I have a tendency to still call the innards of pencils ‘leads’, even though I know that’s not what is inside of drawing pencils. Even though I’ve been using pencils for decades, I wasn’t exactly sure what was inside of them, and how the pencil-makers controlled how hard or soft they were.
I had heard that graphite was inside, so I did a little Googling, and hit this awesome site, all about pencils. (I’ve also bookmarked them to order personalized pencils for my son for Christmas.)
What did I learn about what is inside of drawing pencils? I learned:
- It is graphite, not lead, that is inside of most drawing pencils
- Lead has never been used for pencils; people used to think graphite was a form of lead (source)
- Graphite quality varies widely depending on where it is found
- Our modern pencils are made with a mixture of graphite and clay, in various ratios to affect hardness
- Both letters and numbers are used to indicate the degree of softness/hardness on each pencil
It helps to see a visual representation of what different hardnesses of graphite look like. Here is a chart from the Dummies site that shows a good range. See how the ‘H’s’ are all lighter, and the ‘B’s” are all darker? The darker the mark, the softer the graphite. (And apparently the less clay mixed in.)
Also, the higher the number, the more hard or soft the graphite is. Confused? This all varies between brands, so one brand’s 4B might be lighter or darker than another brand’s.
What Else is Inside of Drawing Pencils?
Drawing pencils are also made with:
Carbon: super dark (close to charcoal), and smudgy, these are a mixture of clay and a pigment called lamp black.
Charcoal: Even more smudgy, black, and soft, charcoal is used to get black blacks
Sepia: A reddish chalk used many times as an underdrawing for a painting, or if artists want a different look than grey 🙂
General’s Carbon Sketch Pencil, Box of 1 Dozen Pencils (595)Staedtler Mars Lumograph- high-carbon, jet black, matteCretacolor woodless pencils – nice weight, and you can use water with them to make washesThis is a great kit for kids to give them a variety of different pencilsGeneral Pencil Charcoal Kit, 12-PieceFaber Castell 9000 Design Pencil – classic, and always highly-rated
After noticing I had opened about 10 tabs to different posts on pencils, I realized what an obsessive group pencil-users are. Yay! This was fun. If you want to go deeper into the crazy world of pencils and see just how particular people can be about their drawing implements, see my post about which are the best drawing pencils.
More Pencil Learning
Here’s a short video about how pencils are made, and it’s all sorts of satisfying to watch. The best part is when they refer to them as ‘lead sandwiches’.
This is a fantastic and fun history of pencils from NPR.
In conclusion, graphite is what’s inside of most drawing pencils. Including this one.
Art by Cindy Chinn