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What are Graphite Pencils?

what are graphite pencils

If you want to know what are graphite pencils, then take note that these are the typical pencils that you use for general writing purposes. Unless specified, all the pencils that you have at home are graphite pencils.

Contrary to what most people believe, pencils do not contain lead. The thing that most people call “pencil lead” is actually graphite, which is why many call them graphite pencils.
If this bit of trivia was already enough to pique your interest, you will be glad to know that you will be learning more facts about everyone’s favorite writing implement.

Graphite Pencils Defined

Graphite pencils are some of the most popular writing tools on the planet, and they have been for hundreds of years. You probably have gone through dozens or hundreds of pencils from when you first started learning to write. But, why are they called graphite pencils and what is it exactly?

For you to know what graphite pencils are, it would be helpful to get to know more about their components, or what they are made of exactly. Also known as a lead pencil, a graphite pencil is basically a kind of pencil, which features a thin core made of graphite embedded in a shell made of another material.

In most cases, the shell of the pencil is constructed from wooden material but there are also several instances when it uses recycled paper or plastic. Regular pencils consist of a stick of graphite, which is then sandwiched between two slats of softwood.

However, you can also buy graphite sticks and blocks. These are usually used by artists to fill in larger spaces. Many people mistakenly call the graphite in pencils “pencil lead”, even though it does not contain any lead at all.

The core of pencils mainly contains graphite, which is a type of carbon. The term “pencil lead” came from a historic association with a type of stylus that the ancient Romans used to use. It was the one made from lead.

What is Graphite?

Graphite is the black stuff that you can find in the middle of pencils and it is a type of carbon. As mentioned earlier, graphite does not contain any trace of lead. It is a crystalline form of carbon commonly found in nature. You can also find it in charcoal.

The graphite stick that you can find in pencils contains two primary components: graphite and clay. The more graphite the pencil lead has, the softer it will be and the darker the mark it can make.

On the other hand, if there is more clay, the harder the pencil lead will be. This also means that the mark it makes will be lighter. You can tell how hard or soft a pencil is based on the number printed on it.

The primary reason why graphite is traditionally used in pencils is that it can create dark and uniform marks on paper. Also, the marks that graphite leaves behind can last a long time but are still easy to erase when necessary.

What are Graphite Pencils Used For?

what are graphite pencils used for

Graphite pencils are among the most versatile writing tools ever. Ever since it was invented centuries ago, the humble graphite pencil has been used for a myriad of purposes, such as:

  • General writing
  • Drawing and sketching
  • In carpentry and construction – You can use it in the mentioned industries to place marks.
  • In the manufacturing industry …and more.

Almost all trades use pencils in some shape or form, that’s how versatile they are.

Pros of Graphite Pencils

  • Easy to use for beginner artists or those who just began drawing
  • Perfect for small drawings – The reason is that there will only be a small marking surface where you can work.
  • Does not smudge that easily
  • Does not create a lot of mess

Cons of Graphite Pencils

  • Not appropriate for use on large drawings
  • Causes unnecessary shine on dark areas with full cover
  • Works slowly compared to charcoal – The reason is that it often takes longer to cover similar space.

What are the Different Types/Grades of Graphite Pencils?

why is graphite used in pencils

As mentioned earlier, the ratio of graphite and clay in the pencil lead will determine how hard it will be. In regular pencils, you can identify the hardness scale by the numbers printed on the casing. Typically, regular pencils are numbered from 1 to 3, with “1” being the softest and “3” the hardest.

Artist pencils have more types, as you will need more variations to create more dark values when making pencil drawings. The harder graphite pencils have labels in the form of the letter H. Meanwhile, the softer pencils have the letter B.

The higher the number beside the letter, the harder or softer the lead. To give you an idea of how this system works, here is a simple diagram.

HARD 6H – 5H – 4H – 3H – 2H – H – HB – B – 2B – 3B – 4B – 5B – 6B SOFT

The HB pencil is right in the middle of the scale. This is essentially equivalent to the number 2 pencil. The more you go down the “hard” scale, the lighter the values you can make, and the opposite goes for the “soft” scale.

Tips for Building Your Graphite Pencil Set

what are graphite pencils made of

The diagram you learned a while ago is just a fraction of the total number of pencil grades. There are many more grades not mentioned. However, even though the diagram mentioned several different pencils, you do not need to own all of them.

If you are thinking of starting your own drawing pencil set, here is a guide to help you choose only the pencils that you will need.

Consider these factors:

Amount of pressure often used – If you are a heavy-handed person, the softest pencil that you should be using is a 4B. Your natural drawing pressure should be enough to create dark enough values on your drawing. Now, if you have light hands, you can use softer pencils, like a 6B or maybe up to 8B.

Type of paper you usually use – For instance, if you usually use paper with a lighter tooth, it is better suited for harder graphite pencils. If you use soft pencils on smooth paper, they will cover the texture of the paper too much, which is the main appeal of pencil drawings. Meanwhile, if you usually use coarse-toothed paper, you have to use softer pencils as you might not even see the marks left by pencils harder than 3H.

Drawing style to use – Artists have different techniques when it comes to pencil drawings. Are you the type who likes to draw a lot of details? Then you will need to have at least several hard pencils in your collection.

Meanwhile, if you like doing quick sketches on coarse tooth paper, you will need to use softer pencils. This will allow you to make darker marks without using too much pressure.


Now that you know what are graphite pencils, you will be able to use them to their full potential. Graphite pencils are not just for general writing. You can also use them to create highly detailed drawings.

Familiarize yourself with the different grades of pencils that are available and choose the ones that you will be using in your artwork. Having the right pencils in your collection will not make you immediately better but they will surely help.