The Insightful Process On How Pencils Are Made
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From the onset, the pencil seems to be one of the most boring writing devices in the artist toolbox.
Yet, It’s a fundamental tool that just about everyone on earth is familiar with.
Whether you are simply researching for your own knowledge to figure out who invented the modern pencil you know today (it was Joseph Dixon), when it was introduced (1829), all the essential components that go into making the wood pencils you know today, along with some worthy alternatives that exist for artists everywhere – we will dive deep into that and all more.
First – lets cover the basics:
What goes into making a pencil:
Components of A Pencil
A standard wooden pencil has three main components:
Here’s a bit more on each:
The misnomer “lead pencil” is based on the history of pencil cores. Ancient Roman writing tools called “styluses” were made of lead, but pencil cores have been made of graphite and other materials since around the 16th century.
The core of your pencil determines the mark that you can make.
Harder cores produce a lighter mark, making them excellent for detail work. Softer cores, like charcoal pencils, are darker and more pigmented.
Traditionally, pencil cores have been made of a mixture of graphite powder and powered clay. The ratio of graphite to clay is what creates the variations in core density.
Pigmented pencil cores, such as watercolor pencils, are mixed with powered clay and wax to create their density. Pastel pencil cores are slightly different, mixing the pigment with chalk and a binder to create their unique mark.
We will expand on pencil grades a bit more in just a minute, but next – the pencil casing:
Pencil casings are traditionally made of wood, but mechanical pencils are generally cased in metal or plastic.
The type of casing that a pencil has impacts its usability. It can affect the weight and feel of a pencil in hand, its rigidness, and shelf life.
Though pencil casings are made from a variety of woods, including pine and spruce, cedar wood is still the most popular for high quality pencils.
Cedar wood pencils outperform their competition in popularity and durability.
But what makes cedar wood so special?
Cedar is a dense, pleasant smelling wood that is resistant to warping. This gives cedar cased pencils a longer shelf life and makes them less vulnerable to breaking.
Many pencils, both traditional wooden cased pencils and mechanical varieties, come equipped with an eraser. Being able to remove errant marks from your work is one of the benefits of using a pencil, so having the right eraser can be crucial.
Erasers are made from a variety of materials. The most common variant of eraser that comes attached to a pencil is pink rubber, which may be manufactured from natural or synthetic rubbers.
Some pencils come with vinyl erasers.
Vinyl is a firm, durable material that can remove very deep, pigmented marks from your paper. Though highly effective, vinyl may tear more delicate styles of paper.
The right eraser is an essential complement to a high-quality pencil.
Handheld erasers come in a more extensive variety of materials to those attached to your pencil. Depending on your use, you may want to try PVC, latex, silica, or other variations.
The grade of a pencil refers to the softness or hardness of the core. These grades are designated on both a numerical scale as well as the “HB” scale so that you can get the density and pigmentation that you need.
Table of Contents
Graphite Pencil Grades
Graphite pencils are graded by both a numerical and an HB scale. Each scale has its merits and knowing the difference can help artists make good decisions about the pencils they use.
Graphite is first graded by its density on a number scale. The higher the number, the harder the graphite.
Hard graphite can be sharpened to a very fine point, but it leaves a lighter mark.
Softer graphite cores are made by mixing less clay and binder with the graphite. This will make the core dull faster, as it deposits more graphite with each stroke and leaves a darker mark on the paper.
The traditional #2 pencil is generally a wooden pencil with a very soft graphite core. It’s dull point and soft graphite make it ideal for handwriting, but not as useful for precision drawing and drafting.
The HB scale was created to help distinguish between density and pigmentation. Though this scale is mostly used outside the United States, it is the standard for artist grade pencils.
The HB scale works by measuring the hardness of the graphite core (H), as well as the blackness of the pencil mark (B). In some cases, the letter F is used to designate a pencil that can be sharpened to a fine point.
The HB scale is now used in tandem with a number scale. 9H would be the hardest available pencil on the scale, leaving the lightest mark. 9B, on the other end of the scale, is the softest pencil which leaves the lightest mark.
