The Graphite Pencil Darkness and Hardness Scale – Explained Guide

By Mandy Moss

The graphite pencil darkness scale is split into two categories, hardness and softness scale.

Graphite exists in several forms, but it is commonly encased in a pencil, meaning that most people, if not everyone know what it is. At one point, we have all used graphite pencils to draw or write, and most artists can affirm that having a graphite pencil gives them comfort.

Graphite is usually made in several degrees or grades and often according to the hardness or softness of the material. It is worth noting that each grade will have a different type of mark. If you would like to find out the pencil’s grade, check the pencil’s end or the side.

There are several graphite pencils you can select from depending on your needs or the task you have at hand. There are also several brands to choose from and they offer a range of products. Scale is pretty simple to understand.

There is a slight difference between a drawing and a writing pencil. While writing pencils will feature a number, drawing ones will feature an alphanumerical value. Our copy will help you understand the several graphite grades available, where they are used, and what they are best for.

What is US Graphite Pencil Hardness Scale?

The graphite pencil scale is split into two categories, hardness scale, and softness scale. The darkness of the core of the pencil can be measured using two grading scales called HB Graphite Scale and Numerical Graphite Scale.

HB Graphite Grading Scale

The HB scale is used by several pencils manufacturers outside the United States. Letter H symbolizes a hard pencil, while the letter B symbolizes how black the pencil’s mark is and indicates the graphite is softer. Letter F indicates that is sharpened to a fine point.

Pencil manufacturers have historically used letters combinations to inform us about the graphite used.

EXAMPLE: An HB pencil is hard and black, a BBB pencil is extremely black, while a HH pencil is extremely hard.  However, most pencil manufacturers who use the HB system currently designate them using numbers like 2H, 4B, or 2B. For instance, a 3H is harder than an H, and a 4B is softer than a 2B.

Numerical Graphite Scale

The numeric scale is the primary graphite grading scale. This scale is used to mark the hardness of the graphite in the pencil. You can check for numbers such as 3, 2½, or 2. The higher the number, the lighter the mark on a paper, and the harder the graphite is.

When the core is made softer, often because they have used low clay proportions, it will leave a darker mark on the paper. Softer pencils have to be sharpened regularly, and they also get dull much faster than hard pencils do.

Overall, the HB pencil is in the middle of the scale, and if you are using the US grading system, it is equivalent to #2.

NOTE: There is no standard industry rule that dictates how dark the mark left by a pencil on paper should be, meaning that different #2 pencil brands may differ on the type of mark they leave. 

How to Use Different Graphite Pencils

Once you have a clear understanding of the graphite pencil scale, you will easily select what pencils to use when you draw. Of course, you can use just about any graphite pencil to draw, but it helps to know how to use the different graphite pencil grades.

B grade pencile

These leave a darker mark and are softer, making them perfect for tonal modeling and shading. The higher the number on the B grade graphite pencil, the better it is for smudging and blending.

H, F, HB, B grade pencils

These graphite pencils are commonly used and are also great for writing and drawing simple sketches. HB is the standard multi-purpose pencil because it is usually used to draw since it has very little smudging, and it is also used for writing since it is pretty clear.

4H-2H pencils

These graphite pencils are perfect for technical drawing, guide lines, light sketches, and outlines because they create a light mark.

9H-5H pencils

These graphite pencils are very light, making them ideal for drawing sketches for watercolor paintings since they will not show through the painting conspicuously.

TIP: you can always use water-soluble graphite since they dissolve in water.

How to Use Different graphite pencil Grades Together?

Each graphite pencil grade has its upsides and its downsides. Often, what one grade lacks, the other has, meaning you have to learn how to use them to complement each other.

  • B grade pencils get dull faster since they are softer, but they leave a dark mark, making them excellent for things like shading. On the other hand, you can use the H grade pencils for a longer period since they stay sharper for an extended time and are also great for drawing and sketching.
  • H grade pencils are best used to fill a paper’s texture to give a smooth tone transition, and B grade graphite pencils make the paper’s surface noticeable. Therefore, they bring out excellent values when used together.
  • While H pencils are excellent when it comes to making light marks, they are not as capable of having an in-depth tonal range. This means that even if you apply a lot of pressure on a 9H pencil, it will not leave a darker mark on the paper. However, B grade graphite pencils allow you a wider range of possibilities.
  • Graphite is shiny, but you can reduce its shine by applying the graphite using a layered approach. This means that you should use a lighter pencil and follow it with a darker pencil. The best approach is to apply consistent and even pressure on each layer to avoid destroying the texture of the paper.

