I am a bit embarrassed that I only discovered later in my life that the ‘lead’ pencils I was using for drawing and writing actually contained no lead at all and were in fact graphite pencils! When it comes to graphite vs pencil, there is a lot more to the comparison than what material sits at the core of both. Understanding the differences between them will help you make informed decisions for the rest of your life when it comes to material selections for drawing and sketching.
In this post, I will share some insights on the characteristics and uses of both graphite and pencil and also the following:
- What is Graphite
- Graphite vs Pencils
- Composition and Types of Pencils
- Pencil Grades Explained
- Applications and Uses
- Strengths and Weaknesses
- Environmental Impacts
- A Short History Lesson
Graphite is a form of carbon and is the main component of the core in modern pencils, along with a binder, usually clay. Despite commonly referring to it as “lead,” the core actually doesn’t contain any real lead.
Therefore you can conclude that there is no graphite vs pencil, they are both the same thing. Even graphite sticks are the same thing as graphite pencils but graphite sticks are not encased in a wooden body, they are exposed graphite and are usually much thicker than the pencil variety.
Graphite comes in various hardness levels, with harder pencils producing lighter and finer lines, and softer pencils creating darker and heavier lines. This wide range of options allows me to achieve different effects and levels of detail in my drawings.
Composition and Types of Pencils
Like I mentioned at the start, I whenever I thought about pencils, I used to confuse the terms “graphite” and “pencil”, thinking they’re the same thing. I have also just realized that most people think the same still.
And while I did say they are basically the same thing, there are some differences between them, and understanding these differences is helpful when choosing the right kind of pencil.
In this section, I’ll discuss the composition of pencils, and their various types to help you better understand them.
There’s no lead!
Let’s talk about the core of a pencil, which is commonly referred to as the “lead”. In reality there’s no actual lead in pencils; instead, the core is made from a mixture of graphite and clay.
It’s the ratio of clay to graphite that determines hardness!
The ratio of graphite to clay determines the hardness of the pencil core. More clay in the mixture results in a harder pencil, while higher graphite content makes it softer and darker.
Pencils come in various grades, including H, B, HB, and F. H stands for hard, B represents blackness, HB is a balance between the two, and F stands for firm.
The hardness of a pencil core can affect the mark it leaves on paper. Harder cores (higher H values) produce lighter marks, while softer cores (higher B values) produce darker marks. Softer pencils tend to dull faster, requiring more frequent sharpening than harder ones.
For most people, a standard number 2 (HB) pencil is sufficient for daily use, providing a balance between hardness and blackness.
- H-grade pencils: harder and lighter
- B-grade pencils: softer and darker
- HB-grade pencils: balance between H and B
- F-grade pencils: firm, slightly more rigid than HB
Colored Pencils Are Not Graphite Pencils
They can be blended like charcoal pencils, but they have minimal dust and smudging. Charcoal pencils, as their name suggests, have a charcoal core that produces a fuller black than graphite and blends well.
pencil grades explained
So I mentioned that graphite pencils come in varying hardness (and softness). These are measured by grading. Pencil grades are a system used to classify the hardness or softness of a pencil lead.
The most common grading system for pencils is the HB scale, which ranges from 9H (hardest) to 9B (softest). The letter “H” stands for “hard,” while the letter “B” stands for “black.”
The following is a table of pencil grades and their corresponding values:
|Pencil Grade||Softest to Hardest|
|9H||Hardest and Lightest|
|9B||Softest and Darkest|
As you can see, the softness to hardness of the pencil grades ranges from the softest 9B to the hardest 9H. The HB pencil, which is the most commonly used pencil, has a medium hardness.
The harder pencils (H) are better for precise lines and technical drawing, while the softer pencils (B) are better for shading and creating darker lines.
I hope that explained pencil grades for you in an easy to understand format.
Application and Uses
In my experience, graphite is well-known for its use in pencils and is often considered synonymous with pencil drawing. When I use graphite pencils, I find that they’re great for making quick sketches, smaller drawings, and detailed work.
You can get graphite in some lubricants
Lubricants are another popular use of graphite. I’ve noticed that it’s especially useful for high-temperature applications due to its ability to conduct heat and resist wear.
Beyond that, graphite’s conductivity makes it a valuable material in the electronics industry, where it’s used to create electrodes, batteries, and solar panels.
When it comes to art and drawing, I prefer using graphite for its versatility and ease of blending. I can create different tones from light gray to almost black by adjusting the pressure I apply with the pencil.
Along with the various grades of pencils available, this allows me to add depth, texture, and contrast to my drawings.
I often use tools like tortillions or blending stumps to blend my graphite lines, achieving a smooth and even finish.
Charcoal Pencils are not Graphite Pencils
On the other hand, charcoal pencils, which are made of compressed charcoal, are great for creating darker and more dramatic drawings, especially on a larger scale.
Here’s a comparison of graphite and charcoal pencils in terms of their characteristics:
|Graphite Pencils||Charcoal Pencils|
|Great for quick sketches and smaller drawings||Best for larger projects and bold strokes|
|Vary in hardness and blackness (H and B scale)||Usually softer and darker in tone|
|More suited for smooth paper||Often better on textured paper|
|Blends easily for smooth transitions of tone||Tends to produce richer, deeper blacks|
Remember, both graphite and charcoal pencils have their unique applications and uses, depending on the desired outcome and style of the artwork.
