What Do Pencil Numbers Mean? Pencil Grades Explained + Charts

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Have you ever wondered what pencil numbers mean and how to decide which pencil grades to use? This quick guide explains it all. 

Drawing pencils are graded on a scale from hard to soft using a combination of numbers and letters. The letters H are the hardest and lightest pencils and range from H – 9H, and the letters B are the softest and darkest pencils ranging from B – 9B. HB pencils are neutral.

That’s it in the simplest terms, but there is much more to know, don’t buy any pencils until you read the rest of this post.

Let’s dive in.

Disclaimer: When you buy something via my affiliate links, I sometimes earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend trusted sites.

Are Pencil Grades Standard and Universal?

Not a chance, you didn’t think it would be that easy did you?

Each pencil company has its own in-house grading chart but just to confuse the buyer they use the same grading system. 

In other words, an HB pencil in one brand will be a different tone than an HB pencil in a rival brand.  It might be lighter or darker.

Most artists choose one brand and they get to know how each pencil grade performs in relation to the others. The only way to find out is to pick a brand and practice. 

Choose a leading brand and stick with them. It’s important to pick up a pencil and know exactly what mark it will make. The quality must be consistent, every time you buy a new pencil it must be exactly the same as the one that came before it. 

That’s not just the tone, but it’s also the consistency (brittleness), and how well it sharpens. 

And then there are replacements. You must be able to replace pencils individually. There is no point in buying pencils that you can’t replace without buying a whole new set.

Buy the best pencils if you are serious about drawing. You don’t save much money buying cheap pencils, so don’t do it. Drawing is still the cheapest art form so why penny-pinch?

Do you lack confidence? Take a class and get into the habit of drawing. I found this class on Udemy, 115,028 students can’t all be wrong!

The Graphite Pencil Grading Scale Explained

The major drawing pencil brands use the European alphanumeric scale which ranges from 9H to 9B in most cases. 

Harder pencils make the lightest marks, 9H being the lightest grade.

They are marked as follows:

HB – H – 2H – 3H – 4H – 5H – 6H – 7H – 8H – 9H

The B-grades make the darkest marks and likewise, 9B is the darkest grade.

They are marked as follows:

HB – B – 2B – 3B – 4B – 5B – 6B – 7B – 8B – 9B

There is one anomaly worth pointing out. There is one grade called ‘F’ and it stands for fine. On the graphite scale, it comes after HB and before H, so it’s a hard pencil.

There’s a different grading system operating in America that may confuse some. It’s a basic numeric system used for general writing and drafting pencils.

The equivalent grades are roughly as follows:

  • #1 –  B 
  • #2 – HB
  • #2 ½ – F
  • #3 – H
  • #4 – 2H

Don’t take them too literally, as I explained earlier these grades vary from company to company. It’s a guideline only.

Serious artists can ignore these writing pencils. 

What Does ‘H’ Mean on a Drawing Pencil?

‘H’ stands for HARD. 9H is the hardest pencil in most brands and makes a barely discernable mark. It contains the least graphite, is very hard and the point indents the paper with minimal pressure.

The H range is used for drafting and precision drawing. The greys are subtle and smooth.

Uses for Grade Pencils at a Glance

HBGeneral all-rounder. Used for the initial sketch and blocking-in. Essential kit.
FIrrelevant anomaly. Use it to sketch before applying a color wash. It doesn’t lift off.
HLighter than F but inter-changeable. Not too important.
2HUse lightly to transition from HB. A beautiful soft grey. An essential grade for precision drawing. Use it to map a grid.
4HThe next pencil grade of choice for super transitions and an even subtle tone. Use for super detail
6HUsed for insane precision or very light tones. Very hard lead and one to be used sparingly.
9HWeirdly useful for drawing fine lines with indents and unifying tones.

What Does ‘B’ Mean on a Drawing Pencil?

Think of ‘B’ as standing for BLACK, it’s the simplest way of remembering them. These are the softer grades and contain progressively more graphite as they get darker.

At the extreme end of the scale, 9B is the blackest and softest grade. It crumbles easily and leaves a pronounced reflective shine on paper. 

Uses for B Grade Pencils at a Glance

HBGeneral all-rounder. Used for the initial sketch and blocking-in. Essential kit.
BA good transition grade for layering over HB and establishing the darker areas.
2BA good deeper black that applies without graphite shine.
3BStandard pencil for sketching fast and loose. Deep blacks without excessive shine.
4BPointless. Use it if you haven’t got a 3B
6BAlmost pointless. The shine will ruin your drawing. Use it to add grainy texture, and not to block in.
9BAlmost pointless. Strictly for adding texture. Use the side or a graphite stump.

