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What are Soft Pencils?

Soft pencils and lead

When you think of a pencil, you might not think of the words “soft” or “hard” unless you are familiar with pencils, their lead, and how pencils are made. When someone refers to a pencil as a soft pencil, they are referring to the type of lead that is being used in the pencil, along with its overall density.

What does it mean when a pencil is soft?

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When a pencil is soft, it means that the pencil will produce darker and more opaque marks, compared to harder pencils, which will leave lighter marks. 

Common Types of Pencils

Different types of pencils

There are hard and soft pencils that can be used for everyday writing, sketching, and even professional drawing. There are standard pencils as well as mechanical pencils, including clutch pencils as well as propelling pencils. With any type of pencil, both standard and mechanical, it is possible to seek out specific types of lead that you need depending on your project or the type of work you are completing. 

What is the Difference Between a Soft and Hard Pencil?

A soft pencil uses a lead material that is released in greater quantities than a hard pencil. Hard pencils, on the other hand, use a type of lead that is much harder, therefore releasing less of the lead even when pressure is applied. 

Pencil Grading System

Graphite pencils with grading scale

Whenever you are shopping for pencils, you may notice that there are various letters placed on the packaging and used to describe specific pencil types. The HB scale is typically used as the standard pencil grading system. Whenever you see the letters ‘H’, ‘B’, and ‘F’ on a package of pencils, they are there for a reason. When you are familiar with a pencil grading system, you can find the type of pencils you need whether you are shopping for school supplies or if you are an artist.


When you see a combination of the letters HB, this typically is an indication that the pencils you are looking at are both harder and black. On average, HB pencils are often considered middle-grade pencils in terms of blackness and hardness.


The letter H indicated the overall level of hardness in a pencil. Using hard lead is ideal for those who are seeking clean lines for their work or for those who prefer lead that is also smudge-resistant, which is optimal for artists and creative types. 


The letter B stands for a pencil’s blackness. The more blackness a pencil produces, the easier it is to see sketch lines while writing or drawing. Artists prefer to use lead that is soft with plenty of blackness, as it allows them the ability to see the lines they are sketching with ease and with minimal effort.


The letter F, when used on pencil packaging, is often an indicator that a pencil sharpens to a fine point. Because not all pencils sharpen to a fine point and some are round, seeking out pencils with an F may be necessary for artists, architects, and those who simply prefer to write sharper and with less smudging and smoothness. 

Understanding Lead Grades 

Closeup of pencil leads

Having an understanding of lead grades can come in handy whenever you are in need of a pencil. Whether you are writing a book report, sketching a new building to construct, or working on a piece of art, knowing the difference between lead grades can help you find the perfect pencils whenever you need them. 

The lead grading scale typically ranges from F, H, and 10H to HB, B, and 10B. Once you are familiar with what each letter means while shopping for pencils, you can find the pencil type that is most suitable for any type of project you are working on. 

It is also important to keep in mind that there are two lead-grading systems: American and European. With the American system, you will notice that most pencils use numbers to help align with the current letters that are used to describe pencils. The European pencil industry, however, prefers to use a system of both letters and numbers, which can be helpful for those who are searching for a more precise method of locating the right type of pencil. 

When is it best to use a soft pencil?

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Using a soft pencil is best when you are interested in darker and full lines. Soft pencils are ideal for artists as they provide large darkened lines, which can be useful with professional linework or even with completing sketches. Soft pencils can also be useful for those who are taking tests, as harder pencils may not provide enough lead for test answers to register even when an adequate amount of pressure is properly applied. 

When should you use a hard pencil?

Graphic Hard 12 Tin

Using a hard pencil is also ideal for those who enjoy sketching or drawing but do not want to leave any marks or traces of lead behind. Using a hard pencil is also ideal for those who already provide plenty of pressure while writing, which can make writing too dark with a soft pencil. 

Is there a time when it is not appropriate to use a soft pencil?

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When you want to sketch using a pencil that is lighter and less noticeable, it is not best to use a soft pencil. Soft pencils are only recommended when you are working on a project in which you want your pencil markings to appear visible. Soft pencils are not as easy to erase or remove, which is why it is so important to learn about various pencils before choosing a pencil lead grade that is right for you and your drawing or sketching needs. 

How can I find the right soft pencil for my writing or drawing needs? 

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Once you know what type of pencil you need, keep in mind the specific letters and/or numerical combinations you will need to remember in order to find the right pencils. You can search for traditional pencils at various merchandising stores as well as office supply stores and online. If you choose to shop for the pencils you need online, keep in mind that there are both American and European pencil markets available.

If you prefer to shop for pencils using a combination of both letters and numbers for a highly specific type of pencil you are interested in, you may want to turn to the European pencil market or to a European pencil supplier. If you are familiar with the pencil number system (such as #2 pencils), you can also shop in the American pencil market. Keep in mind that regardless of the market you choose to use for your pencils, you may need to understand the difference between letters such as H, B, F, and HB before you are able to find the best pencils possible.

Knowing what to look for when you are in the market for a new pencil is extremely helpful, whether you require pencils for standard writing or for commercial sketching. When you are familiar with lead types, the lead grading system, as well as both the American and European pencil markets, you can find any type of pencil, standard or mechanical, for your next project. 

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