By getting familiar with each material’s properties, I increase my versatility as an artist and can better express my ideas through different mediums.
Strengths and Weaknesses
When it comes to choosing between graphite and traditional pencils for drawing, there are a few strengths and weaknesses that I consider. Graphite pencils are excellent for fine details, quick sketches, and smooth shading.
Their core hardness can be adjusted by using different grades, such as a higher number for lighter marks and a lower number for darker marks. This variety in hardness allows me to achieve the perfect balance based on the pressure I apply when drawing.
On the other hand, traditional pencils can become dull quickly, especially the softer lead types, which require more frequent sharpening.
The size of the pencil and the quality of the sharpener play a role in maintaining a stable point. A cheap sharpener can damage an expensive pencil, so it’s essential to find a sharpener that matches the size of the pencil and keeps the point sharp without eating too much of the pencil.
Graphite pencils work better on smoother paper, making them more suitable for smaller drawings or quick sketches.
While there are woodless graphite pencils available, which offer a larger mark-making surface, they still have limited coverage compared to charcoal.
From the perspective of texture, graphite creates a glossy or shiny appearance on paper, whereas traditional pencils have a more matte finish.
This difference may be important depending on the desired outcome of my drawing or sketch, as the shiny appearance of graphite can sometimes distract from the overall look of the piece.
When it comes to the environmental impact of pencils, I’ve learned that wooden pencils are generally more eco-friendly than other writing utensils. The cedar wood used in most pencils comes from North American logging practices, which have strict requirements for erosion prevention and regeneration of trees.
Graphite is not that bad on the environment
As for the graphite used in pencils, it’s true that graphite mining does have a negative impact on the environment. When I compared it to the extraction of other resources from the ground, the overall environmental impact of graphite mining is relatively low.
Mechanical pencils are better on the environment
Now let’s look at mechanical pencils made of plastic. These are usually crafted from styrene, a compound derived from natural gas. It’s worth mentioning that styrene can be easily recycled, which is a plus for the environment.
Disposable pencils are not so good on the environment
But, there is a big but in that disposable plastic pens do create more waste than wooden pencils, since they cannot be recycled as easily and often end up in landfills.
So, while wooden pencils are the more eco-friendly option, it’s possible to find pencils with a lower environmental impact as well as these would be steel mechanical pencils or those made from recycled plastics.
As the demand for electronic devices and electric vehicles (EVs) grows, so does the need for graphite, which is used in anodes in lithium-ion batteries.
This increased demand contributes to the environmental impact of graphite production. Still it seems that the environmental impact of pencils remains relatively lower compared to other writing tools or large-scale graphite usage in batteries.
History of Graphite and Pencils
In my research, I discovered some fascinating facts about the history of graphite and pencils. It turns out that graphite was first identified in England, in 1564, following the discovery of a plentiful deposit in Borrowdale.
This mineral was appreciated for leaving darker marks compared to lead, making it ideal for writing and drawing. However, graphite was soft and brittle, so it required a holder, such as a piece of string, to prevent it from breaking.
Later on, in 1795, the Conté pencil was invented and patented in France. The manufacturing process involved gluing graphite leads into a groove in a piece of wood, and then another piece of wood was glued over it.
This new design helped make pencils more practical and easier to use. England also had its unique, pure-graphite pencils at the time, which were popular for their high quality.
As I dug deeper into the history, I found out that Napoleon played a significant role in the development of pencil-making. (Random fact: Apparently he is also the reason we have margarine!)
During the Napoleonic wars, France lost access to pure graphite from Britain and instead had to rely on Germany’s graphite dust products.
This situation prompted the French to develop their own versions of pencils that could meet their needs, ultimately contributing to technological advances in pencil manufacturing.
On March 30, 1858, a groundbreaking invention emerged when Hymen L. Lipman patented the first pencil with a built-in eraser.
This simple addition to the humble pencil had a significant impact and eventually became a standard feature. Lipman sold his patent for an impressive $100,000, highlighting the importance of this innovative design.
When it comes to the origin of the term “pencil,” it’s thought to derive from the Latin word ‘pencillus,’ meaning ‘little tail.’ This name likely came from the medieval mark-making tool that consisted of a small brush dipped in ink.
The Romans used a stylus, or lead rod, to scratch the surface of wax tablets, which might have contributed to the development of early forms of mark-making tools that led to the modern pencil.
Graphite vs Pencil – Wrap up!
In my experience, both graphite and charcoal pencils have their own unique advantages and are suited for different purposes.
I find that graphite pencils are more versatile and can be used for a wide range of applications, from quick sketches to intricate details. Their non-toxic nature makes them a safer choice for younger artists and those concerned about potential health hazards.
So go ahead and enjoy your graphite sticks and pencils. Keep making those great drawings and sketches now that you know that they are basically the same thing!
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Joseph Colella is a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech). While he holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent style he spent years trying to get into various Art degrees from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), and failed to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney. His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. In his spare time, he writes for the this blog, WastedTalentInc, where he shares practical advice on art, making art, and art materials. Joseph’s art has been sold to collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia. He is a trusted source for reliable art and copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.
He also loves all things watches (ok it’s an addiction) so show him some love and visit his other website https://expertdivewatch.com