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Pencil Grades From "A" To 9B

Posted By Central Art

Everyone knows about the good old "No. 2" pencil. But who knows what that number 2 actually means? Today pencils are numbered to tell us how hard the lead is; the higher the number, the harder the lead, the lighter your markings. However, it wasn't always this way.

The earliest pencils were made simply from filling a wood shaft with raw graphite. The hardness of the graphite would differ depending on the quality and where the pencil was made. The current method of making pencils was developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755-1805). The Conté Process mixes powdered graphite with finely ground clay. This mixture is then shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The more clay that is added, the harder the pencil lead. Conté's first pencils were numbered for varying degrees of hardness. Later, other pencil makers adopted this same technique.

English pencil manufacturers came up with their own standards for product labeling, and decided to use letters instead of numbers. Soft leads were labeled "B" for black, and harder leads with "H" for hard. For varying grades they would just add more letters, thus very soft was "BB", very hard was "HH", and extra hard was "HHH". Finally, the system shifted once more to a combination of numbers and letters such as 2B, 9H, and so on. Although more complicated, this system allowed for a much wider range of grades to be made with no more than a two character description. The English scale is still used today.

Many of the U.S. companies use a number-only system for writing pencils (1, 2, 2 1/2, 3, 4), but also adopt the English scale for graphic and artist pencils. The No. 2 / HB grade is right in the middle, making it the most common lead for general use. Harder grades are often used for drafting and engineering, while softer grades are usually employed by artists.