Does The Type of Drawing Paper Matter?

The texture of the paper will determine the tone, or level of darkness, you will be able to achieve.

I use Daler-Rowney Heavyweight Cartridge Paper. The tooth holds enough graphite to create pleasing darker tones while smooth enough to retain precision control. There is just enough texture to play around with certain techniques and still blend tones seamlessly.

A smooth paper, such as a Bristol Paper favored by so many illustrators, has no tooth whatsoever, and achieving rich dark pencil tones is much more tricky. Graphite does not bind well to the surface and can appear washed out. It’s more suited to pen.

A rougher surface with plenty of grain can produce richer and darker tones with relatively light pencils. Textured drawing paper lends itself to a more expressive and sketchy drawing style where movement and atmosphere are important.

In other words, if you use a pencil grade on different paper, you can expect different results. Your paper choice will be governed by your chosen style.

In general, you can say with some certainty that smoother paper is ideal for precise and methodical drawings, while rougher paper is more suited to a looser and sketchier style.

I can help you: What’s The Right Paper for Pencil Drawing? (How to Choose Wisely)

What is Each Pencil Grade Used For?

Let’s go over the reasons why you would use each pencil grade so you can decide what pencils to buy.

It’s worth mentioning that you will never use a full box set. You will prefer half a dozen favorites and ignore the rest. Buy a box set at the beginning by all means, and experiment. Then replace individual pencils as and when you need to.

What is an HB Pencil and What is it Used For?

An HB pencil is the middle tone in the brand’s range, halfway between the hardest and softest grades. 

It’s a ubiquitous general pencil, ideal for sketching and drawing. It has none of the shine you get with ‘B’ grades and none of the scratchiness of the harder grades. In short, it’s a good all-rounder, suitable for most jobs.

I use it to map out my drawings in the outline stage. It produces a pleasing tone, especially on fine-grain paper. It’s not so dark that I can’t erase it, and not so hard that it leaves an indent.

I use an HB to block in the main shadows to give me a structure to build upon.

This will help: How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All The Best Secrets) or check these out

This very popular drawing course by Brent Eviston is on Udemy and he has over 73,000 students!

What is a B Pencil Grade Used For?

A B-grade pencil is used for sketching. I use it to darken the shadows in my initial HB sketch. It is less grainy than the softer grades and can be applied in layers to get a pleasing dark without the pencil shine.

I use Pentel Mechanical Pencils (affiliate) extensively and B is very much one of my core pencil grades that I hate to be without.

Please check out: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils? Yes, and Here’s How

What is a 2B Pencil Grade Used For?

A 2B pencil is a good choice for sketching or for adding a darker layer over a B-grade. Pencil shine is not a problem.

I use 2B 0.3mm Pentel Mechanical Pencils mostly. They produce a beautiful dark gray on cartridge paper. I use the thinnest 0.3mm leads even when hatching over larger areas and that’s because as it glides over the surface, it leaves tiny white grainy speckles and makes the drawing ZING. I love the effect.

Read this for some great tips: How to Draw Texture in Pencil: 7 Tips for Fast Results

What is a 3B Pencil Grade Used For?

Most tutorials will suggest that a 3B pencil is the ultimate sketching pencil. I’m not disagreeing but with the caveat, I’ve mentioned before, that each brand has its own grading bias.

I use Derwent (affiliate) 3B pencils for my darker tones. It is self-defeating to try and go any darker than about 3B because the resulting pencil shine will negate your efforts. It’s from here on in that graphite shine is the enemy.

The shine is less pronounced with mechanical pencils.

What Are 4B to 9B Pencil Grades Used For?

I’m damned if I know! Well, perhaps they have some use. I have used 6B and 9B graphite in the past but not in pencil form, I’ve used graphite stumps

I discovered that by brushing textured paper with a very soft graphite stick I could create random grainy effects that mimicked the texture of rock or bark wonderfully. If used sparingly I could draw near-impossible detail by serendipity alone. An added bonus is when a stump is used this way, there’s no pencil shine.

It’s not just the graphite shine that makes drawing with soft pencils a pain, it’s also how delicate they are. You only have to breathe too hard and they smudge all over the place. Great if that’s what you want to do, not so great otherwise.

Read this for the best tips: Prevent Your Drawings From Smudging: The Ultimate Guide

What is an F Pencil Grade Used For?

An F pencil is only slightly lighter than HB but dark enough to provide a clear base drawing should you wish to apply paint. 

Many years ago when I experimented with watercolor, I used an F-grade to draw my guidelines knowing that watercolor would not lift the graphite as I laid a wash. 

