HB Pencil Comparison
Hi everyone! This is Alex. You might have seen me recently on YouTube with our new series of Inside the Yoseka Team’s planners, or on insta stories with a behind the scenes of working on this post! I’ve always loved pencils - they’re what I draw in most frequently - so when the opportunity came about to make a comparison of our pencils I had to go for it.
You might be thinking, is there really a difference in types of wooden pencils? It’s just wood and graphite right? The answer is yes of course! Actually, when I started at Yoseka, I didn’t know all the small details and differences of fountain pens and inks - and when learning I related a lot to the small differences in graphite and colored pencils. So I really wanted to make this comparison, in part for me because I love this kind of thing, but also to shed some light on the details of pencils that you might not know! (Actually a behind the scenes is that I planned to do this comparison just for myself but never got around to it! Yes, this is totally something I’d do for fun if that says something about me!)
Of course these are just my findings through personal testing and preference, but I hope that it can provide some guidance in the world of wooden pencils!
Graphite Pencil 101
The graphite pencil, one of the simplest writing tools and the one that was ALWAYS on my elementary and middle school shopping list. (All those who got into stationery from back to school season please raise your hand.) And I always had to get the the good ones - you probably know the ones I’m talking about - the ones that don’t break all the time or splinter in the pencil sharpener. And most importantly, actually erase instead of just making pink streak marks. Ugh, so annoying, can we ban those?
So, before I get into comparing, we’re going to do a little background into how pencils are made and a bit of Graphite Pencil 101.
How it’s Made - Graphite Pencil Edition
(Well the short version anyway)
To start, while it might be referred to as the “pencil lead” it’s important to note that there’s actually no lead in a wooden pencil. The core of pencils are actually made from a combination of graphite and clay, which is blended together with water until a solid consistency forms and then pressed into thin rods. The rods are left to dry and then heated at extremely high temperatures to result in a solid, smooth core.
The ratio of graphite to clay in a pencil core is what makes pencils write differently from each other. The higher ratio of graphite, the softer and darker the pencil will write, whereas, a higher ratio of clay will result in a harder and lighter pencil core.
This is where the the lead grading system comes in! This splits pencils into “B” (or black) leads and “H” (or hard) leads, with our trusty HB (#2) in the middle. A number is usually placed before the letter to indicate how hard or soft a pencil is - the higher the number, the harder/softer your pencil will be. So for instance 8B is a pencil with very soft lead and will leave bold, dark lines while 8H is a very hard pencil that will create lighter writing lines. There is also “F” graded lead that falls between “H” and “HB, ” with the “F” standing for fine or fine point but in the simplest description is closest to HB. In general, “B” grade leads create darker lines with less pressure, smudge more, and dull faster than harder leads. “H” leads stay sharper for longer under normal writing circumstances and smudge less, but will need more pressure to create any sort of darker line.
And at this point you’re probably like, “Alex, why does this actually matter when you're testing all HB pencils?” And that’s a fair point. They should, for all intents and purposes, be the same if it’s used as a reference point right?
The differences in blends of graphite and clay, along with the differences in physical attributes (erasers, sharpening, etc.) can create a lot of different writing experiences across HB pencils.
So, I tested a bunch! I was curious to see which of our most common pencils I might recommend for writing or drawing, and if my pencil case staples were still my favorites by the end. To be honest, in writing I tend to reach for my mechanical Tombow Mono, but for drawing I usually go with Hi-Uni and Blackwing pencils.
In testing I was looking at four main things: darkness/lightness, erasability, smudging, and smoothness. Each pencil was tested on both MD paper and Strathmore Drawing paper, to also note writing differences on smooth vs. textured paper. Paper texture does make a difference in how much graphite sits on top of the paper vs. is held in the paper. This affects things like how well a pencil erases or how much smudging occurs.
So there are a couple things I used here that aren't from the Yoseka inventory, namely my personal favorite eraser - the white Faber Castell Vinyl Eraser - and the drawing paper which is Strathmore Drawing 300 series (both I got from Blick Art). Also I am using an electric pencil sharpener to sharpen all the pencils from their original state (whether pre-sharpened or flat).
In testing, I separated the pencils branded as "writing" and "drawing/drafting" so that I would be testing them next to each other in series. The general writing pencils include: Mitsubishi 9000, 9800, 9850, and 9852 as well as the Tombow 2558, Ticonderoga #2, Blackwing Natural and 602. I know, a long list!
For drawing/drafting pencils I had Mitsubishi Hi-Uni, Tombow Mono 100, and Liberty 9800. All of course in HB lead grade. The reason for this separation is that based on previous experience I personally expected the writing pencils to write harder and lighter than the drawing, since drawing so frequently uses smudging as a technique. But of course I could always be wrong!
