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What Are the Different Types of Lead Found in a Pencil?

Alyssa Mertes

Published: December 8th, 2020

You're likely familiar with #2 pencils. It was a must to have a few around for standardized tests in school, and if you didn't, you borrowed one from the smart kid in class. Thanks smart kid - you helped so many people pass 6th grade algebra!

While #2 may be #1 in our hearts, let's not forget about all the other types of lead out there. It's time for a complete, "on point" look at pencil lead!

What is in Pencil Lead?

A pencil's core, aka the "lead," isn't actually lead at all. It's mostly a non-toxic mineral called graphite, which is in a powdered form and mixed together with water and clay.

Hundreds of years ago, raw graphite was the only ingredient used inside of pencils. Pencil makers thrived on this mineral all throughout Europe, with the industry really booming throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Isaac Newton, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Edison are just a few of the many great thinkers who brainstormed with a graphite pencil in hand.

Writing on paper with pencil

All this popularity, however, caused graphite to quickly became a scarce commodity. A French painter named Nicolas-Jacques Conté completely saved pencils from going instinct by cutting down the amount of graphite used inside and mixing it together with water and clay instead. This is what's found inside the pencils we use to this very day!

Writing on paper with pencil
Did you know?

Pencils made from rifle cartridges were mass produced in the 20th century and were used as advertising items by big companies like John Deere.

What Are the Different Types of Pencil Lead?

Lead pencils are graded on a scale from No. 1 to No. 4 based on how much graphite is inside the core. The #1 pencils are the softest, while the #4 pencils are the hardest. This system was invented by famed author Henry David Thoreau in the 1820s.

The different types of lead for a pencil include:

  • #1
  • #2
  • #2.5
  • #3
  • #4
Chart of pencil lead thickness for desktop Chart of pencil lead thickness for mobile

As you can see, each type of pencil produces a different mark. For example, #1 pencils are darker than #4 pencils. This is because more graphite is used in a #4 pencil than in a #1 pencil.

It's worth knowing the types of pencils out there before you go shopping for your next one. You want #2 pencils for everyday work, but the other styles could come in handy for art projects, home improvement, and so much more!

Why Do You Use #2 Pencils for Tests?

So let's circle back to those #2 pencils.

Scantrons and other tests are sometimes assessed by highly advanced machines and algorithms. #2 pencils are perfect for taking these tests because they're kind of like the Goldilocks of the pencil world - they're not too dark, not too light, not too hard or not too soft. They're just right.

Taking a test with pencil.

Some experts believe that you'd be perfectly fine taking a scantron test with a colored pencil or (gasp!) even a pen. However, a good rule of thumb is to listen to your teacher and stick with the humble #2 pencil. #1 is said to smudge too easily, while #3 and #4 are too light to read.

What Does HB Stand for in Pencils?

Americans are the only ones who refer to numbers 1 to 4 when it comes to grading pencil lead. The rest of the world uses the HB graphite grading scale, which measures how dark the mark is from a pencil.

The chart below breaks down the different color variations you can expect from the HB graphite grading scale:

Chart of pencil lead thickness Source: https://pencils.com/pages/hb-graphite-grading-scale

The HB scale goes from HB to simply H. The "H" refers to the hardness of the graphite, the "B" refers to the softness and the overall color (blackness) of the pencil, and the "F" refers to the fact that the pencil sharpens to a fine point. These letters are displayed right on the barrel of the pencil, so you know exactly what to expect when writing.

Chart of pencil lead thickness Source: https://www.fabercastell.com/products/castell-9000-graphite-pencil-hb-119000

What Are the Types of Mechanical Pencil Lead?

The refillable lead used in mechanical pencils is numbered by its width. The different types out there include:

  • 0.2 mm
  • 0.3 mm
  • 0.4 mm
  • 0.5 mm
  • 0.7 mm
  • 0.9 mm
  • 1.15 mm
  • 1.3 mm
  • 2.0 mm
  • 3.2 mm
  • 4.0 mm
  • 5.2 mm
  • 5.6 mm

See the different mechanical pencil leads in action in this video!

How Long Does a Pencil Last?

The average pencil holds enough graphite to draw a line about 35 miles long or to write about 45,000 words. On average, you can expect to use your pencil for about 2 to 5 years before it has to be replaced.

Going off those numbers, here's a rough estimate of how many pencils it would take to do the following:

Harry Potter

Write All 7 Books in the Harry Potter Series

25 Pencils

Chicago skyline

Draw a Line from Chicago to Indianapolis

6 Pencils

Star Wars spaceship

Write the Screenplay for Star Wars Episode 1 and 2

1.5 Pencils

Earth to the moon

Draw a Line from Earth to the Moon

6,826 Pencils

Beatles

Write the Lyrics to Every Song on Two Beatles Albums

1 Pencils

As long as your pencil doesn't snap in half and you keep it nice and sharp, you can expect it to last for a long time. That's a lot of grocery lists, crossword puzzles, and drawings you can complete!

Is Lead from a Pencil Dangerous?

No, the lead, or graphite, from a pencil isn't dangerous. The word "lead" has a historical connotation as the ancient Romans used it to make their styluses. Now pencils are simply referred to as having lead since it's part of the pencil's history, but they don't contain any lead at all.

This definitely causes a lot of confusion, but rest assured you can't get lead poisoning from a pencil. Actual lead, the kind that is potentially harmful, can be found in old homes, water pipes, and batteries.

Pencil point

According to most sources, the only way a pencil can be harmful is if it's ingested or you are stabbed with one. If either of those situations occur, contact poison control, or speak with a trusted physician to get their advice.

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

It is estimated that the world reserves of graphite exceed 800 million tons.

Stats 2 icon

Dixon Ticonderoga, a top pencil maker in the U.S., produces about 1 billion #2 pencils every year.

Stats 3 icon

China produces 70% of the world's graphite.

The Bottom Line

When you talk about the different lead types, you should really be talking about graphite. This simple mineral has contributed greatly to the world of arts and sciences. So move over pens! Pick up your pencil and get to writing!

Quality Logo Products are experts on all things printed and promotional. Let our team of awesome, incredibly good looking, and fun promo nerds help you select awesome promotional swag today!

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Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.

References

Pencils.com. The Unleaded Pencil. Retrieved from, https://pencils.com/pages/the-unleaded-pencil

Today I Found Out. (2017, March 30). Why Do You Have to Use Number 2 Pencils on Scantrons. Retrieved from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqRdrXUaESg

Trex, E. (2018, May 9). What Makes #2 Pencils So Special? Retrieved from, mentalfloss.com/article/24832/what-makes-2-pencils-so-special

Tech Insider. (2017, January 20). The Meaning Behind Pencil Lead Numbers. Retrieved from, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RAtoNNtQ6T4

Dugan, B. (2018, July 1). Are There Number 1 Pencils? Retrieved from, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/49849/are-there-number-1-pencils

Christopher, D. (2007, May 14). 20 Things You Didn't Know About Pencils. Retrieved from, https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/20-things-you-didnt-know-about-pencils

Foster Grant. (2017, August 3). Word Counts of the Most Popular Books in the World. Retrieved from, https://blog.fostergrant.co.uk/2017/08/03/word-counts-popular-books-world/

Focus Graphite. Graphite 101. Retrieved from, https://www.focusgraphite.com/technology/

Jet Pens. (2018, March 6). Mechanical Pencil Lead Size Comparison. Retrieved from, https://www.jetpens.com/blog/Mechanical-Pencil-Lead-Size-Comparison/pt/958