Friday, October 13, 2017

Graphite Grade Comparison: Four Pencil Brands

My current graphite picks.
A few weeks ago when I talked about what I’m learning in my graphite drawing class, I mentioned that I had discovered immediately how much pencil grades can vary from brand to brand. Later I mentioned that while I’ve always loved Mitsubishi Hi-Uni pencils in the softer grades, I was finding out that they are not as smooth as I want them to be in the harder grades. Since then, I’ve been using a mix of Hi-Uni, Tombow Mono, Staedtler Mars Lumograph and Faber-Castell 9000 rather haphazardly, trying to figure out which I like best.

Now that I’m five weeks into the class, I’m getting to know my materials better and how they perform. I upgraded my paper from student-grade Canson XL Bristol smooth to Strathmore 300 Bristol smooth, which is a slightly better quality. It’s noticeably smoother and without any visible grain. (To see what Canson’s Bristol surface looks like, see my demo showing the difference between using a single grade to achieve a certain value and building up to that value with a wide range of grades used sequentially.)

Instead of continuing to randomly use the various pencil grades among the four brands, I finally decided to make myself a comparison chart of the six grades I use most often. (You’ll notice that I’m missing my Hi-Uni in 2H. It bothers me no end that I can’t find it! . . . did I leave it in Suzanne’s studio? I’m also missing the Tombow Mono in F, but I think I never owned that grade.) The chart was made on Strathmore Bristol smooth.

In every grade, Mitsubishi is softer than the other brands, and Tombow Mono is harder than the others up through B (though it feels surprisingly smoother than the German brands in those harder grades). While my hands-down favorite of the four is Mitsubishi in the softer grades (B and softer), I prefer Tombow and Staedtler in the harder grades, which are noticeably smoother than the Hi-Unis. Faber-Castell is scratchier in every grade and therefore feels harder in application. I find myself avoiding them because of that roughness.

I’ve heard graphite artists say that it’s not necessary to have every grade because there’s so little variation from one step to the next. Once I made this chart, I could see that clearly. I’m hard-pressed to see much difference between 2H and H or between HB and B, although again, that seems to vary among the brands. There’s a larger jump in Hi-Uni between F and HB compared to the other brands. Ultimately, though, one could easily skip every other grade and probably not miss the ones in between.

Another observation to note is that going up through the softer grades (my chart only goes to 2B, but I have grades up through at least 5B in the four brands), there’s less and less difference among the brands in terms of darkness – but the larger difference is in the subjective characteristic that I’ll call “hand feel.” The Hi-Unis feel smoother and seem to glide across the paper compared to the others. (And the Faber-Castell feels rougher even at 5B.)

My last observation is that the specific pairing with paper is an important factor in evaluating how pencils perform. With the lower quality Canson paper, I often had difficulty achieving a uniform value over a large area, and I often switched around pencils in the same grade to see if that would make a difference. It did make some difference, but the larger difference came from upgrading my paper to Strathmore, which makes it much easier to get a uniform value from any pencil. (It’s also possible I’m getting better at applying graphite more uniformly.) 

As is usually the case when choosing among products of comparable quality, there’s no such thing as the “best” pencil. It’s really a matter of identifying the qualities that will do what I want (as well as the more subjective qualities like “hand feel”). My favorites at the moment are shown in the photo at the top.


  1. I didn’t know that pencil grades can vary from brand to brand. I’m a beginner and didn’t try any other brands than Faber Castell. But I will when my skills improve

    1. The more I use art materials, the more I find that there's no consistency among brands in any product. But that's why it's so much fun to try different things! ;-)

  2. I guess there is a big learning curve with graphite too. It is interesting to see how subtle the tone is from one grade to another.

  3. Paper has been the biggest AH-HA for me the last few weeks. I know it shouldn't be but even the cheapest materials, be it pencil or watercolor will preform better on better paper -- or at least differently. Its interesting to think that graphite, even fancy pants Japanese graphite pencils vary in performance quality depending on the paper.

    1. Yeah, that's been a surprise to me, too, with graphite. I know paper is super important with watercolor, but I thought graphite was more tolerant.


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