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.

23 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.

  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!

    • iihubi
      iihubi says:

      What’s even weirder is that no American who uses multiple pencils on the scale refers to that number system we use the HB scale. Even pencils kits made US typically don’t have the numbers on them. The only reason I can think of is that most standardize test say that you need a No.2 pencil to fill them out and if they suddenly switch to calling it HB you’d have a bunch of students freaking out. Also the only pencil most people use are HB/ No.2 while the only people who shift along the scale are arist and draftsmen so there’s not much reason to venture out

  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!

  4. margie
    margie says:

    So, I bought staedtler pencils “HB 2”. does that mean I can use them when a test requires a #2 pencil? have an exam on saturday and wasn’t sure….

  5. zvi
    zvi says:

    Thanks a lot. I’m preparing for an exam and the forms refer to it as a #2 pencil. I grew up calling it an HB so I got really worried and wondered if my pencils would be suitable. Really helpful

  6. sebastian
    sebastian says:

    the B stands for bold (in case anyone wondered) and F pencils usually contain a wax component and are used for writing on film.

  7. Jillian Dacyk
    Jillian Dacyk says:

    An interesting blog entry, thanks! My problem is that I still use Pitman shorthand, and I find HB #2 pencils are too hard and are not able to put down dark as well as light strokes as well as I would like. I would prefer an HB that is not No. 2, but have not been able to locate any. Art store materials are expensive and usually come with a variety of other leads that I don’t require. I recentlyordered some pencils that go by the name Ticonderoga, manufactured by Dixon. On the website I purchased them from, no #2 was mentioned; but when I received them yesterday, sure enough, they are #2. Still, from what you say, the darkness able to be put down can vary from company to company, so I will give them a try.

  8. Steven
    Steven says:

    So, I’m reading “Drawing on the right side of the brain” boo, it uses US grading system to indicate pencils, like #2, #4 pencils, #4 graphite stick. I don’t know what they mean, we have HB, 4B, grading here, so how do I know what they mean?

  9. kazandragmet.ru
    kazandragmet.ru says:

    Blame shoddy h century chemistry for this one. When a giant graphite deposit was found in England during the h century, it eventually found a use as a writing implement. However, early chemists weren’t exactly sure what the useful gray substance actually was. They assumed it was some sort of lead, and the term “pencil lead”? came into use—even though there wasn’t any lead involved.


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