Starting with the Mitsubishi 9000, the pencil sharpens to a really nice point and the casing at the end blends really nicely into the graphite meaning that it had less chance of cracking or splintering (which also exposes the lead to more opportunity to break). The lead is a little softer than I expected, leaning more towards the B side, meaning that it's also a little darker and harder to get even lighter lines. I didn't have to work to get the dark side of the pencil swatch to max graphite but I did have to work to get the even shading on the light side. It erases well on both of the papers but does have a good bit of smudge, which isn't completely surprising in a softer lead. (I do want to note that I accidentally wrote 9800 instead of 9000 here for the smudge test but it is still the 9000 pencil). In writing it's relatively smooth - I'd give it about a 3 out of 5 on both papers (using a sharp tip and not once the graphite has dulled out).
Next is the Mitsubishi 9800, which has similar looks and design to the 9000 (I have it here in the EW version without the dark green lacquer coating). It also sharpens similar to the 9000; with a really nice point and without any breaks in the wood. The lead itself feels and writes harder than the 9000, leaning a little more to the H side, which you can tell in the way the mass tone of graphite is a bit of a lighter gray color comparatively. Though I did get the same darkness in general writing, so that may just apply to mass swatches of pencil. I did notice the 9800 did have a little bit of smudge, not quite as apparent as the 9000 but still there, especially on the drawing paper.
Our first writing pencil with an eraser, the Mitsubishi 9850 is branded for "Office Use" and I honestly don't disagree with them! The maroon, silver, and white design is really nice just to look at on a desk, and the pencil itself was really smooth writing on both the MD paper - I'd say 4.5/5- and drawing paper - 4/5. (Which coming back at the end of testing is the highest rankings on smoothness I'd give any of the pencils!) As all the Mitsubishi pencils it was great with sharpening too and wrote about the same as the 9800 in hardness, so leaning ever so slightly more towards H. It erases really well on both papers with my separate Faber-Castell Eraser, but not quite as well with the provided eraser (indicated with a star). Though I do have to say the pencil eraser worked pretty well on MD paper on just the line portion so for your standard writing needs it would be alright. It also didn't smudge when I ran my finger over the "9850", which was pleasantly surprising. Of course, I'm only running my finger over the writing once or possibly twice to look for smudging so that's not to say that continuous contact won't make it smudge at all.
Similar to the 9850, and the last in our Mitsubishi writing line-up, the 9852 is called their "Master Writing" pencil, and if you're someone who loves the classic yellow pencils this definitely fits. As with all the others Mitsubishis, the sharpening is great, the writing is smooth - I'd say 4/5 on MD and 3.5/5 on drawing. It erases well in general, being a little bit better on MD than drawing, but the thing to note with the 9852 is that the pencil eraser itself erases better than the 9850 on MD paper but worse on drawing paper. Which I find interesting. Definitely something to keep in mind if you switch between paper types frequently.
Continuing the yellow #2 pencil design is the Tombow 2558. Which is the only Tombow writing pencil I have here. I did notice that while the pencil sharpens to a solid point, there isn't the exact same smooth transition from the pencil wood to the pencil. Which is generally fine to be honest, it's a very minute thing to notice, I would say it might just lead the pencil to be a little more prone to break if you were randomly throwing it into a bag or stuffed pencil case because it doesn't quite have the same support at a fragile place and could lead the wood casing to chip. The pencil itself writes really smooth - solid 4/5 all around - and is closer to the 9000 in softness, so leaning a little more towards the B side of HB. I do have to say I'm really impressed that it didn't smudge at all though on either papers and erased near completely with my eraser. The eraser on the pencil was also the best so far, especially for picking up the lead on the drawing paper (although this could partially be helped by the fact it is a bit of a softer lead).
I couldn't help but include the classic Ticonderoga pencil, which was definitely the pencil I mentioned earlier from my back to school shopping. Like, honestly, I think I've had the one I used here since middle school, I have so many leftover ones. The pencil sharpens well (I mean that is why I picked them originally. Maybe I'm biased towards pencils because I've never had really crappy school ones... Thanks Mom!), although it does have the same little bit of casing separation as the 2558. It is again on the H side of HB in hardness, which I could see when it took more effort to get the darker range and again the darker mass tone is a lighter gray than some of the others here. It wasn't quite as smooth as the previous writing pencils, about 2.5/5 on both papers and did smudge some (which explains why the side of my hand was always complete graphite after tests in middle school.... lefty problems, sigh). What did surprise me though is that after testing all the pencils, it still did have the best pencil eraser - or perhaps the best lead and pencil eraser combo - erasing really well on both MD and drawing paper.
On to a very popular pencil brand, Blackwings! I tested the Natural and 602 pencils here because Blackwing goes by it's own scaling of Extra-Firm (Natural), Firm (602), Balanced (Pearl), and Soft (Matte). When I mentioned earlier that I used Blackwings for drawing, I have to be fair and say that my favorites are the Matte/Soft and I am most familiar with those, although I did buy one of each originally to try them all out. Starting with the natural, I was really surprised because the lead was so soft when doing the gradient scale I wasn't sure I was right it was the extra-firm for a second! When generally writing I can see it more on the softer B side of HB, with a general smoothness of 3.5/5 on both types of paper. It erased well with my eraser in both tests, but I was surprised that the Blackwing eraser itself didn't erase all that well on either MD or drawing paper. To be honest, I'd like to re-try these with brand new eraser refills in the future and possible add an addendum, because while not old by any means, these are my personal desk pencils and erasers over time can become harder.
