Pencil Grades & Pencil Numbers Explained

pencil grades

If you’re new to drawing, you might not know the differences between the different pencil grades, or which one to use for a particular task. Pencil grades are based on the hardness of the lead and how much graphite is in the pencil. Some pencils are better suited for certain tasks, such as drawing arrowheads, while others are better suited for shading and blending. In this blog, we will discuss pencil grades and their best uses, including which grade of a pencil is best for drawing arrowheads and the best artist-grade colored pencils. By the end of this post, you will have a better understanding of which pencils to use for your drawing needs.

What Do Pencil Grades Mean?

Pencil grades tell you how light/hard and dark/soft a graphite pencil is. You might have noticed that graphite pencils have an ‘H’ or ‘B’ grade, sometimes both. The ‘H’ stands for hard and the ‘B’ stands for blackness. ‘H’ pencils are harder and produce lighter lines because they contain more filler and less graphite. Pencils that fall into the ‘B’ grade, on the other hand, make a darker mark because they’re softer and don’t contain as much filler.

The degree of hardness of a pencil is printed on the pencil. The degrees of hardness of pencils are roughly divided into four groups:

  • B stands for “black”. These pencils are soft.
  • H stands for “hard”.
  • HB stands for “hard black”, which means “medium hard”.
  • F stands for “firm”.

Sometimes the alphabetic characters are preceded by numbers. They make an even more precise statement about the degree of hardness or colour intensity of the pencil. The higher the number, the harder, softer, or blacker the pencil is.

What Does ‘H’ Mean on a Drawing Pencil?

The letter ‘H’ stands for HARD. 9H is the hardest pencil in most brands and makes a barely discernable mark. It contains the least graphite, is very hard and point indents the paper with minimal pressure.

The H range is used for drafting and precision drawing. The greys are subtle and smooth.

What Does ‘B’ Mean on a Drawing Pencil?

The letter ‘B’ stands for BLACK. These are the softer grades and contain progressively more graphite as they get darker. 

At the extreme end of the scale, 9B is the blackest and softest grade. It crumbles easily and leaves a pronounced reflective shine on the paper. 

pencil grades

The H Scale on Pencils

The following is the meaning and use of different H-scale pencils.

9H: A 9H pencil has the hardest pencil lead that you will find in a graphite pencil. It’s known for being able to be sharpened to a fine point, then holding that point for a long time. 9H pencils are best used for fine detail work. If you want to draw something with fine lines, then a 9H pencil is ideal since it creates light marks that are very difficult to smudge. It can be used for technical drawings, but it’s best to use is for preliminary work. 9H pencil lead is hard to see, and even if you use a lot of pressure, you aren’t going to succeed in producing a dark line. That’s why you should use it for preliminary work, then go over that work with a darker pencil.

8H: An 8H lead is also hard but not quite as hard as a 9H lead. You can use it for anything that you use a 9H lead for since the two are very similar in terms of hardness and the types of marks that they create on paper. The only real difference is that an 8H lead is slightly softer than a 9H lead, which means it will produce marginally darker lines and that it is somewhat more likely to smudge.

7H: 7H pencil lead is still quite hard, but with it, you are starting to get to the point where marks made with it are a little easier to see than with harder pencil leads. That means that you can use a 7H pencil for preliminary work, but it will also produce marks that are just dark enough to work for a finished drawing. If you want a light, fine-line drawing, then a 7H pencil is used.

6H: Like the above-mentioned pencils, 6H pencils work well for preliminary work. But they are also used for fine-line drawings. Being a harder lead pencil means that a 6H still won’t produce a very dark line, but if you are aiming for a light drawing without heavy lines, then it could work well for you. If you need darker lines, then it’s better to keep moving along to softer pencil leads.

5H: 5H pencil lead is slightly softer than 6H, but the differences between it and even 9H lead are still quite small. 5H pencil lead should be used the same way that other hard pencil leads are used. It should be used for preliminary drawings, or for fine detail work similar to 6H pencils. A finished drawing in 5H is possible, but it will still have very faint lines.

4H: With 4H pencil lead, you are starting to get into graphite which is a little more suitable for drawing with. The lines are still fine, but they are a bit darker and can be seen more quickly. 4H graphite should be used for detail work, and if you apply enough pressure, you should end up with fine lines that are just dark enough to be easily seen by the average person.

3H: When you get to 3H pencils, you are finally getting into pencils that can be used to complete a drawing while adding light to mid-tones. A 3H pencil won’t allow you to create very dark blacks, but it will enable you to develop greys and mid-tones that work well when you are creating a technical drawing that requires detail. A 3H pencil is also an excellent choice if you want to lightly sketch in a drawing before inking it, or even before painting over it. Just remember that if you are painting over graphite, you’ll need to seal it in place with matt medium or another clear sealant before painting on top of it. Graphite will rise to the surface of a painting eventually, which will ruin it.

2H: 2H pencils are almost similar to 3H pencils with the only noticeable difference being that a 3H is slightly harder. That means that it makes marginally lighter marks than a 2H pencil. But, for all practical purposes, they are interchangeable.

H: With H pencils it is possible to create lines that are moderately dark by using a lot of pressure. If you like to have a detailed sketch done before you do a finished drawing or painting, an H pencil can work very well for you. It’s still a hard graphite lead, but it’s softer and can be used to create darker lines than other hard pencils.

The B Scale on Pencils

The following is the meaning and use of different H-scale pencils.

B: When you get into the B scale of pencils, you start getting into pencils that are softer and produce darker lines. A pencil that has a B grade is slightly softer than a typical H pencil. If you are looking to add mid-tone shadows to a drawing, you should start by using a B pencil and then progress to softer and harder pencils as you need to add more and more intense shadows.

