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What Does the Number on a Pencil Mean?

what does the number on a pencil mean

Have you ever wondered, what does the number on a pencil mean? Fret not, we are here to unravel this mystery for you.

That seemingly random number actually holds the secret to understanding the hardness or softness of a pencil’s lead. This scale typically includes designations such as #1, #2, #3, #4, and many other pencil grades. Such numbers or grades focus on the pencil’s hardness level and intended application.

Without further ado, let us decipher the pencil numbers’ meaning and understand how it influences your writing and drawing experience.

Pencil Grading: An Informative Table of Grades and Descriptions

Grade Description BestApplication
9H ExtraHard Technicaldrawings, lightoutlines
8H VeryHard Detailedtechnicaldrawings
7H Hard Architecturalrenderings
6H Firm Cross-hatching, finedetails
5H ModeratelyHard Shading, tonalvalues
4H Hard Generalwriting, linework
3H ModeratelyHard Sketching, outlines
2H(#4) Firm Drafting, generalwriting
H(#3) Hard Writing, drafting, shading
F(#2.5) Fine Sketching, drawing, outlines
HB(#2) HardBlack(Medium) Everydaywriting, standardizedtests
B(#1) Black(Soft) Sketching, shading, boldlines
2B Soft Artisticdrawing, shading
3B ModeratelySoft Portraits, expressivelines
4B Soft Darkshading, tonalvalues
5B ModeratelySoft Boldlines, expressivedrawings
6B Soft Charcoal-likeeffects
7B VerySoft Rich, darkshading
8B ExtraSoft Artisticdrawing, dramaticeffects
9B UltraSoft Thicklines, intensedarkness

Demystifying Graphite Grading – What You Need to Know

demystifying graphite grading

Graphite comes in different grades, which determine the softness or hardness of the pencil’s lead material and consequently, the type of marks it produces.

When it comes to drawing pencils, the grade is typically denoted by alphanumeric codes. Thus, many people ask, what does HB mean on a pencil? Why are there alphanumeric codes in every pencil?

Take note of the following designations:

H = Harder Graphite

B = Softer Graphite or Blackness Level

#2 = Standard writing pencil

HB = #2

Thus, an HB (Hard Black) drawing pencil is equivalent to a #2 standard writing pencil. A pencil that has a #2 or HB grade is, in fact, the most popular option.

A Classification Scale

a classification scale

As mentioned, pencils are classified according to their graphite hardness (H) and softness or blackness (B).

Remember, the softer the lead, the darker the pencil mark is; the harder the lead, the lighter the pencil mark is.

Now, what does the grading signify when a number and letter are put together? For example, 4H, 2H, 4B, and 2B.

To put it simply, the numeric figure preceding the alphabet defines the extent of the softness or hardness of the lead. Therefore:

A 4H pencil is harder than a 2H, whereas a 4B pencil is softer (or darker) than a 2B.

When pressure is applied during drawing or writing, harder pencils release a lesser amount of graphite, resulting in lighter marks. Conversely, softer pencils release more graphite, creating darker marks. Therefore:

A 4H pencil produces lighter marks than a 2H, whereas a 4B pencil produces darker markers than a 2B pencil.

How about the characteristics of the “F” pencil?

F = Fine

F > HB = Slightly Harder Graphite

F = Can produce dark and light marks

F = #2.5

An F or fine pencil produces darker and lighter marks than an HB pencil. But in terms of the graphite material, an F pencil is slightly harder than an HB pencil but can hold a fine or sharp point even when used for longer periods. Hence, it is designated with an “F” or “Fine”. Therefore:

An F pencil produces slightly lighter and darker marks than an HB pencil.


An H pencil is slightly harder than an F pencil, whereas a B pencil is slightly softer or darker than an F pencil.

For that reason, some artists consider using an F pencil as a substitute for an HB pencil.

What Are the Best Pencil Numbers for Drawing?

what are the best pencil numbers for drawing

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question as there are lots of drawing techniques that require different pencil characteristics.

In the following section, we will give recommendations on what pencil grades best suit each common drawing technique.


realism pencil

Best Pencil Numbers/Grades:

  • HB (#2)
  • 4B
  • 6B
  • F

Realism in drawing requires the artist to accurately depict the subject, capturing its intricacies and rendering lifelike textures.

To achieve this, a combination of pencil grades is typically employed. Soft pencils, such as 4B or 6B, are ideal for shading and creating smooth transitions between light and dark areas. These pencils offer the necessary tonal range to convey depth and form.

Additionally, a harder pencil like HB can be used for initial outlines and precise details, ensuring accuracy in the early stages of your artwork. Plus, the F-grade pencil may be a valuable tool for capturing the intricacies and finest details needed in realistic artwork.

By using a variety of pencil grades, you can create a balance between intricate details and rich tonal values, resulting in a realistic representation of your subject.

Technical Sketching

technical sketching pencil

Best Pencil Numbers/Grades:

  • H (#3)
  • B (#1)

For architectural sketches, product designs, or technical drawings, a set of hard pencils is ideal. Hard pencils, such as H grades, are characterized by their firm graphite cores. They are specifically designed for precision and clean lines.

These pencils don’t smudge easily, allowing you to maintain sharp and crisp drawings. The harder graphite also holds a sharp tip longer than softer pencils, reducing the need for frequent sharpening.

If you wish to incorporate dark shading or add depth to your technical sketches, it is recommended to supplement your collection with a few soft pencils, like B grades, which will enable you to create contrasting values and make certain elements stand out vividly.


portraiture pencil

Best Combination of Pencil Numbers/Grades:

  • HB (#2)
  • 4B
  • 6B
  • 8B

When it comes to capturing the delicate details of a face or creating highly intricate textures for fur, skin, or fabrics, a set of soft pencils is essential. Soft pencils, ranging from B to 8B, offer a wide tonal range and are excellent for achieving smooth gradations.

They allow for easy blending and shading, helping you to convey depth and create lifelike portraits. For portraiture specifically, commonly used pencil grades include HB, 4B, 6B, and 8B.

These grades provide a balance between fine details and expressive shading, enabling you to capture the subtle nuances of facial features with precision while also adding depth and dimension to your artwork.


Therefore, what does the number on a pencil mean?

The number on a pencil holds significant meaning regarding its graphite grade and characteristics. It represents the softness or hardness degree, allowing artists to make informed choices based on the desired effect they want to achieve.

By understanding the grading system, we can identify the intended usage of a pencil and its impact on the marks it creates.

Whether it’s a higher H grade for lighter marks or a higher B grade for darker lines, the pencil number acts as a guide for selecting the right tool for various artistic endeavors.

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