Quick Guide to Pencil Numbers – Graphite Pencil Tips and Tricks

Quick Guide to Pencils

What exactly do those numbers on pencils mean?


If you’ve ever sat in front of a pile of pencils in your art supplies collection you may have been befuddled by the sheer array of different numbers and letters found on them. Sure, we all know #2 is what you use on the SATs, but what about 6B? When would you want a 3H? And what the heck is an F pencil?

If this sounds like a familiar experience, have no fear, this quick guide to pencil numbers is for you.

pencil 3

First, let’s talk about what makes up your typical graphite or “lead” pencil. There actually is no lead in a pencil. The black substance in the center of a pencil is in fact a form of carbon called graphite. Graphite powder is mixed with clay at different ratios to form a solid core. The core is then often wrapped in wood to keep it from breaking, although there are woodless pencils out there. I’m looking at you, Koh-I-Noor.

So, how does this relate to the numbers on your pencils? Well, simply put, the ratio of graphite to clay creates a different hardness or softness to the pencil, which produces a lighter or darker line. These varying densities can help an artist create different shadings and can help with different levels of detail.

Ok, so let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Pencils today are graded on the European scale from 9H to 9B with F in between. H stands for hard and B stands for black. The higher the number the greater the quality is intensified. So, 9H is very hard and creates a light line. 9B is very soft and creates a dark line. Now F pencils sit right between the two extremes, so this pencil is a good pencil for detail, but creates mid-tone, rather than a very dark or very light line. So, let’s say you are trying to make a light initial sketch, you might turn to a pencil in the H range; if you are doing some shading on a shadow, you might reach for one of the Bs.

Here are the numbers listed out for you from hardest / lightest to softest / darkest:

Pencil Number Scale
Light                                      Mid-Tone                                       Dark
9H 8H 7H 6H 5H 4H 3H 2H H F HB B 2B 3B 4B 5B 6B 7B 8B 9B

Well, I hope that helped clear up any questions you have on the numbers found on pencils. Do you have any tips or tricks regarding which pencil to use when? Do you have a go-to favorite pencil yourself? Please let me know below. And, if you know anyone who might find this helpful, please pass it along by sharing.


6 thoughts on “Quick Guide to Pencil Numbers – Graphite Pencil Tips and Tricks

  1. Tip/discovery- graphite can be used like watercolor crayons. Draw, then with a wet brush manipulate it. I’ve only done this w the darkest. It actually lightens it a bit then, the coup du gras, you can draw back over it. And, just a humble opinion, graphite crayons kick graphite pencils butts!

    1. Thank you for that tip! I’m really going to have to try that. I know there are water-soluble graphite pencils out there, but I’ve never tried them. I’ll have to give your tip a try. Sounds great for shading.

      1. Hmm, you know I’m not sure if they were “water soluble”. I hate wrappers on all my crayons/pastels whatever so I don’t know bc I immediately ripped them off,lol. I have a graphite pencil (like, encased in wood) I’ll see if it works w that.

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