2B: When you want to start to add darker values to a drawing, but aren’t ready to commit to adding really dark values yet, a 2B pencil is a great option. But 2B pencils are soft enough to smudge if you accidentally rub them and that’s true for the rest of the B pencils. 

3B: When you are looking to go a bit darker than a 2B pencil will allow, a 3B is the next option you should reach for. 3B pencils are known for producing dark lines, and for being relatively easy to blend. A 3B pencil, with sufficient pressure, can produce reasonably dark values giving you the ability to create the darks that are necessary for a drawing to look 3D. If you want genuinely black values, though, you will need a softer pencil.

4B: 4B pencils should be used for adding moderately dark black. This type of pencil should also be used when you are looking to create moderately dark blacks that blend. 4B pencils smudge easily, so you have to be careful when using them. But, that same softness that lets them smudge easily also makes them great for blending.

5B: Using a 5B pencil will let you add dark values that are getting close to the darkest values that graphite can produce. A 5B pencil isn’t the pencil to use when you are trying to create black. It is the pencil you should use when you are trying to add dark shadows and blend them between lighter areas and darker areas in your drawing.

6B: 6B pencils are past the midway point of B pencils in terms of softness. They will allow you to create reasonably dark areas, are easy to blend, and are soft enough that you can lay down a lot of graphite quickly. Like other soft, dark pencils, you should use a 6B to help bridge the gap between lighter and darker values in your drawing.

7B: As you reach the 7B range of pencils, you are getting into pencils that are quite soft, blend easily, and can make very dark values. 7B pencils should be used to render in areas of your drawing that are in deep shadow where very little light reaches.

8B: 8B pencils are the second softest and darkest graphite pencil that you will find, and their use should be reserved for rendering in dark shadows. You can use an 8B pencil to complete an entire drawing as long as you aren’t trying to create any highlights or mid-tones. If you are drawing a dark scene, then use an 8B pencil along with an eraser to lighten areas that are lighter in value.

9B: When you are ready to create the darkest values that graphite is capable of producing, then you are prepared for a 9B pencil. 9B pencils should be used for the darkest values in your drawings. They smear and blend easily, and you can put down a lot of graphite with a minimal amount of pressure. This makes a 9B pencil great for laying down dark shadowy areas. Many young artists struggle with creating the darkest black areas in their drawings. This is a mental hurdle that has to be overcome because, without truly dark regions, a picture will always look flat. When you want to create the darkest values possible with graphite, you’ll need a 9B pencil.

What Does ‘F’ Mean on a Drawing Pencil?

F(or HB) pencils both produce similar values, but they do so for different reasons. HB pencils have a small amount of clay mixed into the lead, making it hard while still allowing it to add dark values. An F pencil has less graphite, making it hard, and allowing it to create a full range of values. Both of these pencils are popular with artists, and they complement each other well when used together.

Pros and Cons of H-Grade Pencils

The following are the pros and cons of H-grade pencils.

  • H pencils are a better choice if you are colouring in something light.
  • You have to sharpen them less often.
  • Sometimes it is harder to shade with H pencils.
  • Because they are so sharp, it is easy to scratch the paper.

Pros and Cons of B-Grade Pencils

The following are the pros and cons of B-grade pencils.

  • B pencils are a better choice if you are coloring in something dark.
  • Easier, more efficient shading.
  • You have to sharpen them more often.
  • When using a lot of B pencils on the same page, you may get some on your hands.

Which Pencil To Choose – H or B?

The soft B pencils are ideal for children who are just learning to write. With soft and especially thick graphite pencils beginners can write very easily. Anyone with more experience in writing and drawing will usually choose a pencil with a medium degree of hardness HB; some feel most comfortable with the degree of hardness F.

People who want to express themselves artistically use soft pencils of hardness in grades 2B to 8B. You can make expressive drawings with them, which are very rich in contrast.

Hard pencils are good for technical drawing. They are excellent with hardness grades H, 2H to 6H. Because they do not lubricate, you can work with them very accurately. Their lines are more grey than black. Do not impress them too much, otherwise, the pen will dig pressure marks into the paper.

What Makes a Pencil Grade Harder or Softer?

The core(writing material) of a graphite pencil is a mix of graphite and clay filler. H pencils contain more clay filler and are highly compacted which means they create a lighter mark and are harder. The higher the number before the H, the harder and lighter it will be. B pencils have less clay filler and the core isn’t as compacted which makes them darker and softer. The higher the number before the B, the softer and darker it will be.


What does HB or 2B mean on a pencil?

The numbers of pencils refer to the degree of hardness of a pencil. B stands for “black”. These pencils are soft. H stands for “hard”. HB stands for “hard black”, which means “medium hard”. F stands for “firm”.

What is the meaning of 2B pencil?

The soft lead pencils are graded with the letter ‘B’ to designate how ‘black’ the mark they make is. Numbers are then used to indicate the degree of softness – the higher the number the softer the lead and the blacker the mark. For example, a 2B lead is softer than a B lead and will produce a blacker mark.

Is there a #1 pencil?

Lead pencils are also graded on a scale from #1 to #4 based on how much graphite is inside the core. The #1 pencils are the softest, while the #4 pencils are the hardest.

Which is darker HB or 2B?

The key difference between 2B and HB pencils is that writing with 2B pencils is darker than that with HB pencils. Typically, 2B pencils are used by artists, while HB pencils are used by school children.

What is the world’s hardest pencil?

The 9H pencil is the hardest and H pencil is the softest pencil.

Which pencil is best for writing?

The best pencils for writing are HB pencils.


We hope you found this article on pencil grades helpful for your next drawing or sketching project. Knowing the different levels of pencil grades and how they relate to your project can make all the difference in achieving the desired results. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced artist, using the correct pencil grade can greatly enhance the quality of your work.