The HB designation is roughly in the center of this scale and is about the equivalent of a #2 pencil on the numerical scale.
For the researchers out there – the numbers used on pencils were first used by Conte (a popular maker of wood pencils) and John Thoreau as a way to codify pencil weights.
However, its worth noting that like many areas of the art world, the Conte / John Thoreau scale that we typically know isn’t used by all.
In fact, if you check out the Faber-Castell site, they use their own unique scale when it comes to pencil grades (notably their Grip 2011 line).
What grade is best for a project?
Choosing the right pencil for your project is important.
F graded pencils, as well as harder grades like a #5, are better for fine lines and details. Architectural drawings, and other styles that require fine detailed lines will be best accomplished with these grades.
In general, softer pencils in the “B” range are better for shading. A 4B or 5B pencil will give you a very dark shade, with a smooth and consistent finish. An HB pencil will be better for lighter shading but may not blend as easily.
For very light tones, as you may want for traditional watercolors, try using a harder grade. A 9H gives you a light grey mark, making it nearly invisible under inks or watercolors.
Charcoal Pencil Grades
Charcoal pencils are a specialty artist’s pencil that is great for blending and soft lines.
Much like traditional graphite pencils, charcoal cores are mixed with a binder. The amount of binder is what determines the hardness of the pencil. The more binder used in the mix, the harder the core.
Charcoal pencils are graded on the HB scale and range from HB to 6B. HB is the hardest grade, producing a lighter mark and slightly more precision. 6B is the softest, creating a dark, black mark.
Pastels and Colored Pencils
Student v. Artist Grade
Colored pencils are popular with artists and hobbyists alike. They are available in a variety of qualities and grades.
Artist grade colored pencils are of higher quality, but they also come at a higher price point. They often use pure, high quality pigments and less binder, allowing them to deliver more vibrant hues in artworks.
Student grade colored pencils are mixed with more binder, producing a harder grade pencil. These pencils create a lighter, more subdued mark.
Oil v. Wax Based
Pastel and colored pencil cores are generally mixed with one of two binders, oil or wax.
Oil based pencil cores are smoother than waxed based. They glide across paper, leaving a more consistent and color-rich mark. Oil based pencils are better for blending.
Wax based pencil cores are harder and more brittle. Often found in student grade pencils, wax based cores leave a textured mark and are more difficult to blend.
Unlike graphite and charcoal pencils, the value grade of a colored pencil is determined by the amount of pressure required to achieve the desired color.
Artist grade pencils give you better value, otherwise a more pigmented mark with lighter pressure.
Student grade pencils are more likely to require more pressure to see a saturated mark.
Colored pencils and pastels are also graded for lightfastness. Lightfastness refers to the pencil marks resistance to change when exposed to light.
Ratings for lightfastness are on the ASTM scale. ASTM I is very high quality, with pigment unlikely to change with exposure to light over time. ASTM III is lower in quality.
Lightfastness determines the life expectancy of a piece of art. Artwork created with ASTM III graded pencils will fade quickly when on display. Works created with ASTM I pencils can withstand long periods on display.
Pencils For Pros & Beginners
The right pencil for your art is a matter of artistic style, skill, and opinion. Different pencils work best for different forms of artwork.
Best Pencils for Details
Before purchasing a set of artist’s pencils, consider your artistic style. Artworks with crisp, light lines will require a harder grade core. Artworks with softer lines, darker shadows, or significant blending need softer cores.
Artistic pencils are often found in sets with a variety of grades. Having pencils that range in softness and darkness will assure that you always have the right tool to create your best work.
When looking for high quality pencils, consider the shape, material, and core of the pencil. Hexagonal shaped pencils are more comfortable to grip and help with hand fatigue when drawing. Cedar casings are denser and less prone to breakage than pine.
There are several trusted brands to look for when purchasing artist grade pencils.