The 602 (Firm) was very, very similar to the natural in my testing. I might have gotten the dark side of shading accomplished with a little less pressure, which translated slightly into the writing lines, but that was the biggest difference I could note. So if you're someone who needs a darker pencil line constantly, the 602 might be better to not strain your hand, but both versions wrote the same for me personally. They did also have a bit of smudge to them, more-so on MD paper then drawing and also of course sharpened really well, without any separation on the casing.
Starting the line-up of drawing pencils here, the Hi-Uni is definitely one of the most popular drawing pencil lines - given it's large range of lead grades (10B-10H).
(*Side Note: The real secret is that no one ever needs all the lead grades, sets are nice but can be intimidating sometimes when you feel like each different pencil has to have its own reason. It doesn't. I definitely don't own all of them and sometimes I go for 4H instead of 3H or 2H because it's literally the first pencil I find - or still have. As long as there's a variety to get your darks and lights the numbers next to each other are interchangeable. Okay, back to the actual testing...)
Their HB is probably closest to what I was imagining HB as to start - which in all fairness is what I owned before. It's bold with still a bit of that hardness, and gets a really easy tonal range on both papers without any effort. The lead erased super cleanly on MD paper and only marginally worse on drawing paper. There was a fair amount of smudging however, especially on drawing paper (which makes sense given that smudging is a frequent drawing technique).
Next is the Tombow Mono 100, which is branded as a "drafting" pencil, and I'd have to say lives up to that name. Drafting can include a lot of things - under-drawings, mock-up sketches, mechanical designs, etc, - with a main focus on line work of some sort. The lead in the Mono 100 was comparative to the Hi-Uni, a good middle ground HB, but was definitely a little smoother in writing (although not quite beating the 9850/9852). What was pretty impressive with the 100 though is that it didn't smudge for me at all and that it erased completely on the MD and near completely on the drawing paper, even in my mass tone box. Given the fact that the 2558 was also the cleanest at erasing of the writing pencils, Tombow definitely knows something here I gotta say.
The Liberty 9800 is the last drawing pencil and last pencil here at the moment. It's also the only one that surprised me in not a good way. It sharpened well and everything seemed fine but I have to say that it's definitely the scratchiest of all of the pencils for me - 2/5 at best. It almost feels dry in a way I would think of for chalk pastel pencils and not for graphite. My comparison in my notes was "like writing with a Sailor ef nib on paper with no ink." I don't know if I just got a strange one here, and it did start to write better as the lead smoothed out, but not what I was expecting with a drawing pencil. I almost feel like this Liberty 9800 and the Mitsubishi 9000 should switch branding.
Final Favorites and Thoughts:
Well, if you've made it this far and I haven't made you completely bored, thank you. I know there's a lot of really small differences here that I hopefully got across but to be honest, I've stared at these test sheets a lot, and even I at some points thought they all looked to the same - so I totally won't blame anyone for that either. :)
As for final favorites, I have to give the Best Writing crown to the Mitsubishi 9850. It definitely writes the smoothest at all times to me, and the minimal smudging just makes it even better. Although it doesn't have the best pencil eraser here, it does erase well enough on smoother papers that writing over shouldn't be a problem. Also have to say it's also my favorite in design with the maroon body and silver detailing, which just make it look really classy for a desk or pencil case.
For Best Drawing/Drafting, I have to admit that I like the Tombow Mono 100. Insert my gasp and mild personal crisis here. I might be a tad bit biased because I draw in high detail most of the time, and in this case need a pencil to erase well and not smudge. And given these tests (and my frantic scribbling on scrap paper to make sure I wasn't messing them up), the Mono 100 definitely is a bit better in both of those things than the Hi-Uni. It's definitely a pencil I could see working for writing and drawing if you're looking not to carry a ton of stuff. The Mono 100 also has a large range of lead grades like the Hi-Uni which is a plus too!
And the Best Eraser/Erasing, has to also go to the Tombow pencils, both the 2558 and Mono 100. They both erased so cleanly with my personal eraser on both the MD and drawing paper, and the 2558 erased really well with it's on-pencil eraser too!
These picks are obviously not to say that anyone using one of the other pencil types is wrong though, everyone uses them in their own way! Additionally, I know there's a bunch of pencils that I'm missing from here, especially from the drawing side of the pencil family, but I wanted to focus a bit more on writing pencils because they get a little less love and attention in common comparisons. And sometimes small things make big differences! So while Yoseka might be slowly corrupting everyone to fountain pens (I'm looking at you Home pen...), I'll just be here with my side agenda of converting people to pencils.... that's fine right?
Hope you enjoyed the comparison, and let me know what your favorite pencil is if you have one, if there are others you love that were left out, or just pencil thoughts in general!
P.S. This is sincerely dedicated to anyone who has ever come up to me in the store for help and eventually apologized for thinking they're being too overwhelming or overbearing with their specific stationery preferences... no you're not. I understand.