A very good watercolorist taught me that and to be honest I have seldom used it for anything else. Otherwise, I’ve used it only when I’ve not had an HB pencil to hand. An F pencil is a good substitute.

Get into the habit of drawing every day with Sorie Kim on Domestika

What is an H Pencil Grade Used For?

To be honest, everything I said about F-grade pencils applies to the H-grade. You will find H pencils everywhere but you will seldom find F pencils. An H pencil is slightly harder than an F, but not enough to worry about. All it means is more care should be taken when applying pressure.

What is a 2H Pencil Grade Used For?

As a photo-realist, I use 2H pencils all the time. I couldn’t draw super detailed work without the precision they afford me. I use both Derwent Graphic Drawing Pencils and 0.3mm Pentel Mechanical Pencils

I use 2H pencils for anything lighter than HB. The transition is smooth and seamless. There is none of the coarseness of the B range, it’s gentle, even, and smooth. As long as you use a light touch any error or anomaly is easily erased. I never press hard, that’s a big mistake.

Within the H range, Derwent and Pentel pencils can be easily interchanged and combined, there’s no conflict. That’s not the case, however, for B grades, they don’t mix.

We will skip 3H, it’s irrelevant.

What is a 4H Pencil Grade Used For?

Another essential pencil for me, 4H is an indispensable pencil as far as I’m concerned. If you are into very detailed drawings with subtle transitions between the lighter tones you’ll need a 4H in your toolkit. I use both Derwent pencils and Pentel leads.

With a gentle touch, you can render a very light tone. There is little reason to use a lighter pencil grade with one notable exception, and I’ll come to that.

What are 5H – 8H Pencil Grades Used for?

They look great in a set, don’t they? A full set has all bases covered. Well, yes and no. You might use a 5H but I can’t think why you would, not unless your 4H is missing. They are surplus to requirements for most people.

There is a possible case use for using a 6H I suppose, that’s if you draw with exceptional finesse. I haven’t used one for years, indeed if I ever have.

What is a 9H Pencil Grade Used For?

This is the one very hard pencil that I use regularly. It’s so hard that you can barely see the shading, and that’s why it’s so handy.

It can be hard to establish the true values between lights and darks in a drawing. Often, the best reference point is the sparkle in an eye. It’s usually the whitest white and consequently, everything else must be a tone of grey.

I use a 9H to soften false highlights. Applied gently over the entire drawing, it harmonizes the values and makes a disjointed drawing cohesive and whole.

Remember to use the side of the lead and not the point.

I use the point to deliberately score the paper. A 9H is so sharp and so light, I can use it to draw thin lines and intentionally indent the paper. Hatching over the indented lines with a softer pencil will leave ‘white’ lines.

You can use a 9H for drawing hair and whiskers super-realistically. Be careful though, if you use this technique and get the lines wrong, they’re very difficult to repair.

What Pencil Should a Beginner Use?

If you are a beginner and this is still too confusing, you need some buying advice, right?

Limit yourself to the fewest possible pencils. You need a dark. a middle, and a light grey drawing pencil. Personally, I would choose a 2B, HB, and 2H pencil.

If you use paper with texture, and that can be as simple as normal cartridge paper, you’ll get a reasonable ‘black’ with a 2B. It’s dark enough to construct dynamic contrast and light enough to avoid pencil shine.

N.B. Please note that your paper needs to be on a hard base if you want the grain to be prominent and work well.

The HB pencil is a neutral mid-tone grey and speaks for itself. Use it for sketching and blocking in the basic form. It erases well. Use it as a base and apply a 2B to darken key areas.

The 2H is light enough to render the lightest greys if you use it with a very light touch. Don’t forget that you can blend the graphite with a paper stump and achieve the most subtle transitions.

As with any pencil in the H range, how you use the pencil really matters. Firm pressure can score the paper easily. A 2H is not too hard for beginners to handle.

So there you have it.

Read this for an overview of the common pencil types and brands: Best Drawing Pencils For Beginners: How to Choose (2023)

This Post is related too: What is the Best Type of Pencil to Use With Watercolor?

Pencil Grades Explained: Final Thoughts

There’s no need to make tonal swatches or get too concerned that you’re using right or wrong grades. Choose a brand, buy a set of pencils, and use them. It doesn’t take long to get used to them and before long you will have your favorites.

My recommendations and experiences refer to Derwent and Pentel pencils only. If you choose a different brand you might discover that slightly different grades will achieve the same effects. It’s no big deal.

All you have to remember is to choose a brand and stick with them.


Lion pencil drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Lion Country’ by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

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If you need more help with drawing, then I urge you to check out
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What do pencil numbers mean? Drawing pencils and drawing.
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
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