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How to Choose Map Pencils? (vs Colored Pencils)

map pencils vs colored pencils

Did you recently hear about map pencils, and you are wondering if they are better than regular-colored pencils? This article will try to explain the differences between map pencils vs colored pencils and educate you further about both media.

The short answer is that map pencils are the same as traditional colored pencils. They just got the name map pencils because you can use them for cartography. There is nothing especially different about them. This article will further explain why they are called map pencils and how you can choose the right one for you.

Map Pencils vs Colored Pencils

What are map pencils? A lot of parents got so confused when they got their kids’ required school supply list this year when they saw the term map pencils. Most parents were not aware that this is just another, rarely used term to describe regular-colored pencils.

What is even more confusing is why school districts suddenly started using an obscure term in the first place. Where did the term map pencil come from? It is a wonder that it resurfaced these days as it has not been used since the 1980s, and also because the term was almost exclusive in the Southern US, often in Texas and neighboring states.

There is no clear origin story for the term. Some people say that they were called map pencils because they used them to color maps for geography class in school. Others claim that the name came about because they used these pencils to draw on maps for geological surveys for oil drilling companies.

As for why school districts suddenly adopted the term again, that is a mystery.

Choosing Map Pencils

choosing map pencils

Map pencils, more commonly called colored pencils, come in many types and are made by different brands. You can find several brands manufacturing these pencils so it can be somewhat difficult to choose which one to buy.

If this is your first time buying a set of colored pencils, here is a short guide for you to use using the different factors you should consider when shopping for colored pencils:

Quality of the Pencils

When browsing through the many different choices of colored pencil brands, you will notice that they are labeled as either student or artist grade. As you can most likely tell, artist-grade colored pencils are superior in quality compared to student-grade ones, but they will also be significantly more expensive.

The reason why artist-grade pencils are better is that they contain more pigments and the pencil leads are softer. This makes it easier to blend and fade the colors. Because the leads are softer, the colors that they lay down are much brighter than student-grade pencils.

Student Grade Artist Grade
Color Intensity Dull Bright
Price Affordable A bit expensive (often more than $20 a set)

Consistency of the Pencil Leads

Most artists prefer using colored pencils with softer leads, mainly because they contain fewer amounts of binders and hardeners but more pigments. This means that they can use colored pencils easily and without having to put too much pressure on the points.

On the other hand, if you will be using colored pencils for creating architectural drawings, you have to use pencils with harder leads. Colored pencils with harder leads contain more binders and hardeners, allowing them to keep their points much longer. This means you can use them to draw sharp lines.

Material Type of Colored Pencils

material type of colored pencils

What most people don’t know is that there are several different types of colored pencils depending on the lead material they use. They can either be oil-based, wax-based, or water-soluble.

Wax-based: These are the usual-colored pencils that you can find in most school supply stores. These pencils use wax as a binder to hold the pigments, and they come in a wide range of consistencies.

There are the regular hard ones often found in student-grade pencils. They come with a lot more hardener and binder. You can also find much softer artist-grade pencils. These contain less binder and just enough hardener for the lead to hold its shape.

Oil-based: These are colored pencils that use oil as a binder to hold the pigment (but they still contain a bit of wax). The great thing about oil-based pencils is that they can lay down almost the same intensity of colors as wax-based colored pencils, but they are harder and can hold a point longer, making them ideal for drawing details.

Water-soluble: These pencils technically contain watercolor paints formed into pencil leads. The neat thing about these is that you can use them as you would normal wax-based colored pencils. However, you can also turn your drawing into a watercolor painting by brushing clean water over the colors to blend them.

Wax-based Oil-based Water-soluble
Lead Consistency Soft to hard Typically hard Typically hard, but dissolves with water
Color Intensity The softer ones are bright Not as bright as wax-based Somewhat dull, but typically pastel-like


There aren’t any differences between map pencils vs colored pencils as they are one and the same. So, when you see “map pencils” in your school supply list, you can just get whatever set of colored pencils you want to use. If you will be using colored pencils for your drawing hobby, consider your drawing style and choose accordingly.

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