Sunday, December 18, 2016

Pencil Codes: What do the letters and numbers mean?

2B pencils. We all know about them. They’re yellow. They have erasers. And green shiny labels reading, “Dixon Ticonderoga” on the barrel. They remind us of school days.

All graphite (and most charcoal) pencils have codes printed on them. These numbers and letters tell you all about the pencil.

Let me explain.

A Box of Pencils 

I’m an Art teacher. Sometimes I give public information talks about Art. After a recent lecture, I’d planned a demonstration of a few simple fast-sketching techniques. When they’d signed up,

I asked people to come prepared with sketch books and pencils.

I knew everyone attending that night was an artist, although I had no idea of their individual skill levels. It didn’t matter, though, as the tips I had planned could be used by anyone. We’d draw common studio objects as simple shapes, then shade them in two values, leaving the highlights white.

Everyone took out their supplies. A blonde woman named Stephanie pulled out a pre-packaged box of pencils. She looked at the flat package in dismay, then slid it open and pulled out a random pencil.

“For this exercise,” I said, “you’ll need a soft pencil, one you can smudge with your fingers.”

Stephanie stared at the pencils in the plastic tray, frowned uncertainly, then raised a hand. “Um, how do I know which one is soft?” She held up a green pencil as if I could see the number from all the way across the room.

I came over and took a look. It was a “4H.”

“How many of you know about the hardness scale of pencils?” I asked the others.

Only one person raised their hand.

I was astounded. I’d thought pencil hardnesses were one of the first things you learned as an artist. Art 101. But this didn’t seem to be the case.

“Okay. Let’s talk about that first,” I said. “What kind of pencils do you like to draw with?” Suddenly, all around me, there was a sea of blank faces.

Stephanie shifted nervously in her chair. “Can’t we just use any of them? I mean, they’re all drawing pencils.” She set down the 4H pencil and picked up two others: an HB and a 9B.

I asked to borrow them and a page from her sketchbook.

Stephanie nodded and pushed the book towards me across the table, a grateful smile on her lips.

The Numbers Mean Something

I drew three small squares and then colored them in with the pencils. I made some squiggly lines next each box and smudged them with a finger.

I held up the sketchbook and explained the differences.

Common lead hardnesses range from 9H to 9B. The H side of the scale is lighter, harder, and more smudge-resistant. The other end of the scale, the B side pencils, are darker, softer, smudgy, and write smoother.

Here’s the hardness scale for leads from hardest to softest. 9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, F, HB, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9B.

The center of the scale has an “F” pencil. That's a strange duck. Unlike the others, there’s only one hardness of F pencil.

Now, here’s the tricky part. There are also #2, #2 1/2, and #3 pencils.  

This is the American scale of yellow pencils. The #2 is an equivalent of an HB pencil. The others are harder, approximating F, H or 2H.

Remember the Dixon Ticonderoga pencils I mentioned at the beginning of this article? They’re also yellow pencils with erasers. They look pretty similar to the #2 pencils, but they’re not the same. The Ticonderogas are 2B pencils, not #2’s, so they’re a little bit softer and smudgier.

Common Drawing Pencils

“Okay,” Stephanie said, “I get the different hardnesses now, but which should we draw with?”

“That all depends on what you’re trying to do,” I said. “My favorite drawing pencils are HB and 2B.
They’re generalists, each one makes good marks and doesn’t smudge too much.” I handed her back the HB.

Stephanie tightened her grip around the barrel and nodded.

Then, I held up the 9B pencil. “This one is super-dark and smudges well. But it’s messy to draw with, you’ll get graphite all over your hands.” I pointed to the 4H pencil on the table. “That one is much harder, its line marks look almost grey. It’s also hard to erase, but good for precision work.” 

Stephanie rustled in her bag and brought out two other pencils, both brand new: a Palomino Blackwing and a Design Ebony. “What about these? Someone told me they’re really good.”

I nodded. “They’re also super-black and soft. Like a 9B.”

Paper Plays a Role Too

“Which pencil you choose also depends on the paper you’re using,” I continued. “Toothy paper, that means bumpy, is great for smudgy, soft pencils but murder on the harder H pencils. I like to use H pencils with smoother paper, like vellum.”

Everyone there had a wirebound drawing sketchbook. I gestured. “For these books, any of the pencils will do. And sometimes it’s best to use a couple of different hardnesses, one to draw the outline and others to shade with. I always keep a few sharpened HB, 2B, 4B and 6Bs in a cup on my drafting table. I don’t use the H’s often, or the F.”

For the next hour the class experimented with different pencils, deciding on their favorites for drawing and shading. After the first drawing, no one used an H pencil, only HBs and softer.

By the end of the hour there were a lot of good drawings, messy hands and smiling faces.  

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