Artistic Expression

  • Having a range of pencil grades available expands the artistic possibilities.
  • Can enhance or limit certain drawing techniques depending on hardness/softness.
  • Important to experiment with different grades to develop personal drawing style.

The table below summarizes the key characteristics of hard and soft pencil leads:

Hard LeadsSoft Leads
– Light marks– Dark marks
– Fine details– Blending, smudging
– Sharp edges– Smooth shading
– Technical drawing– Artistic expression

What graphite Pencils Should You Use to Draw?

There are various graphite pencils on the scale, and each individual will give you a different answer on which one you should use to draw. This is because every individual has their technique, and it is also worth mentioning that all art is not similar.

Several factors may determine the pencils that will suit you best. This includes the approach you take to create a drawing, the paper’s texture, and the pressure you place on your pencil.


Some individuals naturally place a lot of pressure on their pencil, while others have a naturally light pressure. If you naturally apply a lot of pressure, if you want to achieve a darker mark, use a 4B pencil. On the other hand, if you apply a lighter pressure, you can use an 8B or 6B to make a darker mark.

Paper’s Texture

Since the texture of the paper significantly impacts the drawing, you may also want to consider the kind of paper you are using. If you are using a paper whose surface is smoother, then the best pencils to use will be the harder ones because the paper is more receptive to them.

On the other hand, if the paper you are using has a heavy texture, then the best pencils to use will be ones that are softer since they will reveal the texture of the surface.

Graphite Pencil Darkness scale

Speed of Drawing

If you are doing a quick drawing sketch, you will only require a single pencil to provide you with all the range you may need. Therefore, to achieve this, the perfect choice would be a 2B pencil since it can accomplish both lighter and darker marks depending on the pressure applied.

However, if the drawing you are working on is refined, then the layered approach would be the best option, and you will need multiple soft and hard pencils.

NOTE:  You will never at any point need to use all the available pencils on the graphite pencil scale. This is why you need to try the variety and find the ones that work for you and have them as your drawing essentials. 

Softer graphite pencils offer more range than the hard ones, meaning that most of your essentials will be in the B grade graphite pencils category. We recommend having 6B, 4B,2B, HB, H, and 2H. This should be enough to help you achieve the artistic piece you envisioned.

Fun Fact About Graphite Darkness Scale:

  • Graphite pencils are graded on a scale from very light (9H) to very dark (9B), with HB right in the middle at #2.
  • The B scale indicates the relative darkness or blackness of the pencil’s mark. Higher B numbers leave increasingly darker marks.
  • The darkness of a pencil’s mark depends on the ratio of graphite to clay in the core. More graphite = darker. More clay = lighter.
  • Softer B pencils contain more graphite, making them darker. Harder H pencils have more clay, giving lighter marks.
  • The softest and darkest is 9B. It leaves deep black marks on paper.
  • The lightest is 9H. It leaves faint gray lines on paper.
  • In the middle, HB strikes an even balance between graphite and clay.
  • Most sketching uses the middle B range (2B to 4B) for comfortable darkness.
  • Shading goes darker using 6B to 9B pencils.
  • Fine lines are best with H pencils which resist smudging.

Related Questions

What are the hardness levels of graphite pencils?

The hardness levels of graphite pencils range from very soft (9B) to very hard (9H). The scale starts with the softest B pencils, goes up through HB, and then continues to the hardest H pencils.

Is HB the hardest pencil?

HB is not the hardest pencil. It sits right in the middle of the graphite hardness scale at #2. HB provides a nice balance between softness and hardness, but there are many harder pencils on the scale.

What is the hardness of graphite?

The H pencils are the hardest graphite pencils. They contain more clay and less graphite, making the “lead” harder to leave lighter marks on paper. The higher the number, the harder the pencil—for example, 9H is harder than 3H.

What is the hardest type of graphite?

The hardest type of graphite pencil is 9H, sometimes marked as 10H. These contain the highest ratio of clay to graphite and produce very light, hard marks on paper. I find these pencils best for delicate architectural sketches where you need clean, crisp lines without heavy shading.

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