saying “#2 pencils”, since it was referred as HB where I grew up.
    Thank you for an interesting read!

    Reply
  3. kd99
    kd99 says:

    Exactly the information I was looking for and needed to understand “the standard pencil” and drafting pencils. Thank you for the great article!

    Reply

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