Summary: Low grade school pencils of the shiny yellow kind come in #1,2,2-1/2,3,and 4, the numbers representing the hardness and weight of the graphite. The lower the number the softer and heavier the graphite.

Unlike today, where parents have to foot the bill for all of their kids school supplies, when I was in elementary school pencils were shiny and yellow with a black oval number “2” stamped on them below the eraser. Occasionally, a student – one who usually had a difficult time grasping both the concepts of his new writing style and the pencil – would be given a number “3.” None of us, including the offending student, knew why this was. We just knew that it made him “different.” (Usually just one more nail in his casket labeled “different.”)


I never really gave it much thought after that, but then I found myself recently, picking up the random items littering what just might someday become a nice little work corner of my basement, and lo and behold I found a slightly beat-upon, but still shiny pencil. Imagine my surprise when I turned it around and found it was a “2-1/2!” A “2-1/2?” I’d never heard of such a thing. Was this a rarity? Was it like the Holy Grail? And, most importantly, could I sell it on eBay? More investigation was needed.

I began my search online and found out that low grade school pencils of the shiny yellow kind come in #1,2,2-1/2,3,and 4, the numbers representing the hardness and weight of the graphite. The lower the number the softer and heavier the graphite. The softer the graphite the darker the line it leaves behind. So the reason that kids who had difficulties learning their new skills would get harder pencils was that they’d become so deliberate with their writing that they’d press down to hard and make a big old smeary mess on the paper. The harder and lighter graphite kept the writing where it belonged.

But, like everything else in the world, there’s more to it than you think.

First of all, these are low-grade pencils we’re talking about here. When DaVinci was sketching, I guarantee you he didn’t do it with a bright yellow #2. On top of that, we’re about the only country in the world that grades pencils this way and we only do it for cheap pencils topped with little pink erasers that you buy by the dozen. When you start looking at higher quality art pencils, or any pencils anywhere else in the world the grading system is different altogether. Different, and perhaps a little confusing. At least, at first.

High quality pencils used by artists, architects, and the like, have a far wider range of graphite textures and weights to choose from. From what I could find, it would seem that the range of artist quality pencils (excluding the truly random or esoteric) extends from 9B to 10H. How’s that for a curve ball?

But it’s all very simple. “B” stands for “black” and “H” stands for “hard.” So 9B is uses a very soft, heavy graphite – much softer even, than the softest pencils we used in elementary school. 10H describes a graphite that is comprised of a good deal of filler which makes it very hard and light leaving only the faintest line behind.

Now, in between there’s a lot more than just the three or four numbers we had with the school pencils. The range of art pencils are 9B, 8B, 7B, 6B, 5B, 4B, 3B, 2B, B, HB, F, H, 2H, 3H, 4H, 5H, 6H, 7H, and 8H.

But wait! You say. You distinctly noticed an “HB.” And what’s this “F” crap? Well you may notice, if you look at enough #2 pencils that they will sometimes have “HB” on them, and , indeed, HB art pencils and #2 school pencils is about as close as you’re going to get in comparing the proverbial apples to oranges. And the “F”? Well, it’s rating of questionable origin. It’s been called “firm,” “fine,” “fine-point,” and I’m sure a few other things, but it’s the best I can do.

Author: Chuck Eglinton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *