Different Types of Lead

In this course, you'll learn about the different types of pencil lead and why #2 is considered our favorite!

You've probably heard it said before: the material located at the core of your pencil isn't really lead. It's actually graphite. So why does everyone call it pencil lead and not pencil graphite? And while we're at it, why does everyone talk about #2 pencil lead? Why are #2 pencils the ones kids use at school?

Get the Lead Out

To get your answers, let's take a little trip. No, sorry, we're not going to Hawaii. We're going to a place in England called Borrowdale. In 1564, a nasty storm uprooted a tree, revealing deposits of a flaky yet solid black material in the ground underneath. The material looked like coal, but didn't burn like coal. However, metallurgists (people who specialize in metals) suspected it could be some kind of black lead. They gave it the name plumbago, which comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum.

Profiting from Pencils

No one's sure exactly when the first pencil was invented (although a physicist named Konrad Gesner described one in his writings in 1565, and it's also believed that people in other parts of the world centuries earlier had found graphite and used it to write). But with the discovery of the Borrowdale deposits, there was enough graphite for a groundbreaking industry to start. This writing material became even more practical by using wood as a casing, which kept the plumbago from smudging on people's fingers.

The pencil industry was officially born! But by the 18th century, the Borrowdale deposits were dwindling and international conflicts had created trade embargos. Sure, there were other sources of plumbago (which was renamed graphite, from the Greek word for writing, when in 1779 it was proven to be a form of carbon, not lead). The Borrowdale deposits, however, were the best.

Scaling the Pencil Grading System

In the U.S., pencils are graded on a numerical scale. The higher the number, the more clay in the core; the lower the number, the more graphite in the core. Graphite is soft and naturally smudges much more than clay, so pencils with a lower number grade tend to make darker lines.

All Pencils Are NOT Created Equal

Most U.S. manufacturers grade their pencils on a scale from 1 to 4, with #4 pencils having the hardest lead and the lightest lines.

(If you’re in Europe, by the way, you might want to check out the HB scale and see how it compares to the U.S. scale here.)

The #2 pencils that we all know and love are in the middle of the scale. They're considered the best for general purpose writing. They're also the best for those machine-graded tests we've all had to take. Hard leads will create marks the machine can't read, but soft leads leave marks that can smudge, which would also be unreadable.

If you're looking to make your mark with custom pencils, you can't go wrong with a #2 graphite pencil!