Faber-Castell produces graphite, charcoal, and colored pencils. Their artist’s grade pencils are known for durability. They sharpen easily and are resistant to breaking.
Prismacolor is an industry standard for colored pencils, but their graphite pencils are also high quality. The Prismacolor introductory set of graphite pencils includes 7 different grades, as well as water soluble pencils that can be blended with water.
Staedtler’s Mars Lumograph pencils are a perfect purchase for detailed artworks. These pencils are clean erasing, consistent, and resistant to breaking.
Best Pencils for Beginners
Charcoal pencils are a great option for beginner and student artists.
Charcoal pencils blend and spread easily, making it easy to obtain both dark and light values with a single tool. They give very smooth coverage on a variety of paper types.
Charcoal pencils are easier to erase than graphite. This makes them more forgiving for sketching and student drawings. Just make sure you have the best charcoal pencil for your work.
Beyond Black & White
Colored pencils can add depth and interest in artworks. If you decide to add color to your artworks, it is vital to purchase artist quality pencils to get the best results.
Caran D’Ache Luminance colored pencils are known for their lightfastness.
Luminance pencils are waxy and more prone to crumble than other brands. Using them over a less waxy brand will give a pop of saturated color to your work.
Derwent Studio colored pencils are harder, waxier pencils. Though they are great for precision and crisp lines, they also deliver a robust and saturated color.
Faber-Castell produces a set of high quality watercolor pencils called Albrecht Durer Watercolor Pencils. Their water soluble pigments make them perfect for blending and shading. The brand comes in an extensive range of colors, making them a versatile option.
The Pencil Making Process
Whether you are looking at high quality, artist grade pencils or standard #2 student pencils, the manufacturing process is the same. The case is formed into grooved wood slats, leads are made and inserted, and finally the pencils are cut and finished.
Making the Casing
First, the wood is cut into precise blocks, which are planed down into thin slats. Those slats are treated, depending on the kind of wood, to prevent warping and make them soft and dry. This will make the pencils easier to sharpen.
After resting, grooves are cut into each slat. These slats will yield between 6 and 9 finished pencils.
Graphite cores are made by combining pure graphite and clay.
The pure graphite and clay are put into a rotating drum with heavy weights, like rocks. They are tumbled until ground into a fine powder.
Water is then added to blend the powdered graphite and clay. This mixture will continue to tumble for a long time, up to several days.
Water will be squeezed from this mixture to concentrate the graphite and clay into a sludge, which is then ground into a fine powder. Water is added back into the mixture to create a moldable paste.
Finally, the paste is extruded into rods. These rods are cut to pencil lengths called “leads.”
The leads are left to dry or baked at high temperature to assure the desired density and consistency.
Forming the Pencil
Before the leads can be inserted into the slats, each groove is spread evenly with glue. The leads are then pushed into the grooves and sandwiched between two slats.
Once the glue has completely set, the slats are cut into individual pencils. Each pencil is then painted and varnished. Finally, a ferrule and eraser are added.
Depending on the manufacturer, some pencils may be stamped with a logo or sharpened before packaging.
For a full description of modern pencil manufacturing, check out this video.
Making Pastel Pencils at Home
With a few tools and the right ingredients, you can make your own pastel pencils at home.
- Powdered Pigments
- Gum Tragacanth
- Glass Palette
- Palette Knife
- Add 1 part gum binder to 30 parts water and mix thoroughly.
- Refrigerate the mixture for 48 hours.
- Spoon out a pile of your chosen pigment onto a glass palette. Make a hole in the pile and add a small amount of your prepared gum binder.
- Mix the pigment and binder with a palette knife until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and create a doughy consistency. Add additional gum solution or pigment as needed.
- Shape your pastel “dough” into a pencil shape using your fingers, the palette knife, or a prepared mold.
- Place the molded pastel on a paper towel and allow to dry completely.
- Enjoy your pastel pencils!
Pencils have been a versatile writing and artistic tool since their creation. The right pencil can be a tool for crisp lines, soft blending, or beautiful detail.